Remarks & Statements
Remarks by Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis at the Conference on U.S. Elections
ELTE, Budapest, October 24, 2012
Good morning. Thank you Dean Király for your introduction and Péter Zarand, Adrienn Tar, and Policity for organizing today’s event. I’m honored to speak at this conference here at ELTE concerning the U.S. elections scheduled for November 6. And as we approach Election Day, one of my top priorities as the U.S. Ambassador here is to encourage all American citizens residing in Hungary to exercise their right to choose our country’s leaders. When a fellow American complains about our political system or leaders, my first question is always, “Did you vote?” As the colorful African-American civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy once said, “Don’t agonize, organize!” This is one of our most important responsibilities as citizens of a democracy and active participation in our democracy is what I would like to focus on this morning.
Let me start with a few words about an American citizen who took seriously his responsibility to be involved in the political process at the grass roots level. This was the great labor union organizer Cesar Chavez. Through his organizational skills and relentless lobbying of business leaders and political powerbrokers, Cesar Chavez brought hope to thousands of the poorest and most vulnerable laborers in the United States. More than just hope and dignity, however, he brought real change and a sense of empowerment through grass roots organizing.
In one California produce sorting center, sometime in the 1950s, a rumor spread among the workers that Chavez was organizing to gain improvements in their working conditions. Word spread that he had exerted pressure on the wealthy and powerful farm-owners to provide hygiene facilities for the laborers in the fields. For the first time, they might have access to clean water and toilets during their long and grueling hours in the sun. One worker, recently arrived from Greece, was skeptical. “These people are dreaming, it’s way too expensive. There’s just no way that’s ever going to happen,” he thought to himself. But it did happen. And the day the agreement was announced, that particular Greek immigrant, my father, understood how U.S. democracy worked: If you are passionate about an issue and you get enough people to go along with you, you can change anything. This principle has been proven time and again in the United States and has laid the foundation for the strong civil society that makes our democracy function. Cesar Chavez became my father’s hero and his account of that watershed moment in his own life inspired me to a lifetime of active participation in our political process.
The power of people organizing at the grass roots level can be amazing. But of course it doesn’t always result in visible success like the facilities installed in those California fields. I learned this lesson volunteering on a political campaign during the 1984 presidential election just after I turned 18. I painted signs at the district office alongside dozens of other volunteers, excited that I was contributing to an effort that could lead to the victory of the candidate whom I supported. On my way to the polls in California that Election Day to finally cast my own vote for the first time, I learned that the ticket for which I had worked so hard had already lost the election. This news came across the radio based on exit polls from states in the eastern United States, several hours ahead of California’s time zone. I proudly voted anyway and vowed to keep volunteering in every election to come.
The next election found me working on the presidential campaign in the state of New Hampshire. You should know that each state holds a primary or caucus to select the presidential candidates that will appear on the final ballot for each political party. An intriguing part of our electoral cycle is the New Hampshire primary. Since this small New England state’s primary is always first on the calendar, it sets the tone for the election. Indeed, until 1992, the winning presidential candidate had always won the New Hampshire primary. Many candidates end their races if they do poorly in that primary. Underdogs receive a sudden burst of voter enthusiasm and financial support if they succeed in New Hampshire. Consequently, a disproportionate amount of advertising dollars and candidate campaign time is pumped into that state. A popular joke in New Hampshire tells of a campaign volunteer who pleaded with one undecided voter shortly before the primary. “How can I possibly vote for your candidate?” the man replied, “I’ve only met him twice in person!”
As I mentioned, I had the privilege of working on the 1988 election campaign as a college student in New Hampshire. There I learned that “grass roots” involves an incredible amount of work. I logged many hours volunteering at a phone bank calling potential voters to persuade them to vote for my candidate. Each year, countless thousands, hundreds of thousands, of volunteers like me canvass neighborhoods knocking on doors, calling voters, and using every means available to energize people to vote for their candidate. It takes an incredible number of highly motivated men and women of all ages and walks of life to do this. In fact, in July of this year, both the Democratic and Republican campaigns confessed to the media that they had no idea how many volunteers were working on their respective campaigns across the country. It’s exhausting work. As Cesar Chavez himself once said about organizing grass roots participation, “The name of the game is to talk to people. If you don't talk to people, you can't get started.... You knock on twenty doors or so, and twenty guys tell you to go to hell, or that they haven't got time. But maybe at the fortieth or sixtieth house you find one guy who is all you need.”
