Political wonks like to talk about transformative elections, ones in which more than the faces change, ones in which the temper of American politics shifts from the dominance of one party or ideology to another. This election may well have been truly transformative.
George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, has based a model of our political preferences on a voter’s view of the family. There are two archetypes: the Strict Father and the Nurturing Parent. The Strict Father sets rigid rules of behavior, punishes those who don’t follow them exactly, and rewards those who do. The essence of a Strict Father society is a hierarchy in which the leader of the family (or nation) knows and enforces the rules, which are often based on such a holy book as the Bible or the Koran, or perhaps Das Kapital, or Wealth of Nations. Obedience to the rules is the highest mark of good citizenship, and is rewarded by power and success within the family or society.
The Nurturing Parent teaches compassion and respect for everyone as the highest value and nurtures a family (or a society) in a way that promotes those values. The core of this model is a family in which all members are cared for in a loving, supportive environment. The Parent’s goal is to nurture all our children (and citizens) to care for one another and for the world around them so all can reach their highest potential. Communication is a primary value: Everyone has an equal right to be heard and decision-making is open and transparent. For those who stray (individuals or nations), rehabilitation is always preferred over punishment.
Not so long ago—during another war only the politicians wanted— there was a vision of a nurturing, peaceful, prosperous, and compassionate society. In the midst of that war, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and others had the vision of a peaceful world based on partnership and equality instead of dominance and hierarchy. Forty years later, the connection between Bobby Kennedy’s vision and Barak Obama’s is very strong.
As attorney general, Kennedy ordered Martin Luther King freed from prison on bail, and later worked with him in the civil rights and anti-war movements. In the early s, he said, “There’s no question that in the next thirty or forty years a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States, certainly within that period of time.” If he were alive today, I’m sure he would rejoice in Barak Obama’s fulfillment of that prophecy.
Barak Obama said, “The idealism of Robert Kennedy—the unfinished legacy that calls us still—is a fundamental belief in the continued perfection of American ideals. It’s a belief that says if this nation was truly founded on the principles of freedom and equality, it could not sit idly by while millions were shackled because of the color of their skin. That if we are to shine as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, we must be respected not just for the might of our military, but for the reach of our ideals. That if this is a land where destiny is not determined by birth or circumstance, we have a duty to ensure that the child of a millionaire and the child of a welfare mom have the same chance in life. That if out of many, we are truly one, then we must not limit ourselves to the pursuit of selfish gain, but that which will help all Americans rise together.”
Kennedy and King were killed for their vision. At the time of King’s assassination in April 1968, Kennedy said, “What we need in the United States is not division what we need in the United States is not hatred what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” Two months later, he had just won the California Democratic Primary and was on his way to winning the presidential nomination when he was gunned down in Los Angeles. Ironically, the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention took place, for the most part, in Grant Park, the same place hundreds of thousands of people heard Obama’s victory speech.
So instead of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, we got Nixon, Reagan, George Bush I and II, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the war on dissent, the culture wars, and several real shooting wars. We let the Strict Fathers of the right ridicule such nurturing politicians as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter and convince us that their vision of a peaceful and compassionate world was nothing but a pipe dream.
Now we are at the cusp of a new era when the Nurturing model can prevail. And Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is being considered to head the Environmental Protection Agency. It is clear from the election results that we have a long way to go to achieve a truly compassionate, nurturing society. But let’s remember that transformation takes time: After all, this part took 40 years.
Tom Knepher is a Morro Bay freelance writer who was in Dong Ha, Vietnam, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Contact him via the editor, firstname.lastname@example.org.