There are those who dream that Obama can govern with the support of the millions of young people he inspired, and the many not-so-young who joined in, led by a modestly paid staff and numerous volunteers. The same untutored optimists believe that this dedicated and well-organized social movement, plus the millions of other Americans to which the Obama corps appealed, convinced, and cajoled, constitutes a major political force. They hold that Obama corps can help the new president carry out programs that otherwise would be stymied by special interest lobbyists and their allies in Congress, which includes many Democrats. I wish it would be so.
The unavoidable sociological facts are that such movements -- unless they are reconfigured once the compelling moment is over -- have limited staying power. Like students preparing for final exams, they work well when mobilized around a specific task to be carried out by a given date, but are poor at studying -- or doing anything else -- day in, day out. Such movements thrive on the drama of promoting a clear and specific goal which has a hard deadline and a daily measure of progress (or setbacks) of the kind election polls provide. Such movements draw on the hot camaraderie of campaign workers who forge strong bonds during sleepless nights and over endless cups of coffee and slices of pizza, as they work together, often out-of-state, away from home and family. Much of this vanishes once they return home and to "normal" life.
At home, the enthusiastic members of the Obama corps will be disappointed by the slow pace of change. They will find that there is precious little for them to do between now and January 20. And they will be put off, as the transition unfolds, by the many old faces that will be summoned by Obama, even if they not all as ancient as Paul Volcker and Warren Buffett. They will be hard put to find fair representatives of their own kind in the top tiers of the new White House and Cabinet. Above all, they will be disenchanted when they learn that the Democratic White House, Senate, and House of Representatives are not marching lockstep to the same drummer, that compromises will be called for, and that much legislation will not be rushed, but instead slowly ground out, pulled and pushed, far from immune to the influence of special interests.
Above all, the newly politically engaged youth -- groomed in an election campaign but not fashioned as a standing political force -- will be at loss as to what they can do. Emailing and text messaging members of Congress, calling on them to support this or that measure -- say universal health care -- is not a very satisfactory way to participate in the political process. It smacks of old politics (this is what civic text books told one to do long before Obama) and rarely leads to clear results one can own, and above all, it leaves one with tons of time, with little to do that is relevant to the movement.
Obama and his team best come up with at least one project for the youth to undertake, to buy into, to take charge of, and to carry forward. I outline one next; one can readily come up with others. However, any project better have the main features the one outlined here displays. College students should be asked to take a lead in greening their campuses. And non students should set out to green a group of public buildings in their town or neighborhood, whether these are public libraries, public schools, courts, or some other such facilities. They can make their own list of what must be done, depending on the local circumstances. Build bike paths and arrange places they can be safely parked? Introduce green roofs? Raise the funds to purchase greener light fixtures and -- working with the organized local labor force -- help install them? It helps if such groups measure their area's energy footprint when they start and record their progress in terms of the energy saved and pollution reduced.
Aside form doing good, and keeping the troops working together, such projects are lessons in political maturation. During the new, nation-wide greening of the public square, volunteers will find that there are plenty of other groups already in place. They will need to learn to work with them, absorb then, or build coalitions, all invaluable lessons for longer run political drives, and this will provide the participants with insight into the ways the new president will have to deal with various forces in Washington.
The greening the public square project or other such undertakings are not substitutes for political action of the more traditional kind. However, political action should be combined with at least one concrete project that serves the common good, in which one can make progress and see accomplishments on the local level.
Amitai Etzioni served as the president of the American Sociological Association, and has been teaching sociology for the last fifty years at Columbia, Harvard, the University of California-Berkeley and The George Washington University. He is the author of My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message.
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