In early Obama--that is, pre- nominee presumption--I heard a music-to-my-ears refrain. It went something like this: This historic moment is not about me -- a new, courageous leader breaking the race barrier. It is about YOU: Only you can make history, only you -- Citizen America -- can reverse our nation's tragic decline. So engage with others and help shape new policies and hold your officials accountable to your values.
That is the message Obama should deliver at the DNC Thursday night.
I want to hear him say: our problems are simply too deep, too complex, too interconnected to be solved from the top down in the old way. So we must--and can!--move our democracy to a new historical stage. Democracy will no longer be something done to us or for us. It will instead be the practice of empowered, savvy citizens who know what they want.
Thus far, a number of convention speeches have called us to vote Obama because we care about poor, struggling Americans whose lives have been made infinitely more difficult by Bush policies. Compassion is important, but this frame can sound like a "do-for" stance -- and such a stance is one easily seized upon by the Right, who love to portray Democrats as paternalistic nanny-staters.
The frame we most need is one of empowerment, one reminding us that all citizens want to feel powerful, not just a few of us. That's the message that Democrats need to put forth now; that is what our nation needs. What might that look like? How could such a message be realized?
In late July, three national organizations for engaged democratic practice -- Demos, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSpeaks -- gathered a diverse group of 50 advocates to create recommendations that the next Administration can pursue to strengthen our democracy, as well as a set of actions that we can each take. Though their work remains in progress, what they propose is not just outside-the-box thinking. It is imminently viable. Their ideas include:
* Establishing a White House Office of Participation, signifying Institutional Commitment to Greater Participation, and serving as champion for citizen participation.
* Appointing an advocate for spurring expanded public participation in electoral democracy. * Convening a series of national discussions that provide citizens with a voice in the policy-making process and build capacity for greater participation at all levels. * Policy reforms to increase participation that includes legislation to strengthen and enhance the right to vote through election day as well as legislation creating public financing of federal elections.
What Demos, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSpeaks and allies are proposing are real "Change We Can Believe In." Their ideas are 100% about us. They include us; they don't draw a line between citizens and government. They blur that line, just as the "early Obama" I spoke of, the one who enthralled so many with his inclusiveness, did.
These ideas recognize that any possibility of a living democracy is thwarted by the presence and power of big money in the political process. To reverse that, we can get money out and people in. In fact, the best kept secret in America is that three states have passed legislation that does just that. And it's working.
To save the democracy we thought we had we must take democracy to where it's never been. (And I don't mean some distant shore!) But Obama can't move us toward a truly living democracy alone. So include us again, Obama! Call on us. If you do, you can't lose, and we'll all win.
Frances Moore Lappe of the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the author of sixteen books, most recently Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad.