The Common Good
March 2008

The Politics of Change

by Jim Wallis | March 2008

It's time to be in the business of building social movements, not just winning elections.

At the time of this writing, the primary elections are still in full swing. But already the early primary season has demonstrated clearly the limits of the pollsters’ predictions, the pundits’ prognostications, and the ability of politics to address our deepest problems.

The polls have gotten it wrong several times, on both candidates and issues. And the political commentators have wrongly told us what was going to happen or not going to happen so many times that many people have just stopped listening.

On both the Democratic and Republican sides, one candidate after another has been built up as the inevitable winner, only to lose the next primary. And the winners, who supposedly have momentum, have then confounded the pollsters by proceeding to lose. Candidates who were pronounced dead by all the political talking heads have won comeback victories.

Iraq was to be a big campaign issue, and then it faded. Health care was big early on, but not so prominent later. Then the fear of recession became the big issue: “It’s the economy, stupid” all over again. And all the pundits said the early front-loaded primary season would produce clear nominees by early February. Then they talked about what fun it would be for journalists to have nominations go all the way to the conventions. Maybe this is all about their fun.

But have the following issues been primary in this primary election season: the shameful scandal of global poverty and the embarrassment of a growing number of poor families in America; the increasingly urgent threat of global warming; the horrendous costs of the war in Iraq and the consequences of a foreign policy that relies exclusively on war to fight evil; the gross violations of human life in places such as Darfur, the Congo, and Kenya; the need for a bipartisan effort to dramatically reduce abortion rates; or the corruption of the popular culture and its daily assault upon our families and children? Nope.

All this points again to the fact that real change will never begin in Washington nor be simply a top-down process. I live in the nation’s capital and, believe me, this will be the last place change comes. But it has always been like that. Change will grow from social movements, from grassroots efforts that rush up, not trickle down, and from critical culture and values shifts that ultimately will affect politics. Awakening the faith community, for example, to the biblical vision of social justice and the moral imperatives to address poverty, creation care, human rights, culture renewal, and a better way to confront evil in the world will more likely lead to deeper change than mere lobbying on Capitol Hill.

The primaries have also made it clear that politics has become so broken that the hunger for change is overwhelming. But while the remaining candidates will now battle to convince voters that each has the vision and the capacity to really bring change, it is absolutely clear that change has already won this election. The voters have spoken and they want a new direction. Seventy percent of the country have consistently said they believe America is moving in the wrong direction; 92 percent of Democrats feel that way, and 53 percent of Republicans agree. A new generation of voters wants a new kind of politics in the U.S. that would overcome the partisan deadlocks and ideological battles of the present to find real solutions to our social problems.

But we know that the change must go deeper than politics. In fact, unless change goes deeper, politics won’t really change. And no matter which candidate finally wins this presidential election, he or she will not be able to really change the big things that must be changed unless and until there are social movements pushing for those changes from outside of politics. Because when politics fails to resolve or even address the most significant moral issues, social movements often rise up to change politics, and the best social movements always have spiritual foundations.

Even a candidate who runs on “change,” really wants it, and goes to Washington to make it happen will confront a vast array of powerful forces that will do everything possible to prevent real change. Politics is unlikely to be changed solely from within—no matter who wins, and no matter now sincere they are, we will not see significant change unless the pressure increases from the outside.

And there are too many bad habits, negative choices, and cynical resignations in us as people that also serve as obstacles to change. That’s why it generally also takes some kind of a renewal of the spirit to finally make serious social change really possible. Changing hearts and minds can forge constituencies that demand nothing less than a new direction. Political leaders in Washington have changed the U.S. less often than social movements have. The U.S. is signaling that it is hungry for change again, and we will need to see the kind of spiritual and social movement that can deliver on that hope.

There will be a snapback after the extreme and disastrous policies of the Bush administration. The Demo­crats hope the snapback will result in their victory; the Republicans hope they can still retain power by offering a change in direction themselves. But many hope and want to work for a snapback that goes much further than either a Democratic or Republican victory. It’s time to be in the business of building social movements, not just winning elections. This election is vitally important, and many are working hard to put the most important issues on the agenda. But many are also already looking past the election to the kind of organizing and movement building that will have to be done.

The dramatic changes occurring in many constituencies—including faith communities—the energy and commitment of a new generation, and the openness of politics for change may indicate the beginning of a new and more hopeful period in the life of this country and the world. But that is a hope for “change” that will require, from all of us, the work of democracy far beyond November, no matter who wins.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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