I got sick at a dinner party the other night. What made me sick was the constant complaining about how bad the political situation is in our country. On and on it went, lamenting everything from the ham-handed attempts to butcher “Obamacare” to the unspeakably cruel attacks on the already inadequately funded programs for women and children. Not to mention the massive efforts to gut regulatory programs designed to control Wall Street’s avarice and greed. The air was ugly with complaining and despair, without any note of hope for bettering the dismal situation. It was a monumental performance of what John W. Gardner, President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, once derided as “high IQ whining on a cosmic scale.”
What made me sick wasn’t just the sentiment being voiced. It was the primary source of the moaning: me.
Oh, I had a Greek chorus of fellow diners chanting “Yea, truly, brother!”—the other guests being of similar political persuasion and social perspective. But it was my own noisy brain gushing its sour harangue all over the dinner table that finally turned my stomach.
What is it about us liberals today that makes us so willing to moan “Ain’t it awful” from daybreak to bedtime and so unwilling to rise above our political passivity to become actual change-agents? It is as though we never got the memo that speaks the utter truth of our situation: in a relatively pure democracy like our own, we get exactly the government we deserve.
So we snicker at Clarence Thomas’ five-year record of remaining mute during judicial debate and Sarah Palin’s apparent incapacity to think deeply about complex issues, but we are doing little to ensure that future Presidents are individuals disinclined to name the likes of Thomas to the Supreme Court. Our involvement seems to begin and end with the prideful articulation of a presumably superior grasp of a woeful reality. And the occasional political contribution to the candidate of our choice.
Meanwhile, we are watching thousands of ordinary folks in places like Egypt and Albania and Tunisia risking their lives by taking to the streets in search of a more democratic society. They have been tackling what must have seemed like truly hopeless odds, facing deeply entrenched leaders exercising dictatorial powers over them. For generations they suffered and grumbled privately, yearning for something better for themselves and their children. And then, finally, somehow, enough was enough, and they took to the streets.
It is hard to imagine what might ever be “enough” for some of us, triggering our own personal action to create a government we might respect. Unlikely to get our heads bashed in for stepping forward with our views, we nevertheless just whine and look the other way, avoiding getting our hands dirty with the real work of influencing those who govern. It seems as though there is nothing at all that might prompt our actually making a trip to Washington, D.C., to confer in person with members of Congress.
Probably the main reason we stay home is hopelessness. We feel totally overmatched by the massive onslaught of big-money lobbying, made even more ludicrous now by the Citizens v. United decision of the Supreme Court to pretend that a corporation is a person entitled to pour billions of dollars into electioneering. In retrospect, where was the peaceful demonstration in front of the Supreme Court building to protest that hideous twist of logic? Or, for that matter, how about Bush v. Gore? If we couldn’t be stirred to mount a protest to the Supreme Court’s order for a democracy to stop counting votes—stop counting votes?!—perhaps nothing ever will.
But there I go again. Sounding hopeless. Acknowledging defeat. Giving up.
Yes, it’s daunting. But then I re-remember John W. Gardner, architect of some of the most important cornerstones of our civil society. While Secretary of HEW, he launched Medicare. He created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He designed the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to fund schools serving children in low-income neighborhoods—which it still does today.
Later, he resigned to protest the war on Vietnam and proceeded to create Common Cause and the Experience Corps. No wonder he had such a fine contempt for us whiners.
Did I mention that John W. Gardner was a Republican?
It is admittedly difficult to believe that our individual actions can make much difference. But activist Sam Daley-Harris nailed it in his book Reclaiming Our Democracy when he described the necessary transformation from “I will if you will” to “I will whether you do or not.” And in a recent speech, he gave the following advice to those who decide to get off our duffs: 1) stop thinking there is no solution to the problem; 2) stop thinking ‘I don’t matter’; 3) stop acting alone; 4) engage with a group that can feed you power in the form of data, access, structure, momentum; 5) nudge that organization to gradually feed you more and more power, enabling your own voice to be increasingly influential.
These have proved amazingly successful in his own celebrated efforts to create the political will to end hunger and to extend microcredit lending to 100,000,000 of the world’s poorest women. Might be worth emulating.
Or, we could always just keep on whining.
Full discosure: Sam Daley-Harris is my son-in-law