Obama From Afar

It is a commonplace that sometimes you need to leave your country in order to find it. This Election Day found me in Graz, Austria, where I am attending the Elevate Festival, an annual four-day gathering that brings together cutting-edge indie music with a forum on political culture. This year’s theme is the commons.

So I find myself among some of the most interesting international thinkers and activists on the commons: Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer who has fought Monsanto’s GMO seeds; Ronaldo Lemos, the director of iCommons and head of Creative Commons Brazil; Massimo De Angelis, an author and editor of the British website, The Commoner ; and many others. I will blog more on this fantastic gathering later this week.

At 4 o’clock in the morning, I found myself awake, watching President-Elect Barack Obama’s stirring speech in Chicago’s Grant Park. I was watching on CNN International, but two Austrian channels were also covering the event live — no small indication of the intense interest with which people around the world are watching Obama’s improbable political journey. Besides the palpable sense of relief that the rogue reign of George W. Bush will soon end, people here are mesmerized by Obama’s quintessentially American story: the son of a Kenyan man and a Kansas woman who by dint of hard work, resourcefulness and self-reliance, catapults himself into the White House. Could there be a more persuasive telling of the American Dream?

But Obama’s significance goes far beyond himself. His rise is about us. It radiates to all corners of the world. At small victories parties in London Shanghai, Nairobi and dozens of other cities, Obama’s victory has given people permission to hope and dream in ways that have been impossible over the past eight years. As a candidate, Obama frequently said, “This campaign is about you.” And while that may be taken a cheap and flattering platitude that politicians like to bestow upon their self-sacrificing supporters, in this case it happens to be resoundingly true.

Without his millions of supporters — more than 3 million donors! — Obama’s ambitions would never have gotten very far. People were intensely ready for the sort of leadership and persona that he represents. When Obama said in his speech that his triumph confirms that “government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the earth,” and that democracy still lives, he was not exaggerating.

An enormous reservoir of pent-up emotions and imagination has been released. The 75% of Americans who disapprove of President Bush and believe that the nation is “on the wrong track” now have a vehicle for recognizing an alternative reality and the truth of their feelings: President Obama.

Finding the way to actually govern by and for the people will be another matter entirely. As the usual swarm of lobbyists converge on the new transition team, reinventing governance (beyond the technocratic Gore paradigm) will arguably be the next challenge that American citizens will have to tackle. No matter how talented Obama may be, he is not a superman or a king. The special interests remain entrenched. The “change that we need” will, in the end, have to come from us. They will require our active participation, and not just a presidential proclamation.

I spent several hours today with Silke Helfrich, a German who for years ran the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Mexico City and who hosted a landmark conference on the commons in that city two years ago. As we walked back to the hotel after a lunch of spirited conversation, Silke put it plainly: the commons is not primarily about property rights or resources, even though those things obviously matter. The commons is primarily about constructing community. That is ultimately the most important tool for protecting our shared values and our collective assets. Even where law play a key role, community is what enables us to reclaim the commons.

Will we be able to reconstruct community during the Obama years? This is the real challenge. Law alone will not save us, as indeed it did not save us from the criminal excesses of the Bush Administration. We must rediscover our common fate as a people and build new sets of working relationships — relationships that serve to protect the commons in fact. There will be no other way to find our way out the global financial mess, global warming and countless social problems.

From this perspective, the Obama campaign must be seen as a warmup to a series of much bigger tests. Celebrate the achievement of this election, certainly. But make no mistake: the next four years will ask even more from us.