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Vision: 8 Ways We're Making America a Better Place -- in Spite of the Disasters Coming out of Washington

We can have the kind of economy, government, environment, and country we want, if we keep pushing, organizing, building, and otherwise doing the work of democracy.

Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock form the Flatlanders, a powerhouse trio of Texas singer/ songwriters now based in Austin. But each of them was raised on the West Texas flatlands (hence the group's name) around Lubbock. They were shaped, both musically and personally, by the full 'Lubbock experience,' which includes a few cultural oddities. Several years ago, Butch explained one of these on a national radio talk show that Susan DeMarco and I hosted.

He pointed out that growing up in the straight-laced, God-fearing Protestant churches of that region could be very confusing for hormone-driven teenagers like him. "They told us that sex was the most vulgar, nastiest thing on earth," Butch said. "And that we should save it for someone we loved."

Politics is not sex, but these days it can be almost as confusing. Obama and the Democrats are in power, but they've been unwilling to assert it with any boldness on the big issues America faces. Instead, they keep capitulating to petulant, recalcitrant Republicans in the vain hope of engaging these pious, right-wing fundamentalists in some sort of bipartisan Kumbaya.

Meanwhile, the GOP's new wave of neo-Neanderthal leaders (Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, the Koch Brothers, Jim DeMint, the entire menagerie of Fox TV's nattering nabobs, et al.) have plunged the party of Lincoln (and of Reagan, for that matter) headlong into the abyss of political absurdity. EXAMPLE: Obama, they insist, is not merely the centrist, establishment liberal that he has proven to be, but an Islamo-socialist-fascist-marxist Kenyan, a spawn of Satan.

Seriously. Heed the babbling of Newt, who was always strange, but has now turned scary, having loosened all of the nuts and bolts on his sanity to free his inner lunatic. In September, the former leader of the House of Representatives of the United States of America embraced the nutty 'birthers' to declare that Obama exhibits "Kenyan anti-colonial behavior," and that the President's long-dead African father is channeling revolutionary thoughts through his son to rule America from beyond. Remember Newt is a guy who actually thinks he can be elected your president in 2012.

We live in strange times, do we not? Perhaps it's no cosmic coincidence that the balloting for November's congressional/gubernatorial elections began only 31 hours after Halloween.

But now it's the holidays, which raises the big question: is there anything political in 2010 for which we progressive/ populist Americans should be thankful?

Happily, yes! As I've rambled from town to town this year (crisscrossing from Chico to New York City, Cape May to Santa Fe, Pittsburgh to Princeton, Fort Worth to Fort Collins, Buffalo to San Francisco, Portland to Portland, the Wisconsin Dells to my old home place of Denison... and points beyond), I've found that while people are vastly disappointed by the meekness of the Democrats and totally dismayed by the willful weirdness of Republicans, neither has deterred them from pushing on with the groundwork that still must be done to revitalize our country's democracy.

However, rather than looking to Washington for the changes America needs, progressives are now uniting locally, focusing on direct actions they can take in their cities and states. As a young woman in Colorado Springs put it: "We voted for change, but we see that the money monsters in Washington eat change for breakfast. We don't have the power to fix that, not yet, but that doesn't mean we're powerless. We can make a difference where we live, gain more strength, and show the way. A national movement has to come from down here."

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