Ronald Reagan must be smiling. A massive snowstorm just closed down the federal government and disproved global warming. (joke!). But as I sit here with the snow drifting 12 feet off the ground, covering my windows -- eating 70% chocolate bars (cupboards bare!) what amazes me is the silence. Snow has rendered Washington, DC speechless. Now that takes a freak of nature.
How might we use this frozen pause? Would it be possible to take the next 48 hours while we East Coaster organizing types are sitting around online to think about how to start again?
I've been reading the back and forth about whose fault it is -- our collective hangover after getting drunk on Hope and Change. But our lack of perceived progress can't be blamed on the president or on the Tea party movement. It goes deeper than that. Part of the problem is a worldview on the left with so many moving parts it is incoherent. When I worked on Capitol Hill, I saw this as one after the other liberal group came to advocate for their narrow issue without tying it into a larger idea. A bigger problem to solve is how to anchor all these parts -- to organize their public purpose and thereby influence government. Congress is not doing its civic job: to mediate between the local and the national for the good of the whole. And private interests -- both corporate and ideological -- have filled the gap with their constant, helpful presence. (its not just about money, its about timing, relationships and bringing useful information into the room). And even though they are making strides, funders on the left still seem willing to fund opposition more than governing. In other words, they'll get people in the street, but not in the room.
Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise. The two main themes of government over the past four decades have been Reagan's sunny destruction and the Boomers' anti-authority shouting. These two negative beams have now crashed and left a vacuum right where government -- by the people -- should be. Who is for the government these days? One great example is how the left and right blend into one when discussing "special interests." Anyone with a healthy sense of public purpose knows that some interests ARE special. Like children and peace. Others are commercial interests like Exxon and Boeing. At the very least we can start being specific. Stop saying "special interests."
Let's face it, Americans are the most empowered people on the face of the Earth. All the transparency in the world isn't going to save us, though, if we are convinced that it is easier to destroy than to build. "Change" is yes or no referendum language. Not building language. That's fine. It was an election. Now we need to figure out how to build. Building is hard, but simple. It involves something we all know about: relationships. Here's a note from a friend out West:
"I think the Obama group initially tried to transform the campaign participation into local community action based on producing creative, localized solutions to real community problems rather than waiting on Washington. But we don't get a sense that much has been done. Might be good to try to collect success stories and build on the places where this has worked. But it seems most of the Obama folks have become so tied up in Washington and Washington size problems that the real transformation in governance by increasing local-distributed responsibility has seemed to dry up, though I do believe that people should be more disappointed in themselves than in Obama. They didn't take up the challenge to be the change and have waited for him."
Last week, Sarah Palin made headlines for dissing law professors at the Tea Party convention. But she also said "this is a beautiful movement because it is shaping the way politics are conducted..." You know what? She's right. And we need to steal that line. We can start by figuring out how to connect with the people we're mad at right now. I guarantee you they have lots more in common with a typical progressive than the corporations who are fueling their cinematic irritation.
Take a Tea Partier to lunch. Don't laugh. These folks are angry for a reason (no jobs?). Many of them also believe in public purpose (what is self-governance but self-reliance?) and see it being ignored. Even rugged individuals live in communities. I grew up in a town of religious conservatives and they always helped me out. They changed my tires, cooked for me, took me to horse shows. They did this as my neighbor, despite being convinced that I and my California-born single parented sisters were going straight to Hell. Progressives need to create a situation where we suspend our opinions and judgments in order to be able to listen to each other. Any community organizer can help out on this. Organize a couple of community dialogue events. Invite your Member of Congress. Not to speak, to participate. Invite their local staff. Get good at it. Then invite people from the White House. We can make this contagious.
Most of us are tired of hearing each other's opinions. Could we actually have some real dialogue? In 2008, Obama advisor Marshall Ganz spoke of anchoring national goals locally through a new organization that could link action toward policy goals, facilitate local community collaboration, and offer the training, coordination, and communication which the campaign did so well.
How hard would it be to create this non partisan national network now? if there is one thing Americans are good at, its talking to each other with a purpose. In fact, this could be your first topic at lunch.