Democratic grace

2008-11-13 00:00

A great deal has been written about Barack Obama’s election victory, and about the excitement that it has produced among many Americans and throughout the world, and about the daunting magnitude of the tasks that he now faces.

I want to focus on one single aspect of the election drama: what the two candidates said about each other when the result was known. They both spoke words of praise. It is obvious that in such situations the unsuccessful candidate has to show himself to be a gracious loser, while the winner can afford to be magnanimous; but on this occasion each speaker seemed entirely sincere. One had a sense that, while they were strongly disagreeing with one another in the political battle, each was quietly recognising the other’s qualities.

John McCain spoke first, as is usual. Here is an extract from his concession speech, made in Phoenix, Arizona:

“A little while ago I had the honour of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him …” [At this point there was booing from his Republican audience. This embarrassed him, and he quietened them saying, “Please”.] “… to congratulate him on being the next president of the country we both love. In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving. This is an historic election, and I recognise the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.”

Barack Obama spoke a little later, in Chicago, Illinois. He hadn’t heard what McCain had said, but early on in his victory speech he said this:

“I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he’s fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation’s promise in the months ahead.”

What is striking in those statements are the qualities of humanity and empathy. For all their profound political disagreements, each fully accepts, respects and even admires the other. Each acknowledges the other’s patriotism. What they say is a remarkable example of democracy at its best. They both recognise that an election is a tough ding-dong battle; it has to be, as people are right to feel passionately about their convictions. But at the same time they can see themselves as equal human beings, each playing his earnest part in a serious game in which there has to be a winner and a loser.

Let me not romanticise the United States. By no means all Americans can rise to these heights of wisdom and generosity — as the booing Republican audience showed. Terrible things happen in the U.S, and terrible things have been done by the outgoing George W. Bush administration. But it seems valuable to pause awhile and savour this moment of deep mutual respect.

And it is perhaps particularly valuable for us as South Africans, as we watch the formation of a new breakaway political party and get ourselves prepared for an election. Things have been said and done which suggest that for some people passionate conviction and mutual respect do not easily co-exist. African National Congress supporters have threatened supporters of the new party. Jacob Zuma has promised, maybe a little rashly, that there will be no violence in the run-up to the election. Let us hope and pray that he is right.

But in more general terms, we must all try to recognise that effective democratic multiparty government depends entirely on everyone accepting the name of the game and the rules of the game. It is important that each party accepts not only that the other parties have a right to exist but that they are essential to the whole process, and that interchanges between the parties, although passions will at times rise, should always be civilised and humane.

All instances of threatening, bullying or violence are in fact steps in the direction of tyranny and dictatorship. Another point that has to be recognised is that, with the long passage of time, political and economic problems change, attempted solutions to these new problems may well be different from the old solutions, and political parties may well change or reform or enter into coalitions. Impassioned remarks such as the prediction that the ANC will stay in power until the end of time are unwise in that they show an imperfect knowledge of history.

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