Yes, it is possible to see some silver lining in the Democratic Party debacle of Nov. 2. Young people increased turnout and African Americans remained a solid voting bloc – and of course the election was very close. But any pep talks about near success and future potential must share the stage with a very sobering reality, including a painful acceptance of what happened and why on Nov. 2 — and how we came to lose so crushingly.
Some people are already deep in that process of accepting the reality, while others are pretending and desperately cheerleading, as if it doesn't hurt deeply, as if it isn't truly frightening how impotent we feel in the face of the rejection of everything we believe, as if with a few tweaks we could have won, in this winner-take-all society.
For many, the experience is this: We did all we could, we had it all lined up, we had what we needed and still we lost. That is a shock to the system. We all need to take time to digest and not deny, for denial — or "wishful progressive politics" — is one of the fundamentals we have to examine as we move forward.
You've probably been inundated with e-mails and read a number of articles by smart, caring people. Some of them argue many theories of the "if only" variety — if only the candidate were more progressive, if only there weren't touch-screen voting machines, if only we could talk better to religious people, if only we had started earlier than we did.
But others, perhaps more savvy or realistic, know how difficult the challenge is, and aren't playing the "if only" game, aren't offering easy solutions, but rather are preparing us for the hard work ahead, knowing that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do politics. Tweaking the message, or a dose of election reform, or a candidate that is tougher on security or more populist on trade is not going to do it.
Success will come in the future only if we understand there is not one solution, but many, and one of those solutions is to stop thinking that if we just do exactly what we do — but more and better — then next time we'll win. We need to stop thinking that our ideas are superior, that facts will win elections, and that voters are rational in the way we want them to be. As clichéd as it sounds to say this, the world has changed, and in some cases, because of our privilege, we haven't had to. But finally, perhaps the rude reality may have sunk in.
It has been an article of faith for decades that under the right circumstances, i.e., with smart organizing and enough resources, the sleeping giant of non-voters — especially minority members — can be roused and mobilized to vote for Democratic candidates. The Republicans have far fewer voters to draw from in this deep reservoir. This was the theory in 1984, when there was a huge effort to reach minority voters, mostly funded by foundations, to expand the electorate and indirectly to stop Ronald Reagan from being re-elected. It backfired, as Republicans took the threat seriously, invested superior resources and actually registered more voters.
Pulling enough new and inactive voters was still the theory in 2004, when we heard impressive PowerPoint presentations about the number of voter contacts in targeted areas in Ohio that would make it easy to win the state. Wrong. The impressive effort of huge numbers of volunteers, voter registrations, hundreds of millions of dollars and, by American standards, high turnout led to great Democratic optimism. However, like in 1984, the Republicans got more voters to the polls – not that many more, but enough. They seem to be able to get enough.
Republican voters were motivated, in part, by state referenda seeking to ban gay marriages, by the abortion issue, by fear, and by the idea of being in a "war." It may be true that the Republicans are willing to make wars just to make sure they win elections. That tells me that unless progressives find ways to reach across and attract some of the Bush voters, instead of thinking we already have enough voters, the D's can look forward to losing again and again in national elections
In the end, there is no one "if only" — except perhaps acknowledging the time and hard work it takes to exercise electoral power in a conservative, consumerist, corporate-dominated culture. Many of us have ignored or disdained elections, because they were hopelessly unhip, or we were too busy, or often for the more pure form of single issue advocacy. Here is one point to keep in mind: Our single issues lose elections. Single issues only help win elections when they are against something that scares people, as in depriving gays of their rights, or women. But more importantly, electoral politics isn't a last minute thing; it's year round, every year. The conservatives use their churches to reinforce and organize politically every week, face-to face. How are we going to make our politics more part of our everyday life, so we know our neighbors, and we can truly "get out the vote?”
Of course it is important to give props where they are deserved, and recommit to work for the future. Actually we have no choice, for our very survival as progressives is at stake. Yet how we go about it, how basic we are willing to get in evaluating what is necessary, and how honest about our failings no matter who funded them, or whose agenda they may challenge, is the litmus test for whether we are willing to face what is necessary.
In the end, people vote for core values, and generally we don't know what ours are, and when we do know, we have a terrible time explaining them. People who need to be won over have lost faith in the old liberal ideas and only see progressives as wanting to take things away from them. For many voters, when their hope for the future has been stripped away, all they have left is their belief system — and that is how they vote. In a sad post mortem, a labor leader in Ohio said: “I thought whether they had a job was more important than gay marriage and abortion.” Maybe it is, but there is nothing in the voters’ minds that makes them think that John Kerry or the progressives are going to get them that job any more than George Bush, so sticking with their belief system — the man whose religious beliefs they trust — is where they will go, time and time again.
We have begun the tough period of self-reflection and criticism. It will not be easy. Most of us have a pretty stubborn idea of how we think things should be, and then the "if onlys" set in. But we have to wipe the assumption slate clean, if we are going to be true to the task ahead. That doesn't mean sacrificing or compromising our beliefs and values, but rather it means confirming them in how we work together, find common ground, agree on our core mission, build the infrastructure, fund the hard intellectual work, frame the language, build an independent media system to counter Fox, and create a culture of values and creativity that is attractive to people and offers them a sense of protection.
Study and discussion are very important at this juncture — ideas are crucial — but the process is most important. Some people's ideas will sound great, other charismatic people will command the stage, but if the core mission of how to best live and work together doesn't ring true with a broad, diverse cross-section of Americans, we will be sitting in political oblivion for a long time, and many will be suffering, both at home and abroad.
I don't think we should be doing any cheerleading at this point, but I do sense that many of the people who got involved in this election are very serious about the future tasks ahead and are willing to do much more than in the past. It is true that the conservatives have invested 40 years and billions of dollars to reach this point, mostly from the top-down. That's not our style: we need to do it more smartly – from the bottom up.