It Takes a Movement: Why Politics is Frozen Solid

By Jim Wallis 11-05-2010


[Editor's Note: Today is the second 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 essays, engage in conversation with others, and support Sojourners in making this vision happen.]

Scriptures say, "Without a vision the people perish," and soon after he was elected, the president let the vision perish and the people soon followed. Without it, a vacuum formed and allowed the growth of a different sort of movement. Most unexpectedly, after the new "progressive" moment in January 2009, the "new populism" in America is now decidedly on the Tea Party Right; sparking an anti-Obama, anti-Democrat, and anti-government movement; questioning the president's religion, patriotism, and even his birth place; and tinged clearly by some with an ugly racial edge. The "movement" is now on the other side of the political aisle. A campaign of "Hope and Change," and "Yes We Can" was slowly replaced with the governance of diminishing expectations, and "They Won't Let Us." But people who feel that they are perishing can be both afraid and angry.

Washington politics has been frozen solid, with no movement or motivation to try and solve the problems of the nation. Obama's hoped-for politics of solutions has been replaced by that of scapegoats. We have seen the opposition party adopt a politics of sabotage more intense than any in years. And newly elected politicians who view bi-partisanism as an act of betrayal won't help. The normal negativity of the campaign season was further amplified by the Roberts court decision to remove all limits on the political spending of America's corporations, unions, and other outside special interests. With no transparency required, the election was shaped by shadowy phantom interests that nobody knows and no one can hold accountable.

Then, of course, there is the 24/7 overtly ideological and partisan pounding of a right-wing media machine that is both "unfair" and "unbalanced," but has much more capacity to shape public discourse than the rudderless and shallow mainstream media that seems to have no moral compass except falling ratings. The left-wing blogosphere mimics the right, and channel surfing between the political talk shows on both sides of the ideological divide reveals shows and hosts whose political views are very different, but otherwise sound more and more alike in their tone and style. On American cable television and talk radio, honest and robust political discourse has been replaced with an ideological food fight.

Civility has died in America, and urgent pleas for a more truthful and respectful public discourse from both religious leaders and former lawmakers from both parties have been ignored by a media that just loves a perpetual conflict narrative. But many in the country still long for a more moral and civil tone in our political discussion. Could civility become sexy in the repetitive shouting match which is now American politics?

A failure of communication, which the White House has now begun to acknowledge, is not a deep enough analysis of the problem. Nor is the conservative counter that the real issue is how bad and unpopular Obama's policies are. The problem is not that Obama has tried to do too much, or not enough; depending on your political point of view. The deeper problem is this: Washington, D.C. is wired to block social change. And the system is "not on the level" as Obama has complained in his more frustrated moments. Those who want change have naively overestimated how much a new young progressive president could really do. And the new president was over-confident about how much he could accomplish with his powers of persuasion, convincing logic, sincere desire to transcend partisan divisions, and the knowledge that he is often the smartest person in the room. What has still not been really understood by Obam's White House, by most of his supporters, and by a media that mostly focuses on who's up, and who's down in Washington during any given week is this: it takes a movement.

[Part 3 of this series, "Why a 'Movement' is Necessary," will be available on the God's Politics blog Monday. 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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