I HAVE NO IDEA how you’re feeling by now, at the start of a fresh new year, but for me, writing in the aftermath of the 2002 election, things look discouraging. Rarely in American politics have voters been offered such a clearcut right-wing agenda—and never before have they responded with such coast-to-coast approval.
Now what? The hard part is that most people, at least according to vote totals, seem happy with the way things are. And if we’re marching off to war, critics will find it even tougher to question Bush administration policies on everything from civil liberties to environmental protection.
In my despairing moments I wonder if Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Karl Rove are right: Is America, at its deep and mythic core, a fundamentally individualistic culture that views most attempts to promote social equity, ecological balance, and international understanding as affronts to its values? Maybe the American character has been imprinted with an unalterable faith in free-market economics, unbridled consumerism, survival-of-the-fittest social policies, and imperial foreign policy. Perhaps espousing progressive politics here is as hopeless as convincing the French to embrace low-fat diets or Italians to obediently follow traffic laws.
But then the dark cloud passes, and I recall the civil rights movement, the New Deal, Stonewall, abolitionists, Cesar Chavez, anti-nuke activists, and prairie populists. I remember that America gave birth to the environmental movement and the idea of national parks. I do the math and see that it took union activists a half-century to achieve the 40-hour work week, and suffragists seven decades to win the vote for women. This puts the 30 years of political ups and downs I’ve experienced since knocking on doors for McGovern as a high school kid into perspective.
As a progressive, I’ve endured my share of disappointing election nights: 1972, 1980, 1984, 1994, and now 2002. But I’ve also been part of exuberant political celebrations no one saw coming—notably Harold Washington’s election as mayor of Chicago in 1983 and Paul Wellstone’s senatorial win in 1990. No one gave a black man much chance of becoming the mayor of America’s most segregated big city and no one could imagine an outspoken professor and family farm activist unseating a popular two-term senator. But these two men inspired people, by talking in plain detail about their visions for the future. And to the shock of pundits and pollsters, they won.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from November’s election, it’s one that Paul Wellstone and Harold Washington (both tragically gone from us now) taught: Americans respond to leaders who speak with conviction. Whatever you think of George W. Bush, he appears to truly believe in the ideas he professes. Most Democrats, by contrast, seem tentative, almost bashful, about their views. This, in spite of the fact that opinion polls continually show that a majority of Americans disagree with right-wingers on many major issues from global warming to school vouchers.
The Democratic party cannot revive itself simply by raising more money and playing it even safer in 2004. To stage a comeback, they must stand up and speak boldly about what they believe is best for our country. Commentators on the left have been saying this for years, and now so are mainstream observers, who pin the party’s 2002 losses on Democrats’ failure to convince voters that they differ from Republicans in any significant way. One prescription drug plan for seniors looks pretty much like another. Where was the vision, the emotion, the detailed blueprint? That’s the legacy bequeathed by Paul Wellstone, who was pulling strongly ahead in the Minnesota senate race at the time of his death—a rise in popularity that began with his courageous vote against war in Iraq.
For most of us, social change is bigger than party politics. It’s what we do the morning after election day and all those that follow. It’s the causes we support in our community and the world, the choices we make to live our values—even when what we believe seems fundamentally out of fashion.
I don’t want to minimize the consequences of the Republicans’ resounding victory, especially with war looming and so many people being left behind in our society. I simply want to remind the rest of us that we are not out of power. There is power in joining together with neighbors to make a difference in your community, power in turning out thousands to march in the streets, power in talking about what you believe any way you can.
History is not made only by the George Bushes of America; it is also made by the Martin Luther Kings, Rachel Carsons, union activists, feminists, populist agitators, community organizers, and patrons of a Greenwich Village gay bar resisting police abuse. None of them saw a clear path to political victory when they began, and I’ll bet they often felt despairing and defeated. But they kept at it and later, sometimes much later, politicians took up their cause and enacted it as legislation.
Let’s keep this in mind as we sort out our feelings and our future after this election. History moves onward according to its own peculiar path. At the dawn of the 1960s few could predict the tremendous social changes that would be underway in just a few years. In 1991 no one dreamed that George W. Bush’s father, the triumphant victor of the Gulf War, would lose his reelection bid. We haven’t a clear picture of what the world will look like in 2004 or 2009. But in sharing our ideas and speaking up about our values, not just in letters to the editor and at meetings but in conversation with the people around us, we may help influence the course of the 21st century in ways that cannot be imagined right now.