The Common Good

It Takes a Movement: A Post-Election Analysis

Source: Sojourners
Date: November 4, 2010

(The following is an advance copy and is subject to change before publishing. Please, do not directly quote from the material.)

 It Takes a Movement: A Post-Election Analysis

By Jim Wallis

1. How We Got Here

Inauguration Day was highlighted for our family by a visit from Dr. Vincent Harding, the eminent African-American historian, and member of Martin Luther King Jr’s inner circle during the southern Freedom movement. Despite health concerns and the dangerous weather, “Uncle Vincent,” as my two young boys call him, traveled across the country to witness this moment of a history in which he had been so deeply involved. As we stood on the mall clutching our inauguration tickets in our mittens, Harding said, “It was a movement that started all this.”

Do you remember how cold it was in Washington for the inauguration of President Barack Obama? Yet, it was one of the warmest days in memory; in the way two million people treated each other on the Mall, in the hope that filled the air around the country, in the sense of history being made with America’s first black president, in the expectation that the country was about to move to a new place of change out of the grip of a deep recession, and the promise of a generational political shift. How ironically warm it seemed on that distant January day, now stands in sharp contrast with the cold and very angry political atmosphere that was evidenced in the mid-term elections.

In politics there is always a spiritual choice to be made- to choose hope or fear. Leaders can build movements by appealing to a vision of what our country can be or by painting a picture of who to blame and what to be afraid of.  Obama won in November of 2008, in the midst of a recession, bank failures, and two wars, by capturing the political narrative which spoke to our values as a country and by riding a movement that had reason to hope and was ready to work for change. But the new President lost the narrative and the “movement” is now on the other side of the political aisle. A strong values narrative attracted many in 2008, including many religious voters who had long eluded the Democrats. But now, many seem to have lost faith. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, reached out to the faith community even more than many Republicans have done, including his predecessor George W. Bush—both in his campaign and the first two years of his administration. While voters have often viewed Republicans as the party most friendly to religion, polls showed that most viewed Obama and McCain as equally friendly to faith in that election. Indeed,  highly energized and predominantly religious black voters overcame their cynicism to believe that another America might be possible, faith-inspired Hispanic voters dramatically shifted their allegiances, Evangelical and Catholic voters decided to break with their recent past (or their parents) because of what they heard from Obama. They were drawn to a political leader who seemed to want to move past old political divisions and boundaries, and was not afraid to identify the moral issues at stake in politics.

            But if you compare 2010 exit polls to 2006, Democrats performed 14 points worse with white Protestants, 14 points worse with white Evangelicals, and 20 points worse with Catholics.  Compared to 2008, Democrats did 10 points worse with white Protestants, 14 points worse with white Evangelicals, and 20 points worse with Catholics. That is quite a swing vote.

Given many obstacles, Administration advocates believe that Obama has a two-year record of great accomplishments, including some things that his predecessors failed to do. He thinks so too, and points to historic health care legislation, the most serious financial regulatory reform since the Great Depression, no energy bill but increased fuel standards, new student loan programs, unnoticed investments in infrastructure and clean energy, a much expanded national service agenda, and a plan for educational reform we haven’t seen in 30 years. Obama wonders why people don’t see all that, which he calls “the most successful administration in generations in moving the progressive agenda forward.” But Obama’s legislative victories inside the beltway have clearly not connected to the everyday lives of too many Americans or to their core values . Many families who are struggling and afraid don’t believe that Washington or Wall Street care about them or are really with them.  And they showed their anger at the polls, or their disillusionment by not even showing up.

            Four years ago, and two years ago, people voted decisively for change; and now, in a shift no one could have predicted after the last election, voters have just voted for change again in 2010. And chilling polls show that the vast majority of the country this time voted against rather than for particular candidates or policies. The Republican leadership made it clear they were running a campaign that was meant as a referendum on Obama’s first two years in office. The change promised in 2008 never came about in the minds of many across the political spectrum—on the left, the right, and the center. The new President has been up against almost insurmountable odds, especially from all that he inherited, or as he puts it, the “cards we were dealt.” But, from the results we just saw and the Republican priority of making Obama a one-term President, it clearly seems that many in the country would seem to disagree with the White House assessment. What happened?

