Not long after the recent election, I received the following e-mail from a friend who was upset about the results. I was unhappy with the results, also, but my thoughts on what should be done about it differed. In the interest of fostering discussion and learning from the past, I include both my friend Nancy’s message and my reply.
Sent: Monday, November 08, 2004 2:36 pm
Subject: Our Right and Responsibility
I cannot remember a time in my life when I have felt so despondent and disillusioned following the outcome of a Presidential election. Although it gives us little consolation, I think that all of us who made the choice that remarkably was not the winning outcome, should take comfort in knowing that we took action which we believe was the correct remedy to put our country back on course. Sadly, a large majority of our fellow Americans did not come to this realization, and were driven by a sense of fear, misguided emotions or some moral or political agenda that simply does not serve the best long-term interests of the preponderance of the American people. Unfortunately, it will be these voters who end up ultimately being the most betrayed and least served by this administration; and, although some of us would like to say that they get what they deserve, the reality is that we will all be affected by the damaging and destructive dealings of this administration.
Just when we think it cannot get any worse, we should all have very real concerns about the economy, tax reform (or lack thereof), jobs, healthcare, social security, homeland security, civil rights, foreign policy, and most critically, the real prospect of an increasingly more reactionary, conservative and far to the right Supreme Court!
Rather than be paralyzed by a feeling of hopelessness and resolve ourselves to the prospect of four more years at the helm of an administration that is out of touch, driven by personal motives, financial self interest, religious conviction, and a narrow minded moral agenda, now more than ever, it is critical that we stand firm, make our voices heard, and not accept the actions of this administration if we believe they do not reflect the best interests of our long term economic, social or personal security.
I believe that it is our role and responsibility as U.S. citizens to exercise our constitutional rights, and from this moment forward, hold this administration accountable for every action that they take and every decision that they make. We must insist, via our elected officials, political action groups, activist organizations, the media and through any communication vehicle available to us, that this administration provide a justifiable rationale for every dollar they intend to spend; every piece of legislation they propose that affects the environment, the economy, personal freedoms or national security; every individual they propose to appoint to a Federal office, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, or to a decision making capacity that affects foreign or domestic policy, our personal and social security, and our civil and constitutional rights. We must be adamant that every piece of rhetoric, propaganda and sound bite is backed by real and honest action, that it is meaningful, reasonable and relevant to the greater good of the mainstream of the American people, and does not simply reflect this administration’s own financial or special interests, religious, moral, or political agenda.
It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to stay in constant touch with our elected officials, communicate with them and with the media, and make sure that your concerns, hopes, interests and dissatisfaction are known. Become involved with and support organizations, political candidates and activities that advance your own needs, interests and hopes for the future of our country. Be visible and vocal and active to ensure that this administration is held in check. If not, then mobilize, take action, become involved, volunteer, continue to vote, exercise your constitutional rights and work within the framework of our constitution, through our elected officials, political action groups, the media and a range of communication mechanisms to diffuse their actions, minimize possible damage and bring to an end to the abuse of power.
Please feel free to pass this along.
I appreciated getting your message. I see signs of similar expression and introspection popping up all over and I think it’s great! I’m similarly unhappy about the way the election turned out. However, I think that there is much more that needs to be said in any discussion of what to do now that it’s over. Before we can find a way out of this fix, I think we need to have a more universal understanding of how we got into it, and the basis of this message is to attempt to contribute to this understanding. Please pardon the length.
I hope you understand than nothing I say is personally directed at you. I know you to be a good and serious person, and no criticism is intended in any degree. I might think differently from you in some matters, but we probably agree on issues much more than we disagree. My comments are general in nature, and I hope you take them in that spirit and that this can be part of a friendly discussion.
The first thing that struck me in your message is that you feel disillusioned. It seems to me that one cannot be disillusioned unless one is first “illusioned” and it is dealing with illusions instead of reality that is part of this country’s problems. Both sides traded in illusions. Facts and figures may be boring, but they make for much firmer ground than the propaganda that both sides, all sides really, since there were more than just two candidates, were slinging, and it was all distorted to gain votes. Were “my” candidate’s illusions more accurate than the other guy’s? I don’t think so, even though they were more palatable to me. Neither side’s positions would have gotten us much closer to Nirvana; some were just less ugly than others were.
But that’s not what I really want to talk about. You put people into the groups “we” and “they,” and that’s the immediate problem. The difficulty the country faces is not differences in policy, but one of a polarization in which no one is listening. Rhetoric has replaced rationality, and not just on the Right! The easiest way of looking at things, from those of us in the center-to-left part of the political spectrum, is to blame the Right – “They are polarizing the discussion. They are making ‘liberal’ a dirty word. They are letting their leaders lead them by the nose. They are trying to force their religious and moral values on everyone.” I don’t agree with that attitude nor with any of those statements. I can’t adequately explain why without dredging up a bit of history, so here goes.
I came to political awareness in the ’60s and was an active participant in the events of the period. Prior to that time, there was a fairly stable status quo in the country – there was the Right, there was the Left and, mostly, there was the Middle. The Civil Rights Movement was the first big shake-up in a long time. It was about equality and, although it angered some folks, it was pretty clear to most people who was right and who was wrong. Blacks wanted the same rights and opportunities that whites already had; nothing really new was introduced. It also got many people started thinking about other things.
