THE BLOG
11/07/2008 02:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After the Sweet Potato Pie, Under the Tough Old Stars: A Goodbye to OffTheBus, And A Call to Continue The Work

The election is over, and so is Off The Bus, the inspired, frustratingly free-range, and astoundingly successful experiment in citizen journalism created and cultivated by Jay Rosen, Arianna Huffington, Marc Cooper, Amanda Michel, John Tomasic, and others who empowered a couple of dozen regular "national correspondents" (including Mayhill Fowler, Kelly Nuxoll, Dawn Teo, among many other insightful and articulate new voices), and literally thousands of other writers, observers and volunteers, to invent a new way of writing about politics and society.

What Off The Bus created was an organic thing that was both game-changing and unwieldy -- a monstrous but nutritious cabbage growing in the strangely energized Chernobyl-soil of American politics. If the Founders envisioned a "marketplace of ideas," then OTB was a gigantic flea market, not a "blog" or "web page" but an enormous fairground with thousands of booths, some large, some small, some linked, some independent, where thousands of people, from diverse places both geographically and metaphorically, contributed their observations, insights, skills and voices to a stunningly broad-ranging discussion about the state of the nation.

OTB was large; it contained multitudes, as Whitman put it. It ran straight news, OpEds, collaborative projects. It was a blog, a good newspaper, a weekly newsmagazine, an academic journal, and a flyer tacked onto a telephone pole. Some posts were published almost without editing, conveying the perspectives of anyone who had a good idea and the ability to express it well. Some OTB projects were planned and executed as carefully as military campaigns, like the "distributed journalism" projects when Brigadier General Amanda Michel, OTB's director, dispatched scores of volunteer ground troops to follow canvassers or attend watch parties and funnel their reports back to H.Q. to be summarized in a single, comprehensive article that provided a breadth of coverage the Associated Press can only dream of. Some of my best pieces were edited as thoroughly, and as heartlessly, as anything you'll ever read in the New York Times or the Christian Science Monitor; my incessant, good-humored, productive IM exchanges with managing editor John Tomasic, who became my good and I hope longlasting friend, became heated at times as we argued about the best way to structure and present my work, always to the ultimate benefit of my writing -- and OTB's readers. Mayhill Fowler's fabled post reporting Barack Obama's comments, at a private fundraiser, about some Americans' "bitterness" about being abandoned by the people in Washington and how some have fallen prey to demagoguery and xenophobia, was published only after long, soul-searching discussions between Fowler and Michel about the role of journalists as "honest brokers" in a pluralistic society.

Off The Bus was a thundering success, altering the course of the election itself not just through Mayhill's "bittergate" scoop but also in subtler ways that most people will never notice or credit, like the "Listening Post" project where the raw material of much mainstream reporting -- the various campaigns' frequent telephonic press conferences -- was recorded and posted online for any citizen to listen to and assess for him- or herself. OTB gave the power of the press -- plus superb editing, coordination, and a huge audience -- to people who are wise and well-educated and observant and passionate and good writers but who happen to earn their livings in ways other than as paid journalists. That's exactly as it should be, in a democracy that's based as much on the ideas of Thomas Paine -- a corset-maker, privateer and schoolteacher who could never have landed a job at the New York Times -- as it is on those of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

And now Off The Bus is coming, to my dismay and sadness, to an end.

The thing about endings, though, is that they always are beginnings as well -- or should be. Barack Obama is teaching us something about this: without a pause, his campaign's end has seamlessly become his Presidency's beginning, as the man himself takes off only enough time to eat a slice of sweet potato pie with his family and attend his children's parent-teacher conferences. So as Off The Bus ends, those of us who spent so much of our recent lives contributing to it, and those of you who've been gracious enough to spend some of your time reading us and adding your comments to the ensuing lively discussions -- as well as everyone who canvassed for either candidate, wrote letters to the editor, fought the water cooler wars, and otherwise engaged in the electoral process -- should be finishing up our own slices of sweet potato pie and starting to look for ways to continue our work.

Personally, I'm striving to continue my writing: hopefully still in the diverse and well-edited pages of The Huffington Post, possibly in other digital or pulposphere publications, and definitely in my own blogs (the rabidly opinionated VichyDems and the saner, more objective NeoProg: The NeoProgressive Magazine Online). I'm also beginning work on a book that blends my vocation as a mediator, my love of history, and my passion for politics. Very tentatively titled "Becoming America Again: How Liberals and Conservatives Can Rebuild The Nation Together," my book uses the original, early-20th-century Progressive movement as a model to show how our country can rise to greatness when citizens and politicians disagree vigorously and passionately but within a framework of shared, fundamentally American ideals. (If anyone would like to be notified when I publish new posts here or elsewhere, to receive announcements about my book, or just to stay in touch, please feel free to email me at msbellows -AT- gmail dot com, to AIM me at bellowsms, or to Twitter at msbellows. Agents, editors, publishers and blog proprietors should feel especially free to contact me, of course!)