2.  Why Politics is Frozen Solid

Scriptures say, “without a vision the people perish,” and soon after he was elected, the President let the vision perish and the people soon followed. Without it, a vacuum formed and allowed the growth of a different sort of movement.  Most unexpectedly, after the new “progressive” moment in January 2009, the “new populism” in America is now decidedly on the Tea Party Right; sparking an anti-Obama, anti-Democrat, and anti-government movement; questioning the President’s religion, patriotism, and even his birth place; and tinged clearly by some with an ugly racial edge. The “movement” is now on the other side of the political aisle. A campaign of “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can” was slowly replaced with the governance of diminishing expectations and “They Won’t Let Us.” But people who feel that they are perishing can be both afraid and angry.        

            Washington politics has been frozen solid, with no movement or motivation to try and solve the problems of the nation.  Obama’s hoped for politics of solutions has been replaced by that of scapegoats. We have seen the opposition party adopt a politics of sabotage more intense than any in years. And newly elected politicians who view bi-partisan as an act of betrayal won’t help.  The normal negativity of the campaign season was further amplified by the Roberts Court decision to remove all limits on the political spending of America’s corporations, unions, and other outside special interests. With no transparency required, the election was shaped by shadowy phantom interests that nobody knows and no one can hold accountable.

            Then, of course, there is the 24/7 overtly ideological and partisan pounding of a right-wing media machine that is both “unfair” and “unbalanced,” but has much more capacity to shape public discourse than the rudderless and shallow mainstream media that seems to have no moral compass except falling ratings. The left-wing blogosphere mimics the right and channel surfing between the political talk shows on both sides of the ideological divide reveals shows and hosts whose political views are very different, but otherwise sound more and more alike in their tone and style. On American cable television and talk radio, honest and robust political discourse has been replaced with an ideological food fight.

Civility has died in America, and urgent pleas for a more truthful and respectful public discourse from both religious leaders and former lawmakers from both parties have been ignored by a media that just loves a perpetual conflict narrative. But many in the country still long for a more moral and civil tone in our political discussion. Could civility become sexy in the repetitive shouting match which is now American politics?  

            A  failure of communication, which the White House has now begun to acknowledge, is not a deep enough analysis of the problem. Nor is the conservative counter that the real issue is how bad and unpopular Obama’s policies are. The problem is not that Obama has tried to do too much, or not enough; depending on your political point of view. The deeper problem is this: Washington D.C. is wired to block social change. And the system is “not on the level” as Obama has complained in his more frustrated moments. Those who want change have naively overestimated how much a new young progressive President could really do. And the new President was over-confident about how much he could accomplish with his powers of persuasion, convincing logic, sincere desire to transcend partisan divisions, and the knowledge that he is often the smartest person in the room. What has still not been really understood by Obama’s White House, by most of his supporters, and by a media that mostly focuses on who’s up, and who’s down in Washington during any given week is this: it takes a movement.     


3.  Why a “Movement” is Necessary

There are endless comparisons made between Obama, Clinton, and Reagan—how badly each did in their first midterm elections, and how to recover and not be a one-term president like Jimmy Carter. But in the case of Obama, the better historical models are FDR and the JFK/Johnson period. It was the robust activism of those independent progressive movements of the past which created the space for major reforms, and made other presidencies memorable. That’s because social change does not ultimately rest on who is in the White House, but a movement outside of Washington D.C. that makes fundamental reforms possible. What we need to re-learn now is the choreography of the outside/inside “dance” that real social change always requires.


            Barack Obama, perhaps more than any other American President, is aware of the “call and response” tradition in the black church. It’s why I most love to preach in black churches. When the preacher “calls” and the congregation “responds,” your sermon actually gets better, stronger, and deeper. It can even change your sermon, taking you in directions you were not planning to go.

            It’s time for this President to find the political equivalent of the black church’s call and response. He needs to be engaged with the movement that elected him, over the heads of the special interests and elites that now run this country, and even over the heads of the Congress and their leaders from both parties. We need presidential leadership that can break through the 24-hour news cycle and connect directly with voters even when he isn’t immediately looking for their votes. It would require meeting with key constituency leaders and groups, including the faith community, not just to get their support for the White House political agenda, but to actually help shape a deeper social agenda and strategy. Part of this requires a change in perspective – to see an independent social movement on the outside as necessary and worth supporting (i.e. calling for it), rather than, at worst as threats, or as constituencies that must be appeased or just mobilized for e-mail campaigns on behalf of the Administration’s agenda. Most White Houses have been incapable of a wider and deeper perspective.

            Real social movements also reject the rigid partisanship that has come to dominate official Washington. They stick to their core principles and realize they have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but rather permanent issues. The kind of social movement we now need will not focus on Democratic or Republican victories in the next election cycle, but in finding allies wherever they can for a set of moral principals and issues.

            Such presidential leadership would, of course, seem a very risky strategy, which many or even most White House aides will likely tell the President.  But if Obama’s own “calling” is to really lead the change we can truly believe in, he might come to see that a bolder leadership style is the best or even only way to accomplish that vision; or at least give it the best shot he possibly can.  Just as Lincoln needed Frederick Douglass, Roosevelt needed a pressuring labor movement; and Kennedy and Johnson needed King and the black-church led civil rights movement; I believe that Barack Obama now needs the kind of social movement that is always necessary to make real change in Washington. He can’t do this by himself, which he must painfully realize by now. 

4. How Access to Power can be Dangerous  

            The power of an inside/outside strategy has been compromised by the problem of access which many leaders from social movements got after the election of Barack Obama. I remember seeing many friends in the building which served as the Administration’s transition headquarters, all of us attending meeting after meeting on the policies the new Administration hoped to enact.  Some of us attended so many meetings on so many varied topics that some security guards joked that we ought to have cots in the transition headquarters to avoid going back and forth from home so much.

            After the new Administration took office, the meetings and calls continued. Along with about 20 other leaders from the faith and non-profit community, I served on the first Presidential Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships – a  commitment which involved more task forces, phone calls, and multi-day White House meetings than any of us every expected.

            Access in Washington D.C. quickly becomes an end in itself, with elites just changing places after elections. Getting your calls returned or being able to get the meetings you want about your concerns can be very seductive.. But access without results doesn’t ultimately mean very much. Dr. King learned to navigate the corridors of power in the Congress and the White House, but his base was always outside of those places of power.  When leaders from social movements get too close to power and are given lots of access, they can sometimes forget the lessons and wisdom of the social movements they have come from. Frederick Douglass knew he had to be a thorn in Abraham Lincoln’s side when he said, “Power concedes nothing without demand.”


            I am deeply concerned about the disappointment I have felt everywhere among those who believed, almost two years ago, that some serious political change might finally be on the way. That promise is now disappearing rapidly and is in danger of retreating into an even deeper cynicism than before, having acted in faith for a hope that seems ever more dim.  Many are deeply troubled about our country right now, and have been struggling in the hope of finding some clarity and direction ourselves for what to say and do.

            Many leaders of various constituencies and sectors who I talk to around the country are ready to mobilize a movement  in support of solutions to our pressing needs, whether there is a President or Congress who leads or not.  I feel a growing need to create a more independent and critical movement for social justice and change in America. The relational and convening power in the faith community is substantial and has the potential to chart a more prophetic course on behalf of the issues that are so central to us. We will reach out directly to the people in our pews, our parishes, and our communities; empowering ordinary people to resist the cynicism and become real citizens again. We will do our best to create the response, even strong enough to evoke the call.  Advisors might not be as needed as prophets are. Biblically, there were always the prophets of the court, who often had supportive words for the king.  But, the prophets of Yahweh were more often from the wilderness and often had strong words for the king. 

5. Moral Centering and Political Recalibration

An election like this one always calls for both moral centering and political recalibration. Leaders of both parties were talking the morning after the election about cooperation to solve the nation’s problems. We’ll see; but that will likely also take a movement. . Despite huge Democratic losses in Congress, both sides acknowledge that Barack Obama is still President so what he now does is still important. And Obama has the beginnings of a framework for more serious change in some of what he has already done or proposed, but he will have to lift up a much more powerful vision for change, risk a bolder leadership style, and work with social movements as partners in a creative tension. What’s lacking is the big vision and the big movement.

            Obama could go back to where he should have begun—with the need to create real jobs and good work that rebuilds the nation’s crumbling physical and moral infrastructure--roads, bridges, airports, rail transport, schools, and a new clean energy grid; undergirded by healthy families and communities; through new innovation and creative entrepreneurial leadership in all sectors, public and private partnership, focused investment, and a clear set of values. He could offer both a work ethic and work; an entire country of homes and buildings needs to be retrofitted for a renewable energy future—work that cannot be outsourced to other countries.  And when the private market isn’t providing the leadership necessary, then smart public policy must provide the catalyst and the incentives. Obama has said some of this but the nation has not heard a clear call for shared purpose, collective sacrifice, and persistent patience to accomplish a national vision and mission. And without that vision, the people are perishing.

What are some other basic building blocks?

