We elected Obama. We can change America

2009-10-02 12:19

BARACK Obama winning the presidency is important because it has injected a certain emotional valence into our electoral politics: a much-needed revival of American hope.

Obama won, in part, by encouraging US citizens to feel good, to be optimistic and to believe. The problem comes when we direct that hope and belief onto the character or candidate rather than investing that optimism in the movement itself.

There is a way to hold onto hard-won optimism while still demonstrating emotional restraint in the public sphere. There are ways to intervene in this moment with optimism and effort.

Within days of Obama’s election, progressives began talking about “holding Obama’s feet to the fire”. This is an old-fashioned way to approach being part of a governing coalition. The left has been trained in adversarial techniques: Shout from the outside. March through the streets. Make lists of your demands. Demand to have your interests taken into account. These can be very important strategies. A healthy democracy should nurture and protect protest politics as much as it provides opportunities for electoral and organisational politics.

However, the tea parties and town-hall shouting matches are emblematic of the limitations of this approach. If the people screaming are now on the right, what tools remain for the left? This calls for new ways of engaging politically.

When Obama suggested a change in politics in the US it was more than a call to change the political party in the White House.
It was an indictment of a winner-take-all mentality that led to tyrannical governance, which failed to protect the interests of political minorities. We won an election; we did not stage a coup. The left will get some but not all of what it wants and that is okay. It is better than okay. It is the heart of democracy. Winning does not give us a mandate to ignore the interests of those we defeated. It gives us the responsibility to build greater consensus for our viewpoint.

I want universal, single-payer healthcare. I want a federal election law requiring consistency in voting rules and technology across all 50 states. I want low-cost, widely available childcare for all families with children under five. I want the appointment of federal judges who will protect women’s reproductive freedom. I want full constitutional guarantee in all states of the right to same-sex marriage. I have worked on these issues for years. But I know that government grinds along slowly and I will not consider the Obama administration a failure if I don’t get everything I want immediately.

The power of the campaign was not Obama: It was us.

By retreating to outsider angst the left forgets one of the most exciting lessons of the Obama campaign: that ordinary people working for a common purpose wield tremendous power. For those of us who work for our income and have modest means it was unbelievable to watch ourselves become donors to a political campaign and find that those donations made a difference.

There is no reason to stop now. If you found $50 (about R380) for Obama For President you can find $50 for an advocacy organisation that fits your interests. If you started an Obama For President Facebook group you can start an Americans for Public Option group.

Obama started running for his second term on the night he won the election. He told us that he couldn’t accomplish everything in one term. Good. If he is running, we have influence. Get friends to commit $50 to Obama 2012 if he commits to saving the public option.

Did you make an Obama-inspired YouTube video? Make one today for universal health coverage. Send it to everyone; get it to go viral. Did you have a pro-Obama blog? Make it an Obama-watch blog and keep people informed of the opportunities we have to affect policy. Did you knock on doors or make phone calls? Join a local advocacy group and put that energy into pressing for fair housing. We elected Obama. We can change America.

We have a sacred responsibility as citizens to hold all of our elected leaders accountable. But we have a unique opportunity to do more than that with Obama. We could actually help him succeed. There is an important difference. Accountability language is all about making demands and screaming for the government to meet your needs and interests. That is fine, but it is only one tool. A hammer is a great tool if you are faced with a nail. Bang away on a nail and you get good results.

But we should not assume that all our problems are nails. Some are screws. If you bang away on a screw you get a big mess. So instead of always assuming we are faced with a problem that requires complaints from the outside, why not ask what we can do to help Obama achieve a new direction for America? How can our energies and efforts on a local level move us toward a better and more accountable government?

Put down the hammer and try a screwdriver. Are you ready to run for the local school board to help change education policy in your community? Are you ready to turn down your thermostat, refuse to drive five days a month and recycle to reduce your carbon footprint? Are you ready to find the contact information for your member of congress and write monthly letters encouraging her to support specific actions? Are you ready to write opinion pieces for your local paper?

Are we ready to see if a screwdriver is more effective than a hammer? Of course we are not throwing out the hammer.

Sometimes a nail needs a good smack. – The Nation

Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Coloured Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough

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