I still believe I learned everything important about politics long before I ever knew about parties. Here's one of the first political stories I heard:
My dad is a behavioral therapist who specialized in the so-called lost cause. He spent his career as one of a small group of "gentle teachers" making waves worldwide, and gradually built for himself a reputation for helping people thought too far gone to be reached. When an institution wanted to transfer a particularly troublesome resident from their custody to a prison, a judge might order a last ditch review to consider if any other options remained. That judge called my dad.
* Ryan Anderson's diary :: ::
As you can imagine, the institutions weren't always happy to see him. On one day in particular, he was immediately escorted into the room of an extremely violent resident who was awaiting transfer after beating up a guard. The room was cold and featureless, occupied only by a couple pieces of hollow plastic furniture filled with concrete to prevent them from being picked up. This was where the man lived and this is where he stayed: no outside visits, no roommates to talk with, no places to go. Just these white walls, plastic furniture, and a weekly allowance of Oreos was all he ever knew. And likely more than he would ever be allowed again.
After a brief introduction the staff left and my dad found himself alone in this room, locked in with a violent stranger and his box of chocolate cookies. The institution's plan was clear: get the judge's reformer beat up and get the transfer they wanted. My dad's only defense was conversation, and that wasn't going so well. What do you say to a developmentally disabled stranger with no life and no future?
So my dad talked and talked, and this man stared back and just gnawed on his Oreos. After a half hour or so, my dad exhausted the available topics and turned his attention to the cookies. He leaned forward, pointed to the box and said: "Hey, those look pretty good. Mind if I try one?"
The man stopped, thought about it, and handed one off. At this point the staff returned, eagerly expecting to find my dad sprawled out in a pool of blood and tears. Disappointed and bewildered, he stood speechless until my dad turned to the resident and said: "Hey, it looks like Joe here is hungry. Maybe he'd like a cookie, too." The staff's look turned to terror and the man laughed out loud. He reached into his box and handed over a cookie... but the staff's hand was trembling so hard that he couldn't even hold it.
My dad asked for a favor, and received one in return. A basic human relationship was formed. It was the first crucial step towards a more effective program, one that didn't require handcuffs and a cell.
The moral of this story (and countless others from my childhood) was this: if you want someone to act like a human being, you better treat them like one. This maxim guided me through some tough times at school and served me well when I got a job in a group home helping clients of my own. It's since become the driving force behind my politics. You see, this faith made me liberal.
The core value of liberalism is a belief that all men are essentially good and will act in the best interests of themselves and their community if only given the resources they need. Therefore, hope is a progressive value. Therefore, a basic respect for all people is a progressive value. Taken to its furthest extent, democracy itself is a progressive ideal. America is a story of an ever-expanding liberal consensus, and that history is the source of our party's greatest strength.
As guardians of that tradition, we have a duty to expand it through both our policy and our politics today. Unfortunately, in our anger over Bush many of us have formed a new consensus with conservatives. We champion their belief that, in politics at least, all people aren't essentially good, that the electorate is static and selfish. A belief that elections are battles, not debates, and that we win by overwhelming our opponent rather than confronting their ideas.
This formula may win us an election here or there, but ultimately this is a fight the conservatives can't lose. For when we fight firebrand with fire, we don't merely come across as "distasteful" or "mean". We surrender the entire debate. If we can't trust a Republican with a voice in this process, how can we trust him to spend his welfare check wisely? And if we can't trust a voter to judge without demagoguery, how can we trust her to make a profound moral choice on her own? Conservatives find our faith in the masses naive. How do we expect to fare if we continue to campaign as though they're right and we're wrong?
Of course, just because liberals believe in the potential of mankind doesn't mean they are blind to its reality. Bridging the gap is a matter of applying that maxim: if you want someone to act human, you better treat them like one. We must first demonstrate that faith before we'll ever have it returned. And this face has been the driving force behind Barack Obama's campaign.
"The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job," Obama explained in his first DailyKos diary. "...Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate."
Obama insists this isn't an argument for "centrism" or "compromise for compromise's sake", but a defense of progressivism itself. And it is. Conservatives are free to use any means necessary to further their ends because their ideology permits a concentration of power in the hands of a trustworthy few. But liberal values expect more from the electorate and thus demand more from our campaigns. No candidate will ever be a perfect example of this ideal, but Obama has proven an enormous commitment to reaching out in good faith.
When Obama appeared on the 700 Club, it wasn't to pander to the religious right but to make a moral case for civil unions and abortion rights. When he addressed a megachurch it was to challenge the idea that abstinence-only education was sufficient to combat the spread of AIDS.. In the minds of many bloggers, to engage is to surrender, but Obama has a record of taking hard stands in front of difficult audiences and not backing down.
One former colleague, when recalling Obama's reaction to a conservative proposal to amend his Illinois death penalty reform, said: "That was a first point at which he could have taken the easy route. He said 'no, we're not doing it that way.''" We need a president who looks the special interests in the eye and says "we're not doing it that way". We need a leader who isn't afraid to take our message into any venue or to campaign in any state. In short, we need Barack Obama. And if anyone should understand that need, it's the progressive movement in Nebraska.
Obama has already bragged about bringing our message to the Cornhusker state, and that's something in which we can all share his pride. In the end, maybe Obama's sojourns across the red/blue divide won't win him many conservative votes, but they should surely win us respect. Respect for a movement that doesn't concede anything to the Republicans: not one vote and not one value.
Now that's a campaign worth fighting for.
Thanks to Annie Robbins for passing this along.