If there was one event in recent American memory during which people best showcased their willingness to believe things for which they had no evidence, surely it was the 2008 presidential election, when the far right accused Barack Obama of being a socialist, a Muslim, and a Kenyan.
These beliefs persist into the waning years of the Obama presidency. In 2010, 55% of likely voters believed Obama to be a socialist. In late 2015, 29% of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim, 20% think he is foreign-born.
The near future will make a mockery of the fear mongering and hysteria that birthed and perpetuated this mythology.
The United States is changing, for the better in the opinion of some, for worse in the opinion of narrow minded thinkers. Is it not obvious that the baseless attacks on Obama’s political beliefs, religion, and nationality necessitated the use of “socialist,” “Muslim,” and “foreigner” as vile slurs? Would not the far right oppose a similar vilification of “conservative” or “Christian” or the “native born” as ludicrous reasons why a presidential candidate should be disqualified for office?
By imagining that “those people” are less qualified for the presidency than others, we waste an enormous pool of human talent, discouraging people that could do a tremendous good in office, plus spitting on the notion of American freedom and equality.
Call it irony, karma, or justice, but it is not difficult to imagine the untruths about Obama will soon be the truths of other presidents. This is an important hope, as it could dispel fear and bigotry.
Indeed, the U.S. is already drawing close.
Bernie Sanders may or may not be the first socialist elected president.
Since entering the presidential race, Sanders has made enormous gains against the presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, even leading her in New Hampshire for a time.
Currently, in the key early battleground states, Clinton leads Sanders by the slim margin of 48%-41% in Iowa, 48%-45% in New Hampshire. This is far better than Barack Obama was doing against Clinton at the same time in 2008, before she lost her lead and came in third in Iowa.
From July through September 2015, Clinton raised $28.8 million and spent nearly all of it; Sanders raised $26.2 million and spent less than half. He’s spending far less and still in statistical ties. During this time, Sanders reached 1 million campaign donations faster than any presidential candidate in U.S. history; the average donation was $25. He takes union donations, refusing to accept corporate money, a stark contrast to Clinton, who is heavily funded by big banks and corporations.
Sanders draws the most massive crowds of any Democratic candidate and, before Donald Trump came along, of any candidate period. 11,000 people in Phoenix; 15,000 in Seattle; 28,000 in Portland; 27,500 in Los Angeles; 20,000 in Boston–twice the number that came to see Obama in 2007.
In a theoretical national contest with Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders does slightly better than Clinton. After the first Democratic debate in October, though media outlets like CNN declared Clinton the winner (CNN is owned by Time Warner, which donates to Clinton’s campaigns), many polls and focus groups showed viewers thought Sanders the victor, from Fox News to Slate, to Fusion, Time, The Drudge Report, Daily Kos, and CNN itself.
Perhaps Sanders’ rise can be attributed to the fact that many younger people don’t view “socialism” as a dirty word. In recent polls, 69% of those under 29 (and 50% of those 30-49) would be willing to vote for a socialist for president. Overall, 47% of Americans said they would.
The election and reelection of local socialist politicians, like Sanders in Vermont or Kshama Sawant in Seattle, points to the willingness of American voters to support candidates of radical political persuasion.
Though I imagine most Americans, both supporters and opponents of socialism, have a very limited understanding of what socialism is (to cure this, see my article “Bernie Sanders Barely Scratches the Surface of What Socialism Is”), it is not outside the realm of possibility that a socialist could one day take the White House…be it in one year or one hundred.
After all, most Americans agree with his ideas.
Anti-Muslim bigotry reeks from high-profile Americans like Ben Carson, who suggested recently that a Muslim should not be president, to nameless Americans, like the man who told Trump, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims.” He went on to claim Obama was a Muslim, that Muslims were in training camps plotting American deaths, and asked, “When do we get rid of them?”
Whether that was referencing terrorist networks or all American Muslims is open to speculation.
Trump, not one to defend Muslims, replied, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.”
The two Muslim Americans in Congress, who for all we know may one day run for the highest office, had strong words for intolerance of this sort. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim in Congress, said:
For Ben Carson, Donald Trump, or any other Republican politician to suggest that someone of any faith is unfit for office is out of touch with who we are as a people… It’s unimaginable that the leading GOP presidential candidates are resorting to fear mongering to benefit their campaigns, and every American should be disturbed that these national figures are engaging in and tolerating blatant acts of religious bigotry.
Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana said, “Saying that the U.S. shouldn’t elect a Muslim U.S. president is absurd as saying we shouldn’t elect a neurosurgeon as president.”
Obviously, anti-Muslim sentiment stems from hateful conservative myths that most Muslims are terrorists, looking to kill Americans and replace religious liberty and American democracy with an Islamic caliphate.
Fortunately, a recent poll shows 60% of Americans would actually be willing to vote for a Muslim for president. For 18-29 year olds, it’s 76%; for 30-49 year olds, it’s 67%, an encouraging sign that not only are many Americans far less prejudiced than Ben Carson, but that a younger, more tolerant generation is upon us.
The U.S. Constitution currently states that anyone who is not a natural-born citizen cannot be president. With this in mind, ultra-conservatives obsessed over Obama’s birthplace during the 2008 election (and of course much later), demanding to see his birth certificate, only to declare it fraudulent once it was made public. Trump was one of the leaders of this national embarrassment.
The notion that a man or woman who immigrated to the U.S., or a child adopted from abroad, should not be president amounts to nothing more than a nationalistic, “patriotic” belief that American-born people are somehow superior to foreigners, or have more of a “right” to be democratically elected and lead than foreign-born citizens.
Should one’s qualifications be based on the spot on the globe on which you chanced to be born, over which you had no control? Or whether you care enough about your new home, the United States, to seek public office, and whether voters agree with your ideas and vision?
Consider 10-year-old Alena Mulhern: born in China, adopted, a U.S. citizen since she was 10 months old, resides in Massachusetts.
She is one of many in the last decade to push for an Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment, like the one from 2003 that went nowhere in Congress (it was nicknamed the “Arnold bill,” as it would have made California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger eligible to run). The amendment would have declared foreign-born persons eligible for the highest office once they had been a U.S. citizen for 20 years.
“We should all have the opportunity to run for president… Just think of all the great candidates that would not be able to serve our country because of a law that came into existence over 200 years ago,” Mulhern recently told the Massachusetts State House.
She is part of that new generation that will broaden freedom for people of formerly slandered political ideologies, religions, and national origins. She will help bury the bigoted and outdated ideas that assaulted Barack Obama. She said of her own presidential ambitions:
I would be a great leader and bring people together. I would guide our country so it would be an even greater place to live, work, and raise a family. And most of all, I love my country. I want to serve my country, and this is my country.