11/27/2008 12:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I Am Thankful for Those Who Have the "Cathedral Builder's Mentality"

I first got involved in politics in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights movement. At the time, we thought that in short order progressive values would triumph -- that our careers would be spent passing initiatives like universal health care, creating a truly democratic society where every kid had unlimited educational and economic opportunity, and ending war as a means of resolving human disputes.

Instead, it turned out that most of us have spent the last four decades defending progressive values and institutions against a resurgent right-wing that energized and re-mobilized the forces of privilege and the status quo.

Lord knows I am thankful this Thanksgiving Day that this period of retrenchment has finally come to an end -- that we are poised once again to make fundamental progressive change in America. Most Americans have not been alive during a period when Progressives were on the offensive -- when progressive values were ascendant. Barack Obama's victory, coupled with the complete failure of the right-wing agenda, make that possible once again. I am truly thankful that we are on the verge of a new progressive era in America.

But history is not some independent force that carries us along like corks in a stream. People make history. We will decide by our actions whether the next ten or twenty or fifty years will be remembered as a period of extraordinary progress and possibility, or whether our children will write that we failed to seize this great historic opportunity.

Of course the fact that we find ourselves at this historic moment was not inevitable. We have been afforded this opportunity because of the labors of millions of people who did battle before us. We stand on their shoulders. Many of them never got to see real progress, but they battled on anyway. They had what we all need -- the "cathedral builder's mentality."

During the Middle Ages, whole generations worked to build the great cathedrals of Europe without ever seeing their completion. They did their portion of a great multi-generational project.

Today we should give thanks for the many progressive activists, and political leaders who have labored for decades but -- like Moses- - didn't get to cross into the Promised Land. There were famous ones: people like Senator Paul Wellstone and Senator Paul Simon. There were political consultants like the great Paul Tully.

But, of course the real heroes were the thousands of unsung progressive political activists who built their section of the cathedral wall, or put pains of glass in the windows, but aren't around to see how the cathedral looks today. People most of us never heard of like my freinds UAW Region IV Senior Citizen Coordinator Milt Shraeder, or Jerry Prete who lead the senior citizens' movement in Illinois for decades.

And we should also give thanks that many of those who have labored for years will -- in fact -- be able to watch Barack Obama put his hand on the Bible in January, and experience that moment of victory and all it could mean for the future of our planet. People like Alice Tregay, who worked tirelessly for decades to register African Americans to vote all over America. People like Harvey Mader, who is now in his '80s. Harvey worked for every progressive cause imaginable, including the campaigns of his great friend Paul Wellstone. Harvey was devastated when Paul and Shiela Wellstone died in that plane crash six years ago. But he followed Wellstone's dictum: Stand Up, Keep Fighting.

For the many people like Harvey and Alice this election and the opportunity it gives us puts the lie to the cynicism of the naysayers. It has validated their work, their commitment and their faith in the future.

I personally talked to dozens of African Americans who took pictures of their deceased parents or grandparents with them to vote on November 4th. They wanted the people who came before them to join them -- to witness -- at least symbolically -- their vote to make an African American President of the United States.

After all, the "cathedral builder's mentality" is rooted in something very ephemeral: hope. Everyday life doesn't always reinforce the notion that we will ultimately succeed at the great multi-generational project of creating a truly democratic society. It's been pretty easy to lose faith in that possibility -- especially through the darkest moments of the last 40 years.

To keep hope alive, periodically you have to experience some success.

That is probably the most important thing for which I give thanks this holiday. More than anything else, this year will be remembered as a time when hope was reborn in America: when the triumph of improbable possibility sent a message to every child, of every color, all over the world, that anything is in fact possible if we make it so.

So as my friend Brad Woodhouse would say: we have a lot to say grace over this Thanksgiving. Time to praise the Lord, and pass the potato salad.

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Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on