While many current Democrats count Robert F. Kennedy as a hero, most would benefit from studying the courageous words he delivered forty years ago this month. In a speech to students at University of Cape Town in South Africa, exactly two years to the date before his untimely death, RFK told the world how to be heroic. His words embodied the greatest ideals of the Democratic Party; the enduring support of human rights and the equality of justice, ideals that have been squeezed out of today's Democratic agenda.
At the height of apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement at home, Kennedy forcefully gave his case for supporting human rights declaring, "We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because of the laws of God command it, although they do... We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do."
He boldly challenged a generation to never bend from its hopes and beliefs for political expedience and warned not to fear your own futility because, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
Today's Democratic leaders are reluctant to stand up for the ideals of human rights, replacing them with the less than courageous mantra of "Anything But Bush."
When asked why Democrats no longer speak about human rights despite U.S. torture scandals at Guantanmo and Abu Ghareb, revelations of clandestine U.S. prisons in Europe, domestic spying at home and not to mention the crisis in Darfur, Democratic National Committee chairman Governor Howard Dean admitted that the Party no longer speaks up about human rights issues at a breakfast hosted by the American Prospect.
"There are an enormous number of issues," said Dean explaining that human rights emergencies are not alarming enough to be campaign issues. Dean went on to say, "in the immediacy of trying to figure out how to communicate with the American people about why they should vote for the Democrats it gets dropped."
When later asked what the Democratic Party stance is on the United States' foray into torture and human rights abuses at Guantanmo Bay Prison, Dean responded, "We don't have a Democratic Party position. I've never had a discussion about it with [Harry] Reid and [Nancy] Pelosi."
Dean, a former doctor, is diagnosing an illness of the political system. Most Democrats have remained silent on potentially thorny human rights issues like the rights of detainees, the equality of gay families, or millions of Americans living in poverty in favor of taking "bold" stands where polls show a ready-made consensus among voters on the failures of the GOP and the Bush administration, topics like gas prices, or "the culture of corruption." Even on issues like a minimum wage increase, Democratic leadership stop far short of calling for a wage that would allow workers to lift their family out of poverty and live with dignity.
Dean went on to say the he believes discussing issues like human rights requires educating voters and in Dean's vision, "campaigns in general are not very good occasions for education."
Democrats are unwilling to educate voters and take on conservative myths that human rights and social justice amount to undeserved handouts. Human rights only ensure equal access to the minimum level of support and freedom an individual needs to live their lives with dignity. Admitting that our fellow men and women deserve to live with dignity is not a renunciation of personal responsibility.
Instead of investing in developing community leaders to enlighten voters about party principles like human rights, Democrats have decided to do things on the cheap. They instead save their money for last minute strategies of half hearted voter education and "Get Out To Vote" efforts just before Election Day. This strategy is incapable of shaping what voters actually believe so Democrats must rely on campaign points that reiterate what people already think. The Party has lost faith in the ability of community leaders to shape minds and they have lost the courage to lead and stand for platforms that actually strike out against injustice and make a "ripple of hope."
This is very different than the long term commitment by the GOP to training leaders among the evangelical Right. Their efforts are now paying off with a groundswell of committed volunteers and even two-way communication in determining policy.
While Democrats may ignore principles of human rights, Republicans are certainly not blameless. During their time controlling the Congress and the White House everyone from Human Rights Watch to the Iranian President has questioned the United States' commitment to human rights. Most Democrats fear challenging the administration on its record of abuses will lead to being labeled as either soft on the terrorists or in favor of big government. In the mean time, administration officials have gotten away with breaking international laws, tarnishing our image abroad, and breaching principles enshrined in our Constitution without enlisting the ire of the a Democratic Party.
Even after a national tragedy, top Democrats have failed to stand up for the human rights of displaced victims of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Sure some point to Katrina as a defining political moment, emphasizing Bush and FEMA's ineptitude, but they often ignore the continuing human tragedy. The Bush administration has denied the legal rights guaranteed to internally displaced people by international laws adopted by the United States. Thousands of families have not only lost loved ones and had their lives shattered by this disaster and the Bush administration's disastrous response but now they have been scattered across the country and systematically denied the right to return home or to have a say in how their neighborhoods are rebuilt, rights guaranteed to them under international law. Real leadership, in either party, ready to listen and partner with the impoverished disenfranchised Americans displaced by this tragedy has yet to materialize.
It takes true leadership and moral courage to challenge people to open their eyes to the problems that exist in the shadows. Robert Kennedy was determined to bring attention to racism in South Africa and in the United States, to the inhumane conditions in farmworker camps in California or our decaying inner city slums. Sure it was easy for people to turn away from his difficult message but he had the courage to confront not just those who opposed change but those who were initially indifferent. He was able to capture people's imagination by turning a seemingly bleak message into a brilliant challenge of the American spirit.
Democrats need to reflect on RFK's words summon the moral courage to challenge voters to stand with justice. If they will not acknowledge the injustices that are occurring even in our own country, then they will continue becoming the party of elections, not principles. Thankfully it is not too late. Democrats will not always be able to depend on voters reacting to corruption and illegal actions by the GOP to win support; they need substance and uniting principles beyond reaction. Democrats can once again stand up for their ideals and strike out against injustice and begin to make a ripple of hope.