As Abraham Lincoln was serving his first term in the Illinois state legistlature, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian wrote:
Scarcely have you descended on the soil of America when you find yourself in the midst of a sort of tumult; a confused clamor is raised on all sides; a thousand voices come to you at the same time, each of them expressing some social needs. Around you everything moves: here, the people of one neighborhood have gathered to learn if a church ought to be built; there, they are working on the choice of a representative; farther on the deputies of a district are going to town in all haste in order to decide about some local improvements; in another place, the farmers of a village abandon their furrows to go discuss the plan of a road or a school.
Corner Detail of a Turn-of-the-Century Log Cabin Recorded by the Author in Washington State.
Lincoln was one of the many ambitious souls drawn to politics in a young nation that had founded itself on the notion that the people could and should govern themselves. Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana is generally credited with the first use of the phrase “grassroots and boots”, who said of the Progressive Party in 1912:
This party has come from the grass roots. It has grown from the soil of people’s hard necessities.
While Beveridge coined the term, it’s clear from de Tocqueville’s observations of young America that the principles of grassroots organizing, wherein individuals are actively involved at the local level, are as old as America itself. These principles are alive and well today — they played a vital role in the election of President Obama, and brought many of us (myself included) more deeply into one of the modern machinations of grassroots involvement: Blogging.
The cultural divide born largely of Nixon and fostered by Reagan, went on to plague the Clinton and Bush years, in part, because both men came of age during Vietnam. They represented opposite sides of that era, and all the baggage that grew out of it. While some key battles in the Culture Wars wage on with sometimes devastating effects, it’s becoming clear that the pool from which to recruit culture warriors is receding.
There are about 95 million so-called “Millennials”; young Americans ranging in age from 9 to 30. Greater even than the Baby Boomers, Millennials compose the largest generation in history, and they played a significant role in Obama’s election, favoring him by fully two-thirds (66 percent). Out of the roughly 23 million votes cast from this generation, this produced a seven million vote plurality for Obama–virtually the same as his overall margin of victory.
…for today’s youth, the culture wars are over. The Millennials are more accepting of gender equality, gay rights, racial blending, immigration, and divergent political views than any other generation. This is true even of Millennials who consider themselves evangelical Christians (twenty percent of the young people we surveyed–or about 19 million nationwide).
In our surveys and focus groups, we heard countless comments like this one from a Millennial youth in Denver: “We’ve all grown up after the civil rights and the women’s rights movements. So I think we’re more tolerant, regardless of culture or sexual orientation.” Or this one, from a self-described evangelical Christian: “Conservative, liberal–you got to be able to go to both sides. Democrats don’t have all the answers, Republicans don’t have all the answers. Being open-minded to change is what’s important.”
The modern grassroots tools that so successfully helped Obama go from a virtually unknown primary contender to the most powerful office in the world have not withered on the vine. Witness the efforts of Mr. Kenneth Richardson:
For Kenneth Richardson II of Owings, Md., Barack Obama’s election-night victory was not the end but the beginning. “We can’t let this go,” the 58-year-old father of three remembers thinking. “People feel invested. They feel they can actually do something.” So he did. A couple of weeks after the confetti settled, he posted an alert on MyBarackObama.com proposing a new activist group in Calvert County, a rural exurb of Washington where the rolling farmland is dotted by weathered barns and crab shacks. Complete strangers signed up. A retired Air Force pilot, Phil Pfanschmidt, and his wife Joyce, both 71, came to the first meeting in December. So did Chris Melendez, a self-employed art dealer who lives about 30 miles away. Richardson’s old motorcycle buddy Al Leandre brought his wife, a public-school teacher, and passed the word to some friends he had met through his government-contracting business. With a few clicks of a mouse, the Owings Grass Roots Group was born.
They were white and black, old and young, middle-class professionals who shared a collective frustration with the state of their country. At least four of the founding 12 had once been registered Republicans. Most had stories of helping the Obama campaign; all had internalized Obama’s message of bottom-up, people-powered political change. “For anything that is going on in southern Maryland, Barack Obama personally can have an impact – through us,” explained Leandre.
During his travels through young America, Alexis de Tocqueville further noted that:
Citizens assemble with the sole goal of declaring that they disapprove of the course of government. To meddle in the government of society and to speak about it is the greatest business and, so to speak, the only pleasure that an American knows…. An American does not know how to converse, but he discusses; he does not discourse, but he holds forth. He always speaks to you as to an assembly.
Obama is often described as our first post-partisan President, in part because his governing strategy has its roots in generational change. Lincoln was a self-educated man of his times, lured to politics in an era when people believed they had to power to affect change with hard work and solid ideas. As Kenneth Richardson teaches us, these beliefs are alive and well in America today. Somewhere out there, among the youth of our nation, the next great leader is being forged, forming their ideology with the education they receive from blogs just like this one.
For all the problems we face, and for all our disagreements–political, social, or cultural–it’s a damned fine time to be an American.