Was Change We Can Believe In a manifesto for changing The System, or for working for change within The System? (More)

Enthusiasm, Part II – The System

This week Morning Feature looks at enthusiasm, an essential element of progressive Democratic activism. Yesterday we considered how the news cycle challenges our enthusiasm. Today we see how the political system offers still more challenges. Tomorrow we conclude with ideas for how to build and maintain enthusiasm despite those challenges.


Many of my high school teachers had been in college during the late 1960s. They sometimes told stories of rallies and marches they’d attended, and one referred to his classmates as The Activist Generation. He said my classmates were, by contrast, The Apathy Generation. To which one of us responded: “So?”

Yes, that was me.

After he stopped laughing and wiped his eyes, he challenged me. “Don’t you want to change The System?”

I replied that his question was a bit unfair. His generation had protested Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and for women’s rights. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had passed. The Vietnam War had ended. The Twenty-sixth Amendment had been ratified, allowing 18-year-olds to vote. President Nixon had resigned. The Church Committee were investigating the CIA, FBI, and other abuses of power. The Supreme Court had overturned contraception and abortion laws. Congress had passed the Equal Rights Amendment and it seemed headed toward ratification.

“The System,” I said, “looks like it’s working. What, exactly, should we protest?”

I share that story neither to boast of my scintillating wit nor to lament my youthful naïveté. I share it because President Obama and I both turn 50 this year.

Check(Mate)s and (Im)Balances

If you read The Audacity of Hope or Change We Can Believe In looking for a manifesto to overturn The System, you’ll be disappointed. With three exceptions – the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the Griswold decision overturning contraception bans – all of the changes listed above happened in the 1970s. Like me, President Obama came of age politically during a decade when The System seemed to be working. While President Obama spoke hopefully about changing the hyper-partisan culture of Washington, neither his books nor his speeches challenged whether The System could function.

The Framers, we were all taught in high school civics classes, rightly feared centralized power. Thus they created a system filled with Checks and Balances. There federal government has three branches, with the legislative branch divided into two chambers. The president is Commander in Chief of the military, but only Congress can declare war. Bills must pass both chambers of Congress in the same form. The president can veto a bill, but a two-thirds majority of each chamber can override a veto. Many issues are also governed by the individual states, most of whom pass laws by a similar process. The federal judiciary, appointed by presidents subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, can overturn both federal and state laws that violate the Constitution.

Check here. Balance there.

On a civics class blackboard, The System looked clear and tidy. In Realworldia, it is anything but. For the past two years, we’ve watched Checks and Balances become Checkmates and Imbalances. Forty-one senators, collectively representing an even smaller percentage of the U.S. population, blocked a public option in health care reform. A relative handful of House Democrats, combined with a united House Republican caucus, forced the inclusion of language excluding coverage for abortion. Similar compromises were required to pass the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Employee Free Choice Act never reached the Senate floor.

It wasn’t just the bills that were compromised or never passed. President Obama ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, but Congress and state governments denied him any alternatives, and the detainees remain. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act authorized tens of billions for green energy and other infrastructure investment, but many states blocked implementation. The Home Affordable Mortgage Program authorized $46 billion for homeowners facing foreclosure, but lenders learned to manipulate the process and less than $2 billion has been spent. Many of the most helpful parts of the Affordable Care Act were deferred until 2014.

On issue after issue, “Change we can believe in” seemed to translate into “Change we might see … someday.”

“Political Will”

The problem was obviously President Obama, who needed to to “twist arms,” “get angry,” and “fight harder.” He needed to channel FDR, or perhaps LBJ. Or maybe he already had. Sold out, that is. The battles with and in Congress were mere political theater, a “reality show sponsored by Wall Street.” Those of us who challenge that narrative are anti-progressive.

Or maybe we didn’t read enough comic books. The Balloon Juice Lexicon offers this brilliant entry:

Green Lantern Theory – States that the main impediment preventing a goal from being achieved is a lack of willpower. Coined by Matt Yglesias to describe the thinking of Iraq hawks and neoconservative geopolitics, it has also been used to describe a similar mindset in other areas such as financial regulation. Conveniently, the theory cannot be disproved – since any setback, military or otherwise, can simply be blamed on a lack of will, necessitating a redoubled effort with greater resolve. The name comes from the DC Comics character Green Lantern, whose power ring can produce almost any effect imaginable so long as the wielder has sufficient power of will to call it into being.

In fairness, President Obama set himself up for that. He has said the key ingredient for change – on renewable energy, infrastructure, and immigration, among other issues – is “political will.” In our highly individualistic political narrative, that is likely to be read as President Obama’s own political will. If he really wanted it, the theory goes, he would find a way to make it happen. Ergo, if it doesn’t happen, President Obama didn’t really want it.

Who is The System?

Again, President Obama came of age politically during a decade when The System seemed to be working. Consider the list of events I listed to my high school teacher. Only two – ending the Vietnam War and President Nixon’s resignation – were executive decisions, and President Nixon made both choices under popular and political pressure. The rest were acts of Congress and the Supreme Court.

Conversely, the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment happened in the states, despite the advocacy of President Jimmy Carter. And while President Carter gave an impassioned and well-received prime time television address challenging consumerism and proposing a bold energy program, that address is remembered as the Malaise Speech. The “bully pulpit” is not invincible.

President Obama is correct: the missing ingredient for change is political will. But that is not simply his own will. It is the will of The System to prevent Checks and Balances from becoming Checkmates and Imbalances.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to build and sustain that political will.


Happy Friday!