Tired of feeling like roadkill?


Matt Taibbi last week took on the “lesser evilism” of a Democratic Party that seems to believe “all people who fall within a certain broad range of liberal-ish beliefs owe their votes and their loyalty to the Democratic Party.” He sees lesser evilism (think of it as a variety of TINA – There Is No Alternative) resulting from a party structure dependent on large-money donors. Often, the banks Taibbi has dissected like a cadaver:

This is why the thinking within the Democratic Party has gotten so flabby over the years. It increasingly seems to rejoice in its voters’ lack of real choices, and relies on a political formula that requires little input from anyone outside the Beltway.

It’s heavily financed by corporate money, and the overwhelming majority of its voters would never cast a vote for the nut-bar God-and-guns version of Republicanism that’s been their sole opposition for decades.

So the party gets most of its funding without having to beg for it door to door, and it gets many of its votes by default. Except for campaign-trail photo ops, mainstream Democrats barely need to leave Washington to stay in business.

Still, the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the Democrats have come to believe they’ve earned their status, by being the only plausible bulwark against the Republican menace.

The difference between the idealists (vote your conscience) and the pragmatists (lesser-evilism), Taibbi writes, comes down to money:

The former camp refuses to be funded by the Goldmans and Pfizers of the world, while the latter camp embraces those donors. That’s really all this comes down to. There’s nothing particularly radical about not taking money from companies you think you might need to regulate someday. And there’s nothing particularly centrist or “realistic” about taking that same money.

When I think about the way the Democrats and their friends in the press keep telling me I owe them my vote, situations like the following come to mind. We’re in another financial crisis. The CEOs of the ten biggest banks in America, fresh from having wrecked the economy with the latest harebrained bubble scheme, come to the Oval Office begging for a bailout.

In that moment, to whom is my future Democratic president going to listen: those bankers or me?

Good point. It is why so many voters (of whatever political stripe) feel like political roadkill these days. But the answer to that is not outrage, moralistic posturing or refusing to engage. The answer is not less engagement, but more. The banks and the Big Money Boyz have the clout they do not simply because of the money, but because they treat politics like it matters.

If voting doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t make a difference, why do older people vote with such regularity? Why do the Koch brothers spend so much of their dragon hoard to influence elections? Why do Republicans work so hard at keeping the “wrong kind” of people from showing up to vote?

Back when we had a Democratic congressman here, I knew the staff and would call the office to gauge the temperature on hot issues. I’d ask how the calls were running on a bill progressives wanted passed. Ten to one against. “Where are the Democrats?” they asked, exasperated. They’d voted, reset their politics to cruise control and went back to complaining.

A piece I wrote for Campaign for America’s Future during the 2008 campaign is no longer online, but it talked about transitioning from being a political victim to something more powerful. (Sorry if it’s a little preachy):

Don’t you see how you’re misreading me? I am not a victim. I used to be a victim, but now I’m not. Can’t you see the difference?

Chip Elliott wrote that about carrying a handgun for self defense in “Letter from an Angry Reader,” published in Esquire magazine in September 1981. That line always stuck with me, only for a very different reason. A couple of excerpts from “Letter from an Angry Voter” written during the 2008 campaign apply to the current elections as well:

There are echoes of Chip Elliott in the wave of populist activism during the Bush years – the “uprising” David Sirota writes about. We used to be victims. We’re not anymore. A lot of people can’t see the difference. Press. Pundits. Party bosses. The Elliotts’ world had changed. They changed with it. So have we.

What hasn’t changed yet is the clubby political culture we’ve entered. Online criticism usually focuses on “the Village,” the Beltway culture of pundits, lobbyists, and political and media consultants. But from the beginning it was clear how much housecleaning there was to do, not just in Washington, but in our own cities and states – where corrupt politicians and secret deals reveal themselves in smoky conversations on dark hospitality suite balconies.