The opposition to the Vietnam War was the next big shake-up and the anti-war movement became the vehicle that carried and expanded many of these other ideas that were spreading, and it spawned and spun off a lot of other movements. One of those was Women’s Liberation. It was a lot like the Civil Rights Movement: it was about equality, and women wanted the same rights and opportunities that men already had; except for the demand for abortion rights, nothing really new was introduced. Latinos and homosexuals started making similar demands. The Left started to grow, with a new infusion of young people. Laws were being passed to install and enforce these new equalities. This was good.
In reaction, the Right started to grow also, slowly at first. It wasn’t my parents’ Abe Lincoln/Dwight Eisenhower Republicanism that believed in moderation and fairness, though, but a more virulent, reactionary/corporate variety exemplified by the collegiate Young Republicans of the time.
Not everything about this progress was good, however. These new groups in motion noticed that they had muscles. As the war wound down and the more ideological groups realized that a revolution was not imminent, the various streams grew together a little into a large, liberal river and became pretty much co-opted by the Democratic Party. These more muscular currents in society increasingly started exercising their new strength. Unfortunately, many also started abusing their newfound power by moving beyond striving for equality to other things. I can’t be encyclopedic, so a few examples will have to do. (My picking on one group doesn’t mean that others don’t also share the blame.)
Women’s Liberation was broad-based and focused on equality. Educated, middle-class, militant women hijacked the movement into what became known as Feminism. The focus changed from equal opportunity for all to anti-male, pro-female issues. It wasn’t enough to have women working higher-paying, formerly male jobs on an equal basis; people were forced to act differently while at work, too, because women were there. It was time to censor others: these women would pillory a man for what they determined was sexist, but it was fine for women to say similar things about men; pornography should be limited; “politically correct” terminology had to be used, and they were the judges and the juries on what was ok. It was time to blame men for the limitations on women’s social participation in past times, and it was all men who were to blame, not just those who actually mistreated women. There was no need to gather facts; gender was enough. This judgment in advance of the facts is called in Latin ‘praejudicare,’ whence comes the English word ‘prejudice.’
For all those who, in the heady days of new power, were saying “get used to it,” how does it feel with the shoe on the other foot, now that it’s the Republicans who are saying “get used to it?” It pinches a little, doesn’t it?
I certainly don’t mean to blame Feminism for everything. There is plenty of blame to go around. For another broad issue, let’s look at gun control. No one used to worry about it; there was no problem. Overwhelmingly, most laws on the books restricting firearms ownership and use had been enacted to restrict the access of Blacks to guns, to keep them defenseless. One of those laws was the Gun Control Act of 1968 that followed urban riots and the rise of the Black Panthers. After the ’60s and a politicization during a war, lots of more liberal people identified other people’s ownership of guns as something that violated their own notions of peace and started pushing for laws restricting guns. There was no rationality to it; those who use firearms for violent purposes other than personal defense or sports are criminals, and won’t obey the laws, anyway. It was purely a knee-jerk reaction. The same people who took offense when others might wish to restrict their access to abortion had no compunction whatever doing the same thing to other people’s firearms.
This is not just a single issue, to be dismissed! Things are all connected. John Kerry has been one of the leading Congressional exponents of gun control. Will someone who wants to restrict people’s ability exercise personal defense be viewed by a majority as the person who should manage the national defense? Many voters said No.
What was the result of the gun control movement’s growth? A formerly fairly non-political organization called the National Rifle Association, which was mostly involved in firearms safety, the training of military and police, and promotion of the shooting sports, and which had had members like John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey, had to turn itself into a civil liberties organization to protect an important part of the Bill of Rights. Lots of decent, middle-of-the-road people reacted instinctively to an attack on one of the fundamental liberties of the United States and joined up or actively sympathized.
Something else even more important happened. Since many liberals didn’t understand the significance of the issue and didn’t join or support the NRA, its membership was made up more of moderates and conservatives, and liberals started viewing it as a conservative organization, even though it had no broad political philosophy and welcomed anyone. Then the people who supported the NRA started thinking of themselves as conservative, especially as they were ever more alienated by what they saw coming from the liberal camp. Rejecting the liberal views, because they included gun control and the other streams of self-righteous political correctness, they increasingly listened to the conservatives and started accepting broader conservative ideas. Many people who might have agreed with us on many issues were driven into the arms of the Republicans. If you really think about it, the NRA and similar organizations, as well as much of the strength of conservatism, along with the polarization and hostility accompanying the whole business, were created by the movement for gun control emanating from the liberal part of the spectrum.
That lesson should have been learned more than twenty years ago when Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley ran for the governorship of California. He was a strong candidate. However, there was also a gun control proposition on the ballot and opponents to that measure turned out in droves to vote it down and voted against Bradley, too, instead electing conservative George Dukmejian as governor. Unfortunately, the offensiveness to so many people of having disagreeable ideas forced down their throats didn’t bother the liberals, and they just accelerated what they were doing.
