You’ve Got to Fight for Your Rights…
by Nancy Mattina
Pine if you will for the eloquence, dignity, and erudition of our 44th President. Tragically, history will not accord him the status of a transformative political figure. What our highly selective record of accident and argument will show is that our first African-American Commander-in-Chief took the stage when our country was wracked with economic apartheid, spawn of greed. His response was cautiously pragmatic. He assumed that the nation would come to its middle class senses once the immediate crisis had passed. For maintaining his faith in capitalism and American exceptionalism he was jeered by the right as dictatorial and cowardly, by the left as fatally compromised.
Obama’s cool as he stood alone in the cloaca of party politics made him a culture-hero. But his style and personal belief system did not translate into faith in the political party he represented. More like us than not, the Democratic Party ran the last election as if a moral victory guaranteed an electoral one. With Obama gone, electoral defeat has never been more consequential.
On November 9, 2016, many of us woke to the reality that for decades illiberal voters and pols have filled our civic institutions with bodies prepared to stop the national wheel of fortune at the Jim Crow era. Abandoned by left and right at the ballot box Obama’s piteous refrain, “We are better than this!” rings the curtain down with a decisive thud, cued by that pregnant final syllable. “We” have demonstrated that while millions of individuals still dream of peace and social justice, collectively the electorate is not better than “this:” Through our mass diffidence toward party politics, as a group we failed to check the progress of the party that seeks to transform white, Christian, male supremacy underwritten by a gospel of greed into the law of our land. The partisanship we disdained as beneath us before the election turned out to matter whether we believed in it or not.
I often wonder how Obama has judged himself in the excruciating hours since the election. I predict he will be judged harshly by future Democrats for his failure to capitalize on the anger and anguish of those who put their bodies in harm’s way during the Occupy Wall Street protests. As a lawyer he judged prospective cases against individual immoral actors in the financial industry unwinnable. Regular Americans demanded truth and reconciliation in 2011; the Obama administration gave us legal advice. The result was the undoing of his and his party’s legacy. If this level-headed, smooth-talking liberal refused to put corporate greed on trial, how much else of what the opposition screamed about Democrats in the popular media was true, true, true?
Imagine if the Democratic Party had accommodated the Occupy movement politically the way the Republicans did the Tea Party. Granted, the Tea Party forced itself on its parent organization through the normal political process. They launched candidates, raised money to challenge GOP veterans, and stunned the establishment by winning state and federal races in significant numbers. Once in Congress, Tea Party members were obnoxious and unyielding. They took extreme positions calculated to overthrow the establishment GOP from within. The GOP was strengthened rather than weakened by these years of internal turmoil. Horrific though its current ideology is, we’re forced to accept that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.
Occupy remained a fringe movement by design. It didn’t find a vocal, high-profile champion (barely) inside the Democratic Party until 2016. The Russians and WikiLeaks didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about how establishment Democrats handled the Sanders incursion onto their candidate’s turf. They merely confirmed our belief that the Democratic Party did not represent us.
How should we who more or less excepted ourselves from party politics for the last five, ten, or twenty years judge ourselves individually? First, may we each have the character to ask ourselves how we let this happen even if we voted with the popular majority. The outpouring of protest and pledges of resistance in response to 45 and 115th Congress reassures me that millions of rueful Americans are having those conversations with themselves and each other. We are stepping up in record numbers to protest a GOP-led administration that seems bent on being remembered as evil.
Let us also admit that identity politics have made political-climate-change deniers out of far too many of us. Vinson Cunningham recently reported in the New Yorker that Democrats lost more than nine hundred state and federal seats during Obama’s tenure. We can cluck our tongues about the causes but neither Obama nor the GOP is to blame for this result. We are. Millions of us chanting “Not my president” won’t change the facts now. Are we really awake to present circumstance?
I fear not. On none of the lists of next steps, direct actions, and antidotes to despair I’ve read on social media in the last months does joining the Democratic Party make it into the top ten must-dos. Or top twenty. Pantsuit Nation’s Facebook page has nearly four million followers. The Indivisible movement may have half that many. Proud To Be a Democrat has fewer than a million. Imagine if we joined our outsider, hell-no ethos to our mainstream political institutions. Imagine if in addition to protesting the current administration we put equal energy into rebuilding the Democratic Party into the party of good government. One that can compete effectively at the polls against the party that claims it wants next to none.
The results of the last election lay bare the brute fact that the Democratic Party needs us and we need it. The party is sick and weak because we have not made it better. Accepting this reality would mean that lefty radicals would stop pretending that we live in a parliamentary regime where minority parties occasionally achieve surprising political victories. Concerned citizens who reject the fascistic trend of our political moment would have to replace our lofty aversion to party politics with a willingness to engage with the nuts and bolts of winning elections. We need to reform the Democratic Party in numbers from within. Time to drop the too-cool-for school act and don the hairshirt of solidarity with the two-party system, stubborn fact of our democracy.
Getting in harness as card-carrying Democrats will be especially uncomfortable for many of us who are inclined to be gadflies rather than joiners. My self-image is as wired to admire a political dark horse as it is to reflexively mistrust establishment candidates. I’m not sure that it will be easy for me to resist looking down my nose at the Democratic Party once I start attending local party meetings. But if I have to choose one of two parties to represent my politics in office—and the facts of our political life convince me that I must—there is no doubt which side I’m prepared to fight for so that one day more of us will be proud to be Democrats.
To move myself beyond my outsider’s comfort zone, I’m drawing inspiration from another Nobel Peace Laureate from Chicago who did transform the way we work as a group toward a more equitable, just society. Jane Addams didn’t have Obama’s personal charisma but she used every righteous tool at her disposal to lift up the oppressed, protest war, subvert institutional racism, and resist the cult of profit over people. Perhaps because she spent the majority of her thirty-odd years as a political activist and philosopher without the right to vote, Addams didn’t hold herself above the unclean world of electoral, partisan politics. She wrote, “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” That’s not a call to sell out but to lean into the ill wind and pull forward, together. I’m out of excuses for refusing to do more than vote my conscience at the ballot box and protest from the sidelines. Are you?
Nancy Mattina, Ph.D., is a writer and linguist in Prescott, Arizona. Recently retired from Prescott College, she intends to repurpose her free time to repealing dystopian politics. She attended a meeting of the Yavapai County Democrats for the first time on March 9.