How many nations are we, anyway?
While Bill Clinton was in the White House, you might recall, some members of the conservative gun-enthusiast community took to sporting bumperstickers that defiantly declared “My President is Charlton Heston” (Heston, of course, being the president of the National Rifle Association at the time). During the Bush Regime, I toyed with making a similar bumper sticker myself—though mine would have said “My President is Ralph Nader.” (However, I realized that might have put me in danger of severe reprisal—not so much from gung-ho nationalists as from unforgiving Al Gore supporters.)
We seem to have contradictory expectations regarding our chief executives. On the one hand, we want “a President for All Americans”—someone able to bridge divisions, forge consensus and bring some sense of unity to this great straggling herd of cats that is the American populace.
On the other hand, we also want a President who will be “our” guy, not “theirs”—who will fight, whitened tooth and manicured nail, to make sure that our particular priorities and values prevail, and that will generally kick the butts of the benighted opposition from the Potomac to Prudhoe Bay.
But maybe what we really want is a President of a different kind entirely, a President on a smaller scale—many “presidents,” in fact. Maybe our various communities, interest groups, classes—our disparate, self-identified, internal “nations”—should each be able to democratically select leaders to serve as primary torchbearers and spokespeople for their particular set of interests for a given length of time. These people would then be authorized to participate in national dialogues about issues of relevance and import on behalf of their constituencies, and each American would be able to feel that they have someone standing up in the public eye representing them and their values.
Take, for example, conservative Christians. There are, of course, many individuals who are recognized as “leaders” of that section of society, from Pat Robertson to Rick Santorum, but none of them can claim to have any kind of recognized mandate from that community as a whole. So it may be no wonder that despite the huge numbers of churches, religious broadcasters and “family-oriented” organizations that exist, these people still seem to see themselves as marginalized, even persecuted, and without influence in society. And so they rally behind someone who could never be a “President for all the people,” because they so desperately desire someone who could be a president for them.
When unionized workers were a more prevalent part of the workforce, the head of the AFL-CIO was generally seen as the kind of leader that I am talking about, someone who represented the interests of working-class Americans—but now, who could claim any hold on such a mantle? Who represents our interests as workers now, or for that matter as consumers, within the halls of power?
You probably see where this is going: I am dancing around the outline of a different kind of democracy, of a multiparty, parliamentary state, such as is seen in most of the other industrial democracies around the world. In such a state, there might well be a party, and a duly-elected party leader, explicitly and unapologetically dedicated to representing the needs and desires of the wealthy, but there might also also be one doing the same for the poor, and one for the middle class.
So, as we prepare for the upcoming contests, I would ask you to consider these questions: With which “nation” do you primarily identify? Whom would you consider a potential leader for that nation? And who actually would make the best President to serve, not just your “nation,” but all the American people?