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Got Hope?

Where do we go from here after the budget deal disaster?

I’ve been walking around in state of disbelief since hearing about the 11th hour budget deal reached between the White House and Congressional Republicans. It feels like a transformative moment in our history, the economic equivalent of December 6, 1941 or August 6, 1945.


Being on the road, in meetings and interviews from breakfast to bedtime, I am out of touch with all the commentary in the media and the Internet. The deal comes up in conversation, but addressed more with a grimace and a shake of the head than with a detailed discussion.


That’s a good thing, right? It shows that we’re not dwelling on our losses. That life goes one, even after the seeming disembowelment of social programs that the middle class and poor depend upon.


Or is it a good thing? Are the American people blithely making the best of this, causing no fuss, because we no longer can imagine anything other than giving corporations and the richer-than-rich one-percent everything they demand?


I still wonder, over and over, how this happened despite the fact that countless opinion polls—and even the bi-partisan Gang of Six—voiced support for a more equitable solution to the budget crisis. The Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, yet they surrendered without much of a fight to a small band of Tea Party zealots in the House of Representatives.


I can’t help but think the Democratic party resembles a scrappy high school football squad going up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Republicans, it appears, simply play the game better. Coach Obama’s team looks feeble on the playing fields of Washington.


But perhaps it’s an unfair fight in a different way. Right-wing Republicans—which today includes nearly all GOP officeholders, not just newly minted Tea Party advocates—hate the idea of government, although not the actual government of the Pentagon, the drug war, the security state and corporate subsidies. They also care little about the struggles of the poor and middle-class. So any government shutdown or slowdown suits their purposes. They lose little by pushing things over the brink.


Democrats, on the other hand, are hamstrung by their genuine interest in good governance and concern about what pain a shutdown would inflict on the less fortunate—which every year describes a bigger-and-bigger share of Americans.


A grim fairytale scenario could help explain what just happened. Imagine a violent fight over a small child—with the parents on one side and a cold-blooded babysnatcher on the other. The snatcher will take far greater risks to win the battle because he doesn’t care what happens to the innocent kid.


Where Is the Hope?


By nature and professional preference, I’m an optimist. It seems to me that sending out messages of gloom is not an effective way of inspiring people to believe they have the power to rise up and reform the system.


So I still hold hope that this political moment will spark a massive populist reaction over the next 16 months against the forces of greed that highjacked our nation. With a resounding victory in 2012, maybe Obama can finally fulfill his campaign promise of “Yes, we can.” So I will certainly work for the electoral repudiation of politicians who believe that slashing social programs is preferable to stopping corporate give-aways, raising taxes on million-dollar earners, and trimming the oceans of fat in the Pentagon budget.


But I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket. No way. Remember 2010, 2004, 2002 and 2000 (even though it was stolen), not to mention 1994, 1988, 1984 and 1980.


We can’t focus exclusively on the next election. This moment is also a time to look deeper, to acknowledge that the conventional liberal agenda does not go far enough to capture the hearts of everyday Americans. This is a time in history to explore bold ideas and craft new strategies. If the Tea Party taught us anything about the game of politics, it’s that vocal passion trumps reticent namby-pambyism.


What’s a new banner under which Americans of all backgrounds could work together to create a better future for their kids—and everyone else’s kids? How do we forge a political movement that stresses the importance of the we over the me?


As Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.” That’s the spirit of the commons, which I believe lies at the core of our best hope for the future.


Jay Walljasper is editor of OnTheCommons.org and author/editor of All That We Share:A Field Guide to the Commons Formerly editor of Utne Reader, he writes and speaks widely on cities, travel, politics, culture and the commons. His work has appeared in publications such as Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, The New Statesman (UK), Preservation, Ode, Planning, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, The Nation, Better Homes & Gardens and Australian Financial Review. See his website for more articles.