I am old enough to remember the “Whites Only” signs on the water fountains and bathrooms in the American South, the place from which South Africa learned about Apartheid. I remember the anguish my brother went through when he came out, and the contempt of Ronald Reagan and so many others about the ravages of AIDS to which my brother eventually succumbed. I remember the fear that we felt when friends had to suffer through dangerously illegal abortions, and the shock of later learning that so many women in several generations of my extended family had gone through that horrible experience to protect their families or themselves.
So, for the second time I have ended election night in tears, amazed and thrilled that the segregated, gay-bashing, female-stereotyping, culturally repressive society I grew up in had put an African-American man into the Presidency who openly called for the end of those patterns; a BLACK man and family in the White House!
Don’t let anyone tell you that nothing has changed. We’ve come a very long way. Still, the two elections were very different. In 2008 I was filled with hope, even if tinged with concern. In 2012 I mostly felt relief, with a twinge of hope.
In 2008 I hoped that the grass-roots movements that had energized the Obama campaign – the anti-war, civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, youth culture, and environmental-climate protection movements – would enter power along with the new President. I was concerned because I already feared that Obama’s adoption of pro-Wall Street economic advisors meant he wouldn’t use the crisis-created opportunity of implementing a New Deal-type restructuring and re-regulating of the out-of-control financial industry. I feared, unfortunately correctly, that bailing out the speculators would embolden the free-market fundamentalists and thereby create political space for the entire spectrum of right-wing crazies.
In 2012, I feel that we’ve narrowly missed a tsunami of bigotry, religious intolerance, repressive laws, international disasters, and the collapse of what little social safety nets and control over profit-seeking greed that still remains. I feel relieved that the country rejected those who would return us to the pre-Twentieth Century jungle of unregulated markets and the brutality of everyone-for-themselves individualism. I am hopeful that the breath of the Democratic victory will inspire the new Administration to follow George W. Bush’s strategy – ignore the thinness of the margin and take full advantage of every ounce of available power.
However, by now we should know better than to wait for Obama to do things for us. If he didn’t have dark skin he’d be simply a very moderate liberal. If we want the new Administration to deal with the climate changes that are already disrupting the world – not to mention our own East Coast storms and Western droughts – we have to create a big enough political force to make it happen. If we want Obamacare to not just change insurance but also the way medicine is practiced and how much it costs – not to mention putting new emphasis on the primary preventions that keep people healthy in the first place – we have to push for it. If we want a more sustainable transportation system – not just through expanded transit, cycling, and pedestrian facilities but also through better vehicles – then we have to make it happen at the local and state levels.
The task before us is to recreate an effective democratic-Progressive presence to counterbalance the intimidating pull of the black hole of religious, economic, and cultural fundamentalism that now defines the Republican Party. Citizen’s United still allows the super-rich to set the political agenda. The Tea Party is not going away. They actually feel even more empowered by the election, having shown they can control Republican primaries. They still run the House of Representatives and can filibuster the Senate. Their leaders have already announced they will continue opposing any compromise from their maximum demands.
This means that electing Obama, Warren, and the other Democrats is not enough. Liberalism barely works anymore — we need to create the Progressive Left that the Conservatives keep warning about. The point, however, is not the politics but the results. The American people are not ideological. Like people everywhere, their first priorities are food, shelter, safety, and stability while feeling part of a larger community and with a meaningful purpose for their lives. We need to build a strong movement that can solve real problems and provide inspiring leadership around the need for an activist government that uses every ounce of its authority to catalyze and support democratic, collaborative action to solve our continuing challenges. Not through expanded bureaucracy or government employees but through innovative, entrepreneurial, decentralized, community-building empowerment that brings us together for mutual support, that incorporates the needs of working families and the poor into every program, that invests in those technologies that can move us towards a more sustainable economy, not by mobilizing hatred but by celebrating inclusion.
The election is worth celebrating. But it is just the first step.
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