“OK, so your heart’s broken,” as the old song goes. So’s mine. But we have to get over it — now — and start taking action for the November election.
Granted, we’re far from where we thought we’d be when Barack Obama was elected and people danced in the streets. Change was on its way, spearheaded by Obama’s soaring words and by the millions of ordinary Americans who got involved as never before to help carry him to victory. We thought we’d finally created the opening for a historic transformation.
Now, too many of us watch morosely from the sidelines, feeling disappointed, spurned, and betrayed, wondering if anything we can do will matter. We’re angered by the gap between Obama’s lofty campaign rhetoric and his reality of half-steps and compromises, and by his failure to fight passionately for his policies. We’re angered that we dared to hope for more. We’re angered at scorched-earth Republican obstructionism, a Supreme Court inviting corporations to buy our democracy at will, and a public all too receptive to blatant lies. In response, we decide not to let our hearts get broken again by taking the risk of working for change, at least not in the electoral arena. We feel this way even though most of us have done little since Obama took office to create the kind of sustained grassroots movements that could have actually pressed him and a resistant Senate to take stronger stands.
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So how do we act in the upcoming election despite dashed hopes? How do we do this in a way that builds for the future?
Granted, it’s far easier to take a stand in those moments when, in the words of poet Seamus Haney, “the longed-for tidal wave of justice” seems to rise up, and “hope and history rhyme.” Yet unless we decide that our democracy and the planet are all simply doomed, we can’t afford to succumb to cynical retreat.
We might start by acknowledging our disappointments. We don’t have to be delighted about Obama’s Presidency to get involved in the fall elections. We can talk honestly about areas where he and the Democrats have fallen short, while still making clear the major differences between their positions and those of the Republicans. In fact, people may respond even more positively if we admit our mixed feelings, some of which will reflect their own. This approach may not be quite as time-efficient as simply repeating whatever standard talking points we’re given, but it lets our conversations do justice to reality.
When I’ve tried this approach with disenchanted friends, they’ve confirmed that they’d be much more likely to volunteer in the election if they could voice the full complexity of their feelings. They don’t want to be spectators. But they want to acknowledge critical areas where they’re angered and frustrated. They don’t want to surrender their voice. We’d do well to be honest both with those who we need to recruit as fellow volunteers, and with the ordinary citizens who we need to convince to show up at the polls.
If we’re going to be honest about our disappointments, we should be equally clear that opting out of this election portends disaster. For all our frustrations with the Democrats, at least we’ve been fighting about how to move the country forward, out of the hole of the disastrous Bush years. Productive change will be far more difficult if our inaction helps hand the Senate over to those who deny climate change, scapegoat immigrants, blame the unemployed for their fate, and strive to privatize Social Security, make permanent Bush’s regressive tax cuts, and block every conceivable environmental and consumer protection regulation. Equally troubling, they seem to have no shame in campaigning on gross distortions and lies, from talk of health care “death panels” to claiming to stand up against Wall Street while blocking everything they could in the financial reform bill to doing nothing to challenge the belief in Obama as Kenyan-born closeted Muslim. Though we may want to deny the possibility, the polls threaten major Republican gains, the right-wing base smells blood, and even once-safe states like Illinois, Washington, and maybe even California are in play. The important legislation from green energy funding to the valuable parts of the health care Democrats are equally at risk in the House, where Nancy Pelosi has led in passing and financial regulation bills to the strongest student financial aid program since the Pell Grants got started. Were it not for Senate intransigence, Pelosi would also have passed a climate change bill, a far larger stimulus package, and a health care public option. But if we don’t get engaged in the next couple months, we risk electing enough Republicans to replace her with hard-right Republican John Boehner, who’s already talked of reviving Gingrich-style investigative crusades against every conceivable Obama agency and program. Despite the frustration that many of us have with Obama, we might also remember some of his under-appreciated actions, like appointing a labor secretary and National Labor Relations Board strongly supportive of workers’ rights, an EPA head who’s begun to regulate greenhouse gasses and pretty much ended destructive mountain-top removal, and an attorney general who by accepting state medical marijuana laws, has opened space to question our costly and futile prohibition policies. It matters that Obama has saved America’s auto industry, appointed two decent Supreme Court justices, and begun to reshape our international image from one of reckless belligerence. For all the Democrats’ failure to adequately reverse their inherited crises, their flaws don’t compare to those of a party determined to turn everything over to the most predatory forces in America.
Making all this clear is essential when we’re trying to bring people out of demoralized retreat. Obama had 13 million people on his email list. If we can reengage enough of them, including those who’ve pulled back from active political involvement, we can help our fellow citizens reject the corporate-funded lies. In the wake of the ghastly Supreme Court decision gutting campaign finance laws, groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and the US Chamber of Commerce are spending four hundred million dollars to try to buy the election, and the impact of their spending will be everywhere. For the moment, we can’t stop it, although it would take only one honorable Republican to require financial transparency by helping pass the Disclose Act. But even without this, if people knock on enough doors, make enough phone calls, talk to enough neighbors and coworkers, donate enough money and engage in enough real dialogue, we have a chance to make the lies backfire. Massive citizen-to-citizen outreach will be critical for engaging the young and minority voters who carried the Democrats to victory in 2006 and 2008, but largely stayed home during subsequent Democratic defeats in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts and threaten to do so once again. Americans do mistrust the powerful economic interests that have strip-mined our country. But they’re also scared, overloaded, distracted, cynical about government, and insulated from perspectives that could help them separate truth from lie, or give them reasons to vote. So we need to get as many volunteers as possible to help them sort through the political arguments and to convince them to go to the polls. We do that best by reaching out as directly as possible and honoring whatever mixed feelings people have.
