We have a problem with politics in this country, and I’m going to say something controversial: the problem isn’t the Republican Party, the problem isn’t the tea party, the problem is US.
Yes, us. The progressive, liberal or moderate left.
We have an enthusiasm problem. My first presidential election was 1992’s matchup of George H. W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton. I was in college, a member or participant of every left wing campus organization at Drew University: the LGBT Alliance, The Womyn’s Concerns Club, the Drew Environmental Action League and was a card carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. I was a believer in guerilla tactics, particularly where LGBTQ awareness was on the agenda. I was an outspoken proponent of HIV testing, went to national student conferences and marched on Washington. In 1992, I campaigned for Clinton and even snuck into a Bush rally with a sign that said “Gay Men Unite! Lick Bush in 1992!”
We were all very excited: here was the first Boomer presidential candidate. He was talking gays in the military, he was talking about universal health care, he was talking HIV/AIDS, and underneath (or perhaps above it all) was his message that at the end of the day, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”
Bill Clinton was “The Man from Hope.” LITERALLY. He and his wife were young, they were activists, they spoke for us and about us in ways that we’d never heard from the presidential trail before. We got behind them, we elected them and it was going to be a new day: a far cry from the policies and styles of George and Barbara, or Ron and Nancy, the only examples that any of us had to compare in our young lives.
And what a day it was! Until the Right fought back. The election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, two young southerners, infuriated the Republican party. They geared up for the midterms in 1994, and in one of the most sweeping political movements we’ve ever seen, halfway through the first term of the Man from Hope, we were hit with Newt Gingrich and the Contract (on) America.
How did this happen? We were so excited! There was so much possibility!
We let it happen. We were so caught up in the political excitement of the Clinton Campaign (gays in the military and universal health care), that we didn’t pay attention to the practical side of things. In 1992, the country wasn’t nearly as open to the idea of LGBT rights, we were still dying of HIV, sodomy was still illegal (Lawrence v Texas wouldn’t be heard for another 11 years), and Will & Grace were still six years away from hitting the television. Universal Health Care was attacked left and right (remember “Harry and Louise?”) The country wasn’t accepting things with open arms yet, and if the nation as a whole wasn’t, the powerbrokers in Washington were even further behind. Clinton was smacked down on his most progressive platforms in the first couple of years of his first term and we were disappointed.
And we stayed home in 1994.
We let Newt Gingrich take over the national conversation.
We allowed the pendulum to swing back because we weren’t there to stop it in November 1994.
The rest of Clinton’s presidency was marked by compromise and we were often disappointed, discouraged and disgusted. We turned out in 1996 with just enough force (and the help of Ross Perot drawing voters from the right) to beat Bob Dole, but only just: Clinton had 49.2%; Dole and Perot together 49.1%.
We stayed home again in 1998, and wouldn’t regain the House until November 2006, when anti-Bush sentiment gave us a boost.
In 2008, we had a remarkable presidential race with a whole lot of enthusiasm! Democratic primaries came down to two candidates, either of whom would be making history as the first African-American or the first female president, and I will acknowledge supporting Hillary Clinton in the primary. I’m a political pragmatist, and while I believe in big bold ideas, I’ve grown more thoughtful about strategies.
We elected Barack Obama on a platform of Hope and Change. There’s that word again, “Hope.” It’s a lovely word, it’s ALWAYS a great word, and it’s just so darned hopeful. We gave him a Democratic House and Senate to go along with that, so the world was our oyster and all was perfect and we’d finally get that pretty pony that we’d been promised during the campaigns.
Except there are no pretty ponies, and the election of our first African-American president transformed this nation: the insidious racism that had been lurking in back rooms and quietly whispered about came right out on the front porch. An entire swatch of our voting population suddenly got interested in politics and the Tea Party was formed. (That’s another story entirely, but John McCain has to answer for a lot in the elevation of Sarah Palin: trading policy for idiocy.)
We didn’t get all of our pretty ponies in 2009-2010, so once again, we stayed home nationally in the mid-term elections. We let the rabid right take over the House, and to date they’ve tried to undo the Affordable Care Act 63 separate times.
Oh, and yes, we stayed home in the elections of 2010 and the Republican Party captured more statehouses around the country, putting more and more power into their hands. When the census was done in 2010, they were there, ready and waiting to take that data and redistrict their little hearts out, gerrymandering us into a permanent minority.
Neither did we do ourselves many favors in 2012 or 2014. It seems that progressives on the left only really turn out when Hope is on the menu, not practical reality.
Right now, in 2016, We now have fewer democrats in the house than any congress since 1949. If we win every possible competitive race this November, we will still be three seats short of the majority. We have done this to ourselves.
Now, you may ask, why this abridged history lesson? Why is it so important to look at how we didn’t vote in 1994, 1996, 1998, 2010, 2012 and 2014?
The answer to that is easy: the far left wing of our party is asking us to vote for Hope again. Yup, it’s back, that four letter word that’s so easy to throw around every eight years, but so hard to support every two.
In 2008, I was for Hillary Clinton because I thought we needed someone to clean up the mess of the Bush administration. I still think I was right, but we nominated Obama, who I wholeheartedly support and think has been a really amazing president, but we still have a mess to clean up, and one that the republicans have made right in front of us, under our noses and while we were watching them do it.
If we want real change, that’s real long-term impactful change, we shouldn’t be screaming about HOPE in 2016. We need to be screaming about moving forward TOWARD hope in 2016, and 2018, and 2020 and 2022 so that in 2024 we can actually do something about it.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, and looking back over the presidential elections that we’ve had since I’ve been of voting age, we keep looking for it, and then turning our backs when the going gets tough. Rallies and banners and slogans are great, but politics is an every-day game, not once every four to eight years.
We need to elect someone in 2016 who will keep moving us forward while we build the army from the ground up. We have dropped the ball, we have really fumbled it badly and our work needs not to focus on just the happy feel good hopeful moments that come in a presidential campaign, but the outreach and hard work that goes with electing people to district committees, town councils, state assemblies and senates. We need to challenge the Republicans at every level and not let seats go unchallenged. We need to build a pipeline of strong progressives coming up through the ranks and who will be ready in 2020 to redistrict fairly and get rid of a lot of the gerrymandered garbage twisting its way through our communities. We need to have those people run for congress in 2022 and 2024. We need tested leaders in mass numbers, not just in one or two polarizing figures.
No one we elect in 2016 has a chance of making the huge big scale changes that we’re hearing from either the left OR the right: we have a system designed for incremental changes, with checks and balances. (And that’s good: imagine a President Cruz with the power to make major unchecked policy changes!)
Recent history shows that when we elect a messiah, we are disappointed and fail him. Let’s not do that again this time, but work on ensuring that when he (or she) DOES come, we’ve given him (or her) the congress, statehouses, city councils and governor’s offices that they need to do their work.
My enthusiasm hasn’t waned over the last 24 years, in fact, it’s gotten greater and more passionate, but now it’s combined with the knowledge of the way the game is played.
American politics are a long game, and it’s time that the left understood that and played to win it.