How do we counter political demoralization among those who had such high hopes for the American political process just over a year ago? It helped to finally pass the healthcare reform bill–Democratic Party donations have surged since the vote. But we’re still facing dashed hopes (including those due to the bill’s more mixed aspects); exhaustion from eight years of Bush; the dispiriting legacy of the Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia elections; and the disastrous Supreme Court campaign finance decision. Even before all these last, too many long-time activists spent much of the past year withdrawing from the fray. Too many newer ones quit before they barely began. We need to reverse this process of withdrawal.
The 1994 midterm elections offer a cautionary tale. Longtime activist friends seemed strangely detached, so disgusted with the party-driven political sphere–particularly after the passage of NAFTA–that they wanted nothing to do with it. Other labor, environmental and social justice activists responded similarly. Instead of volunteering, as they’d done to elect Bill Clinton, they watched as disgruntled spectators while the Gingrich Republicans prevailed. According to national surveys, the 45 percent of registered voters who stayed home would have reversed the electoral outcome had they only gone to the polls. But no one reached out to them directly, just as far too few approached their counterparts after recent Democratic defeats.
If we want to prevent a similar dynamic from happening this fall, we might remember how demoralization and withdrawal create self-reinforcing cycles. We decide that little we do will matter, so withdraw our energy, time and money. Though we may still sign the occasional online petition, we stop reaching out to the unconverted, stop rallying publicly to voice our stands, detach ourselves from situations in which we actually engage our fellow citizens. No wonder we then feel helpless.
Face-to-face community can be an antidote. If we just hunker down behind our computers, reading the daily bad news, it’s easy to feel isolated. When we work directly with others, even if the challenges are great, we’re supported by their imagination and energy; their living, breathing presence; the possibilities of common action. We can start to create this sense of a community in pursuit of a common goal online, but once we meet offline, our connections become far stronger. Even successful virtual activism often builds on more personal connections. In 2006, 100,000 MoveOn volunteers called voters in key swing states. Follow-ups suggested these efforts made a significant difference, but only three percent of the organization’s 3 million members participated. Two years later, MoveOn got a fifth of its list involved through a massive phone bank where members invited other members to participate.
It also helps to find concrete tasks. People feel bleakest when they feel there’s nothing they can do, but that’s never actually the case. Even in when imprisoned in Robben Island, Nelson Mandela and his compatriots retrieved forbidden letters and notes wrapped in plastic at the bottom of their food drums. They then copied the inspiring stories on scraps of toilet paper and taped them inside the rim of their toilet bowls. Republican obstructionism and Democratic compromises may be infuriating, but they hardly equal living under a dictatorship. If we can reach out to the now more dispirited legions who carried Obama to victory and give them ways to act between now and November, we have a chance to shift America’s political dynamics, and build on the victories we’ve begin to win: covering 30 million people with healthcare, making college far more affordable, a recent EPA ruling that may well put an end to the coal companies’ hideously destructive mountaintop removal. But further progress won’t happen by simply lamenting the bad news, wishing Congress had passed something better, or being satisfied with what we’ve gained so far.