“When I sat in jail that day, I wondered if we were doing the right thing, but I was never fearful for the future. As I stand before you today, I am fearful for the future of this country. I am fearful for my daughters and their future, and their children and their children’s future.” These are the words of Congressman Jim Clyburn reflecting on being arrested in a 1960 student civil-rights protest in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Today, I share his fear for the future of our nation, and for the future of my two daughters and my four grandchildren. Clyburn turned his fear into action and made a choice to enter the arena. In his 14 terms as a Congressman he has never wavered in his work for a nation committed to justice, equality and common good.
Now it is our time to enter that arena. America is at a turning point and the decision about which path we follow will be in our hands on November 3rd when we vote for a president. The choice before us is the starkest in my lifetime. It is the choice between living in a democracy governed by the rule of law; or, in a kleptocracy governed by the self-serving impulses of autocrats.
In a kleptocracy rulers use positions of power to enhance their personal status and wealth at the expense of the broader population. They use political leverage to instill fear and they seek to discredit and dispose those who dare to challenge them. Kleptocrats govern by a policy of scorched-earth destruction and seek to eliminate any opposition. Truth is what they say it is, not what the facts tell us. It is all about the exercise of absolute, unquestioned power.
If a law gets in the way, the kleptocrat either ignores it or declares it void. If people get in the way, they are destroyed with slurs and lies. If an institution gets in the way, they fire its leaders and put their very own sycophant in charge. If common sense gets in the way, they ridicule it. If the media criticizes their actions, the media is dismissed as fake news.
The governing style of kleptocrats is to rule with an iron hand and glib tongue. Their tools are innuendos, lies, half-truths and slander. They abhor a vibrant, truth-telling press and reject checks and balances on their authority. The ruler of a kleptocracy uses law enforcement and justice agencies to protect their executive prerogatives, prosecute political enemies and repudiate negative reports. They threaten to send their opponents to jail and they are unbridled by any set of norms. They expect and demand total, unwavering support from all corners of the land.
The leader of a healthy democracy, on the other hand, has self-giving rather than self-aggrandizing instincts. They are women and men with strong intellects who seek people with expertise to help guide them through complex issues. They are decisive thinkers with impeccable integrity, have a penchant for diplomacy, and seek answers that enhance the common good. They hand out rather than claim credit for successes.Strong democratic leaders are diligent listeners who surround themselves with plain-speaking advisors and are willing to be convinced when they are wrong.
These leaders understand that rigorous checks and balances from other branches of government (as well as institutional structures such as inspector generals) can be annoying but are crucial to the functioning of vital democracies. They respect the necessity of a strong and free press and build relationships of fragile trust with them.
Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration, was prescient when he warned the nation: “Do not do as my party did in 2016, underestimate the evil, desperate nature of evil desperate people. There is no bottom. There is no shame. There are no limits… Do not come into this fight believing that (the other) team views any action, including outright criminality as off limits. (The 2020 election) is a battle that decides whether they have an unlimited runway to create a dynastic kleptocracy…”
This is our choice in November: Do we want our children’s future to be formed in a kleptocracy or a democracy? And, don’t think that you can opt out. The choice will be made, and we will all have to live with it for at least four years. Those who choose not to vote will be signaling that they will accept whatever the outcome. They not only give up the right to vote, they give up the right to be a credible critic of the next administration.
So, please, vote on November 3!