My friend Denise, a dedicated Democratic Party official in Ohio, wrote to me Friday to say:
I've been thinking of you and your hardworking friends in Wisconsin all week. How are you all? I imagine you're feeling like we did in 2004 after the Kerry campaign.
My friends have been asking those of us with contacts in Wisconsin to get some feedback from the folks on the ground. Do you have any insights to share with us? What are everyone's plans now? Is it still too soon to know? Let me know.
Thinking of you all. Proud of you all. You sure put up a good fight. You made them work for it. And you did take the Senate ! Congratulations for that!
Hi, Denise! Thanks for your sympathy and concern, and for the reminder that we’ve all survived being on the losing end of an election at one time or another. If you could have been at my local grassroots club’s meeting two days after the election, you would not be worried about us. We had no time for sad talk because of talk like this:
- “The grassroots club in Fort Atkinson is going to start a Move To Amend effort, and they’ve asked to meet with us to talk about our success in the Town of Westport. Who can go?”
- “Our bank account is still the one that Ron opened in his own name. We need to get moving on incorporation and get a real bank account, because we’ve got a fundraising opportunity at the village summer festival. Who will be in charge of that?”
- “Let’s brainstorm a list of topics for our next teach-ins.” (I was note-taker for this agenda item. We created a list of 38 possible topics.)
So much had been put on the back burner during the recall that this meeting was an explosion of ideas. A naive observer might have thought we had all recently returned from vacation.
As for insights, I can’t speak for everyone, but I learned a lot.
For one thing, I learned that victory is not guaranteed by getting out the vote. On Election Day, I was knocking on doors in a solid blue working-class neighborhood. By suppertime, I was going very fast, shouting through each screen door, “I’m here to make sure you know the polls close in 45 minutes. Have you voted?” On the other side of dozens of doors, I found only one person who had not yet voted—an older woman whose knee was acting up. I told her next-door neighbor about the problem, and she got a ride to the poll. We got out the vote and Walker won anyway.
I no longer believe the candidate with more money will always win. Walker’s millions enabled him to carpet-bomb our televisions, phones, radio, and Internet with his ads, but he barely jiggled the needle between 2010 and 2012.
So what does matter?
I hate to say this to someone who loves the Democratic Party as much as I know you do, but here it is: A party cannot prevail when its main selling point is being the lesser of two evils. I learned that—paraphrasing the classic advice regarding small dreams—the lesser evil has no power to move the hearts of men. In Ohio, you were able to vote on the right to collective bargaining by itself, and you won. In Wisconsin, we had to wage our battle as Republican-versus-Democrat, and we lost.
In the 2010 Massachusetts Senate election, Scott Brown got the vote of everyone who passionately opposed government involvement in health insurance, and he won. Martha Coakley got the vote of everyone who passionately supported something that in a few years might remind them of the single-payer system they once hoped for. She lost. In Wisconsin last Tuesday, Walker got the vote of everyone who passionately supports smaller, cheaper, weaker government, and he won. Barrett got the vote of everyone who passionately supports not making our government small, cheap, and weak quite so quickly. He lost.
Settling for the lesser evil undermines the policies, parties, and politicians who could genuinely lead us in the right direction. Walker’s victories will do some permanent damage to Wisconsin, but they have also given impetus to a new generation of younger, more progressive leaders. When you hear Congressional candidate Kelda Helen Roys talk, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. You’ll be hearing more from her, Kathleen Vinehout, Jon Erpenbach, Mahlon Mitchell, Lori Compass, Donna Seidel, and others.
I know my decision to forswear voting for the lesser evil increases the likelihood the greater evil will win some elections in the near term, but electing the lesser has its unique dangers. For example, look at Obama’s policy that a president can arrest, detain, and murder American citizens on his personal say-so. If a Republican president had decided secret internal White House deliberations constitute due process of law for imposing the death penalty on an American citizen, every Democratic candidate across the nation would be speaking out and in the process, educating and winning voters' hearts and minds. But instead most are silenced. We have no leaders to stand up for this basic sacred American right.
Just as Walker has revived a long-sleeping populist energy on Wisconsin’s left, a Romney victory in November might call forth the muscular progressive leadership America so desperately needs. It might give Democratic progressives the opportunity to grab the party's rudder from the Clinton-era corporatists or, with voters like me, jump ship to a newly viable third party.
I won’t be hoping or working for a Romney victory, of course, and it pains me to say this to you and your Democratic friends. I know how hard you work, too, and how much you love our country.
I promise you that I will give my support to Obama and the national Democratic Party just as soon as they free themselves from corporate control and begin to fight aggressively for the 99%. Until they do, they will keep losing more elections, and I will be looking elsewhere for the people who can lead us toward the America I truly want.