I’m suffering from a dashing of hope these days, and Paul Rogat Loeb’s book Soul of a Citizen just might help me recover.
President Obama and Democrats in Congress have accomplished some truly amazing things. The economic recovery package, health reform, Wall Street reform – all of these things are big f*cking deals. And yet, I and many others are still feeling betrayed – the economic recovery wasn’t big enough, health care reform by all rights should have been much more progressive, and Wall Street reform doesn’t nearly go far enough. Why the feeling of betrayal? Because we were promised so much more than just “reform.” President Obama promised this country transformational change. And we have not been given transformational change.
It’s a curious situation we currently find ourselves living in. A leader in the health reform fight that I worked with extensively over two years said – at the beginning of the process in 2008 when we were trying to figure out how to build a broad coalition for real, sweeping reform and get the necessary grassroots mobilization we needed to affect change – that people in this country suffer from “low expectations.” They are so disillusioned with their government after generations of betrayal and neglect – Watergate, Reaganomics, boom-and-bust stock markets, the war in Iraq – that they don’t want to get their hopes up that something as big as our health care system can be truly reformed. If we could only raise their expectations, she said, we could get them to take to the streets and demand the reforms we all need.
President Obama raised those expectations sky-high. He promised an end to business as usual and promised to usher in a new era of citizen engagement and control over politics. The fact that he’s failed to live up to those expectations has many causes, some under his control and some not, but the fact of the matter is he’s let us down. And our country and our grassroots is paying the price because of it.
The situation we find ourselves in today breeds cynicism and withdrawal, destructive forces exactly opposite of what is needed now to overcome our entrenched and massive problems.
Like me, author Paul Rogat Loeb, who wrote the first edition of Soul of a Citizen in 1999 and has since updated it for our vastly changed 2010 world, sees this cynicism as a great threat:
When I grew up, in the fifties and sixties, I believed in my government. Most Americans did. Gradually, as the Vietnam War ground on, many of us recognized how often our leaders were lying to us. In the wake of this massive betrayal of trust, and much work by peace and justice activists, many Americans began to question the confidence they vested in our leaders, and began to challenge official policies.
This skepticism was healthy, but it also had a downside. After Vietnam and Watergate, people began assuming that all politicians lie, an outlook reinforced by government abuses and scandals in presidential administrations from Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton through George W. Bush. Indeed, we now tend to believe that deception is the defining characteristic of political life, and we take it for granted that wealthy and powerful interests will always buy and sell politicians like so many trading cards. By assuming that the public realm will inevitably be debased in this way, thus conceding defeat before engaging in the battle, we risk passing on a world that’s meaner, more polarized, more desperate, and unquestionably more corrupt. Working to change things doesn’t guarantee that our lives or our society will improve. But hopelessness and cynicism become self-fulfilling prophecies.
In the chapters to follow, I’m going to try to convince you that our most serious problems—both the public ones and those that seem most personal—are in large part common problems, which can be solved only through common efforts. The dream of private sanctuary is an illusion. It erodes our souls by undermining our sense of larger connection, whether to our fellow human beings or to that force many of us call God. The walls we’re building around ourselves, around those closest to us, and ultimately around our hearts may provide a temporary feeling of security. But they can’t prevent the world from affecting us. Quite the opposite. The more we construct such barriers, the more private life, for most of us, will grow insecure.
Using stories and anecdotes, he goes on to note what many bloggers and observers have realized – putting our faith in one man to “change” things isn’t the right approach. We are the ones that will change things:
Now that this landmark election is receding into history, it’s tempting to believe that a new and (we hope) wiser administration will take care of everything, that we can turn our attention back to our private lives, trusting that the country’s public institutions and processes of government are in good hands. Shortly after Obama assumed office, I visited a University of Alabama class where students were reading an earlier edition of this book. I asked them for their sense of the national mood. “It’s an anxious time, a vulnerable time,” said one young woman, “Everyone’s unsure of what’s going to happen in so many areas, so we’re waiting to watch and see.”
She caught the mood wonderfully, but her conclusion, however accurate, left me troubled. It’s understandable to want to watch and wait, but it’s also a trap. Relying too much on any political leader, no matter how noble their aims or exalted their rhetoric, is a form of passivity. And to revert to passivity is to squander our chance to shape history. In particular, it surrenders our chance to counterbalance the entrenched and powerful interests that have helped create many of our most critical problems to begin with, interests that don’t magically disappear when a new president takes control of the White House. Watching from the sidelines eliminates our chance to find out what we truly believe and value, which happens only by working for it through actions large and small. More importantly, it ignores a historical moment when the potential for much-needed change is greater than it’s been in a long time. Precisely because so many old approaches seem not to work any longer, and so many American citizens are hungry for new ways of doing things, we have a chance to begin solving some long-festering problems. It won’t happen overnight, to be sure, but maybe we’ll finally wean ourselves off fossil fuels, rebuild a sustainable economy and decent social safety net, and begin to address the roots of global war and terrorism. The crises we face are accompanied by huge risks, certainly, but they also represent opportunities for progress—as long as enough ordinary citizens get involved. You might therefore view this book as an invitation to act on these opportunities—and to do so even if you have hesitations and doubts.