We might remind those we approach to volunteer or to vote that they’ll never know when their participation will make a crucial difference. On Election Day of 2004, I was knocking on doors in Washington State and turned out three additional voters. One had forgotten about the election. Another needed a ride. A third didn’t know how to submit his absentee ballot. My candidate won the governor’s race by 133 votes, over a right-wing Republican who’s now running neck and neck with the once seemingly unbeatable Senator Patty Murray. Had just 50 of us stayed home that day, we’d have lost. Our outreach made a similarly critical difference two years ago in Minnesota when Al Franken won his Senate seat by 225 votes. In an example of why involvement can’t wait until the election, I once interviewed a young woman who registered 300 voters on her Connecticut campus, helping her strongly progressive Congressman win by 27 votes.
In 1994 we paid the price for not having these volunteers. Infuriated by Bill Clinton’s support for the NAFTA trade agreement, core Democratic activists stopped knocking on doors and making phone calls. Because there was no one to get out the vote, the Democrats lost race after critical race, often by the narrowest of margins. According to CNN and Gallup surveys, the forty-two percent of America’s registered voters who stayed home leaned Democratic widely enough that they would have reversed the electoral outcome, had they only showed up at the polls. NAFTA helped destroy America’s industrial base, and I shared the anger of those who opposed it. But even a modest effort could have prevented the Republican sweep.
We now risk heading down a similar path, one we might have avoided entirely had we built stronger grassroots movements to pressure Obama from the start. Two years into Roosevelt’s first term, with one in six Americans still out of work, the Democrats swept the 1934 elections, winning nine more seats in both the Senate and House. But they had a president who overtly challenged the “money changers” of Wall Street, and a Senate and House that did far more to address the economic crisis. Most important, they had organized citizen movements that actively pressed Roosevelt from day one. We haven’t created these movements, or engaged enough people to give them clout. Instead, most of us have spent far more time griping about the real shortcomings of the Democrats than we have engaging our neighbors, rallying in the streets, showing up at Town Halls and community meetings, or doing anything else that could have actually changed America’s politics in the directions we wanted. This trend started early, during the summer of the “death panel” rallies (much as those who’d supported Clinton failed to adequately organize to pressure him once he took office), and it’s continued ever since. Other than the useful but limited activities of signing petitions and automated letters, we’ve mostly ceded the field to Exxon, Goldman Sachs, United Health, and the tea partiers.
We can still push Obama to deal with the massive crisis of the unemployed, (for instance by joining the October 2d national rally for jobs and justice). If he challenged the Republicans strongly enough on this it would help, whether or not he can pass the necessary bills before November. But whatever Obama does between now and then, and he needs to do far more, much of what happens is still in our hands. If we don’t want corporations, billionaires, and the religious right running our country even more than they do already, we owe it to ourselves to do all we can to prevent their power from increasing further through this election. We’re going to lose some battles. That’s inevitable. But the path of purist retreat prevents even the chance of our efforts succeeding, whether for now or down the line.
Imagine if each of us did as much between now and November 2d as we did in the election of two years ago. If enough of those who’ve pulled back from political involvement can become reengaged, and if we can find ways to keep them involved, we can begin rebuilding the grassroots momentum that we should have been creating from day one of Obama’s term. So we have to act and keep on acting. Think of the civil rights movement and its relationship to Kennedy and Johnson. Both were personally sympathetic but initially held the movement at arm’s length for fear of driving southern segregationist whites from the Democratic Party. Civil rights activists then created a political and moral force so strong that it expanded the horizon of the possible. In the wake of the March on Washington, and marches like those at Selma, Johnson put all his political skill and capital on the line to pass the civil rights and voting rights bills. He did this while accurately predicting that the Democrats would, as a result, lose the South for a generation or more. But he did the right thing because ordinary people took a leap of faith, convinced that their actions could make a difference.
There’s no guarantee that our efforts will work, whether in November or long term. But the stakes — whether regarding climate change, the economy, or every other major issue we face — remain as high as they’ve ever been. Most of us have mixed feelings, but rather than waiting forever for the perfect candidates or ideal political context, or riding an endless emotional roller coaster between elation and despair, we can instead do our best to plunge into the messy and contradictory now. If we can do that well enough, we can once again begin to recreate the base for the kind of change we hoped for just two years ago.
Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback, April 2010). Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.” Loeb also wrote The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, the History Channel and American Book Association’s #3 political book of 2004. For more information or to receive Loeb’s articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org.