The polarization continued apace and just got worse after Bill Clinton was elected. His philandering (and lying about it) was hypocritically ignored by the feminists and liberals, but made a juicy target for the conservatives. His policies toward NAFTA and free trade (including the further deindustrialization of the country), as well an opposition to civil liberties (in addition to gun control, there was the TV-censoring V-chip, the song-censoring efforts of Tipper Gore and the Internet Decency Act) only strengthened the hand of the Right. The thoroughly botched initiative for national health care discredited the whole concept in many eyes. The Democrats opened the door and the Republicans walked in and made themselves at home.
Compounding all of that, there has been a half-century of somnolence of Labor, one of the major engines of progress in US history. That was brought about by a privileged and conservative Cold War bureaucracy reliant upon the Democrats instead of on Labor’s own independent power. With the badly led unions weakened tremendously by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the export of American industry, how could they help fight back against the growth of the Right? There was no chance! The Democrats dug the grave and the Republicans just rolled the body into it. Is there any way to come alive and try again, before the dirt gets filled in and the headstone is placed, R.I.P.? Maybe, just maybe.
The leaders of the Democrats will probably move to the right — again — but that won’t work. If the voters have to choose between a Republican and a Republican, they will choose the Republican every time! That’s not the way to get out of this dilemma. First, civility begins at home. Society is always training the next generation on how to behave, explicitly and by example. Looking at “us,” how are the young going to act when they get active in the political arena? Incivility begins at home, as well. While the specific activity might sound trivial, a person who turns up the volume and forces his or her taste in music on the neighbors is the same kind of person who tries to compel others to abide by his religious teachings, and the same kind of person who wears a sheet and burns a cross on someone else’s lawn.
People in your “we” category have to recognize certain things about themselves as groups and, maybe, as individuals. Too many people striving for their rights marched out of the ’60s and into states of self-righteousness, leaving behind the task of convincing their fellow citizens and started trying force others to abide by their ways of thinking. It pains me to say it, but those years of turmoil produced a whole lot of new bigots, to go along with the ones who had been around before. If “we” don’t do something about this, there is no need of even thinking about what political issues and programs we want; no one will be listening.
I’m not advocating a nation of goodie-two-shoes but suggesting a more effective mode of political behavior that has a chance at convincing others to one’s point of view. Does someone who wants to tell others what kind of guns they can own have the standing to criticize someone else who wants to restrict people’s access to abortion? Is the person who attacks others for wearing fur going to be seen on the moral high ground over someone who wants to force his or her religious views on society? I say no! Since a hallmark of self-righteousness is when you care enough to offend the very best, is this manner of conduct going to convince anyone? No matter how essential, virtuous and righteous one thinks of one’s own convictions, there is no such thing as a good bigot!
Second, most of those who voted for George W. Bush (and/or who voted against John F. Kerry) are not right-wing ideologues, but regular folks, just like us. They are the ones who have to be convinced if the Democrats want to win in future elections. Taking on the pundits and the politicos with whatever degree of vehemence or anger is a waste of breath and energy. If you want to convince the voters, you must address what is bothering them, even if it hurts, even if it means backtracking some of the things that you have been espousing since who knows when. Maybe you feel you have been right all along, but if you were a party to forcing your views on others, you were wrong even if you were right!
I’m not looking for any admission of defeat, but recognition of the magnitude of the task we face. Drawing a lesson from what Isaac Newton described in his laws of motion, society is huge and has a lot of inertia. To change its direction is an enormous effort, and trying to do too much too fast has bad side effects. (Remember Newton: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.) The civil rights, anti-Vietnam War and women’s liberation movements of the ’50s and ’60s made enormous changes in society. However, things like that take time to percolate through society to really solidify, say, for a generation. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing and celebrating the great progress society had made, many people got greedy and figured that since they’d won certain things, they’d use their power and force through other changes, and it’s that from which we’re suffering now. Instead of doing more and more, we need to return to firm up what we have already before the reaction causes a rollback in past gains.
Forget Kerry; he was just the candidate. He wasn’t the message, only the messenger, and not a very good one. He had too much baggage that the Republican manipulators could seize upon to sway people. To win in the future, that is, to produce a winning consensus as opposed to delivering enough electoral votes to put someone in the White House, it’s going to be necessary to win people over. In doing that, a little humility will go a lot farther than a lot of stern language and anything perceived as self-righteousness. This has always been true; it’s just been forgotten by a lot of people for a few years. The process hasn’t really changed that much since Joe Hill said “Don’t mourn, organize.”
As frustrated as “we” are that the person whom we thought was obviously the more reasonable candidate lost, it does not mean that we must simply work harder in the future. I suggest that people must work better so as not to continue driving away potential allies before we have a chance to try to convince them. Before “we” can hope prevail in making our own goals the basis of a consensus, we must examine the way in which we conduct ourselves politically and fix what is wrong. Then “we” might be successful in criticizing the things we dislike in others. Eventually, the country might realize the situation envisioned by George Washington in 1790, when he wrote in a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “Happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Bruce A. Clark lives and works for a local union in the Los Angeles area.