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Giving Thanks for the Fight

I have become a Change.gov addict. It is not, as some of my grumpy “Obama’s not lefty enough for me” friends may suppose, that I think the new administration is going to make everything hunky-dory and that I’ve decided to be transformed into a flag-worshipping cheerleader. He’s a politician, and one who managed to get elected president of this country. Of course he’s a mixed bag. The honeymoon will be short.

But allow me and my democracy-loving self a little more time to revel in what one blogger recently called “Government 2.0.”

It’s one thing to send a letter or e-mail into the void and maybe get a form letter back weeks later. It’s another to have your opinion solicited before a policy is formulated, and then to see a blog post the next day with a video of a staffer responding to some of the comments that came in on that topic.

Of course I am under no delusions that Barack Obama is personally reading my opinion on his cabinet picks (too many Clintonites) or green job policies (be sure to include retrofits, not just new buildings; skip the nuclear power) or his AG candidate’s record of supporting adult “obscenity” prosecutions (theocratic and a waste of money).

I know this kind of feedback is only a small part of what will have to happen over the next four years. To get anything difficult done, even with a basically supportive administration, we’re going to have to do the hard work same as always—the organizing, arguing, coalition-building, fund-raising, and protesting. But making it clear that feedback from constituents is welcome and useful is a major symbolic gesture, one of those “process matters” moves that gets nearly as many points from me as heady promises like “I will further promote transit by creating incentives for transit usage that are equal to the current incentives for driving” (in a letter from the candidate to a pro-transit organization).

It was also neat to see them blogging a few responses from McCain voters to the promise in the victory speech to be “your president too.”

Of course that was a nice rhetorical flourish: exactly the kind of self-confident poise we’ve come to expect from the unflappable Obama. The interesting thing is that it may be more in-reach than it feels.

One of the best things I’ve read recently was an AlterNet piece by Joshua Holland responding to claims by right-wing pundits that, despite this election, America is really “still a center-right nation.” Holland swiftly dispatches this with a ream of survey data. He makes three main points: (1) Americans do lean “right” on three things: God, guns, and sex. (2) Most of them don’t actually know what “liberal” and “conservative” mean in political terms; they just know that liberal is a dirty word. Apparently one-third of us can’t actually identify which party is supposed to be the conservative one. (3) For the clincher, though, the article said if you leave out the labels and ask questions about any other area of policy—the environment, regulation of big business, government intervention in the economy, etc.—lo and behold, we elected the right guy, because Americans are (by significant margins) pretty darn liberal. (This is why the hard-right operatives like to emphasize God, guns, and sex. Or just name calling.)

This doesn’t mean we don’t have things to learn from the conservatives and libertarians among us. Remember Scott Page, diversity scholar from University of Michigan, who found that diverse perspectives are more important to a successful problem-solving team than even ability in the field. Obama and his “team of rivals” are banking on it. I have a suspicion that, at the grassroots level, this may go better if liberals can make the transition out of a defensive “I can’t believe we’re in the minority but it seems we are” mode.

I realize that, in some ways, I’m not there yet. I’m argumentative when my buttons are pushed. I can still get pretty riled up just by hearing a second-hand account of someone buying the line that blames the mortgage crisis on ACORN, the low-income people’s advocacy organization that was among dozens of groups trying to sound the alarm on predatory lending practices long before Wall Street even decided to launch its disastrous orgy based on them. (See what I mean?) That’s not all bad. Some things are worth getting riled over, but that should be saved for the people who spread the lies, not the people who just heard and repeated them. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t find common ground with people who voted differently than I did. This is a theme I’ve repeated before, in times when progressives were much more embattled; it stays true, but is perhaps even more important now.

So, heading into Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the hope of a new administration, for the opportunity to argue with an administration that is at least willing to make a nominal show of caring, and for the opportunity to start building individual bridges afresh, finding ways to have conversations with people about the things that matter: getting through the economic hard times, transitioning into a society that stresses lower consumption yet a higher quality of life, and doing it together.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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