On the eve of the first anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, it's become painfully obvious that elected officials are not going to save us. The 2008 election was all about "Hope." But Hope is simply not cutting it.
What we need is Hope 2.0: the realization that our system is too broken to be fixed by politicians, however well intentioned -- that change is going to have to come from outside Washington.
This realization is especially resonant as we celebrate Dr. King, whose life and work demonstrate the vital importance of social movements in bringing about change. Indeed, King showed that no real change can be accomplished without a movement demanding it.
As Frederick Douglass put it: "Power never concedes anything without a demand; it never has and it never will."
The perfect example of this came in March 1965. In an effort to push for voting rights legislation, King met with President Lyndon Johnson. But LBJ was convinced that the votes needed for passage weren't there. King left the meeting certain that the votes would never be found in Washington until he turned up the heat in the rest of the country. And that's what he set out to do: produce the votes in Washington by getting the people to demand it. Two days later, the "Bloody Sunday" confrontation in Selma -- in which marchers were met with tear gas and truncheons -- captured the conscience of the nation. And five months later, on August 6th, LBJ signed the National Voting Rights Act into law, with King and Rosa Parks by his side.
At that March meeting, LBJ didn't think the conditions for change were there. So Dr. King went out and changed the conditions.
Similarly, before the start of WWII, legendary labor leader A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, lobbied FDR to promote equal employment opportunities in the defense industry. Roosevelt was sympathetic but made no promises. Randolph responded by taking his cause to the American people, organizing a massive march on Washington. Concerned about the impact the march would have on the country's wartime morale, Roosevelt got Randolph to call it off by issuing an executive order banning discrimination in defense industries and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee to watch over hiring practices.
And since the days of FDR and LBJ, the system has only gotten more rigged, and the powers-that-be more entrenched. As Janine Wedel shows in Shadow Elite, the power of special interests to thwart meaningful change -- often by co-opting the rhetoric of change but producing in its name a further consolidation of the status quo -- has never been stronger. The health care bill's path from fundamental reform to fiasco is only the latest example.
A year ago this week, Obama proclaimed, "We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."
One year later, wracked with conflict and discord, and battered by petty grievances, false promises, and worn out dogmas, we stand on the verge of passing a giant boon to health insurance companies and calling it "reform."
The reason we are given? What else: the votes just aren't there for a real reform bill.
That's where Hope 2.0 comes in. If the votes aren't there, the people need to create them. Just like King did. They need to build a movement. And to make that happen, we need to adopt another of the great lessons of Dr. King's life: elevating the role empathy must play in our society.
We've seen a great outpouring of empathy this past week, spurred by the wrenching scenes of devastation in Haiti. With the rare exception of the likes of Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh, empathy comes naturally to most people. Indeed, 16 years ago I wrote a book -- The Fourth Instinct -- about the instinct that compels us all to go beyond our impulses for survival, sex, and power, and drives us to expand the boundaries of our caring beyond our selves and our families to include people we may never meet, and parts of the world we may never see.
It's an instinct that, if harnessed, can have powerful political implications. King showed that for a movement to become broad-based enough to produce real change, it must be fueled by empathy.
In his famous 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King lamented the failure of "white moderates" to "understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality."
He went on: "Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."
And that's exactly what his nonviolent direct action sought to do. King understood that he needed to tap into the empathy of whole constituencies that would not themselves be the direct beneficiaries of the civil rights movement. And so he set about making a compelling moral case by bringing the "ugliness" and "injustice" front and center -- forcing many in white America to see for the first time that millions of their fellow citizens were effectively living in a different reality than they were. He created pathways for empathy and then used them to create a better country for everybody.
"A man," said King, "has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
While taping last week's Left, Right & Center, I was discussing Jeremy Rifkin's powerful piece on empathy. Tony Blankley teasingly retorted: "Evolution, cruel as it is, determined that empathy is not a survival trait." And if you watched the Big Bank CEOs testify on the Hill last week, you would agree that empathy has not been a trait necessary for success, let alone survival. But if we are to continue to survive -- maybe not as a species, but certainly as a thriving democratic society -- human evolution has to, well, evolve. And we are going to need all the empathy we can get. Without it, we'll never be able to create the kind of national consensus required to tackle the enormous problems that face us.
Watching the CEOs, I was stunned by the utter lack of even a feigned sense of empathy for those whose lives the banks have destroyed. Only a complete inability to feel empathy could explain the fact that the bankers are not just back to operating at their old bonus levels, but at their old smugness levels as well.
One year ago, writing about former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain and his now infamous $1.2 million office redecoration in the midst of the economic collapse, I bemoaned the Marie Antoinettes of the Meltdown, and our era of Not Getting It.
Little did I realize just how small-scale Thain's outrages would now seem, and how much worse things would get in the ensuing year. Lloyd "Doing God's Work" Blankfein and his fellow "too big to fail" CEOs -- with their utter cluelessness about the public's anger over what they've done and continue to do -- take Not Getting It to a whole other level.
Luckily for them, society has evolved, and we express our anger differently than we did in Marie Antoinette's day. "Off with their bonuses" is a lot less painful than "off with their heads."
But the question is, can this righteous -- and entirely justifiable -- rage be productively channeled to produce a real movement for reform, or will it be hijacked by tea party wackos and dangerous demagogues?
Five-and-a-half years ago, Hope was ignited by an unknown state senator standing up and proclaiming that we are not blue states and red states, but one people. One people that can only solve our problems together.
One year ago, Hope was about crossing our fingers and electing leaders that we thought would enact real change. Hope 2.0 is about using the lessons of Dr. King to create the conditions that give them no other choice.
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