Our Duty Is Not Done When We Leave The Voting Booth
Thoreau Reminds Us Of A Simple Truth
Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette 11/19/09
For those of us still celebrating the election of Barack Obama; for those of us still wandering around wonderingly letting those words roll joyfully off the tongue: "President Barack Obama"; for those of us still celebrating not just the end of the Bush nightmare but 30 years of right-wing Republican misrule, it might be time to ponder the words of Henry David Thoreau.
As far back as the 1850s that great Yankee radical warned us - as we have often been warned by our best and brightest -- not to fool ourselves into thinking our duty ends as we leave the voting booth. For, verily, it just begins. "Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail," Thoreau warned in Civil Disobedience.
The duty of Americans, he noted, was to know their duty and act upon it, not to leave it to the politicians we've voted into office.
The first duty of those who elected Obama is to spend these next weeks until that historic inauguration mapping out in our own minds exactly what is the "change we believe in:" and what that change will look like in actual policies.
And the first worry -- the prime directive for those who hope that hope is again possible -- is that, having awakened from a long slumber, the American electorate will go back to sleep, safe in the false belief that they have done their job. .
So what change should we be looking for Obama in inaugurate after his inauguration?
Language is the first change. We must have a new narrative, the story, which explains to ourselves and the world what we as a nation are about. The terms of political discourse must be agreed so we are talking about the same thing in the same way. Over the last 30 years the Republicans have successfully cast the very things which make a nation - government and the revenue it collects to sustain the country - as the root of all evil. We should speak of efficient, transparent government as a general good. And we must speak this way because we believe it.
What does government do? Go to our Constitution and re-read, recite, the preamble where it is all perfectly clear: Government exists to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty…" That is the standard against which all policy decisions should be judged. That would be a welcome change indeed.
Obama's superior oratorical skills and leadership charisma could lead us in a national "teach in" on this subject; just as he did on race during the campaign. But We The People must learn the lesson, take it to heart and act on it.
The economy is the next place for change. Our economic well-being is a long way off. And the devil is in the details most of us struggle to understand. We have tried to spend our way out of trouble bailing out the private sector on Wall St. Obama must try spending our way out of trouble in the public sector on Main St. -- an economic stimulus package which does not favor the financial sector nor send checks back to us.
The country has to pay for Bush's mistakes and misrule, and the greedy self-deception the nation went along with: that we could speculate our way to wealth. And while we can't by happiness, we can buy off unhappiness. We can spend for our future, as well as pay for past mistakes. What we need most is spending which creates jobs, keeps jobs not yet lost, and modernizes our nation before we crumble further.
The stimulus package - which could mean another trillion dollars in debt - should involve revenue sharing. The federal government has to send billions to state and municipal governments to expand spending on schools and teachers; home visit nurses; social workers; public defenders; libraries and librarians; emergency workers, police, and public hospitals. Other than promoting the general welfare, this revenue sharing will also keep people on government payrolls as a bulwark against the increasing unemployment which will roll down upon us before Wall Street is mended.
We must have change which favors our collective future by spending on infrastructure. Compared to Iraq or the bail out, the price to build a nationwide, high-speed railway system is a pittance, two or three score billions. Yet the short and long-term jobs it would create, and the energy it would save over a generation as it modernizes our very notion of travel and our addiction to oil, is incalculable.
That high-speed rail system would also require our finally modernizing bridges and roads. For in the midst of the worse financial crisis in 80 years all the bills for the bipartisan neglect of our infrastructure are overdue. (Indeed, China announced just such a spending package and it was the first ray of hope in Asia's stock markets since the crash. If China can be that farsighted, why can't we?)
Global Warming, the ten million pound gorilla in the room. Cutting the energy America burns is a top priority if the human race is to avoid catastrophe. Obama must make that national policy. But one needed change to the whole discussion is to finally declare as a top priority the urgent search for the technology to replace the internal combustible engine. Obama must declare that change a national mission with greater fanfare than when President Kennedy declared we would put a man on the moon in a decade.
The development of a green economy - not only as a moral good, but the next wave of economic development - must become economic policy. The economic stimulus package could seed billions to help do just that. If the big Detroit automakers want a government bailout, give it to them. Thirty or fifty billion dollars now to keep them afloat is well worth it, IF the price tag is Detroit makes even 50 percent of its cars hybrids or electric in 10 years. No one disputes that the technology is all there. It is time for the government to secure the blessings of any future at all by helping where needed, and forcing where necessary, this change. Bailing out Ford and GM is the right place to start. Obama could sell that to the country and set it all in motion if he is the agent of change he appears to be.
Foreign Policy: We must not saddle Obama with a "troops out now!" solution to Iraq. The U.S. will be out, by mutual agreement, within the first two years of his term. And much of that time will involve the actual withdrawal. We must give him the time.
Chastened as we are by Iraq, Obama should forevermore limit America's "exporting of democracy" to supporting free, transparent elections and accepting whomever is elected: Jihadist or not; anti-American or not. And that begins with restoring the free and fair election the Islamist Hamas won in Palestine in 2006. That election brought the change the Palestinians wanted.
In the days ahead we'll all have to find and embrace our inner policy wonk, if we want help the man of hope. The change We The People need is to accept that our vote is doing nothing but expressing an opinion. Now the work truly begins.
So let's all order up some more newspapers and news magazines to keep our finger better on the pulse. And while we wait for the subscriptions to kick in, we should continue to enjoy the possibilities this election has unleashed. That we need not be wearied, but energized. If we but keep our own feet to the fire, as well as Obama's, then in four years time we will still believe in change. And find that hope is not a emotion, but a lifestyle.