It Takes a Movement: A Post-Election Analysis

By Jim Wallis 11-04-2010


[Editor's Note: Today is the first installment of a six-part series by Jim Wallis reflecting on the past two years and painting a post-election vision for people of faith and Sojourners. We encourage you to read the essay, engage in conversation with others, and support Sojourners in making this vision happen.]

Inauguration Day 2009 was highlighted for our family by a visit from Dr. Vincent Harding, the eminent African-American historian, and a member of Martin Luther King Jr.'s inner circle during the Southern freedom movement. Despite health concerns and the dangerous weather, "Uncle Vincent," as my two young boys call him, traveled across the country to witness this moment of a history in which he had been so deeply involved. As we stood on the mall clutching our inauguration tickets in our mittens, Harding said, "It was a movement that started all this."

Do you remember how cold it was in Washington for the inauguration of President Barack Obama? Yet, it was one of the warmest days in memory: in the way two million people treated each other on the Mall, in the hope that filled the air around the country, in the sense of history being made with America's first black president, in the expectation that the country was about to move to a new place of change out of the grip of a deep recession, and the promise of a generational political shift. How ironically warm it seemed on that distant January day, now stands in sharp contrast with the cold and very angry political atmosphere that was evidenced in the midterm elections.

In politics there is always a spiritual choice to be made -- to choose hope or fear. Leaders can build movements by appealing to a vision of what our country can be or by painting a picture of whom to blame and what to be afraid of. Obama won in November of 2008, in the midst of a recession, bank failures, and two wars, by capturing the political narrative which spoke to our values as a country and by riding a movement that had reason to hope and was ready to work for change. But the new president lost the narrative, and the "movement" is now on the other side of the political aisle. A strong values narrative attracted many in 2008, including many religious voters who had long eluded the Democrats. But now, many seem to have lost faith.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, reached farther out to the faith community than many Republicans have, including his predecessor George W. Bush -- both in his campaign and the first two years of his administration. While voters have often viewed Republicans as the party most friendly to religion, polling by Public Religion Research Institute showed that most viewed Obama and McCain as equally friendly to faith in that election. Indeed, highly energized and predominantly religious black voters overcame their cynicism to believe that another America might be possible, faith-inspired Hispanic voters dramatically shifted their allegiances, Evangelical and Catholic voters decided to break with their recent past (or their parents) because of what they heard from Obama. They were all drawn to a political leader who seemed to want to move past old political divisions and boundaries, and was not afraid to identify the moral issues at stake in politics.

But if you compare 2010 exit polls to 2006, Democrats performed 14 points worse with white Protestants, 14 points worse with white Evangelicals, and 20 points worse with Catholics. Compared to 2008, Democrats did 10 points worse with white Protestants, 14 points worse with white Evangelicals, and 20 points worse with Catholics. That is quite a swing vote.

Given many obstacles, administration advocates believe that Obama has a two-year record of great accomplishments, including some things that his predecessors failed to do. He thinks so too, and points to historic health care legislation, the most serious financial regulatory reform since the Great Depression, no energy bill but increased fuel standards, new student loan programs, unnoticed investments in infrastructure and clean energy, a much expanded national service agenda, and a plan for educational reform which we haven't seen in 30 years. Obama wonders why people don't see all that, which he calls "the most successful administration in generations in moving the progressive agenda forward." But Obama's legislative victories inside the beltway have clearly not connected to the everyday lives of too many Americans or to their core values. Many families who are struggling and afraid don't believe that Washington or Wall Street cares about them or is really with them. And they showed their anger at the polls, or their disillusionment by not even showing up.

Four years ago, and two years ago, people voted decisively for change; and now, in a shift no one could have predicted after the last election, voters have just voted for change again in 2010. And chilling polls show that the vast majority of the country, this time, voted against rather than for particular candidates or policies. The Republican leadership made it clear they were running a campaign that was meant as a referendum on Obama's first two years in office. The change promised in 2008 never came about in the minds of many across the political spectrum -- on the left, the right, and the center. The new president has been up against almost insurmountable odds, especially from all that he inherited, or as he puts it, the "cards we were dealt." But, from the results we just saw and the Republican priority of making Obama a one-term President, it clearly seems that many in the country would seem to disagree with the White House assessment. What happened?

[Part 2 of this series, "Why Politics is Frozen Solid," will be available on the God's Politics blog tomorrow. Sojourners is building a movement to inspire hope, over fear. That's the message that must echo in 2010. Help us make it happen.]

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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