lessons from America

Don’t put politics on the shelf

“The biggest mistake my generation made was to put politics [back] on the shelf. Do not put politics back on the shelf, ever. Being in politics is like going to church: you got to put a little on the plate every single week. I don’t expect you all to run for office or to give money to every single campaign that comes along. But you’ve got to stay involved. You’ve got to be a community organiser all the time.”

Those were the inspirational words of Howard Dean, at the Netroots Nation ‘yes we can’ party the night before the inauguration in DC. You can see short clips from his speech below:

Once again Dean absolutely nailed it. That warning and call to keep not just the spirit of the Obama campaign alive but its community-based activism was the most eloquent and passionate expression of a refrain I heard repeated throughout my week in DC. From the Peace Corps volunteers I met at the African inaugural ball now working on public health issues; to the New Orleans woman who is now focused on criminal justice reform in her neighbourhood and on supporting her cousin’s run for elected office; to Lonnee who has set up a social networking site for her neighbourhood and become a delegate to California’s Democratic assembly; to the artist (and button designer) Delia who has become politicised and now will “only take on work she believes in”; to the Swing Semester leaders who are taking on new projects in-between elections; to Sean of 538, who was looking for a home in DC as he starts in his new role as Washington correspondent for the site, expanding their coverage and insights from elections to the process of governing.

It was those type of stories I had wanted to hear and to capture whilst in the States this time. To answer – or rather hear other’s answers – to the question: “What’s next?” Over the coming days, as I continue to write up my experiences, it is that aspect that I will return to; as well as the celebrations and witnessing of history.

And Dean’s words resonate on this side of the Atlantic too. Have there been times we sat back and – perhaps justifiably – concentrated on our own interests and wellbeing rather than that of the community or society as a whole? Were there times we could, or should, have pushed harder rather than resting on our successes? The US has more of a history of electing ‘saviours’ and letting them get on the with the process of governing and making (hopefully) positive change. But did we also do the same in 1997 and subsequently, when we expended so much energy getting rid of the Conservatives and electing Blair, but never followed it up with ensuring we continued organising and campaigning locally, and harrassing the government to deliver on its promises?

Incidentally, this was one of Howard Dean’s final appearances as chair of the Democratic party (so I was pleased to get the chance to shake his hand and say thank you when he was on the way to the podium). A few days later Tim Kaine, Governor of Virginia, took over the position. Although he’s also a netroots favourite, and handpicked by Obama, it signals a new direction for the party. And that means an end to the 50 State strategy as we know it. For greater discussion on this, see Nate’s post.

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment