"We are entering a season of hope," President Bush told the nation Wednesday in his victory speech.
To people who consider themselves progressives, the sentence sounded absurd, even obscene, coming from Bush's lips.
No doubt there are many on the left who see a season of doom on the horizon--and that's understandable. There's every reason to fear what four more years of extremist foreign, fiscal, and social policies could mean for our country and our world.
But Bush is right to say that we also have cause for hope--albeit for reasons that have nothing to do with what the president has in mind.
Even though the center-left coalition that formed to oust Bush came up a little short, you who call yourselves progressives were winners in this election cycle.
Think about what you've done the past two years. You were the first ones to show the smarts and the guts to oppose Bush's invasion of Iraq. In a very short time, you marshaled the energy and resources needed to build a massive antiwar movement (or, in Bushspeak, a really big "focus group").
Then, many--but by no means all--antiwar progressives chose former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as a vehicle for expressing their anger over Iraq. The Dean campaign put the backbone back into the Democratic Party and created innovative, grass-roots ways to raise money and mobilize supporters.
Though he is no progressive, John Kerry reaped the benefits of the left's newfound savvy and passion in the general-election campaign, and this gave him a fighting chance of unseating Bush.
So it's not unreasonable to say that progressives were the ones who made this election close. It's not their fault that Kerry wasn't able to gain traction on Iraq and lost the election as a result. The left had the good sense to oppose the Iraq war from the get-go; Kerry didn't.
We'll never know what might have happened if the Democrats had offered a candidate who really could have held Bush accountable for one of the worst foreign-policy blunders in our nation's history, but Kerry wasn't in a position to rake the president over the coals on Iraq.
Yet despite Kerry's flaws, Bush would have lost if the GOP hadn't shamelessly exploited anti-gay bigotry (cloaked in the catchphrase "moral values") by putting constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage on ballots in 11 states to get out the Christian-right vote.
So we should see this election in two ways. On the one hand, it demonstrated that the Democratic establishment made a fatal mistake (in the literal sense for many people) in not standing up to Bush on Iraq before the invasion.
On the other hand, it exposed the bankruptcy of the Republicans, who had no record to run on and no agenda that appealed to a solid majority, thus forcing them to fall back on a strategy of stirring up prejudice and fear.
But that's about all we learned from this election. The truth is that elections aren't very good at indicating where the country is politically; they're even less useful for determining where the country is headed. All they really do is measure the ability of the two major parties to build temporary coalitions and get their supporters out to vote.
The real political forces at work in the nation do affect elections, but they also flow and aggregate in ways that remain barely perceptible at the level of electoral politics.
That's why you can forget about most of what the party operatives, pundits, and talking heads have said about "the meaning" of this (or any other) election.
It's also why progressives shouldn't be so pessimistic. There's still plenty of reason to believe that, on the things that matter most in the everyday lives of Americans--decent-paying jobs, access to health care, a livable environment--most Americans lean left.
So take heart, progressives, and get back into the fight. Get involved in a local campaign for living wages and benefits for people who are your friends and neighbors. Organize to protect the environment in your little corner of the planet. Or find some other way of voicing and defending progressive "moral values," which often are the values of America's real majority.
Of course, any of these things will take work. Progressives have to remember that "being political" means more than just voting.
So, all you lefties out there: Now is the time to draw upon the fabulous new tools, energy, and solidarity that were created in the past couple of years. Use them to fight for issues that matter and to build winning electoral coalitions from the ground up.
It will be through your struggles that you'll show Bush what a "season of hope" really looks like.
RICK MERCIER is a writer and editor for The Free Lance–Star. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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