During the 1992 election season, I took a year off after receiving my MBA to volunteer as a campaign fundraiser and grass roots organizer. Our highest level of communications technology consisted of a fax machine which would break down regularly and leave me stuffing and sealing envelopes instead. From the 1992 election on, I attended political party conventions – first as a volunteer, working almost 24-hour days, and then four times as a California delegate. The convention truly embodies the nitty-gritty work of the campaign. At these gatherings, the youngest, greenest city councilmember can network with United States Senators to discuss issues affecting the American people. In these discussions, the final party platforms are laid out, the candidate’s positions on key issues are solidified, and observers see grass roots organizing at its finest.
Throughout the campaign cycle, American voters can watch the candidates spar over their views in a series of televised debates. In fact, one of the best places to observe each candidate’s position on the critical issues facing our country is in the institution of the presidential debate. The tradition of the televised two-candidate debate began in 1960 with the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate in which TV viewers felt that the youthful and well-groomed John F. Kennedy had won. Meanwhile, radio listeners thought Richard Nixon’s substantive answers put him ahead. Since that time, American voters have based many of their impressions of a candidate on his or her debate performance and often the candidate’s words in these forums will follow him or her long afterwards. Unlike in many other countries, throughout the campaign, an American presidential candidate must be prepared to address head-on probing questions about his or her personal life, income tax records, and religious beliefs. Many of these issues come to light through research by media organizations, NGOs, and grass roots organizers with a particular focus.
In addition to televised debates, technology has greatly changed the way candidates campaign. Far from the fax machine I relied on in 1992, by the 2008 election, one of the keys to President Obama’s success was new technology that allowed him to collect an enormous amount of campaign support through small online donations. More importantly, he was able to connect with individual voters far more directly through social media tools for the first time. Changes in everything from technology to campaign laws ensure that the playing field is transformed from one election to the next.
Our system is not at all perfect and our historical record on encouraging popular participation has not always been positive. Unfortunately, in our brief history as a nation, countless potential voters have been the victims of discrimination that robbed them of this crucial right. In our nation’s infancy, the law restricting voting to white male landowners in many states contributed to this discrimination. Thankfully, we have come a long way in addressing these injustices. As evidence, in 2009, an African-American president named his former opponent, a woman, as the new Secretary of State. Less than 150 years ago, when this university was already 150 years old, neither one of those people would even have been able to legally vote in the United States, let alone be President and Secretary of State! Shortly after accepting her former rival’s offer to be his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton summarized these historic changes for a group of foreign journalists. She said: “At first, only … white men with property could vote. Then they had to amend the Constitution to include African American men, but then they prevented them from voting, and then we had to change the Constitution to let women vote. I mean, it's just been an ongoing process. But you just keep working at it, and you can't get discouraged, because it makes such a big difference to the lives of people if they feel their government is responsive to them.” Today, no law-abiding American citizen over the age of 18 can be denied the right to vote, regardless of race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.
It is important to keep in mind that on November 6, Americans will be voting not only for the President of the United States, but all the members of the House of Representatives and about one third of the Senate. The men and women that win these elections will face a range of challenges both domestically and globally. One of the classic lines of recent American elections was coined by James Carville, a speechwriter to President Clinton, in the 1992 campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.” For many Americans, the unemployment rate and pace of our economic recovery remain the most important issues in this election. The winner of the Presidential race will likely appoint one or two Supreme Court justices who could significantly alter or simply solidify the current ideological balance in the highest judicial authority in our country. This could influence many issues ranging from the implementation of President Obama’s health care plan to the status of gay marriage, abortion, and the death penalty in the United States. On the international scene, the President will face a host of issues ranging from the sweeping changes in the Middle East to global economic challenges, calls for greater American involvement, and complaints about too much American involvement.
I am sure you would like to ask my predictions for this election so let me conclude with those. I predict that millions of Americans will head to the polls on November 6 with a clear idea in their minds of what they want the next four years to look like. I also predict that the person who will win the election wants the best for his country and thinks he has the right formula to accomplish that. Finally, I predict that the losing candidate will immediately offer a noble speech in which he congratulates the winner, declares support, and encourages his own loyal and hard-working supporters to back the new administration. They in turn will dry their tears, shrug their shoulders, shake each others’ hands, and vow to “keep the faith” until the next election.
Ladies and gentlemen, I do not know who will win this presidential election. Nevertheless, of one thing I am certain: regardless of who wins on November 6, the President of the United States will continue to support the friendship, alliance, and cooperation with Hungary. I’m sure U.S.-Hungarian relations will continue to thrive regardless of who sits down in the Oval Office in January of 2013.
Thank you very much.