Eleven months after President Obama took office, many Progressives are feeling understandably shortchanged. We were led to believe that finally a candidate with authentic liberal credentials had a legitimate shot at the White House, and so we embraced pragmatism when the most liberal candidates dropped out of the race. To be sure, there were several voices screaming out that Obama, if elected, would be far more indebted to the center then he ever would be to the left. These were loudest in the blogosphere, by far, and a few of them have recently exercised the cathartic, but ultimately hollow right to say I-told-you-so. This song and dance has historical antecedents that stretch back decades, but it would be best if there were no need to repeat the process once more.
I think we may have put the cart before the horse. I think we might have assumed that reform could be accomplished purely by political means, instead of reform being reached by grassroots mobilization that forced government’s hand. Recently we have become aware, once more, that the American political system is not designed for sweeping change. The rules of the Senate were instituted to ensure that those with sober contemplation, not rash passion, ultimately won in the end. We can lament this fact and rightly decry it as anti-democratic and elitist, but the truth of the matter is that this is how the system works. I don’t think that the President failed us nearly as much as the system did. In mentioning this, I’d much rather focus on going forward than licking our wounds.
I understand why we placed our trust in Barack Obama. We recognized the destruction wrought by eight years of neoconservative rule and with it the disconcerting notion that government predicated on evil can level its opponents and eviscerate easily. That it is much more difficult to build up rather than ruin is perhaps the toughest lesson of all. But with it comes the realization that established precedent is nearly impossible to reverse when passed. We may be unhappy with the scope of the bill, but we would be wise to celebrate that if someday Republican rule returns, it will be difficult for them to dismantle that which will be signed into law shortly. We should not accept this as any final word on the matter, but neither should we refuse to note how an eighteen-round fisticuff with the American mentality ultimately turned out in the end. This country was forced to confront some of the most massive fault lines that lie deceptively harmless most of the time, until seismic tremors threaten to shake us apart.
Any worthy social movement promising transformative change begins among an oft-quoted small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights, and our latest struggle for LGBT marriage equality fomented and were codified from well outside the Beltway. Though ultimately legislation was proposed and passed by means of the Legislative branch, the energy and forward momentum swept up a million unsung heroes whose names may be lost to history or relegated to obscure footnotes, but whose bravery and achievements cannot be understated.
While it is touching that during the Presidential Election we temporarily shelved our skepticism as a result of being star-struck, we should not have failed to recognize that leadership comes from everywhere and every corner, not just the occupant of the White House. We focused our entire attention and hung our hopes upon the success or failure of one person, and while it is true that one person can change the world, his or her leadership ability must be augmented by other leaders. These inspirational individuals are frequently not pulled from the ranks of public service. Their occupations vary, just as those who desire change pull from all walks of life and all vocations. It is more leaders and more passion that we need.
Dr. King may have been the towering giant of the Civil Rights Movement, but Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and many others less well-known filled out the inner circle that produced progress on a scale that is still difficult to fully comprehend. Along with the notable names are a million others who are the pride of their city or town, but little more than strangers in other places. I hardly need note that none of the public figures I have outlined were members of the House or the Senate. Reformers are rarely beholden to the political game because it requires a kind of willingness to bend to the prevailing will and howling winds of popular sentiment, else one find oneself out of power. So long as this is the case, real reform measures will be stymied or watered down during the process of deliberation.
I almost need not mention that Congress is meant to work for us, but that it only pays attention to our concerns when we articulate them with force, clarity, and with united purpose. When we are united behind a cause, not a personality, and especially not a party, then the sky is the limit. Making our dreams a reality requires more than one election cycle and we ought to really contemplate why it took a once-in-a-generation candidate to patch up the variety of competing interests and disconnected factions of the Democratic party to achieve a sweeping victory.
Instead of cursing our fate and gnashing our teeth out of betrayal, we should re-organize, but this time around the issues that our elected representatives either will not touch, or will whittle away to ineffectual mush. We have before us a fantastic opportunity to change our priorities and establish successful strategies. Legend has it that right before they put the rope around his neck, the labor leader Joe Hill stated, “Don’t Mourn! Organize!” Liberalism is alive and well and if we learn from this experiment we will not have failed. The new birth of freedom long promised is ours for the taking, provided we grasp hold of it. We will live to fight another day.