"The most important thing we learned is that change is possible."
-- Barack Obama speaking to OFA volunteers on March 23, 2010, hours after signing healthcare reform into law
Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing the President talk to OFA volunteer leaders from across the country, and others who had done long hard work organizing for healthcare for the Democratic party. He said a lot of wonderful things as he recognized and thanked the many people who fought this fight with him. But one part of the call stood out for me.
A volunteer who does the hard work of rural organizing in a red state asked "what have we learned" from the last year that will help us win the many battles ahead? The President gave an answer that revealed how much he is still, in his heart, an organizer. He told us that this legislation becoming law is living proof we can make a difference.
He said we learned that "change is possible."
I've studied organizing and social movements from the view of a scholar in the ivory tower and the perspective of a participant on the ground, and I have come to one key conclusion -- positive emotions motivate action.
Hope in the future, a belief you can make a difference, the understanding that change is possible, these are the essential ingredients in moving people to act for change. Apathy, fear and self-doubt keep us from acting. Organizers foster the faith in ourselves we need to make sacrifices and persist in the face of obstacles.
In other words: without hope there can be no change.
For most of 2009, I fought the Healthcare Phobocracy, the voices of cynicism, doubt and fear. Back in late August, as the tea party protests dominated the news, as the obituary of healthcare reform was written almost daily, as I talked fellow activists off the ledge of their anxiety, I wrote about the challenge of holding onto the belief that we could still succeed:
During the primaries, Michael Chabon wrote a beautiful piece called Obama and the Phobocracy. I stumbled on that tonight when I went strolling through my old diaries from the campaign.
Organizing can be really hard, painful work at times, and I went back to the moment when we didn't know how it was going to all turn out yet. When I had to trust that what felt like a lonely journey into an unknown future against big odds with the stakes as high as they get -- would turn out to be the right thing to do.
I had to stop listening to the Phobocracy - the voices of fear and distrust, the expectation of failure, the certainty that Americans would once again fail when faced with a critical choice. I had to trade all that in for Hope, one little four letter word that had all but vanished from our politics. Against all odds, we brought it back. Time to dust it off again.
I've been watching the discourse here, and wondering how so many of the loudest voices seem to have forgotten so quickly the lessons we learned about power, faith, reason and change. The healthcare debate on both sides right now is all about trafficking in the phobocracy.
The Republicans spin lies about "death panels" and "socialized medicine" because they want to use fear of change to make themselves relevant. It's all they have left. They want to foster distrust. They want us to forget that we as a nation made a new commitment on November 4. We aligned ourselves to the belief that what brings us together is more powerful than what divides us. We allowed ourselves in that moment to imagine an America where we fought against fear and hatred instead of against the government and each other.
And yet on our own side, people are giving into fear. Fear that we have already lost, despite the fact we have gotten further than ever before. Fear that we will be betrayed, despite the fact there is greater opportunity for success and cooperation to advance a liberal political agenda than we have known in more than a decade. Instead I see nothing but the pre-emptive declaration of disappointment, the expectation that nothing good can come of the change we voted for.
It is actually really hard to have hope. It is somehow easier to disregard the real, concrete evidence that Americans across the nation are rising up to say "enough" to a system that leaves families bankrupt, 47 million people without insurance, and everyone with the uncertainty that just when they need it most, a faceless bureaucrat at the insurance company will tell them they aren't covered.
Because we've been fooled before, right? We will just expect the worst and sit back and watch it happen. If we don't hope for something better, we won't have to work for it.
But we did hope, and we did keep working, and we survived a series of crushing blows - the August recess, the tea party madness, the lies, the betrayals, the painful compromises. Despite an all-out effort to stop this historic legislation, we made it through nearly to the finish line. And I held onto my hope and my belief that we could succeed, to sustain me through every potential setback. I kept writing about what was working, and focusing on the incredible volunteer energy and mobilization for reform. I kept explaining that we should not fear this challenge, we should embrace it, how premature it was to write the obituary of healthcare reform, how we were actually succeeding against tough odds. I wanted to tell that story so that others would not lose hope, and would not give up.
Until I reached my own moment of doubt and fear. Having lived so long on hope I faced the possibility all was about to be lost.
For the past few days, I have been thinking a lot about an email I sent on January 21 of this year. Less than 48 hours after Scott Brown won Massachusetts, as reports surfaced that Congress might be willing to walk away from almost a year of work on health reform, I was in deep despair. I sent it to an organizer I really respect, hoping he could talk me off the ledge.
I don't know what to believe . . . I am usually pretty level headed and I resist panic. I've held steady through every crazy cycle of this bill. I can fight for a lot of things, and I can accept a lot of compromises and still keep fighting, and I have. But this feels different. We aren't talking about one piece or one provision but about the very core of this bill. We have at least some Democrats ready to abandon the goal of comprehensive reform and all those Americans whose stories we have honored with our work and promised to help.
Please tell me they aren't going to walk away or give us the "school uniforms" version of HCR. Too many people have put too much on the line here for a whole year. If they abandon us now -- out of fear -- it's going to break us.
The struggle to enact this groundbreaking legislation has been a constant battle between hope and fear. In that moment, I felt overwhelmed by the fear of losing everything just when the finish line seemed in sight. And the fear of what such a loss would do to a new organization that was just hitting its stride. I was seeing the dark side of hope, how painful it is to believe in change and see it fail.
You know, it turns out that Hope Is a Four Letter Word:
Hope is not for everyone. It is only for those strong enough -- or desperate enough -- to embrace it. It is cruel, harsh and demanding. Belief in change will break your heart almost every time. Hope won’t let you sit on the sidelines. You can’t take the easy way out. The disillusioned can safely withdraw. The Hopeful are driven to engage.
And so the advice I got was the same advice I always gave - don't give up. Keep working. Change is possible.
The very next day, I heard the President say he wasn't going to quit on healthcare. Over the next few weeks and months, I saw an overwhelming response by the people who had been working for months to keep calling, writing, organizing and fighting to get this done. I saw a Speaker of the House work some miracles to cobble together the votes, and who apparently said she would not back down from the goal of comprehensive reform. In the face of losing everything, when it would have been easy to give up, so many people decided to embrace hope.
And now, here we are. We have won a great victory. And we know we have more work to do. But we have given ourselves a powerful tool to help us keep working for change. We have seen that change is possible.
We have seen that although it will be a tough fight, full of setbacks and disappointments, persistence and a steady vision can sustain us. And at those most difficult moments we can remember what this moment feels like.
And that is why the President was speaking as the community organizer he remains, giving us the hope we need to build on this victory and push for more. As I wrote just before his inauguration,
Leaders who inspire us to act can offer righteous anger, and devastating critiques. But the greatest offer Hope as well -- not just as a rhetorical flourish, but as an active demand that we step up, supported by the reassurance that our efforts will not be wasted.
Change is possible.
(You can hear the audio of the President's call on the OFA website.)
How did I forget this?
I am a volunteer with Organizing for America in California. When I write here I speak for myself and not for the organization in any way. My diaries, and all the words in them, are my own.