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.
The more we can cross expected political boundaries, the stronger the impact of our actions. In the spring of 2006, net neutrality–the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally–seemed doomed. The House passed a bill that would have effectively ended it. The Senate was expected to follow suit. Then the cofounder of MoveOn met the Christian Coalition’s communications director at a retreat aimed at bridging political lines. They became friends, then joined to help save net neutrality with a joint New York Times ad and joint press conference at which they presented over a million signatures in support of net neutrality. They played a critical role in keeping the Internet as a commons open to all. We might build similarly unexpected coalitions with some of the more populist elements of the Tea Party movement, particularly around curtailing Wall Street.
We can take heart from remembering that when we do get people involved, or keep them involved, we never know where they’ll end up. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai recalled the pivotal role of social justice conversations at the small Catholic college she attended in Kansas, and how they helped set her on her path. Similarly, while canvassing a white working-class Chicago neighborhood, a friend of mine once knocked on the door of a local woman who complained how a nearby body shop was always blocking the alley with junked-up cars. He helped get her to take her first stand, and she went on to become one of the city’s most influential neighborhood voices. Who knows what the young (and not so young) Obama activists might go on to accomplish, if we just can get them re-engaged.
We need to avoid the trap of purism. It may leave us feeling righteous, but it ducks the key question: how to create change within our actual historical context while working to shift the horizon of what’s deemed politically possible. Think of how Kennedy and Johnson worked to put brakes on the civil rights movement for fear of shattering the Democratic coalition, with LBJ twisting the arms of Martin Luther King and Walter Reuther to oppose seating the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Atlantic City Convention. Only after the movement continued to push did Johnson muster all his political capital and skill to help to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts–a model on how we might continue to push to build on the partial changes we’ve won. The activists who created this shift didn’t demonize Johnson. They just continued to speak out for their most compelling vision of justice, until America’s political culture shifted and Johnson took the risk of embracing their cause. We need to create equivalent public pressure in our time, and dismissing Obama as The Great Betrayer doesn’t help.
Finally, it helps to recognize the unpredictability of our common future. There’s no inevitable historical pendulum, but when people take the risks needed to create what Mandela has called "the multiplication of courage," we never know what new possibilities will open up. Not all moments of promise are realized, but we’d do well to view the future as at least partly contingent on our actions, as it has been so often in the past.
It’s been a frustrating time since November 2008, but our challenge is to spend less time bemoaning our disappointments and more energy engaging with ordinary citizens the way so many of us did a year and a half ago. If we give people enough ways to act on our present crises, we never know how history might turn.