Saturday, November 29, 2008

Social Change

Kevin Drum has a pointed article on what Barack Obama needs to do to actually pass the ambitious progressive agenda he campaigned on. In short, Obama needs to use his considerable rhetorical gifts to convince the nation not just to vote for him (check), but also to support him. The public still needs convincing that his specific policies will indeed bring about peace, prosperity, justice and sustainability. I bet this part will be harder.

Capping greenhouse gas emissions and securing universal health coverage won't come easy - the entrenched interests aren't just going to lay down. It's going to be a fight. Leaving Iraq won't be a cakewalk either. Interestingly, Drum dredges up an old story about Franklin Roosevelt that nicely illustrates the other side of the policy change equation.
In a possibly apocryphal story told by I.F. Stone, FDR once met with a group of reformers who explained at length why he should support their cause. "Okay, you've convinced me," he told them. "Now go on out and bring pressure on me."
Janinsanfran is thinking along the same lines:
One the hardest truths for people in power to remember is that having a noisy, demanding, outsider grassroots constituency helps them govern. This is so even when they are getting jacked up and called names. This is something Obama should understand from his days as an organizer. Pushy people give cover to a progressive politician to get things done.
Having been in DC for over two years now this seems correct to me. Politicians are not leaders; they are followers. Watching the U.S. Senate (and to a lesser extent, the House) deliberate on various topics, I am constantly struck by how slow, conservative, incremental it is ... and how important agitated constituents are in providing cover for wavering politicians.

No successful social movement ever succeeds thanks to elected officials. Rather, the demands of social movements are institutionalized by politicians once they have built enough strength to be undeniable. That said, I think Obama understands this dynamic and his role in it. Here's hoping his supporters do too -- and don't let up after he's sworn in. There are great opportunities here, but still lots of work to do.

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