Many people — pundits, politicians, people who like to prophesize — have declared that the protracted Democratic primary season is a potential disaster. Calls for Hillary Clinton to quit the race bounce around the blogosphere as pollsters eagerly quiz Barack Obama’s supporters about whether they will stick with the party if Hillary wins the nomination.
Lost in the fog of the media war is the extraordinary civics lesson that has been marching through the primary states and across television and computer screens for many months. This morning, Sunday, spending a few hours in a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska before I head out to some meetings here, I had the time to do something I don’t often do: watch the Sunday morning political talk shows.
On one channel Tim Russert was interviewing Barack Obama while on another channel George Stephanopolous was trying to keep up with Hillary Clinton striding around the stage. Over on C-Span Michele Obama was giving a remarkable speech to a campaign crowd in North Carolina (decrying the “elitism” charge, she just mentioned that she attended public schools, and said, “I want people to look at me and see what an investment in public education can look like.” Wow.)
Over on CNN Congressman Charles Rangel and Democratic political expert Donna Brazile talked with Wolf Blitzer about the Pastor Wright issue. Elsewhere, Rev. Al Sharpton popped up on several channels, and I even caught a glimpse of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia giving an interview (not about the primaries, but about his work on the Court), something the Supremes didn’t used to do but now it seems acceptable. I caught some Republican commentators but could not find John McCain anywhere, perhaps revealing the conventional wisdom that his campaign is just sitting back letting Hillary and Barack knock each other out.
But I came away from this mediafest with a different perspective: this long primary campaign has exposed American voters to more opportunities than ever before to think about the candidates and the issues that are central to our nation’s future. The Democratic candidates have faced more scrutiny, more doubt, more conflicts, and more challenges to their abilities than any candidates previously. Moreover, American voters have been more engaged, more thoughtful, and more conversant with the issues than in previous campaign seasons where it all was sewed-up fairly neatly.
Whatever the outcome, the real winner of this primary season is American Democracy. In the last eight years, we’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about freedom and democracy as the rationale for launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many citizens, me included, feel that this rhetoric gravely distorts what our system of government should be all about.
The real battles for our Democracy occur right here, in Nebraska, and small towns in Indiana, and diners in Pennsylvania, and rallies in North Carolina, and at voting booths across the United States. Every time voters show up, Democracy wins. Every time a candidate has to stand up and ask judgmental citizens to vote for him or her, Democracy wins. This is the best example of the Democracy that we should be offering to the world: not bombs but debates, not torture but engaged citizens, not ignorant fear but informed voting.
Far from being the disaster that some have declared, this primary season is a triumph for Democracy.