The old boy network has seen movements come and movements go. They believe that if they stonewall efforts at reform, we will go away. It has worked in the past. The war ends and the antiwar “radicals” evaporate. Frustrate the party upstarts and they will take their balls and go home. And the old boys get their club back.

One thing you can say for the old boys, they are patient and persistent. (Okay, that’s two things.) Patience and persistence are not the first qualities liberal activists look for in their change agents, and qualities that not enough activists cultivate in themselves. Whenever an Obama flings the wheel hard over (or not hard enough) and the ship of state doesn’t turn like a speedboat, impatient activists abandon their posts and jump ship. Do that, and nothing changes. And the old boys get their club back.

Since 2008, things have changed, but not enough. Our adversaries have retaken a lot of ground. Keeping people engaged is always a struggle:

Recruiting volunteers is like staging “The Little Red Hen.” All the barnyard animals want to eat the bread, but few show up to plant the wheat, harvest, grind or bake. Every cycle, single-issue activists appear at campaigns expecting to be crowned the candidate’s expert on wind power, gender issues, conspiracy theories or whatever. They vanish as soon as they find out what candidates really need from them: hard work and long hours. Drinking Liberally attracts lots of smart, informed people. They show up to drink, share news and complain, but too few work for campaigns or their local parties. Many on the Left have an independent streak. They’re not joiners. They don’t want to get their hands dirty in what, for want of them, remains a corrupt political process. Others argue impotently for that (fifth or sixth?) third party they say America needs, that they won’t build.

Then again, a friend remarked at DL the other night how, since moving here, he’d gone from unknown to precinct chair in two years. All he did was keep showing up. He was treasurer for a city council race and now for Blue Century (our 527 that produces radio ads aimed at swing voters). Another newcomer started out organizing hundreds of Kerry supporters in 2004. Four years later she is the chair of a county party in a district where among the old boys “You ain’t from around here, are you?” could be a bumper sticker, and lacking testosterone is a distinct disadvantage. Her secret? She worked. She prepared. She showed up again and again, even after losing battles. While she organized voters across town, I spent months volunteering for a congressional race that we lost. (I spent the next two years telling prospective volunteers it was the most fun I’d ever had losing.) In 2006, the state coordinated campaign made me the district Get-Out-the-Vote coordinator – which often meant that volunteers arriving early for phone banking caught me emptying trash from the night before, and cleaning toilets. I told them, “I’m only in this for the glamour.”

It’s a simple formula: keep showing up like a bad penny. Do whatever needs doing. Be persistent to the point of relentless. We have to move beyond personality-based campaigns and candidates with more name recognition and fundraising potential than political courage. Besides, as Paul Curtis (Alien & Sedition) wrote, “The point of a political movement is to make the courage of politicians irrelevant.”

Thom Hartmann recently told radio listeners to take a just couple of hours per month to show up at party events where they can sit across the table from their congressmen and senators. Do that, Hartmann suggested, and you’ll be as influential as most Washington lobbyists.

In time, maybe more. We used to be victims. We’re not anymore. A lot of people – even our own people – can’t see the difference. Yet. Because this will take longer than a visit to the instant teller. Because the secret to building a movement capable of reforming and reinvigorating stolid American politics is to show up day after day and outwork our opponents.

Why is that so hard to understand?

During 2006 early voting in our largest county, I made regular literature drops at our busy table outside the board of elections. Eventually, the opposing party chair recognized me (sort of) and pointed as he kept lonely vigil in his lawn chair.

“You’re one of the worker bees, aren’t you?” he said, and I smiled.

You have no idea.

Anyway, the upside of staying in the fight is you stop feeling like roadkill. Even when you lose. But there’s a cost. The proprietress of our local pub always comes over and asks quietly what is going on politically that she’s missed.

Once in reply, I made the mistake of complaining that I used to have a life. She stabbed a finger in my direction and scolded.

“No! This is your life. This is what you do now.”

Some people even appreciate it.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Categories : Democrats, Strategy

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