What follows in this remarkable book is a blueprint of sorts. It’s a snapshot of regular people who have, with the help of their communities, become inspiring organizers and powerful agents of change. It’s a collection of quotes, wisdom, and scientific facts that should give anyone who cares about the world around them insight into how to turn their vision for the future into action. It’s a set of self-help prescriptions to combat common organizing obstacles such as burnout, poisonous “allies,” seemingly-insurmountable opposition, personal risk, and more. In short, it’s a book engaged citizens should read because it will nurture you as you fight, together with your communities, for real change.
Most importantly, the book reminded me that we can’t trust Obama, that we must, even though it’s cliche, “make him do it” if we want to see real change in this country. We must be relentless, because our opposition will most certainly be. To take a personal example, during the health care fight we faced major setbacks at multiple points, none so large as the narrow loss of the public option, killed by Senators like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson with the tacit approval of the Obama administration. I was personally devastated. I know others I worked with were too, and even Members of Congress who had fought hard for the provision didn’t feel like coming to work the next day. And yet, the very next week, the insurance industry was at it again. Having killed the public option but not content with only that victory, they started launching broadsides against other good parts of the health care bill. It felt hopeless, but I was also taught a lesson.
The opposition, especially if it’s corporate opposition, will never give up and never give in. They’re well paid to fight on every front and when faced with a loss, immediately retrench and pick up the battle again. It might seem overwhelming to conceive of taking on a power like that, but we must realize that if we take the fight one step at a time, like they do, we can make progress. But most of all, we need to keep taking those steps forward and not succumb to cynicism and disengagement, for if we do, we will most certainly lose.
Loeb concurs in this stirring passage about our current situation from the middle of the book:
In part because of pent-up hopes for change, the 2008 election inspired a massive wave of citizen participation. And Obama has continued to stress the importance of citizen involvement ever since. But as I write, six months after his inauguration, most of those who participated seem to have drawn back. They may still respond to email appeals and maybe even call their Senators. But by and large, they aren’t engaging their neighbors, rallying in the streets, or showing up at community meetings. They’re mostly watching and waiting, hoping that Obama and Congress will do what’s necessary for the country. By contrast, corporate interests, from Exxon and the coal industry to health insurance conglomerates and pharmaceutical giants, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent significant change. Maybe those who’d formed their political identity around opposing Bush are still refocusing their vision for a new political time. But their initial responses have all too many echoes of the passivity of the Clinton era.
When I put out a query on my email listerv asking for stories of people who’d been involved politically but then burned out, a discomforting number who’d once supported Obama voiced anger at him. He’d let them down, they said, by continuing Republican policies on bank bailouts and government transparency, by moving too slowly in getting out of Iraq and too quickly in escalating in Afghanistan, by not holding full-scale investigations on Bush/Cheney abuses, and by not going to the mat to fight for key programs.
However legitimate some of these critiques may be, it seems too easy to cast differences in approach as flat-out betrayal, and to put sole responsibility on Obama, the Congress, or even the powerful vested interests who’ve blocked progress on so many issues (since they were simply doing what powerful interests usually do in promoting their narrow advantage at the expense of a larger common good). It seems particularly troubling for once-active citizens to bail out with bitter resignation amid critical fights about health care, energy, and the direction of our economy—battles so close that the right public pressure really could make all the difference.
I’m not suggesting we let Obama or any other political leader off the hook on issues where we disagree. Quite the contrary. Whatever we believe, we should organize, tell the stories that convey our perspective, and join together to apply common pressure, ideally in ways that continue to open up dialogue, as opposed to shutting it off. But the path of purist condemnation breeds only cynical retreat.
Some of us cling to purism in part because it’s easier to be in perpetual opposition than to engage a messy political reality of new possibilities and perils. “Bush was awful,” said a Pennsylvania woman, “but at least we were united against him. The focused anger always brought me back. Now we’re not even all on the same side.” Given the depth of the problems we face, we need to ask hard questions, challenge our leaders to genuinely lead, and not settle for purely cosmetic reforms. But in the name of standing firm for radical change, we can too easily set ourselves so far above the fray that we end up changing nothing at all.
No matter how much political leaders disappoint us, we should not conclude that the whole process of engaging in democracy is futile. Advances for justice develop step by step. Even modest progress can be valuable if it lets us build further change. As an activist from the Northwest Energy Coalition put it, “Those who burn out more easily tend to be folks who don’t understand the system and its problems very well. Therefore they get their hopes up too high for short-term changes and victories, and don’t see the need for long-term work.”
I’ll repeat that last point, because it deserves repetition: “No matter how much political leaders disappoint us, we should not conclude that the whole process of engaging in democracy is futile.”
Today, we face an uncertain world, full of immense challenges and entrenched interests. In the face of that challenge, we must tell our stories, get and stay involved, grow our communities, and fight our battles step-by-step. The only way change has ever come has been slowly, in ways that are never predictable. Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen is written to help people like you and me engage in those fraught and uncertain fights, helping us develop “radical” and active patience as we come upon the day that our step-by-step fights turn into a “tidal wave of justice,” meanwhile content in the notion we are working to make the world a better place.
And with that, it’s with great pleasure I welcome Paul Rogat Loeb to Firedoglake to help us take stock of where we are now, get us ready for the fight ahead, and help us make that basic choice between cynicism and hope.