With mid-term elections only weeks away, I am once again being asked by Arab friends to explain my support for the Democratic Party. They maintain, not unfairly, that neither of the two major parties-Democratic or Republican-have commendable records on issues affecting the Arab World. As our annual Arab American Institute Congressional vote guides establish, majorities in both parties have horrible voting records on Arab American concerns. So how does one choose for which party to vote and on what basis should one base their vote? In response to these questions, I explain the roots of my political thinking-with lessons I learned both from my mother and from my own life experiences.
One of the clearest examples of my mother's thinking came back in 1996 when she was being interviewed on Good Morning America. They were doing a story on that year's election and wanted to know why she, an 89 year old Catholic woman, was voting for Democrats. In her responses to the reporter, mom related how her life had shaped her politics.
In the matter of fact way that was her style, my mother began by telling how when her Lebanese immigrant family arrived in Northeast Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century, it was the Democratic Party that welcomed them, helping them find their way in the New World. They lived in the heart of coal country and most of their neighbors were immigrants from Ireland or Eastern or Central Europe who worked long tough hours in the mines. It was the Democrats, she said, who fought for their rights and protected their interests. When the Great Depression hit hard, it was Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal that put people back to work and created an economic safety net for those most impacted by the crisis.
Moving forward, my mother noted the role of the party in defending civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, and programs that addressed the needs of the poor, the disabled, and at-risk children. In short, Mom grew up not only believing that government had a responsibility to lend a helping hand to those who needed it. She had seen, first hand, government fulfilling those responsibilities and serving the greater good.
When I was in my rebellious teens, I read the ultra-Conservative Ayn Rand and became enamored of Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative". My mother would have none of it. One day as I was spouting off about individualism and the evils of government, she pointed a disapproving finger in my face and told me "if it weren't for Social Security survivor benefits [which I had been receiving since my father's death when I was 15], you'd be out working right now instead of being in school"; and if it weren't for the New York State scholarship you'd won, we wouldn't have been able to afford to send you to college". She concluded with "don't deny to others what you take for yourself".
The phase through which I had been going was typical stuff for teens-a kind of infantile narcissism where you think only of yourself. Mom's injunction was, in short, to grow up, get over my self-absorption, and see the bigger picture of the benefits we receive from and the responsibilities we have toward others. My rebellion was short-lived.
My family, like so many other immigrants before us, and so many others who have come since then, arrived in America with nothing but hopes and dreams and a commitment to work hard to produce a better life for their families. Sure, my dad and mom worked hard. And yes, we succeeded-in many ways beyond their wildest dreams. But my mother's point was that the success we realized wasn't ours alone. It was also due to a social contract that had provided some degree of security and support when we and our neighbors and friends needed it most. Whether it was the public school system, the Works Progress Administration, Social Security, or the vast social movements that fought for civil rights and women's rights-we owe our success to working together and for each other.
My own life experiences, have taught me much the same. From my earliest work in the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, through my involvement in Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, to my work fighting against political exclusion and discrimination against Arab Americans, or more recently to our efforts to defend our civil liberties combat the post-9/11 anti-Arab anti-Muslim backlash-in all these instances, most of our strongest and most dependable allies have been associated with the Democratic party. As our vote guide demonstrates, we have a number of allies in Congress-almost all of them are Democrats.
We haven't won every battle. But I cannot imagine where my community would be today had it not been for the support we received from African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, church leaders, liberals, and progressives. They defended us and we worked together in coalition to support each other's rights. Within these coalitions, we work to make change-to get folks to be smarter about and to apply our values to our wrong-headed foreign policy. Along the way, we've won new allies. No doubt, we still have a ways to go.
Politics, I have learned is never easy or perfect, and rarely is it black and white. It is, however, a matter of values-how, as my mother would have said it, we can do the most good for those with the greatest need. Take the example of the debate over health care reform. No one can claim that Obamacare, as it is called, is perfect. It most certainly has problems that can and must be fixed, but this healthcare reform legislation has been a blessing to many. At a recent town meeting I helped lead in Pennsylvania, a middle aged immigrant grocer with a heart condition told us how he had never been able to get health insurance-because he had a pre-existing condition. Since Obamacare forbids denying insurance because of a pre-existing condition, now he is insured-for the first time in his life. I take this issue personally. My granddaughter, Hope, was born with Down Syndrome. Because under Democratic Administrations, the State of Maryland (where my granddaughter lives) provides state-supported services to "special needs" children, Hope is getting remarkable support. And because she was born three weeks after Obamacare was signed into law, my family knows that Hope, too, will never be denied health care because of a pre-existing condition.
Doing the most good for those who are the most in need-that's what government should do. That was the lesson I learned from my mother and my life, and I look at every election through the lens of that value.
Dr. James J. Zogby is The President of Arab American Institutes.