I'm not a religious person in the institutional sense -- but I am still waking up every day sending a thank you into the sky because the United States elected this President. Maybe it's because I work on national security issues in DC and was on Capitol Hill after the conservative takeover, through 9/11 and through most of the Iraq war. Maybe its because I saw how the daily drumbeat of fear coming from the right damaged the fabric of our democracy, punished dissent, enforced conformity, made certain topics seem subversive and corroded our open society. We slid backward in the eyes of the world over the past decade. From deal maker to rule breaker, from to beacon to bully, and from innovating to enervating. Changes this year have been significant: the decision to stop using the War on Terror lens on the world, the first post Cold War defense budget (20 years on!) respect for the military's role in our democratic society. These are shifts in the grinding wheels of our government--not as sexy as Climate Change, nor as headline grabbing as Afghanistan or Middle East peace--but they define our nation and our security nontheless. President Obama has already helped us turn some corners. Its up to the rest of us to help him turn the ship.
Arianna claims that the spark from 2008 has extinguished. While I definitely get why many on the Left feel disappointed, I just think the spark has changed form. Campaigns burn hot, governments keep the lights on. This government certainly has a warm glow going. I do agree that we need a bigger story about ourselves (something my psychology friends call a "narrative") that keeps Obama's supporters engaged after the incomparable high of last year's win. The administration's next big task is to facilitate a conversation that helps this nation create a story about the future. One where everyone counts. The best way for this vision to take hold is not to issue it from the White House, but to get our eyes focused on the prize (not too different from the campaign) and then create the opportunities for consultation that will help individual Americans feel like true stakeholders.
Talking about governing institutions doesn't have to be a buzzkill. Our system today may be decayed and preyed on by commercial interests--but these problems can be overcome with a bottom up movement. And that is where new institutions will emerge. We don't even know what they will look like yet. What we do know, however, is that American democracy thrives at the individual and community level.
The internet has revolutionized the potential for meaningful participation on a global scale. I don't mean just the ability to send and process massive amounts of information. In fact, information volume is reaching total absorption on Capitol Hill--where I spend a lot of time these days. How it is communicated is key. Information without a human way to interpret it is like a big vortex of data with no search engine. It can be counter productive. What will create a governing vision for Americans is to re-establish the primary importance of relationships in governance. At the community level, this means the White House should tap the legions of Americans who understand how to create meaningful local participation through dialogue, deliberation and community discussions. This is sometimes called the "conflict resolution" movement--but it really is a cultural phenomenon. Today, more than ever, Americans understand that to move beyond "us versus them" requires more than good intentions and a hopeful vision. It requires a plan and a process for communication. And it works even better when facilitated by someone who knows what they're doing. Fortunately, there are millions of Americans with these skills. The next step for the White House is to create an issue by issue curriculum for them. Last year, my friend Dana and I wrote one of these for civil-military dialogue. Our intention was to help communities engage US security by providing a handbook to where veterans lead a dialogue on the role of the military in American democracy.
(Note: this kind of organizing is very different from traditional mobilization tactics of the Left i.e.Town Halls or marches or petitions...these all lack the flexibility to surge and adapt or to build the kinds of relationships with elected leaders that we need...but will save that for another post)
The left is entering a challenging phase of the Obama presidency. We all know that governing is different than campaigning. We still need to adapt and figure out the shades of gray i.e. how to move from opposition into constructive criticism. We still don't have a practiced division of labor (healthcare should teach many lessons). We must not fall into the typical trap that pits idealism against pragmatism, where the virtuous line up against the effective, and the purists fight the negotiators. Afghanistan will be the next test. We must communicate about this war in a new and different way because it, like this administration, is different than anything that has come before. Putting forward and following up on a new American story may well require new and different kinds of convening, innovative information support systems and ways of communicating. It will also require more of what this team is already good at--a nation of purposeful relationships. I'm hoping for 2,557 more days to help them figure it out.
So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.