THE BLOG

Dignity for All: The Language Old Guard Democrats Will Have to Learn

03/14/2008 06:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In February, when Barack Obama was at the height of his winning streak, Tom Foreman of CNN's Washington Bureau, wrote:

"One highly experienced Democratic insider told me that the Old Guard of the party is utterly confused by the appeal of Obama -- by the oceans of young people, moderates, and independents flocking to his camp. They don't know what to make of these new Democrats."

Foreman explained it this way: the Clinton and Obama campaigns are speaking two entirely different languages. Clinton's is "the language of experience, hard work, traditional Democratic values, and the rough and tumble politics that has come to dominate Washington"; Obama's, the language of "Hope. Dreams. Unity. Yes, we can." Foreman's assertion: to the new wave of voters, whose "mother tongue grew out of Obamaland...only [Obama's] message is getting through." Simply put, Obama speaks their language and Clinton doesn't.

Recently, some among the Old Guard have attributed Senator Obama's success to such factors as race or favorable press coverage, but Foreman's analysis seems more apt. Clinton's showings in Ohio and Texas -- apparently garnered by adopting reptilian brain language that played heavily on the public's primitive, survival-response emotions -- arguably came not from among the country's "new wave of voters," but rather among old-time Democrats who, in the final moments, decided to stay the course with the ways of the past.

The recent back and forth in the delegate race -- with Clinton gaining ground in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas, then losing it again in Wyoming and Missisippi -- has not changed the fact that the two Democratic candidates do speak fundamentally different languages; nor does it change the language that the new wave of voters speak. Clinton may have prevailed in recent contests by arousing primal fears about security and survival, but the new, younger and more independent voters aren't buying the old fight-and-frighten language. They've seen and heard enough to know that a global climate based on fear and aggression just doesn't work. It has not produced global peace, harmony, or prosperity. It has not made the world a safer place. And even Old Guard Democrats have lately been forced to acknowledge that such an approach, as it spills over into wider aspects of the campaign, could prove disastrous to their party this November.

What still needs to be realized, however, is that the reason the fight-and-frighten approach hasn't worked is because it is not based on an essential human value. That value is dignity. Dignity for All.

The language Barack Obama speaks is not only about hope and possibility and a worldwide movement for change. It is about dignity. Dignity for All is the change the new voters seek. As Robert W. Fuller, author of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity, has written,

"Dignity permeates [Obama's] speeches, informs his policies, and is evident in his manner. Obama is a herald and exemplar of the politics of dignity....For blacks and whites, for men and women, for gays and straights, for young and old, for rich and poor, and for immigrants and the native-born. Dignity is also extended to...liberals and conservatives -- and to other nations and their leaders. Americans are ... ready to support a leader committed to building a world of dignity for all."

Although some "dignity bloopers" have come out of the Obama camp, Senator Obama has nonetheless endeavored to seek the high road, while yet standing up for his own and his supporters' dignity.

Fuller notes that dignity is "more than good manners, respect, and civility," defining it instead as "the absence of indignity" and asserting that it is "the mounting indignities of American life that have drawn people to Obama's politics of dignity. They know that indignities inflicted on the world have diminished America's stature. They know that the indignities they and their fellow citizens are suffering at home are sapping the American spirit."

The Democratic party would do well to study this language of hope, possibility, and dignity, because it's not just a language, it is an articulation of a new consciousness that is trying hard now to emerge on the planet. This new consciousness understands that hope and possibility are central to a nation's capacity to change. It also understands that humanity can no longer live without according dignity to all. In a world where technology can destroy the planet and access to it continues to proliferate, dignity for all is not a luxury but a necessity. No longer can we afford to give dignity to some, but not to everyone.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Old Guard and its fight-and-frighten political traditions will prevail in this election cycle. But even if they manage to eke by in this one, those ways of thinking and acting won't likely stand a chance by the next round four years hence. The new voters' call to replace "the same old politics" with less aggressive, attacking, and divisive campaigning -- and governance, once elected -- is not merely about style; it is a call for our nation's leaders to hold dignity for all as a fundamental value and to model their campaigns, their leadership approaches, the governments they will head, and indeed, their whole lives on that value.

The bottom line is: the new voters want something new. They want a genuine and lasting change toward dignity, and the hope that it can actually happen. If the Democratic Party wants to win future elections -- let alone this year's presidential race -- the Old Guard may need to learn that language, and not just speak it but live it.