Time to keep on keeping on — politically

Posted Nov. 20, 2008, at 5:17 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:28 a.m.

In his Nov. 13 commentary, “1800s Civic Virtue Comeback Dubious,” Lynn Hudson Parson notes that “once the election cycle is complete, politics as a source of interest disappears, to be replaced by American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, the World Series or the Super Bowl.”

As much as I enjoy watching the Patriots, we citizens can’t afford to go back to politics as usual. Eighty-three percent of those questioned in a CNN-Opinion Research Corp. survey released Nov. 10 say things are going badly in the country today, which is an all-time high.

The enormous job of “getting our country back on track” isn’t a spectator sport, although, admittedly, that’s the great temptation just about now.

Face it, the job of internal nation-building — civic renewal — is more than one individual can possibly handle. Barack Obama isn’t our savior; he’s our president-elect. And in a democracy-in-crisis, we ordinary citizens have serious work to do, too.

This is a rare opportunity for renewing our nation from the bottom up and top down simultaneously. Marking the ballot was the real beginning, and now we need to keep up the momentum for change. We can use the same innovative tools, Internet and community mobilization, that we used to elect Obama to keep this country moving in a positive direction. Postelection, “we the people” need to organize and either stay involved or become more involved at the community level, while the master community organizer moves into the White House.

Although Obama’s experience in community organizing was ridiculed by his opponents during the campaign, there is a long, rich and varied tradition of local community involvement in the United States. From Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of the association-rich young republic in the 1830s to the 19th century social gospel movement, from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to grass-roots community economic development in recent decades, and much more, there is a wealth of hands-on experience to draw upon. Maine nonprofits, small businesses, colleges and universities have pioneered a number of innovative programs in civic leadership and action, which have barely been tapped.

We don’t have the luxury of taking the slow boat to political transformation. The heartbreaking litany of recent events is too long and too severe to take a passive “wait and see” approach. To do so would indulge a bad political habit of the late 20th century.

Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel recently said that the challenges facing our new president are so great “that he will only succeed if he is able to articulate a new politics of the common good.”

Why wait? We citizens are capable of taking steps to determine and act on our common good in our own communities even before President Obama assumes office Jan. 20. The first step is simple: Recognize that saving our country, our communities, isn’t a spectator sport.

Crisis is opportunity. One of the most effective examples of bipartisan community organizing I was involved in took place here in Maine during the 1990s when the federal government closed the Loring Air Force Base in Limestone. Limestone’s crisis reminds me of any community — be it urban, suburban or rural — suffering from extreme job losses and economic crisis in the U.S. today.

With many of its residents soon to be relocated and its prime employer about to close, still-grieving Limestone residents voluntarily created a new vision and plan for their future — their common good — and then acted upon it. New technologies and methods of organizing were used. Limestone residents’ surprising, self-determined No. 1 priority in the midst of this crisis was to save their beloved high school. Limestone residents lobbied hard, and, in 1995, the Maine Legislature agreed that Limestone’s high school be designated the new Maine School of Science and Mathematics.

This school is now one of the top 100 public high schools in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report ratings. Residents also worked with the federal government to bring new businesses to the former air base. Local initiatives continued to take surprising turns: Limestone residents agreed to host some popular, turn-pike-jamming Phish concerts.

Limestone knows firsthand how to deal with crisis and is a much more resilient community now than it was in the early 1990s. As professor Sandel presciently wrote in 1996, “In the age of NAFTA, the politics of neighborhood matters more, not less.”

This is an idea that’s as old as our country. Get involved in your own community, in ways simple or complex. There are hundreds of options in any single community. Why wait?

With a real friend in the White House, we could get something done. We could break the bad habit of postelection apathy to create a better future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. We could change our communities — and our country— for the better. If not now, when?

Jennifer W. Kierstead of Canaan is a two-time national Small Business Innovation Research award winner who has been involved in community service in rural Maine for 20 years. She may be reached at publicserv@verizon.net.

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