Life, as we all know, is unfair. As Bertrand Russell noted, “In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying.” We were born in an unfair world, and we will almost certainly die in one. A rational person does not conclude that activity to improve things is useless. This we also know.
But when it comes to collective action for the common good, we sometimes have trouble acting on the basis of the obvious.
In our personal lives, we tend to think and act more rationally. There’s nothing we can do to eliminate the danger of being killed in a car accident; nonetheless we wear seat belts, because the odds of being killed are significantly decreased. But when it comes to collective action for the common good, we’re more vulnerable to irrational thinking, because the connection between individual action and butt-saving is not so direct.
The media says there is an “enthusiasm gap”: Republicans care more if Republicans take over Congress than Democrats do. If that’s true, then a significant number of Democrats are allowing themselves to be swayed by irrational thinking. They’re driving without seatbelts, because they’re not focused on actions and consequences.
If some Democrats want to punish Barack Obama at the ballot box for the gap between the soaring rhetoric of the Presidential campaign and the reality we live today, sitting on their hands while Republicans take down Russ Feingold and Jim McGovern and the Democratic Congress is an irrational way to do it. No matter what happens in November, Barack Obama will almost surely be President for at least two more years. The rational way for Democrats to hold Obama accountable at the ballot box for unfulfilled promise is to agitate for and support a progressive Democratic challenge to Obama in 2012, when Obama will be on the ballot. We can talk more about that after the Congressional election.
Right now, we should consider this: Russ Feingold and Jim McGovern and the majority of Democrats in Congress fought for more action to reduce unemployment. Russ Feingold and Jim McGovern and the majority of Democrats in Congress fought for a public option for health insurance. And Russ Feingold and Jim McGovern and the majority of Democrats in the House, alongside 18 Democrats in the Senate, fought for a timetable to end the war in Afghanistan.
Letting the Republicans win will not make Washington more progressive. It will make Washington more reactionary.
If the Republicans take over Congress, the national media narrative will be, “Obama moved too far to the left. Now he has to move to the center.” Of course, the national media are just aching to conclude this. If it rains on the Fourth of July, it’s because the Democratic President moved too far to the left. But if Republicans take over Congress, there will be an objective basis for this narrative. This narrative will shape all press coverage and all public debate on all issues for the next two years, if the Republicans win.
If the Republicans win, they will have a huge megaphone to dominate national debate and set the policy agenda for the next two years, much bigger than the huge megaphone they already have now. Most Americans don’t know who John Boehner is, but if he becomes Speaker of the House, they will learn. A key frame of reference for the media will be whatever the Republicans are saying, much more than it is already. Prepare for stories like this every day: “According to Speaker Boehner, the moon is made of green cheese. But some experts dispute this.”
If Feingold or McGovern is defeated, there won’t be a Feingold-McGovern amendment to establish a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan, supported by the majority of House Democrats and 18 Democrats in the Senate. But even if they are not defeated, if Republicans take over Congress, there might be no vote on such an amendment, because the Republican leadership might not allow it. And the same dynamics are likely across the board: everything progressives want will be much less likely, everything progressives fear will be more likely, if the Republicans take over Congress. Action to reduce unemployment will be less likely. Cuts to Social Security such as by raising the retirement age will be more likely. The war in Afghanistan will likely go on longer. Modest reforms that would improve the lives of many to labor law, environmental regulations, immigration policy, and foreign policy are likely to be blocked. Cuts in military spending will be less likely. Equal rights for gay men and lesbians will fall lower on the Washington agenda.
Many people don’t realize how much initiatives like the Feingold-McGovern amendment matter. According to press reports of Bob Woodward’s new book, in explaining why he was insisting on the July 2011 beginning of drawdown, Obama said: “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.” This shows why initiatives like the Feingold-McGovern amendment, which showed that 60% of House Democrats wanted a timetable for withdrawal, are effective. They help produce policy changes like the 2011 drawdown – as Win Without War’s Tom Andrews pointed out when the policy was announced.
To fail to be enthusiastic about the possibility of preventing a Republican takeover, when that would be so damaging to the interests of Democratic voters across a number of issues, would be to capitulate to unreason. If we are diagnosed with cancer, and it turns out that a medical treatment is likely to save us, would we not be enthusiastic about such a treatment?
And the good news is this: it’s never been easier to do a small bit to stop the Republicans from taking over. Perhaps we live in a district that is not competitive. It’s never been easier for us to get involved somewhere else. Virtually all literate Americans can afford a monetary contribution to a candidate they like who is in a competitive race. The super-rich donate to political campaigns – are they poor judges of self-interest? As individuals, the super-rich have more money, but people who work for a living are far more numerous; if we all throw what we can in the hat, we can dominate the super-rich. For your individual contribution to have more political impact, donate through an organization you like, such your labor union, MoveOn, Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America, or the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
And it’s never been easier to effectively contribute a small amount of time. MoveOn, for example, is organizing calling parties around the country. Attending such a party is an easy and efficient way to participate with a small amount of time. In two hours, you can go, do your bit, and leave. You’re sheltered from the elements, you get food and drink and the company of pleasant people. The phone calls you make are not to random people, but to MoveOn members in competitive districts, who are generally very happy to hear from you. Your ask is simple: can they volunteer an hour or two at the campaign office of a progressive champion like Russ Feingold or Jim McGovern or Alan Grayson?
And if you can get to Washington on October 2 – check here for transportation – join the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, many peace organizations and hundreds of thousands of others on the Mall as we “Demand the changes we voted for” and rally for Jobs, Justice, Education, and Peace as part of “One Nation Working Together.”