Build the Party or Build the Community?

11/07/2012 10:55 am ET | Updated Jan 07, 2013

Commentators have said a social movement brought President Obama a second term. But can we count on that in 2016, without Obama's "star" quality? Participants in that social movement -- minorities, women, young people, social liberals and greens -- have a choice.

They can try to open up the Democratic Party to include non-professionals, creating a broad base that is engaged between elections as well as during them, to keep the party on track and keep party pols accountable in the face of special-interest cash and pressure.

Or they can assume that the recent victory in the presidential race will keep Democratic politicians where they are now, liberal on social issues but conservative on economic ones, and put their energies elsewhere.

"Elsewhere" would be to build a civic infrastructure, from the ground up, in every voting precinct in the country. Such an infrastructure, as I have suggested before, could stand alongside the political system, keeping it accountable and on track without engaging directly in electoral politics.

A good place to start either process would be to engage people at the grass roots in the work of creating equal educational opportunity for all our children. As I have suggested before, this is an issue that should unite all people of principle. It can't be accomplished top-down, we've tried that already. It will require neighbors to figure out what children in their community need in the way of education and training that the school system doesn't provide. They would then try to fill that gap with community energy, talent, and resources, and press the public and private sectors to step up and make their own contributions.

Whether communities embark on this project under the leadership of the Democratic Party at the local level, or through new forms such as neighborhood educational organizations, the bottom line is the same. Progressive social change cannot be accomplished by operating top-down, no matter how smart you are, how "articulate" you are, or how smart the people around you are. You need the energy, the engagement, the agency, and the insight of the broad base of the population to make it work.

In September, Timothy Patrick McCarthy suggested Obama had successfully blurred the lines "between mainstream party politics and progressive social movements, but we should never allow ourselves to be confused about the real differences that exist between people in power and the power of the people." He recommended that we vote for Obama, but be ready to hold him accountable as soon as the election was over.

Last night, the president himself said the role of citizens in our democracy does not end with their votes. "America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That's the principle we were founded on."

Let's hold him to that.