What this election tells me is that real leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from outside of Washington, perhaps from elected officials in statehouses or municipal buildings that are closer to the people, from foundations and grass-roots organizations, from the labor movement and houses of worship and community centers.
Those words are from the first of the final three paragraphs of Bob Herbert’s Tone-Deaf in D.C., his NY Times op ed this morning, which begins simply enough:
It would be easy to misread the results of Tuesday’s elections, and it looks as if the leaders of both parties are doing exactly that.
It is, as is usually the case with Herbert, a good and thought-provoking column which I suggest you read. Many will agree with his analysis of the response of both parties to Tuesday’s results.
It is the conclusion of his piece, beginning with the paragraph with which I started, that catches my attention.
It is that idea I want to explore, because I think that may be the real hope for the future.
Let me offer the final two paragraphs, and then my own thoughts.
The civil rights pioneers did not wait for presidential or Congressional leadership, nor did the leaders of the women’s movement. They plunged ahead with their crucial work against the longest odds and in the face of seemingly implacable hostility. Leaders of the labor movement braved guns, bombs, imprisonment and heaven knows what else to bring fair wages and dignity to working people.
America’s can-do spirit can be revived, and with it a brighter vision of a fairer, more inclusive, and more humane society. But not if we wait on Washington to do it. The loudest message from Tuesday’s election is that the people themselves need to do much more.
Let me place my response to these words in context.
I am 64. While the movement for civil rights began well before, we tend to mark the beginning of the movement with the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat in 1955. I do not claim to have clear contemporaneous memories of that, my own awareness beginning less than two years later when on a family Christmas trip to Miami in December of 1956 I first saw the signs of segregation when we arrived at the Miami airport. The following fall was Central High School in Little Rock, and from then on my school days were contemporaneous with the events of the movement, in which my own participation began in the summer of 1963. Unlike others, including our own Meteor Blades, I did not go to Mississippi in the Summer of 1964 – my father forbade me to do so. I knew people at Haverford who did, just as during the previous school year someone across the hall from me had gone to Hazard Kentucky to volunteer, and the poverty of Appalachia began to become clear to me. I was already aware of the shame of our agricultural system thanks to Edward R. Murrow and “Harvest of Shame.”
As a student fascinated with history I also read extensively about the Labor movement, which in my youth in the 1950s was perhaps at its peak of influence. I lived through the impact of one of its last triumphs, led by the likes of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers.
It is also as a student fascinated with history that I came to question the way history was taught – too much focus on the “great man” approach, be it of defining American history by the term of a President, or who the generals (and rarely admirals) were who achieved triumphs in battles in the too many wars in which we and other nations participated.
As a teacher of history at the middle school level I first became acquainted with the work of Joy Hakim, her series “A History of US” which I highly recommend (and which has been turned into an excellent PBS series).
Now I teach high school adolescents. My subject is Government, but I cannot teach that without also revisiting History. Further, my intent is to have my students become active participants in our political processes.
Those processes do not need to be limited to electoral politics. For many Americans our influence upon our government and our politics may occur through what we do in other spheres. It is why I volunteer at health and dental events – and then write about them. For others here it might be serving at a food pantry or a homeless shelter.
We face a serious challenge to maintaining a meaningful democracy, and it is the power of money. Yet we have been offered, even with money, an alternative paradigm,. Remember that in the 2004 cycle Howard Dean taught us that $100 million could as easily be raised in $100 dollar increments from a million people – that a fraction of a percent of our population – as it could in large chunks from far fewer, and then our politicians would be responsive to us rather than to those moneyed interests.
We have seen some political figures arise from non-traditional paths. Here I think of two men still in Congress despite the tsunami of Tuesday who came to the House directly from a social studies classroom – Tim Walz in MN and Larry Kissell in NC.
I also reflect on the real meaning of leadership, and the different forms it can take. As part of my doctoral studies in education I was required to read widely in leadership (not merely about educational leadership) and encountered the work of people like Thomas Sergiovanni (Moral Leadership and Robert Greenleaf (and his idea of Servant Leadership).
Our Preamble begins “We the People.” We are responsible. We are the sovereigns. We should be the source of power, political and otherwise.
We can begin to reclaim that role, that power, by exercising our responsibility.
Certainly that may require us to persuade more people to vote: we know that more people prefer the policies of the Democrats than they do of the Republicans, that the disappointment of some on our side is not that they opposed health care but that it did not go far enough. At least some of our collective efforts will have to be within what some might describe as more conventional political efforts. I am not arguing to abandoning phoning and canvassing and recruiting candidates even from among our own ranks.
I look back and think that maybe we need to find new ways of doing what earlier generations did, of generating movements that force the political class to be more responsive to the needs of people rather than the wants of corporate interests and wealth-holders and those that serve them.
One more quote from Herbert:
Great challenges demand great leaders. Marian Anderson once said, “Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.”
I believe the only way to bring that understanding to our political arena is from the bottom up. We need to be active across the domains of our society, working on solutions, advocating on behalf of all Americans – including some whose fears sometimes blind them to their own best interests.
We need to work where we can be effective. We need to communicate what we are doing. We need to educate the political classes and as far as possible the media. If the media refuses to listen, we have learned how to go around them and to force our message into public awareness.
Gandhi taught how to raise a message in his time. The leaders of the movement to which Herbert refers found methods appropriate to theirs. Our methods may be similar, or we may yet have to invent them.
We must act in the belief that we WILL succeed. We must work, speak, write, act, suffer, persist.
We dare not walk away from the challenge, lest the dream of what this nation – and this world – can become is lost forever.
Howard Dean used to tell us that we have the power.
We have examples of our past.
We have among us those from whom we can learn.
Some of us will teach us how to do it.
The nation is at risk, and it is not because of artificially created crises in schools or industry designed to scare us into a particular set of responses.
We have the power.
We have the responsibility.
It is time for us to lead.