Hope. Change. These were the romantic ideals that decided the 2008 election. After eight troubled years of war and partisan rancor, and in the face of the worst economic crisis the country had seen since the 1930s, our national psyche longed for a transformative leader. Yet four painful years later, here we are. What happened? Did history miss?
It's hard to make the case that Obama was the transformative leader we yearned for. Clearly he hasn't succeeded in uniting Republicans and Democrats or bridging the Great Partisan Divide, as so many of us longed for in 2007. It's equally difficult to give the GOP much credit for those things. Its leadership rallied behind the cry of "I hope Obama fails" before he was ever sworn into office, and they've been carrying on the mantra ever since. Republicans continue to claim that they tried in good faith to work with the president even while, out of the other corner of their mouths, they declared that the "single most important goal" was to make Obama a one-term president. But our predicament isn't the Republicans' fault, either.
The deal about transformative figures in history is this: It isn't enough for the society to elect a transformative leader. History demands that the society carry its share of the burden of change. And in that, America seems stuck in a rut.
Long before the now-infamous Neil Munro diss, the Dems, of course, busied themselves with the dissing of King George. They claimed that he sought to subvert the Constitution, just as so many believe Obama is doing now. They tried to delegitimize Bush's presidency, though not with a birth certificate but by claiming he "bought" the presidency in 2000 by outspending Kerry in legal teams to fight the Florida recall initiative. They promoted Bush's endless scandals. Indeed, the sky has been falling for years, since long before this presidency, and our growing perception is that the ability to affect real change is shrinking.
The problem is that our country seems to delight in a sense of "exclusionary democracy" -- that is to say, we like to imagine the country in our own ideological image, and exclude any other, through our wish to refrain from compromise. In fact, Dick Lugar was recently unseated in my home state, Indiana, by a guy promising exactly this authoritarian mantra: No compromise. The breathtaking sums of outside money flowing into Wisconsin recently for the gubernatorial recall election sent the same message to resident Wisconsin Democrats: No compromise. Nearly everywhere I look, in politics today, the story is the same.
But this is not our heritage as Americans. The Constitutional Convention began in May 1787, and 116 days later our Founding Fathers had something to show for themselves, despite considerably greater differences than the ones we struggle with today. Their success came because they understood the notion of the greater good and the art of compromise.
But where does compromise begin? It begins with us, the people. Until we're ready to speak out against party leaders within our own political ideology, there will be no change, and we should not expect anything good from the next election or any election that follows. We should expect only more of the same, because we cannot produce of ourselves what we would ask of others. If you're a Democrat, ask yourself if you picked up the phone and asked your representative to find compromise with a Republican recently. If you're a Republican, ask yourself when you picked up the phone and asked him or her to compromise with a Democrat or the president. Of course, this will sound hopelessly idealistic to most. But this is the truth you can hang your hope on: Until we demand accountability from within our parties, and from ourselves, divided we will remain, and our transformative leader will elude us again. And that's history we'll miss.