What Will It Take to Bring Obama Home? Civics 101

obamas in ireland
President Barack Obama watches as First Lady Michelle Obama draws a pint at Ollie Hayes’ Pub in Moneygall, Ireland, May 23, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

How Do We Bring Obama Home?

I care less about bringing President Barack Obama home than I care about having a government that exists to work for the common good – that enacts legislation and carries out policy that serves the people, not the corporate bottom line.

To get that kind of government, we’ll need to do way more than just bring Obama home. We’ll need to initiate a culture change.

When President Obama came into office, we were in the midst of two wars, a global economic crisis,  were experiencing record unemployment, runaway debt, skyrocketing foreclosures, a healthcare crisis, failing public education systems, crumbling infrastructure, a political system so polarized, crony-ized, and corrupt that few trust it and, of course, unequivocal evidence that humans are causing runaway global climate change. What a mess!!

Who created this mess? And how are we addressing it?

Mainstream media and the blogosphere are teeming with articles about Obama’s performance. They say he’s too progressive or not progressive enough, too moderate or not moderate enough, too harsh on his base or too accommodating, too conciliatory, cautious, and cerebral — and believe me, there’s plenty his Administration has done or failed to do that I find dismaying. Yet, while it is important to keep tabs on what’s going on in Washington, I don’t know if there is much value in debating the president’s performance without also assessing our own.

This mess our country is in was caused by more than just politicians and none of the problems Obama inherited were of his making. This is an important point because it goes to the crux of this piece. The quagmire we find ourselves in was decades in the making. During those decades we created a culture of politically ignorant ambivalence. It is that culture that set the stage for power hungry opportunists to create or influence the decisions that resulted in what we have today.  Without changing this culture, we’re bound to end up right back here regardless of the decisions made by this or any other president.

In 2009, at the height of the hoopla over healthcare, Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC interviewed a woman who got quite a bit of media coverage for her emotional confrontation of then-Senator Arlen Spector. At one of Spector’s townhall meetings, the woman, Katy Abram, asserted that Spector had awakened a sleeping giant because of his support of the healthcare bill and because he wasn’t doing enough to restore the country “back to what our founders created”.

Abram identified herself as a conservative Republican but, for me, irrespective of her political persuasion, she came to symbolize a core problem at the root of this nation’s woes – a problem that transcends party affiliation or political leaning, a problem that Thomas Jefferson predicted could topple our system. The problem: we lack accurate information and as a result lack the will or motivation to get sufficiently politically active.

In recent times, Americans have typically stayed on the sidelines as observers until they personally experience the negative impact of political decisions then maybe they’ll show up at the polls. This “spectator” mentality is even spreading within the two major political parties where activists once played key roles but now often see most decisions made by party insiders and monied interests behind closed doors.

In response to Katy Abram’s confession that she had not taken an interest in politics until the healthcare townhall debates of 2009, Lawrence O’Donnell asked why now? “You said in your statement that you are 35 years old and nothing has gotten you interested in politics before now,” O’Donnell asked. “What’s interesting to me about that is that means you, as an adult, lived through 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq War, you lived through all of that and were not awakened into an interest in politics?”

When he asked why those events had no impact on her political involvement but learning that the Obama administration planned to provide healthcare to people who would otherwise not be able to afford it, ignited a fire in her,  Abram responded that, in the past, she’d always had faith in the government but also went on to say, “Honestly, I didn’t really care”.

Perhaps Abram didn’t care about the plethora of ills afflicting our country because she couldn’t see that they would eventually impact her and her loved ones. Maybe she thought of them as someone else’s problem. Perhaps we can attribute her lack of civic engagement on pressing issues such as the encroaching economic crises, global warming, the military-industrial complex, or the prison-industrial complex, to a lack of knowledge.

The interview doesn’t give us enough clues to understand Abram’s admitted political inactivity but I think we all know someone like Katy. Studies, conducted by respected institutions, suggest that Katy Abram, with respect to her lack of civic engagement, is a typical American.

In 2005, Georgetown University conducted a study of American civic engagement. According to the study, when compared to countries in northern and western Europe, the United States ranked among the lowest in civic engagement.

Of the 14 countries studied, the U.S. ranked 13th only second in inactivity to Austria, a country that was incorporated into the Third Reich and ceased to exist as an independent state until 1945.

We fared moderately better in the category of political activity, ranking in the middle. But in the same study, the United States ranked #1 in TV watching.

What the study found was that the population of the United States has, for the past three decades, become increasingly inactive in civic organizations while its participation in various forms of entertainment has increased.

Civic organizations that serve to both educate and support the interests of common people are often so poorly supported that they are struggling to survive. Organizations such as labor unions, environmental groups, civil rights organizations, political parties, human rights groups, consumer rights organizations, peace or animal rights groups and other interests can barely sustain themselves today for lack of participation.

In the early stages of this country’s development, it was this type of civic engagement that served as the cornerstone of America’s successful democratic experiment. Our high levels of civic engagement are what Tocqueville attributed to our success, but today we’ve become a nation of spectators, not activists.

Taken in isolation, this wouldn’t be a recipe for catastrophe but when you combine the lack of civic engagement with the lack of civic education in schools and throw in the misinformation fed to the masses on TV, you get a populace that isn’t equipped with the knowledge necessary to fully participate in democracy in a meaningful way – a way  that ensures their interests are protected.

All too often, we just don’t know enough about politicians or issues to vote in a way that is in our best interest. Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Can we be trusted with ours?

Looking back to the 2008 presidential election, one can’t help but revel in awe at the unprecedented voter turnout. Record numbers of first-time voters, African-Americans, Latinos, independents, and young voters put Obama in office. But that’s as far as most of them went. They put him in office and went back to watching “American Idol.”  They walked away at one of the most pivotal times in American history.

Imagine the power of an administration that had the same awe-inspiring numbers that came out to vote for Obama – this time supporting the progressive agenda with activism, pushing for change by phone banking for progressive candidates in the 2010 election, or writing to Congress about prison-based gerrymandering, or marching en masse to protest the Citizens United decision, or forcing Congress to hold BP accountable for the clean up in the Gulf of Mexico, or supporting the Administration on any number of the pressing issues it confronts.

sharon kyleThe monied interests in this country have a clear set of goals and a roadmap for achieving them. Yes, Wall Street gets what Wall Street demands. I contend that a mobilized progressive movement continually pressuring the Obama administration can also get what it demands. But as long as Katy Abram and the many varieties of Katy both on the Left and the Right continue to dominate the political landscape of this country, we’ll continue to have this debate.

As did his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Obama has challenged his supporters to “force” him to make the tough, progressive decisions they want. With a precious few exceptions, we have failed to do that. Until we do, we need to worry more about the home we have made than about bringing Obama back to it.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on June 1, 2011
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About Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle, J.D. is the Publisher of the LA Progressive which she co-founded with her husband Dick Price. Ms. Kyle is an adjunct professor of law at Peoples College in Los Angeles. She sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and is on the editorial board of the BlackCommentator.com. Photo courtesy Wadeva Images. www.wadevaimages.com