Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's the functioning institutions, stupid!

I know we think it's all about the money. "It's the economy, stupid" -- this was James Carville's touchstone as campaign strategist for Bill Clinton's victory in 1992.

It was a New Democrat, Third Way, triangulating, 'move toward the center' kind of strategy. Democrats would move from the squabbling scrum of interest groups and start talking about business, entrepreneurship, and growing the economy.

What's different in 2008? The money’s different. It’s not floating out there in projects that start in someone’s garage, but it’s part of a system – it always was – that connects people and ideas and goods and services and states. (Or not.) And it’s not just “dollars,” it’s markets and banking policy (note to self: before posting, check to see that we still have “banks”) not to mention stuff like euros and credit default swaps that weren’t around in 1992.

Thus Obama rightly criticizes the notion of an ownership society as simply another way of saying “you’re on your own.” That model was morally wrong in terms of building a good society and now we see, as it crashes all around us, that it wasn't a model of anything. "Ownership society" is a contradiction in terms.

In the same vein, good schools are not the result of good parenting; you need good parents but you also need a curriculum and people who are good at delivering it, tasks which need to be in place way before the PTA organizes bake sales. You can take care of your body with diet and exercise, but you can’t do “health care” on your own, you need a plan. A plan is not a sad note about a cancer recurrence Scotch-taped to a coffee can by the cash register at the VFW club. It's too little, it's too ad hoc and it's generally too damn late. (Gosh, kind of like that agonized debate over the initial 700 billion dollar bailout for the economy. Just 700 billion? Sounds sort of cute now.)

It’s the functioning institutions, stupid.

This is what’s different about Obama, or perhaps that's what's different about us, now. Listen carefully, behind that talk about economy and creating good jobs is the audacious claim that the multiple interlocking institutions of American life can and should work better. Preferably much better.

Making that happen requires across-the-board engagement and support. So, yes, folks like David Plouffe worked hard to get Obama elected, to turn out voters on election day to carry him over the top. But part of that build up was building up a network of people who were not only inspired by the big picture but also willing to see and cultivate the many ways we’re dependent on one another.

And is it me, or is it actually taking hold? I could swear I'm hearing it in the zeitgeist -- you know, the "spirit of the times" -- heck, this idea is geisting all over the zeit right now. I glanced at the TV on my way upstairs a couple nights ago, just in time to see Rachel Maddow turn to the camera and exclaim, with wonky delight: "Infrastructure!"

Indeed. Or as Marilynne Robinson said, in an interview published in Paris Match [H/T Commonweal blog] , "There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence." Institutions are not hobbies -- unless you think of driving on bridges that won't collapse and trusting the food you buy and turning on the lights at night as sort of optional.

You know why it’s thrilling to listen to Obama? It’s not because he’s a savior, he isn’t. (I’m a theologian, a trained professional, you can take my word for this one.) It's because he seems smart enough and serious enough to take in the complex reality of what's happening, and he inspires this attitude in others. In victory he's sober and hopeful and resolute. Nobody's dancing in the end zone here, people are simply flooding onto, and claiming, the field.

It's not the money, nor is it simply "the economy." It's the way we live with and in and for one another. So if we can do it in Greek, Mr. Carville, I'll give it to you -- it's the oikonomia, the household of God.