Okay, let me take a step back.
Last week, on this blog, I quoted a portion of Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address. I choose a portion of the speech that first drew me to Obama, and I spent a little time focusing on why these words compelled me to support him and work towards his vision for the future. This week, I’d like to briefly bring a few lines from that excerpt into sharper focus. For the sake of reference, here is the passage under discussion:
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America…We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
I’ll tell you, I have yet to read those words and not wanted to leap to a standing ovation. Even right now, I’m on the edge of my seat. They are powerful, inspiring, and principled words, and they have become something of a personal pledge for me. Yet, I have to tell you that in a certain sense they are also somewhat misrepresentative words – misrepresentative because they address America’s ideal, but not necessarily America’s reality.
Obama acknowledges this. In his chapter on race in The Audacity of Hope, he writes this,
“When I hear commentators interpreting my speech to mean that we have arrived at a ‘postracial politics’ or that we already live in a colorblind society, I have to offer a word of caution. To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters – that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted… To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in these disparities is to turn a blind eye to both our history and our experience – and to relieve ourselves of the responsibility to make things right.”
It’s true. And we know it’s true because the fault lines of our society have made themselves evident in things like Hurricane Katrina, the achievement gap in urban and rural public schools, and the majority white membership of the United States Senate. The very existence of these things shows irrefutably that while we all may be one people pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes and defending America, we are nonetheless a disparate group with contrasting experiences according to race, class, and opportunity.
So, the question becomes this: how do we reconcile the power, inspiration, and principle of our national ideal with the struggle, despair, and imperfection of our national reality? And it seems that the answer is this: deny neither our ideals nor our reality. We must keep our sights set equally on both. Obama suggests the image of a split screen, “to maintain in our sights the kind of America that we want while looking squarely at America as it is, to acknowledge the sins of our past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair.”
I agree, strongly. But when your experience of America is consistently one of struggle or despair or imperfection, how do you even find the will to escape such trappings? What could persuade you into thinking that it was your responsibility to somehow right America’s wrongs? How do you look honestly at the challenges of your own life and find reason or means to imagine – let alone realize – a more ideal America? How, in other words, do you even muster a basic sense of hope from which to act?
I found myself thinking about this earlier in the week while on Facebook. I was just killing time, looking at the updates of my friends and posting a few things myself. I noticed that Barrack Obama had posted a note on his profile. So I looked it up and found this question:
“How can we engage more people in the democratic process?”
Okay. Stop. Right here. Read that again.
Now, honestly, what comes to mind? Where do you begin to answer that question?
I had two initial reactions: on the one hand, I thought ‘Yeah, seriously, why aren’t more people invested in their own roles as citizens and the direction of our country?” and on the other hand, I thought, ‘What keeps those who are not engaged in the democratic process justifiably indifferent in the first place?’ In a way, I think that maybe the bilateral nature of my personal response parallels that of the situation discussed above – at some level, it’s a contrast between ideals and reality.
But still, Obama’s is a reasonable question and it deserves a reasonable answer.
The few responses I read on Facebook spoke to systemic change such as increasing awareness over primary elections, compulsory voting, and the importance of pursuing the youth vote. Certainly, there are arguments to be made for each of these ideas, and I would definitely value hearing them. In fact, I might also add to this list that we declare election days national holidays or perhaps institute multi-day elections. But there is an important connection among these ideas we are wise to take note of: they are all top-down approaches. In effect, they are not about people coming to the democratic process, but rather the process itself coming to the people.
Suddenly, the realization of that made Obama’s question on Facebook quite daunting. How can we engage more people in the democratic process? Um, I have no idea. The we in question is a pretty big group of people and institutions, especially when you start at the top. It’s hard enough to coordinate a party of six when making dinner reservations; getting the thousands of people from government, media, business, and faith on the same page in order to reach out to more people — that’s more than hard.
Plus, I happen to think that a top-down effort is insufficient; perhaps both the people and the process need to make an effort to engage each other somewhere in the middle. It can’t just be a matter of things changing; it also has to be about people changing.
So, feeling overwhelmed, I adapted the question: How can I engage more people in the democratic process? That made things so much easier somehow. Instead of wondering about the necessary logistical steps required to establish multi-day elections – something I lack the resources or expertise to actually do on my own — I instead focused on the more attainable impact of talking with the incredibly diverse people already in my life about the democratic process itself. About what they believed, what they valued, what they wanted for the future. The beauty of conversation such as this is that it reveals what we value; when we grow in our own understanding of our values, we are more compelled to act in ways that honor them. For those who remain politically dormant, I thought to myself, personal positions will be the only things strong enough to compel them into engaging in the democratic process. And that’s because such things matter to them. The more people realize what matters to them, the more likely they might be to take action accordingly.
In addition, the beauty of such conversation is that it reveals what others value; when we grow in our own understanding of each other, we are more compelled to act in ways that honor one another. Certainly, my friends and I will find areas of disagreement as we talk with one another, yet I have faith that we will bridge such gaps with our mutual respect for each other’s good intentions and honest conclusions. Even in instances when our ideologies might differ, our approaches might be entirely similar in their insistence on consideration and validation of each other. I even have faith – full faith – that such conversation will teach us all things we never even considered on our own and point in directions that are better for everyone. This is how we will recognize ways in which we can act together, not simply in the voting booth, but also in our daily lives. This is where we begin to more fully engage the democratic process.
I was delighted and enlightened to finally come across this response to Obama’s question posted by ErikaEM:
“Democracy is looking around my life and saying, ‘I will make change.’ True democracy is searching for the potential greatness in those around me and saying, ‘We will make change.’ In a genuinely democratic space there are no leaders who feel that the entire burden of success rests on their shoulders. Instead, leaders lead with the knowledge that if they stumble the people they are with will help them up and get them get back where they need to be. In a true democracy the people are in touch with their own strength.”*
Such eloquent wisdom calls us all to imagine the exponential impact when individuals –starting with you, starting with me — decide that the engagement of the democratic process truly begins with a democratic way of living each and every day. Only then, will primaries, multi-day elections, and especially the youth vote have any concrete significance.
If you feel a sense of urgency and a sense of importance in this call to democratic living, or maybe even just an inkling of interest, mark March 31st on your calendar.
On this day, the Obama campaign is initiating a day of nation-wide community-based discussions. All over the county, citizens are coming together to reinvigorate our democratic process. Friends, families, neighbors, coworkers, and even strangers are all going to sit down with one another and determine collectively how we harness the hope needed to take action and how we act in order to best facilitate change.
Perhaps you’ve already chosen to take part. Or maybe you want to learn more. You can by visiting http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/hac/.
While the change will surely begin on a national level that day, the fact is that on March 31st, change is actually going to occur on a personal level for a multitude of people in small but significant ways. By looking around their own lives and realizing that the change will – and is – starting with them, people are going to take on the important work of merging America’s ideal with its reality.
With that, I say this to you: Stop. Right here. Look around your own life. Where can you begin to answer Obama’s question?
*To read ErikaEM’s profound post in full, visit: http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post_group/ObamaHQ/CqRN