2004 Elections: Where to Go from Here?
November 2, 2004 was a bleak day for liberals and progressives. Just about everything we rooted for went down to defeat. Rumors of ballot-tampering aside, it seems that this time we wuzn't even robbed; we got beat. Their expensive machinery for disinforming the voters outdid our expensive machinery for disinforming the voters. So we're stuck with “another four years.”
But let's face it. Expecting Americans to vote for “anybody but Bush” was irresponsible from the start, and plenty of Americans could see that. Conscientious voters needed to hear some well-articulated positive reasons to vote for John Kerry. It's not so much that the Republicans won the election, as that we lost it.
The painful truth is that though neither candidate said anything of real substance, more Americans liked what Bush was saying than liked what Kerry was saying. The country voted for empire, for strong-arm solutions to our insecurity, for decidedly un-Christlike “Christian values,” for less taxes and more deficits, for more prison and less health insurance, for going it alone at whatever cost. What's going on here? What to do now?
The thirty million Mexicans among us say “Mas vale malo por conocido que bueno por conocer,” and then again “El que por su gusto es buey, hasta la coyunda relame.” Any one of them will be happy to decipher those aphorisms for you. Or talk with another first-generation immigrant; talk with a member of law enforcement or the military, talk with a business-man, a minimum-wage worker, a football or NASCAR fan, a young video war-game player, an evangelical Christian. Such conversations will shake up easy assumptions about how our fellow-citizens think, how our country's politics work, and what we can hope to do about them.
The answer to the big question is that we've got to get serious about being and building a political opposition in this country. To do that we've got to learn to take the Republican majority seriously, as fellow-citizens and as political opponents.
That means quit passing around stupid jokes about them, thinking of them in caricatures, treating them with contempt, calling them names. (Though it can be therapeutic to poke fun at a real jackass or a crazy idea from time to time!) It means seeking every opportunity for honest dialog with them, even looking for the odd patch of common ground on which we can work together. It means listening carefully and respectfully when they talk, and learning what we can about them.
Republicans are serious about politics. They went to work after Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964, and they stayed at work. Little by little they've taken power so effectively that they are now able to dictate planks in the Democrats' platform as well as their own. We have a lot of work to do to catch up. But when we have done that work, there's no question that we will prevail. That is because their overall program, however well intentioned some may be in supporting it, is both bad for most people in this country and unsustainable. Here are ten suggestions for action by liberals and progressives right now:
- Quit hoping for a miraculous candidate and electoral victory to set things right. It won't happen. Turn off the TV, oil up your lie detector, and do some serious reading. Get yourself really well informed on the issues that matter most to you, and stay up to date on them. Talk about those issues wherever you can with other people. Listen to what they have to say; learn from their reflections. Then get ready to speak out, stand up and be counted.
- Get to work with your friends on sketching up a New People's Platform for an America we can be proud of, an America that is secure because it works, and that we know will work over the long run. Talk up that platform in every forum; help frame the terms of the debate. Then get to work and organize around it, so that next time all Democrat candidates will have a clear idea of what is expected of them by people at the base. John Kerry lost because he did not have, and therefore could not articulate, a persuasive alternative program for America – one that responded to the expressed demands of the people he was offering to lead.
- A New People's Platform ought to be radical, not moderate. That is, it needs to go to the roots of each problem and base itself on the best available thinking about that problem. It has got to propose concrete, reasonable and understandable changes, even if they do not yet seem feasible – changes in our electoral system, in campaign finance, in health, drug, environmental and immigration policy, in our schools and prisons, in our foreign policy. The purpose of seeing to it that the Platform bubbles up from the bottom is precisely to change our current political discourse and our sense of the possible, and not to adapt to them.
- Forget third parties and independent candidates in state and national politics (even though they can sometimes do a lot of good at the local level). Join the Democrats, get active in local central committees and party affairs, and take that party back from the middle-of-the roaders, the fat cats and the handlers.
- Quit ignoring, undermining, quibbling with or beating up on other liberals, leftists, progressives and single-issue activists. Be a peacemaker. Seek alliances; join and help build coalitions. In particular, get behind trade unions and all other movements for justice and equality. Write letters; join picket lines; be there when they need you.
- Be skeptical about conspiracy theories. Conspiracies are sometimes real enough; but ranting about them is a dead end. We seldom learn the truth about them; and when we do, the media will ignore it. Talking conspiracy spreads fear and despair. Our message is confidence, determination and hope.
- Take the concern of most Americans with “moral values” seriously on its own terms. Read George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think (Chicago, 2002). We all want moral values; we already live by moral values. So let's talk about those values openly wherever we get a chance.
- Recruit smart and articulate candidates for public office at every level: women, people of color, working people, white men in blue jeans. We have more than enough golf-playing white men in suits in office for the time being. Work with the new candidates, get behind them, and keep on pushing them to do the right thing. An effective opposition looks different, talks different, and represents a real alternative to the way things have been done up to now. If we build it right, it won't need millions for the ratrace of electoral attack ads. In the meantime, where progressive public officials have already been elected, show them some appreciation. Engage them in conversation about what matters most to us; write to them frequently; give them all the support we can.
- Live simply & practice tithing for the cause of peace and justice. Every group that works hard for a better America and a better world needs your financial support and mine. Voluntary self-taxation is the right thing to do.
- Talk hope where others talk fear. Put hope into practice. As FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Our job is to get down, alongside our fellow citizens, and tackle the hard work it is going to take to make our country truly safe, just, egalitarian, well-educated, healthy, strong and free. We've got to keep at it. We owe it to the kids, to the grandkids, and to all who are yet to come.