Friday, January 22, 2010

Passion and Optimism

No change without them

On Saturday morning (9 a.m. Chicago time) I will be on Michael James' radio show talking politics. The show can be heard on-line here. These things never go as planned, but as I have prepared by focusing on what I think people, especially young people, might do to define and develop an activism adequate to the 21st century's enormous political challenges, I find myself baffled by all the things I don't know.

Despite all the sturm un drang that seems endemic to our political culture, I'm under the impression that there are fewer people actively engaged in politics and more young adults convinced that they are powerless to address the issues that concern them most. Of course, as I set out to investigate this assumption further, I confront only more questions that I will have no time to answer by tomorrow morning:

1. I know, or know of, plenty of young people who are passionately engaged. The daughter of one friend is living in Central America and working as a volunteer on village development projects. Others have committed their working lives to investigating and writing about a wide range of issues, from climate change to how to use new media to build progressive political networks. Some of them do these things without much concern for career path or compensation. Still others have entirely rejected the more material aspects of our culture and focus their efforts on building community and pursuing their art. But it seems to me that there are nowhere near enough young people who are persuaded that their efforts will make a difference and are proceeding accordingly.

2. In a world where climate change will reach a tipping point before efforts to abate it begin to have an effect, and in a country where racism and discrimination still devastate lives and communities, and almost everyone must struggle with the Great Recession--the worst domestic economy in 70 years--how does one go about priortizing the targets for activism?

3. The Supreme Court's decision to throw out campaign finance restrictions on corporations has to be one of the most anti-democratic rulings in years. The notion that absolute limits on corporate contributions to campaigns violate the free speech provisions of the constitution is nonsensical. The whole point of the constitution and the bill of rights was to establish, protect and extend democracy. The court's use of the free speech principle to advance anti-democratic practices is a clear and present danger. The effects of this ruling will increase individual feelings of powerlessness and apathy, but by how much?

4. People I talk to are devastated by the Republican victory in Massachusetts on Tuesday. They want to know how such a thing could possibly happen. The how of it all isn't obvious, but some of the factors are clear. Thought the turnout was high for a special election, the fact is that many Obama voters, mobilized and enthusiastic just 13 months earlier, sat out the election (see a good analysis here). I suspect that the Right saw an opportunity to "steal" a Senate seat a month before Democrats recognized the seat was at risk. It seems likely that many of the people who voted for Brown have had little or no effect on previous statewide elections. But the election gave them an opportunity to convert their sideline cynicism into an angry and passionate rejection of the liberals and Democrats they have learned, these past 10 or 20 or 40 years, to fear. In an environment where Obama voters have learned to question their earlier passion, the quick special election created a huge opening for a loud "no". How much of this is because of what the Obama administration failed to accomplish in its first year?

5. How much of the Left's frustration with current politics are connected to unrealistic expectations for change? How much progressive change can be achieved without a larger and more vibrant Left? Where does political optimism and passion come from?

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