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A Moment for Progressive Change in America: How Can We Make the Most of It?

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Now that we know that Barack Obama will take the office of President of the United States on January 20, the scenario planning that virtually all non-profits and philanthropies have been doing can kick into high gear. My e-mail inbox, and no doubt yours, is filling up with every group’s list of what the new President can and must do on Day One, and even before. That’s important, and many of Atlantic’s grantees will be doing just that, for it’s hardly partisan to observe that the new order in Washington is likely to prove much more receptive to a social justice and human rights agenda. The moment is at hand.

Indeed, we’ve already assisted some of our grantees in preparing for this, with targeted grants, briefings by those experienced in Presidential transitions, surveys, reports and convenings. Atlantic stands ready to do whatever we can to make the most of the opportunity for significant change – for a more humane and collaborative relationship with the world, for universal health care, the restoration of civil liberties, a fairer economy and immigration system, schools that better serve poor children and families, and much more. We understand, and many of our colleague funders do, that even at a time of financial exigency it is necessary to dig deeper if it could pay off in fundamental and lasting change. Just as President-elect Obama has indicated that health care, education and energy reform are not wish-list items to be deferred to another day, but investments that are centrally connected to rebuilding a sound and fair economy, we also have to be prepared to act on short-term opportunities that advance a long-term agenda.

Beyond the key issues facing the new President – the “what” of his administration – there are also important questions of “how.” How can we keep going, and turn to the purposes of governmental and community action, the remarkable and genuine civic engagement that has fired up so much of America for the last year? For many, politics has finally become much more than a spectator sport. Can that passion and energy be transformed into giving us a government in the next four years and beyond, whoever is leading the country, that is truly responsive, that is able to break the partisan logjam on the most pressing national and global problems? The answer begins with a look at the Obama campaign.

Obama will be the first President whose occupation might be listed in history books as “community organiser.” The fact is, despite the traditional church-state divide between politics and philanthropy, our “third sector” has much to learn from the incredible race Obama ran, since it represents a more genuine and mobilised base than virtually all of us do. The state-of-the-art use of internet organising, the social networking, the message discipline, the grounding in communities that enabled Obama’s team to turn half-a-dozen “red” states “blue” – these and other hallmarks of the Obama campaign should be studied not only by political junkies but by the entire non-profit community.

Obama understands better than anyone elected to the presidency that true political power and progress depend not only on executive leadership, but on an engaged citizenry, and that elections are a crucial but only passing moment in the life of our democracy. To govern effectively and promote an agenda on economic security, energy, expanded health coverage, education, the restoration of civil liberties and other matters, Obama will need to keep a citizen army mobilised. Doing this is as important as drafting legislation and picking cabinet secretaries.

If the talented and passionate organisers who helped deliver the Presidency to Obama have the resources to stay in the field and turn their attention from the election to working with state and local organisations to deliver the change that Obama promised and they labored for, not only in Washington but in statehouses and city halls, we could seize the moment for progressive change and make great strides on a host of issues, from living wages to green transportation. They would offer a huge boost to local coalitions and organisations, many of which are far less powerful and sophisticated than the Obama campaign.

These organisers are essential to sustaining the passion and engagement of millions of donors and online activists, who can take action in support of the agenda they share with Obama. Their passion can be channeled into making certain that the mandate for change is carried out. For legal and other reasons, this can’t and shouldn’t be a partisan political force. But it can be a vehicle for sustained education about the issues the Obama Administration will now be pressing, and it can be a potent tool for action as well. We’ve seen already, in the Atlantic-funded Health Care for America Now campaign, which kept health care front and center in the Presidential debates, the impact that sustained issue organising can have. Three million voices, backed by thousands of paid organisers, added to that campaign, and building on President-elect Obama’s recent endorsement of HCAN’s principles, would be a formidable asset in the difficult battles in Congress ahead.

This army needs to be a force for keeping the new administration true to its promises – supporting it when it agrees, pushing it when it needs to be bolder, and opposing it when it disagrees. They did that this summer when thousands of Obama supporters used the campaign Web site to convey their dismay with his support for a Congressional compromise on government surveillance of U.S. citizens under the Foreign Intelligence Services Act. In the tough challenges ahead, this peacetime army can press Obama to stay true to his promises and his supporters.

Our grantee Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change put the challenge of this moment well when he wrote yesterday: “We have to push for big progressive solutions, and break the habits of technocratic policy incrementalism. We will need to articulate new ideas, plans and framing that speak to the times and deliver solutions on a scale that reinforces the progressive coalition that is emerging. Perhaps most importantly, we will need to work tirelessly to create the public will to see those policies enacted in the face of significant opposition and establishment caution. The methods and values of community organising that were brought to bear in the elections to such great effect will now need to be applied on a massive and unprecedented scale in grassroots advocacy. And we’ll need to work together across issue, constituency, organisation and function, so that our organising, ideas and communications work drive towards common goals.”

It’s an exciting moment in America, and if we accept, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. that President-elect Obama likes to quote, the “fierce urgency of now,” we can make great strides toward a stronger, fairer and more just democracy.

Gara LaMarche

Links to organisations mentioned in this column: