If you turn on your desk lamp and squint at it real hard, it can almost look like the sun shining through a bank of threatening clouds. Right now I see some light, but I can’t be sure if it’s real starshine or just burning filaments, fueled by coal plants that are devouring the planet.
Either way, I’m going toward it. At least it’s probably a compact fluorescent.
If you haven’t noticed, I like my metaphors strained. But my point is this: from the darkness of the last few weeks, some semblance of a glimmering of a spark has emerged. Perhaps we can regrow the grassroots that withered after the ’08 election. The activists that turned Obama’s campaign into a movement got complacent. Many of them did, anyway. They remembered that campaigning for Obama made them miss a lot of football games. But now, much like Brett Favre the morning after announcing another retirement, they have awoken to see the terror of staying home. Angered, they want to go back to work. They will put on their cleats again and throw interception passes if that’s what it comes to, so long as they return to the field. They will make football metaphors in an effort to inspire, because nothing inspires quite like large grunting men in colorful tights. Nothing.
On Sunday I attended a community forum in Brooklyn with two congress members (Yvette Clarke and Anthony Weiner–whose name, I will continue to pretend, is not remotely humorous). A lot of policy nerds talked nerdy policy. A lone conservative attended (this is Park Slope, after all) who was either doing his best interpretation of a three-year-old with a full bladder or really desperately wanted to be called on to ask a question. (His question was, and I paraphrase, “Hello. I am completely loony. Everyone be impressed.” Really, he was clearly not all there. I know intelligent and reasonable conservatives live in this country, but they appear not to attend town halls.)
But I won’t get into the policy stuff too much right now. The take home message for me came from Yvette Clarke: If people want Congress to get things done, they’ve got to keep campaigning. “Remember,” Clarke said. “This is war.” You can’t just campaign for president and then go take a four-year dump. Because the opposition won’t. The tea partiers swept Scott Brown into power and continue to intimidate Congressmen from supporting health reform. Teabaggers travel to DC. They shout. They make angry phonecalls. They crowd the sidewalks. They lodge incoherent complaints against socialism while simultaneously bitching about the inadequacy of public transportation to take them to their protests. Congresspeople see this sound and fury and their balls fall off. They just fall right off. This is a basic physiological response of the common Congressus Democratus Americanus. Crowds make their balls drop. It’s the damnedest thing. Scientists liken it to an opossum playing dead: no one fights putrefied roadkill, and, the Congressional Democrat thinking goes, no one’s going to kick my balls if I have none.
But I digress (as usual, immaturely). Clarke’s point was this: Congress people need to see, need to hear from, their constituents. They will–they HAVE–responded to the teabagger mobs and shouts. Counter mobs, and counter shouts, can play a role, too. So, paradoxically, I think the rise of the tea party movement could re-inspire the movement that swept Obama to power. We actually have a role. We have a vital role–and not just during elections. The tea-partiers have proved that. Should I blame Obama for why we dropped off the screen after the election? I think, in part, I should. He has pursued policy in a way that implied the only important actors were Harry Reid, Olympia Snowe–and above all, Emperor Joe Lieberman. He offered no “Now make me do it” advice a la FDR. (Or, at least, the administration did not emphasize this.) But now, thanks to his, and Coakley’s, and congress’ failures, Obama’s voters see that we do indeed have to make him, and them, do it. And we can. Well, we’ve got a chance. That’s empowering. If the tea partier’s can shout them down, perhaps a counter wail can stiffen their spines.
A lot of energy crackles now in places that had gone dark. The Pass the damn bill movement seems to be growing. At least half the crowd at Sunday’s event voiced their enthusiastic support for the House immediately passing the Senate’s bill. Most of the others wanted some combination of that and additional changes through reconciliation. I don’t think many wanted to give up or start over. And they desperately wanted to heed Clarke’s call for engagement. “Get us on the buses!” they said (meaning, the buses to DC). Perhaps all these activists needed a rest after the election. Understandably. Now, I think, a mighty second wind is filling their lungs.
I realize, of course, that the tea party movement had some pretty shallow roots. Fox News and the RNC sponsored it, basically created it. So what. Real people went to those rallies, carried those signs, and took over that movement. Getting things done takes the cooperation of compromised institutions and actual citizens. For the tea partiers, that institution was Fox. For progressives, it’s the Democratic party. It may feel dirty, but that’s where grass grows.
And, in case you’re wondering, I expect the last bits of my idealism to be completely shit-kicked out of me by, oh, age 50. Until then…