Published in the December 2004 issue of The Progressive
Reasons for Hope
by Ruth Conniff
|I married an optimist. Despite my own anxiety, I was seduced by hope on Election Day, and I felt good all morning and all afternoon. I got upbeat bulletins from my beloved throughout the day. Turnout was great. The exit polls were promising. Bush would be defeated.
Living in Wisconsin, where Tammy Baldwin and Russ Feingold--two of the country's most progressive legislators--posted strong victories, it was easy to imagine a progressive sweep nationwide. The energy from the massive Kerry rally in Madison with Bruce Springsteen from the Thursday before lingered in the air. On a day with historic voter turnout, I walked with my three-year-old daughter to our neighborhood polling place, where she marched enthusiastically to the voting booth and insisted on feeding my ballot into the vote-counting machine. She shares her dad's sunny outlook, and wore her lucky shirt. "We're going to win!" she proclaimed.
Even late on election evening, at the victory party for Baldwin and the statewide Kerry campaign, there was laughter and cheering. Vote tallies from around the Upper Midwest looked good. Baldwin tried gamely to talk about the meaning of her victory and, prospectively, Kerry's, to the nation. She praised the left for uniting and showing up in droves at the polls.
"I think there was almost a guttural feeling among progressive voters that we had to reclaim our country," she said. She tried giving me two scenarios, starting with a Kerry victory. "Obviously, it will be up to us to undo some the damage of the Bush Administration, and progressives have a role to play in pushing for the most progressive solution," she said. "Under Bush . . . God, I can't even wrap my brain around what will happen if we have another Bush Administration."
We agreed to talk later, as partygoers stood glued to the returns coming in over the looming TV screens. Slowly, the mood turned to anxiety and quiet tension.
The next day, there was gut-gripping pain.
The cold reality--Bush's margin in the popular vote, Kerry's wooden concession speech, Daschle's defeat in the Senate, every branch of government controlled by a band of emboldened rightwing Republicans--was almost too much to take in.
Now what? There is a lot to be learned from the blue island that is the Upper Midwest. Despite heavy spending and frequent visits by the Republicans, Democrats held their ground. Partly that was due, Baldwin suggests, to the progressive tradition from the turn of the last century.
There is also something to be learned from places like Columbia County, Wisconsin, which picked Bush over Kerry, but gave Feingold--the lone vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act--a very comfortable margin of victory.
Feingold stuck his neck out with votes that Democrats and Republicans alike warned would be his undoing: against the war in Iraq, against the Patriot Act, against the major free trade agreements. And he campaigned on those votes. His supporters wore shirts displaying a backbone. Wisconsin voters--even Republicans--liked that. They reelected the progressive Democrat who challenged Bush on the Patriot Act by a much larger margin than they gave to Kerry.
"Bush has the same thing going for him," says Jeff Blodgett, director of the grassroots group Wellstone Action in Minnesota. "He's seen as resolute, steadfast, and moral. He has taken seemingly unpopular positions and stuck with them."
Blodgett is not just making the familiar argument that Democrats need to move left to regain their base (or, as the late Paul Wellstone liked to put it, start representing the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"). As Baldwin points out, the party was united as never before this year. The problem has more to do with projecting confidence in a core set of values.
Wellstone was more leftwing than most of the voters in Minnesota, but he won because people knew where he stood, and they rewarded his courage. Wellstone won even after being painted as "Senator Welfare" for his lonely vote opposing welfare reform.
Likewise, Feingold won not in spite of but because of his lonely stands.
In the Presidential election, the Democrats were cast, once again, as unprincipled and purely political, Blodgett points out.
"We weren't seen as believing in anything," he says. "It comes down to whether we can connect with voters around a set of beliefs. Bush had no problem conveying his strong beliefs. Instead of alienating people, they connected with people."
Time to start printing more backbone T-shirts!
Like conservatives in the 1970s who wandered in the wilderness, progressives have to pick ourselves up after this defeat and finally really think long term. If we do, we may be able to turn things around.
Blodgett takes solace in the many new, young organizers who learned so much and worked so hard in the 2004 campaign. And he sees the possibility of moving forward.
"We must unify on issues like health care and ally ourselves with our shrinking allies in Congress," Blodgett says. But more than that, we must recruit new candidates and train them, he adds.
Five graduates of Camp Wellstone, which does just this kind of recruitment and training, won local races in Minnesota this year. "We have to have better candidates all up and down the ticket," Blodgett says. "We're going to have to take back our country one state at a time." He notes that in his state, Democrats gained ground in the state legislature. "In Minnesota, we can be heartened because we pushed the Republican tide back," he said. "If you think about local and state politics, it's not so bad. Washington and Congress is kind of out of our hands now."
The trick is using that focus to begin a national movement.
"We need to do that local candidate recruitment and training now, though, so that we are ready when the pendulum swings the other way," he says. Camp Wellstone graduates who have been working on connecting with voters and winning elections at the local level must be ready to move up to national office.
This is the story of Tammy Baldwin's career. The one-time student alderwoman helped save Russ Feingold's seat in his last election by turning out massive numbers of new voters on the university campus.
"I've always been successful because of extraordinary grassroots coalitions," she says. "You can only bring those together if people believe in the power of their own involvement. It requires people to know their own power in a democracy. That's always a lesson for me--remembering that. I even have that visual image--standing on the shoulders of all the people who got me here. They are whispering, 'You keep on fighting on that health care, Tammy,' or, 'You keep standing up for civil liberties, when you're casting that lonely vote.' "
Even as amendments to ban gay marriage have propelled a rightwing Congress and White House to power, Baldwin is going back not just as a progressive Democrat, but as an openly lesbian Representative.
Talk about courage! When I asked her how she felt about going to work with people like the freshman Senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, who ran on seeking the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and getting lesbian teachers out of the schools, she said that her presence in the Capitol gives anti-gay legislators a chance to change their views. It "demystifies what it means to be a gay or lesbian American," she says. "Their previous notions are challenged. That's the only way change comes about."
That willingness to come out as who we really are, to speak the truth, and to spread the word makes me hopeful. I can't help it. I'm surrounded by optimists.
Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.
© 2004 The Progressive