Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thoughts on Obama after one year...

At my core I am an independent when it comes to political party affiliation: I tend to vote Democratic most of the time - especially since the Bush/Cheney years - but not always. In fact, there have been some great Republican moderates that I have found it fun to work with in Cleveland, OH as well as Tucson, AZ and Pittsfield, MA.

During the 60s/70s when many of my political friends were Marxist, I tended toward the Democratic Socialists who were long on pragmatism and short on ideology. That still resonates with me in 2010 because what matters most to me is that a politician commits to compassion and justice. I am a "values voter" with a Jubilee/social justice bent - much more Bono than either George W or Howard Dean.

That said, I am not at all shocked (or even saddened) that on the first anniversary of President Obama's historic presidency of the USA a rogue Republican - Scott Brown - has won a seat in the US Senate. For 30 years this seat was called "the Kennedy seat" - and that is part of the reason why it was lost yesterday - this is NOT a time for arrogance or business as usual. And I think there are three inter-related truths that warrant a comment:

+ First, there are more independents in Massachusetts than there are Republicans or Democrats: 40% of the American electorate is NOT affiliated with the major parties. In Massachusetts, 51% are independent with only 36% connected to the Democrats and 11% the Republicans. How did St. Lou Reed put it? "Stick a fork in them - they're done!" (This is one of the truest, saddest and most beautiful Lou Reed songs ever, but beware: it hurts!)

Increasingly throughout the United States brand names mean NOTHING. Just ask the once mainline churches who are now just a side-line phenomenon. People in the suburbs do not care about denominations, political affiliations, brand names, etc. because the real name of the game is "what have you done for me lately?" Or the retail version: "can I get that cheaper at Walmart?"

And just as non-denominational churches have exploded in popularity with their "shopping mall"decor, their low impact sense of commitment and an emphasis on entertainment rather than discipleship, so too the world of politics - especially in an economic recession. For a clue, take a look at what is going on with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien if you want to understand why President Obama is personally well liked but mistrusted: he hasn't been able to deliver anything of value to most middle Americans.

So without understanding this shift in culture, NBC will try to save the bottom line by throwing Conan overboard and looking backwards - the Howard Dean/Keith Olbermann Democrats will become equally confused - and our generally well-respected President will hunker down from more study. But what Americans want is a better deal. We know NOTHING about delayed gratification because our values are shaped more by Walmart than spiritual integrity. And when Walmart comes to town, local shop keepers who have given value, service and respect to consumers for generations are sacrificed for the bottom line.

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown was an angry Walmart: he didn't talk about his record - which is often ugly, sexist, fear-mongering and mean-spirited - rather he drove a populist pick-up truck, dressed down and worked on the fear/anger most of us feel after a beer. No wonder he was victorious just 365 days after Obama became president: he is the white, suburban Obama - the outsider who was able to tap into the fears and angers of ordinary suburban independent voters looking for the best deal - just as the President did not too long ago.

+ Second, just as President Obama is going to have to use this set back as a catalyst for delivering to the base of independents - NOT just the democratic loyalists - so, too, the Tea Baggers. In 2010, it is not good enough to be a poser - Dick Armey et al can carp really well - but now Scott Brown is going to have to stand FOR something rather than take easy pot shots - and he doesn't have time on his side either.

I generally believe that the Obama folk have been responsible in shoring up our financial institutions and preventing another economic depression. They have been smart about sending monies to local communities for rebuilding roads and infrastructure, too. But these good acts have only kept things from getting worse. And as those of us in the renewal of churches know, maintaining the status quo feels like you are losing. There must be NEW members, REAL mojo in worship, BOLD acts of compassion and AGGRESSIVE engagement with helping other. In a word, our deepest values have to become flesh and blood deeds FAST - otherwise, the "shopping mall" mega-church will continue to look like much more fun at half the price - and besides they give away free coffee and donuts!

Perhaps politicians - and the President - should take some pointers from church renewal expert, Anthony Robinson, who says there are 6 essentials to real church renewal:

1) Choose life - take risks - don't be afraid of death
2) Choose community - break down barriers - oppose elitism of any type
3) Choose fun - most of the institutional work is boring - let it go
4) Choose boldness - most of the time we go too slow - make change and keep moving
5) Choose frontier - don't circle the wagons - go to the fringe and embrace it
6) Choose now - not later - or when it is safe or convenient - besides all we have is today

My President is too careful - and often too nice. He is bright and compassionate and committed but he is playing as an insider and people are losing heart. Only 34% of Americans think we're moving in the right direction. That's better than the Republicans - at 24% - but Obama can do better and embracing Robinson's ideas would be a good start. He has spent a year trying to build consensus and the bastards have stone-walled him at every turn. He needs to give Scott Brown a chance - and if Scotty is a real patriot rather than a demagogue, he'll find a way to move things forward. But after a VERY short season of good will, it is time to get some things moving and if Obama has to kick some ass to do it...

+ And third let's not forget what fear does to us when we mostly ache for security: it strengthens our worst selves. Erik Fromm wrote a penetrating exploration of the good, middle class church people of 1930s Germany - Escape from Freedom - and the overwhelming insight was that when people's economic and social security is threatened, we rush towards those who promise stability. We will sacrifice our deepest convictions, we will turn on one another in the ugliest ways, we will eat our young and devour our neighbors when we are at our worst. What's more, we will also give up our deepest religious convictions.

Interestingly, most of us saw this play out in spades in the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Scott Brown manipulated our current fears just as viciously as President Bush/Cheney. (He also ran a much better campaign than Martha Coakley!) President Obama - being the Niebuhrian moralist that he is - will not manipulate us, so he has to deliver. And let's face it: he has been way too slow for most of us who are used to high speed Internet, instant access to entertainment and Walmart's deal of the week.

I have faith in Obama. In the long run, I have faith in the American people, too. But mostly I have faith in God's loving grace and know that it is only faith, grace and compassion that make life worth living even in these hard and fear filled times. So, God bless you, Mr. President - and maybe take a listen to Brother Joey Ramone...


Black Pete said...

Interesting. I still prefer the Chambers Brothers original, but I love the idea of this song being done in a mainline church! OK, the amps go over there...

RJ said...

I love the Chambers Brothers version, too - but these visuals were so much fun. Steve Earle and Sheryl Crow do a smokin' version also that you might like.

Luke said...

Dude, i like the post! i love how the washington post the other day had a headline "Not Transformational Yet" about Obama... it has been a year! it took a long time to get us where we are today... i'd claim since NAFTA for the fall of GM and Ford during the Clinton era and the awful "war on two fronts" of the Bush II era. he's supposed to fix it with an unruly and corrupt congress in a year?!?!


we are getting a little too "but i want it NOW" petulance in the american culture. good job pointing that out.

Black Pete said...

I'd like to echo Luke's comments with the addition of a comment from the title of one of Robert Bly's books: we are "A Nation of Siblings". Children governing children (certainly evident with GWB). It's not quite as obvious up here yet, but it's obvious enough, and our control freak prime minister is doing nothing to help the situation.

RJ said...

Isn't it odd that we who are now over 50 - some even beyond - have not embraced that "elder" role. Instead we are the sibbling society where we still whine and act like children instead of adults. And the only way order is achieved is by control freaks who treat us like the children we are. Which doesn't help... what a totally strange, strange trip this has become.

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