There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.
I often think about that story - and I especially did during the previous Bush administration. Perhaps no moment demonstrated to me more powerfully how close we came to loosing the republic than what Cheney said when asked to comment on the fact that 2/3 of the people in this country didn't support the war in Iraq.
I believe that the Republicans can afford to be viscous in their attacks because - in their hearts - they don't believe in a democratic republic. And they know that a cynical disengaged public allows them free reign to speak platitudes to their base and smear their enemies in an effort to maintain the real power for themselves. We see this almost every election cycle when their fondest wish is low voter turnout. Its certainly the reason they go after groups like ACORN with such vehemence.
But as the quote above suggests - "democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health."
I believe this is part of why Obama often takes the approach that he does. And I'm very grateful to MinistryofTruth who recently re-published Obama's diaries at DailyKos. Because in them, I see Obama laying out the strategy we see now. Here's just a bit of an example.
Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority. We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice.<...>
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
As a community organizer, I believe that Obama recognizes that the only way to take on the power structure that fights so ruthlessly against our interests and for the interests that line their own pockets is the power of large numbers of people fighting back TOGETHER.
To do that means having dialogue across our differences and helping people be prepared to make sacrifices. As a country - we have a long way to go on all of that. I'm not sure I always have the faith in the American people that Obama demonstrates. Its just that when I try to think of the alternatives, I'm not left with much of anything that is tolerable.
Our challenge then, is to get more people working with us rather than against us...making the coalition so large that it can't be turned away. But coalition work is hard. No one has been clearer about that than Bernice Johnson Reagon in her speech Coalition Politics: Turning the Century (sorry, I can't find a reprint online).
Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn't look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there.They're not looking for a coalition; they're looking for a home! <...> You don't get a lot of food in a coalition. You don't get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and its different from your home. You can't stay there all the time.<...>
There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60's that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we've got to do it with some folk we don't care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.
So I wonder if we're ready for the kind of coalition-building that is required of a democratic republic. I believe that President Obama is inviting us to take on just that kind of challenge. And I also believe that, as Reagon said, it will require us to "vomit over that for a little while."
But the truth is...its a republic, if we can keep it.