But I digress. My point is that the hard work of democracy didn't end on November 4; it only began. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, has said that "decisions are made by those who show up," but the larger truth is that the course of our nation will be shaped by those who, having shown up, now stick around. That's the real work: sticking around after the election, making our nation a better one, day-to-day. Obama himself said Tuesday night that he needs our help, and he does:

He needs our help to pressure a Democratic Congress to grow a spine and actually implement his policy agenda without dithering and looking over their shoulders and brooking Blue Dog nonsense.

He needs our help to ensure that the Republican minority plays a constructive rather than destructive role, both by insisting that the G.O.P. focus on contributing conservatism's best ideas to the enactment of good policy instead of merely stymying progress and trying to regain power, and, equally important, by insisting that the Democratic majority reject the autocratic impulse and instead take the Republicans' better ideas into account.

And he absolutely needs our help in keeping him honest. Obama will, at times, lower his standards, fall short of our expectations, both because politics in a diverse, democratic system always (and properly) forces power to bend, and because the best parts of his own personality - the curious, open mind that's willing to consider other views and the pragmatic streak that makes him willing to do whatever it takes to reach an end he considers meritorious - sometimes will lead him to make concessions when perhaps he should stand firm.

Don't get me wrong: I believe Barack Obama is the most principled man to occupy the White House since 1979, and the strongest man to occupy it since 1963. The Obama Presidency has the potential to stand alongside those of Washington, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts as the most competent, most principled, even most salvific in our nation's history. But that doesn't mean he will be perfect: he won't. He let us down when he voted against a filibuster of Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court when other senators -- including John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden -- were fighting to preserve the last vestiges of the Court's ideological balance. He let us down again when he voted, hopefully only out of electoral expediency, to expand warrantless wiretapping powers sought by George Bush. And in the years ahead of us, when Obama falls short of the greatness he is capable of, his own supporters will be the best people to object, to remind him of both his fallibility and his noble calling and set him straight again. (We can't leave that job solely to Michelle!)

So we have work to do - supporting and correcting our new President, electing what Kos calls "better Democrats" to Congress in 2010 and 2012, constraining the G.O.P. to serve an important role as a loyal and constructive opposition rather than as an instigator of gridlock, and making sure our voices both correct and expand upon the homogenous storyline too often told by the mainstream media.

As I've struggled to make sense of this election and my role in it -- to understand why I felt driven for eight months to neglect both my family and my (paid) profession to spend 60-plus hours a week writing over 80,000 words as an "amateur professional" journalist, and why my email inboxes contain over 20,000 press releases and other political communiques, and how to write insightfully about our insane and glorious arugula-eating, beer-and-a-bump drinking, gun clinging, zazen-sitting, straight-gay-neither-both, farmhouse-penthouse-or-yurt dwelling, hunt-by-airplane, community-organizing nation -- as I've tried to find my bearings during a dizzy time, my mind has returned time after time to a poem published in 1974 by Gary Snyder, the pixie-like, Pulitzer Prize-winning, diamond-sharp shaman of the California foothills:

I went into the Maverick Bar

I went into the Maverick Bar
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap
I'd left the earring in the car.

Two cowboys did horseplay
by the pool tables,
A waitress asked us
where are you from?
a country-and-western band began to play
"We don't smoke Marijuana in Muskokie"
And with the next song,
a couple began to dance.

They held each other like in High School dances
in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras, Oregon.
That short-haired joy and roughness -
America - your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.

We left--onto the freeway shoulders--
under the tough old stars--
In the shadow of bluffs
I came back to myself,
To the real work, to
"What is to be done."

(From the collection Turtle Island.)

Despite his protestation, I think Snyder still loves America -- loves her passionately and painfully. I know I do: I love my country passionately and painfully, which is why the last eight years have been so intolerably difficult and why the promise of the next eight years bears so much joy. But with love comes responsibility. As Barack Obama and a slew of new, Democratic politicos prepare to step into power next January, the rest of us - we corset-makers and privateers, we schoolteachers and nurses and millworkers and mechanics, we parents and coaches, journalists and farmers and lawyers and mediators and architects - all the rest of us have indispensable work to do. It's hard work that often seems inconsequential and is opposed, sometimes violently, by those whose oxen we gore, but it's the work the Founders entrusted us with, and in the end it's the only work that matters in our democracy: the work of being citizens.

Today we all stand, on the freeway shoulders, in the shadow of bluffs, under the tough old stars, and face "the real work," the work that "is to be done." America lies before us, that amazing, intolerable, judgmental, forgiving, narrow-minded, idealistic, astounding America -- and it is America, America herself, that is our work -- the work we share, work performed in the infinite space, and infinite possibility, that unfolds to the horizon when you step off the bus, under that wide-open American sky.

It's been an honor and a joy to ride this far with all of you.

Now let's get to work.

M.S. Bellows, Jr. wrote the "Warranted Wiretaps" column for Huffington Post's "Off The Bus" and, assuming he can find a publisher foolish enough to consider it, is the author of the forthcoming book, "Becoming America Again: How Liberals and Conservatives Can Rebuild The Nation Together." He can be reached by email at msbellows - at- gmail -dot- com, on AIM at bellowsms, and on Twitter as msbellows.