Standing Ovation


Photo by TJ Amos

Photo by TJ Amos

I’m an inside/outside player. On the outside, I get to throw stones at the Democratic Party on national blogs when I get a bug up my ass. On the inside, as someone who helps get local and statewide candidates elected, people think I bring something valuable to the table and they listen to me. And I have a national platform to take them to task if they don’t. But if I were on the outside completely, I’d just be another harping lefty activist who’s all sticks and no carrots. But since I’ve been doing field successfully for 7 cycles, I’m now an old guy and maybe even The Establishment. When George W. Bush arrived, I knew I needed allies to fight back, so I went to where I could find them in bulk in one convenient location. Do I agree with all of them on everything? Hell, no. But that was never the point. Strength in numbers was. When I got there, local politics was still a southern old-boys club. Now, I’m one of the people in charge. My chair and I and my “Moral Monday” arrestee state senator are from Chicago.

I do not understand the need among many progressives to bet it all on one spin of the roulette wheel with everything bet on black, or on the long bomb with time running out, or on who’s running at the top of the ticket in a presidential year. My job description doesn’t change depending on who’s at the top of the ticket. As long as someone from our side of the aisle wins and gives me the next three SCOTUS picks, I’m good. Some coattails would be nice as well. That’s just a part of why I don’t much care about the Bernie v. Hillary thing.

Last week I went to the funeral of a friend of mine who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer just weeks before. People said he was too focused on helping the community to look after himself. Isaac Coleman was a Freedom Rider and a member of SNCC. Two years ago he was declared a local “Living Treasure.” The church was packed. They started the “service” by naming off groups he had worked with and asked people from those groups to stand. Some got to stand multiple times. The largest group was the local Democratic Party. Isaac was a fierce advocate for the right to vote. “Take five,” he would say, “and if you can’t take five, take ten.”

The very idea that as an activist you would bet so much on a single, big political race would have seemed alien to him. It is to me. The local needs are too great.

I live in a state taken over by a T-party legislature that has passed one of the worst voter ID bills in the country, drafted absolutely diabolical redistricting maps, passed HB2 as a get-out-the-vote tool, and launches regular legislative attacks against our cities where the largest block of blue votes are. President Bernie isn’t going to fix that for me. Neither is President Hillary. And not in Michigan or Wisconsin either. We have to beat them ourselves. Here, not in the Electoral College.

But friends on the left now talk about the Democratic Party the way conservatives talk about “the gummint,” as though it is some sort of monolithic beast with agency of its own apart from that of its voters and activists. I get it. That’s how it looks if your focus is Washington. It looks a mite different out here in the provinces where we’re fighting the border wars. Sometimes out here — and more regularly than every four years — we get to win. That’s what keeps us going. Because the battle never ends.

I work with some very good people and some very good Democrats. But I’m seeing smart, good-hearted (many new) activists who didn’t learn from 2008. They think ideology is what’s most important. Talk the nuts and bolts of winning — practical politics — and they see you as gutless, cautious, calcified, afraid to bet it all on black and lose dramatically, because grinding out yardage on the ground is selling out. (A Princeton historian addressed that in part on air last week.) Their focus is the Big Enchilada (the presidency) when the fights that have more immediate impact on their lives are more local. That’s not to say global warming and national issues are not important. But if you want to sustain yourself for the Long March, you need to drink in some local victories or you’ll burn out before getting there.

Isaac never did. At then end of the service, we all gave him a long, standing ovation.


  1. Mark Hufford says:

    Well said. Isaac was indeed a treasure, as are you, Sir Tom.
    Since the ridiculous redistricting, several cycles of “three yards and a cloud of dust” organizing are not only realistic, they are critical. It’s all about the ground game. Hang in there!

  2. Fred Fnord says:

    “I do not understand the need among many progressives to bet it all on one spin of the roulette wheel with everything bet on black, or on the long bomb with time running out, or on who’s running at the top of the ticket in a presidential year.”

    Don’t you? I should think that’s your failing, not theirs. But perhaps I can help.

    First, if you have never gotten involved in an enterprise so wholeheartedly that failure seems not just abhorrent but inconceivable — you are putting in so much effort, everyone around you is putting in so much effort, how could that effort NOT be rewarded — then you have simply never gone all-in on a project. But even if you haven’t, surely you can understand how that happens, especially in three cases: the young, the older who nonetheless are on their first foray into political campaigning, and those who are for the first time working for someone who they both actually agree with on most things and who has some chance of winning.

    Second, the attitude of the ‘long game’ people work against you. It is an attitude of hope, but it’s teachings are almost always couched in cynicism if not outright scorn. The gradation between ‘don’t burn yourself out on this fight because there will be another one tomorrow’ and ‘stop caring’ is a subtle one, and just as often breached by the speaker as by the listener. And then the listener has two choices: stop caring in truth, and stop working, or reject the teaching.

    Finally, a lot of people really do only have one big push in them. Telling them that they will fail, that they outright shouldn’t try, that in fact (as in this election season) that they are foolish for thinking their candidate could possibly win, over and over, even as it became apparent that the only reason that there was no way the candidate could win was because of the universal agreement at the beginning of the campaign that there was no way he could win and that he was only running as a protest candidate… well, what you get is a non-activist at best, and a non-voter (‘the elections are clearly rigged anyway!’) in the all-too-frequent case.

    Personally, I am playing the long game, but given what I have heard from my two friends who are in meteorology, and what I know of the probable policies of our likely president (‘too little too late’, and often not even the symbolic gesture, let alone the real one) I would guess that in 50 years, if there is still a human race at all, it will be reduced in population by 99.9% and its social structure will in no way be influenced by anything that we can do today.

    But I’ve felt that way since Al Gore lost. So far, we’re on more or less the same arc I expected: every year the catastrophe looks a little worse than was expected last year, and every year we throw snowballs into the raging inferno and call it progress. Still, while I have a snowball left, I guess I’ll keep throwing.

  3. Fred Fnord says:

    By the way, you might want to check out the image that you posted along with this, because it doesn’t load when I look at the page, and when I right click it and try to open it in another window it asks me to log into google.

  4. Tom Sullivan says:

    Thanks for the heads-up and the thoughtful comments.