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Real Change Trickles Up

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At the risk of seeming flip or Pollyannish, I'm compelled to remind myself amid this economic emergency that crises can indeed be therapeutic. When the body politic of the American system takes a shock like that currently affecting the country, pain, as it were, can lead to gain. But only in the right circumstances. What are these? And what can we do in November and beyond to reap any benefit from the problems we face?

Since the word "change" -- first embraced by Barack Obama and then shamelessly co-opted by his opponent -- has become the operative theme of this election, it's imperative that we focus with surgical urgency on what we want to change about America and the mechanics by which such change can be effected. Beyond campaign rhetoric, we all implicitly know that real change - like economic prosperity -- is not trickle-down; it comes from below, requiring massive investment and sacrifice by everyday people that goes far beyond the effort of casting a ballot.

Don't get me wrong. Voting is essential. But unless we see our vote as part of a commitment to involve ourselves consistently and unrelentingly in the political process, our vote is wasted. This is because the forces that have led us to this economic, military, and political precipice exert such awesome power over the mechanics of Washington that no single candidate or group of legislators, whatever their intentions, can possibly go up against them unless armed with an irrepressible public mandate.

Take an example. Today, the B1 Bomber has a piece of it made in every single U.S. state. This simple fact offers a window into a heinous defense industry practice called "political engineering" -- a strategy for the grotesque misuse of taxpayer dollars. Simply put, a loose alliance of actors from the military, industry, and Congress (what Eisenhower first called the "military-industrial-congressional-complex" before removing the word "congressional") work together to ensure that the contracts and subcontracts to produce a given weapons system are distributed as widely as possible across congressional districts. This way, if the program ever comes up for reevaluation, there's a built-in constituency in Congress for its continuation. The question is not how to spend federal funds to give the American taxpayer the best defense possible but to spend the money in a way that best serves the private interests of those in the military-industrial complex.

But it's not fair or accurate to single out the defense sector. As the current crisis, as well as scandals from Enron to Halliburton reveal, industries across America are entangled in an unholy alliance with members of Congress that compromises the purity of congressional decision-making. Basically, a congressperson's lifeblood consists of two things -- jobs brought to his district and campaign-finance support at election time. To secure these, the congressperson becomes beholden to his corporate benefactors, on whose behalf he becomes in effect a professional pleader to the federal government. This pleading ultimately makes the congressperson vulnerable to the wishes of the executive branch. Why? Because the executive branch has, over many decades, overwhelmingly become the lead branch in guiding national spending priorities. With so many agencies under its control, the executive branch needs any individual congressperson less than that congressperson needs the executive. Say, for example a congressperson is looking to secure favorable treatment for a drug company in his district. He will need the help of the FDA. If it's a manufacturer, he may need the EPA. A media company, the FCC. And so on. All in the executive branch.

So widespread is this phenomenon that I would advocate replacing Eisenhower's military-industrial complex with the more comprehensive formulation "corporate-political complex." Unpacking this modern-day abortion of our republic will require revolutionary change. And this is where we must be unerringly candid with ourselves in checking our impulse to over-rely on any single candidate. Where this impulse comes from, I think, is our obsession as a society with the cult of personality surrounding individuals. This is a wonderful American quality in sports and entertainment, but it is dangerous in politics. We tend as a people to focus excessively on the significance of single individuals in the shaping of societies -- from Hitler to Gandhi to Nixon to Martin Luther King to Osama Bin Laden and so on. This ignores the lessons of our very own history, in which reforms like the end of slavery, women's suffrage, and the New Deal, let alone the birth of the nation itself, were the product of collective effort. Ultimately, it is as wrongheaded to believe that Dick Cheney single-handedly destroyed this country in the past eight years as it is to believe that Barack Obama alone can rescue it. If one votes for Obama, for example, hoping he will make the kind of change he promises, one must recognize the resistance he will be up against in the corridors of Washington and find ways - real ways on the ground in our everyday lives -- to help him.

As comparisons between today's crisis and the Great Depression are increasingly drawn, we must recall that the prosperity following the Depression was, after all, made of the sweat and blood of everyday Americans -- marshaled by strong and visionary leadership -- but sweat and blood all the same. Today's crises will prove no different. When we look back at the vast national effort that catapulted America from the depths of the Depression to the triumph of World War II, we must ask ourselves what form such engagement by each of us might take in today's world.

To be fair, modern life is hectic and leaves us little time to attend to even the most basic elements of health and survival, let alone the kind of far-reaching effort needed to reform a nation from below. Yet I would argue that we all have our own version of spending amounts of wasted time watching American Idol, NFL highlights, or aimlessly surfing eBay. And so long as we have the time for such pursuits, we don't have the luxury at this critical historic crossroads not to take the time to devote to the health of our republic. Our survival as a people and as a majestic idea in the history of the world is at stake.

But what can any one of us do? I'd like to offer two suggestions that make sense to me. The first is to make civic engagement an extension of what you already do for work or play. And the second is to break out of the isolation and individuation that so many of us experience in our television, cell-phone, and computer-dominated existence.

It's kind of like dieting. Don't all the diets idealize letting you eat the way you are used to? Well the same pragmatism can be applied to social change. The best way to start becoming more civically engaged is to recognize the untapped social impact that lies in what you already do in your life and make your civic engagement an extension of this.

If you are a teacher -- beyond the gift you give your own students, you can apply all you know to fight for an education system worthy of your commitment, lest you become a passive witness to its unraveling. If you are a computer expert, you must know about and educate people about net neutrality, the threats to it, and its vital role in ensuring the free flow of information so vital to our society. If you are a lawyer, you can work to restore the rule of law that was contemptuously abused during the past eight years. If you are a doctor, and you are not actively involved in efforts to reform our broken medical system, you may be treating your patients well, but you are doing so in a race against nightfall. If you are a historian, you can give the public a real understanding of how the historic balance in America's national soul between isolationism and expansionism has in recent years been so dangerously tilted toward the imperial. If you are a carpenter, a plumber, or any other craftsman or manual laborer, you can band together with your peers to demand that the corporate-political complex show greater regard for the value and conditions of your labor.

Will there be resistance? Of course. No revolutionary change can ever happen without it. But once you start to add this level of increased engagement to your daily life, all kinds of unexpected good things happen, too. You learn new things, meet new people, and have new conversations. And this is where the second part of the equation comes in. No matter what our individual vocation, we must follow Margaret Mead's timeless wisdom about the power of small groups of organized people to change the world. In an interconnected age more than ever, we must not toil in isolation but join forces with others to build groupings of pressure-groups - not shadowy think tanks on K street - but everyday organizations in small towns and big towns that fix their attention on a needed area of social change and work tirelessly for it. For some, these organizations will already exist and it means a bit of detective work to hunt them out online and through word of mouth and find the organization to which you can devote your energies. For others, it may be that no organization already exists that is devoted to your area of concern. If that's true, start one. Just to give an example, if 1,000 people in all 435 congressional districts committed themselves to spend 5 hours a month acting as a watchdog on congressional waste and corruption, making that information public, and demanding transparency and accountability, just think of the impact those 2,175,000 man-hours could have on our system.

Though this vision of social change may seem naïve, I would argue that, facing the combined military, political, and economic crises we face, anyone who thinks we can keep operating the way we have been is naïve. And perhaps that is the silver lining of this crisis after all -- to silence our cynicism and let the best and most inspired side of all of us rise to remake America and the world she so influences better reflect our values and our common humanity.

Eugene Jarecki's 2006 film Why We Fight won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as a Peabody Award. His new book, The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril, has just been released by Simon & Schuster/Free Press. He will be appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this Monday, October 20.