            Obama’s education reform agenda is very likely the most far reaching and potentially most impacting of everything he has done so far—and with bipartisan support. He could bridge the ideological gap between big and small government by leading with the idea pioneered by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in providing social services by partnering with both faith-based and secular non-profits.  Conservatives have better understood the importance of culture than many liberals have and Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative has the potential to be one of the most culture-changing and therefore nation-changing things he has done. Instead of running away from the still deep and divisive issues of race in the United States, Obama could much more directly address them, as he did so brilliantly in his 2008 Philadelphia speech. And prioritizing real and comprehensive immigration reform  could be a key part of a positive agenda for America’s multi-cultural future. The President’s early focus on ethics in government has mostly disappeared from view, but could be transformed into what will likely be the single most important issue in recovering our democracy—the campaign for electoral financial reform.

Finally, the President’s remarkable speech in Cairo, intended to reach out to the Muslim world, could finally be followed up with a real action plan, beyond endless wars of occupation. And the urgent need to turn the world toward nuclear disarmament, one of the things that keeps Obama awake at night, could be one of the signature accomplishments of this President.

Never has there been a time riper for a “call” and a “response.”

6.  The Next Steps or Going Forward


It is always appropriate and necessary for the faith community to question and challenge political leadership on the biggest moral issues—indeed it is our prophetic vocation to do so.  That means lifting up the now growing rates of poverty in America and around the world, even when both parties only want to talk about the middle class. The plight of undocumented immigrants and their families unites almost all sectors of the faith community. The younger generation of the faithful is insisting on the urgency of “creation care” of the environment and the threat of climate change, especially on the poorest people around the globe. People of faith across the political spectrum also want to make serious progress on reducing the number of abortions in America, not with symbolic amendments or criminalizing desperate and tragic choices, but in preventing unwanted pregnancies and supporting low-income women. There is much work to be done promoting healthy families; not by scapegoating gays and lesbians and bullying gay teens, but by creating more family-friendly policies and culture. More religious leaders are also ready to challenge the ethics of endless and failed wars of occupation, which have yet to seriously reduce the real threats of terrorism but have killed too many people.


It t is not enough to talk about what President Obama should be doing; but what a movement can be doing to clear the space for change and provide the energy and pressure on both the Congress and the White House. Only serious public education and mobilization will move the country on the “big vision” above. The “outside strategy” must be strong for the “inside strategy ” to finally be successful. And only then will access give way to influence. Learning the lessons of the midterm elections will mean no longer just wondering what Obama will do next; but also asking what we will do.

I have learned in the last two years that changes in Washington, Wall Street, and the country, are indeed much harder to accomplish that anyone had expected. The combination of entrenched politics (on both sides), hugely influential special interests, the growing power of money in politics, the 24/7 assault  of ideologically driven media machines, and a still passive electorate that believes voting is the only requirement of citizenship--all contributed to where we now find ourselves.

Instead of just sitting back and watching how things go; an empowered new electorate must push the country deeper into our best shared values, understand  the need for social movements in making social change, and act to hold both political sides accountable  in trying to actually solve the country’s greatest challenges, instead of just winning and keeping power?

We need to construct a new “moral center” in American politics. Yes, the rising deficit is a moral issue, but dealing with it in a moral way is also important—not cutting deficits by making our most vulnerable and least powerful people even more so. Yes, defeating terrorism is also a noble cause, but being willing to challenge the enormous human and financial costs of failed military solutions is also a just cause. And the faith community will always be lifting up the biblical priority of the poor, the weak, the sick, the oppressed, the left out and left behind and always the children; and we will look for allies on both sides of the political aisle wherever we can find them.

            Real social change depends upon a return to core values more than a partisan victory by either political side. It means lifting up the fundamental personal and social virtues in our individual choices, family lives, community involvement, and engaged citizenship. For people of faith, it means leading by example from our congregations and actually doing the things we say we believe in.

Neither the left or the right has the answers now, though both will continue to say that they do. So we have to focus on the spiritual and moral values that bring us together; that choose the common good over private gain, inclusiveness over intolerance, civility over shouting, long term over short term, integrity over celebrity, justice over excuses, morality over expediency, stewardship over consumption, truth over spin, patient persistence over immediate results and, finally, right over wrong.

            These are the values that work for our personal lives, for teaching our children, for leading our congregations, for changing our communities, for holding politics accountable, and for creating the social movements that make a difference. We’ve learned that making change is harder than we think; and that it’s now time to go deeper.

Jim Wallis is the President of Sojourners which is the largest network of social justice Christians in America, and the author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. He served for a year on the President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.