Richard’s piece asks for emotional maturity in our politics. I only partially agree. Yes, we need to halt the characterizations of Obama as savior or as anti-Christ. And we similarly should moderate our memories of the Bush years as evil or perfect. Still, I believe that the Obama win is important precisely because it injects a certain emotional valence into our electoral politics: a much needed revival of American hope. Obama won, in part, by encouraging us to feel good, to be optimistic, and to believe. The problem is when we direct that hope and belief onto the character/candidate rather than investing that optimism in the movement itself.
There is a way to hold onto hard won optimism while still demonstrating emotional restraint in the public sphere. There are some ways to intervene in this moment with optimism and effort.
Within days of Obama’s election, progressives began talking about "holding Obama’s feet to the fire." This is an old fashioned way to approach being part of a governing coalition. The left has been trained in adversarial techniques. Shout from the outside. March through the streets. Make lists of your demands. Demand to have your interests taken into account. These can be very important strategies. A healthy democracy should nurture and protect protest politics as much as it provides opportunities for electoral and organizational politics.
However, the tea parties and town hall shouting matches are emblematic of the limitations of this approach. If the people screaming are now on the right, what tools remain for the left? This new moment calls for new ways of engaging politically.
When Obama suggested that we change politics in this country it was more than a call to change the political party in the White House. It was an indictment of a winner-take-all mentality that has led to tyrannical governance, which fails to protect the interests of political minorities. We won an election; we did not stage a coup. The left will get some, but not all of what it wants, and that is OK. It is better than OK, it is the heart of democracy. Winning does not give us a mandate to ignore the interests of those we defeated. It gives us the responsibility to try to build greater consensus for our viewpoint.
I want universal, single-payer health care. I want a federal election law requiring consistency in voting rules and technology across all 50 states. I want low-cost, widely available child care for all families with children under five. I want the appointment of federal judges who will protect women’s reproductive freedom. I want full constitutional guarantee in all 50 states of the right to same-sex marriage. I am ready to work on these issues. In fact I have worked on many of them for years. But I also know that government grinds along slowly and I will not consider the Obama administration a failure if I don’t get everything I want immediately.