Defeat and resurrection: what happened, and what happens now.

November 3rd, 2004

by John Raskin
Founder and Director
Democracy in the Park

Dear friends,

I'm not usually the type to write mass communications of a heartfelt nature; my personal e-mails tend to be immediate and specific, and the e-mails I send to the Democracy in the Park list are hardly personal, except the one I accidentally signed "Love, John." But this is not a normal time for me; it feels a bit like 55.4 million of my closest friends and I are looking into the mouth of a bottomless abyss, wondering exactly why our 59 million neighbors just jumped in and feeling the safety rope holding us together grow taut.

So I decided to share my thoughts with you, partly because I have to work through them, partly because it's a way of sharing the experience and partly because I spent five months helping organize more than 1,700 people to make about 187,000 phone calls to swing states, which means I can do pretty much anything I want for the next few days and my friends will nod supportively, hoping I'm doing all right. Which I am, as much as anyone; as I've reminded my friends who single me out for sympathy, it was not my election. But I do have a thing or two to say, and people keep asking me what I think, so I hope you'll read, consider, and respond, if you're so inclined.

Tonight was the first time since I left for Pennsylvania on Monday that I've stopped moving; arguably, it's the first time since the middle of June. And it turned out to be a mistake, because when I stopped moving, I started crying. Admittedly, there are certain salient moments in the past that have made me cry: the scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest talks to Jenny's grave, the time I played Captain Recycle in a 5th grade science class boxing skit and Roxie Nance actually punched me in the face, and that one inexplicable moment last spring jogging along the Hudson River. But I've never cried after a losing campaign before, not when John Schmidt lost the Illinois gubernatorial primary despite the "Schmidt Happens" bumper sticker or when my trudging around Merrimack, New Hampshire, failed to parlay itself into a Bill Bradley victory.

I've been crying for a few reasons. The first, of course, is that I am mourning the triumph of divisive and irrational fear as a campaign tactic and a governing philosophy. This may be my least original and least personal point, but it's the basis for the others: the Bush campaign has played to the worst in human capabilities, the GOP having replaced terror of black people with terror of gay people and dirty bombs as its winning strategy. But they've done that for generations, and before them it was Southern Democrats, and in other places it's other parties.

So it's not the Republicans who disappoint me so much as the people who have allowed them to lure us into the abyss. I'm disappointed by my fellow Americans, of course; I don't know most of them personally, but we are citizens in a shared democracy and I am compelled to entrust them with a certain degree of agency in my life. Each of them bears as much responsibility as I do to make this country work well, and part of the burden of an open society and a democratic government is that none of us is allowed to abdicate that responsibility.

But a much stronger disappointment lies in America's fabled civil society, the collection of groups and institutions that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote so admiringly of back before the Reagan years. I continue to place a great deal of faith in those institutions and their leaders, but they've really given me the old Roxie Nance one-two this time around. We trust labor unions to look out for their members, we trust the news media to provide us with accurate information, we trust spiritual leaders to guide us toward moral decisions, and so forth; all of this underpins a stable democracy.

Of these institutions, only those unions did their duty this time around, and they did it heroically. The news media caved years ago to the bullying of the Bush administration and later to the exigencies of a Fox-led TV atmosphere and the 24-hour news cycle's insistence on constant stories, even when one does not exist. They failed us first in their coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq war and later by treating the Bush campaign's deliberate distortions as equal in legitimacy to the Kerry campaign's generally accurate, if oversimplified, statements. The nadir of media coverage, of course, came with the Swift Boat Veterans blowup, but their general refusal to filter information for accuracy continued through Election Day; even the New York Times would routinely include unchallenged mistruths by juxtaposing both points of view as equally valid, as in "John Kerry emphasized his plan for expanded health coverage, which the Bush campaign describes as a government takeover of the health care system."

But I'm especially disappointed in religious leaders of all faiths, because they have allowed their institutions to be hijacked by a powerful group of ideologues who pick selectively through religious traditions to suit their personal and political ends. Evangelical Christians are the most obvious ne'er-do-wells in this election, wrapping a personal and cultural discomfort with homosexuality and most other sexual expression in a cloak of morality and enforcing an ideological rigidity unbecoming a democratic society. But Catholics who overlook an unjust war and growing poverty because of a single-minded focus on abortion are no better, and Jews who turn their back on the democratic institutions that nurture our own safety in order to support the most hawkish Israel candidate are failing us too.

But while I was crying (which I've stopped now, because this takes a great deal of concentration), it was also because I came to realize that I am not at all disappointed with John Kerry, which is an unexpected and bittersweet revelation. For all his personal imperfections and his political miscalculations, Kerry resisted opportunites to sink to the level of political discourse surrounding him, and he struggled to maintain an honest campaign in the face of relentless personal attacks and without the support of those institutions and civic leaders who have disappointed us so profoundly. I respect him a great deal for that; it makes his loss on the so-called character issue that much more ironic, and it makes the loss of his presidency that much greater.

So, as people keep asking me, what happens now, and how do we win? It's unclear, of course, but the answer is rooted in this year's unprecedented outpouring of volunteers, voters and attention. It means I'm far from the only person considering the question, and the folks on the task are among the smartest and best equipped of a few generations combined. As I think about it myself, one caution and one projection come to mind.

The caution is that we shouldn't draw the wrong lessons from our defeat. Todd Purdum writes confidently in the New York Times that Bush's victory is indisputable affirmation that we are a "center-right" nation, fueled by a particular brand of evangelism; in so writing, Purdum is displaying the worst limitations of Ron Suskind's "reality-based" mindset. In a democracy, we can't change reality by fiat or executive action, as Suskind's anonymous Bush aide implies, but we can through organized, grass-roots communicative action; democracy is a process and a dialogue, which means we can continue our conversation with those supposedly implacable "center-right" wingers and, if we can speak to our collective potential, bring them back into our winning coalition.

Which leads to my projection. The great American left, those folks around me who I think are the true keepers of the American ideal, are in a stronger position than we realize to put the country back on track. We're beginning to reclaim the vision and rhetoric that has carried us to our greatest successes, and we're doing it organically, from the ground up, led by personal experience, new types of media, and old-style organizing with new forms like MoveOn (and Democracy in the Park). In some ways, our greatest stumbling block has been our responsive nature; we have been reacting viscerally and powerfully to George Bush, which has motivated and unified us but limited our positive vision. But George Bush is at his zenith; yesterday's climax marks the beginning of his decline into irrelevance. In a few years, the fight will no longer be about him, and we will have the opportunity to fill that political vacuum with our own pitch to the American center, which will not be compromises with the right but appeals to the great American traditions of individual liberty, open society and collective responsibility to our future.

We lost a great battle yesterday, and that loss will reverberate for years to come. But our forces aren't decimated; we're organized, we're motivated, and if we can transform our hatred for Bush into an articulate vision for an American future, we'll be in a position to take the next few decades as the conservatives have taken the past couple. Our struggle is not about the 2008 election, or even the 2006 midterms, and Barack Obama and John Edwards can't do it for us. We have to take on the personal responsibility that some of our greatest institutions have abdicated, and assert unapologetically that America is strongest when it is most free, unified when it is tolerant, etc. The ideas aren't new in the least; what is new is a generation of political activists of all ages who have become personally involved for the first time in their lives (or the first time in a while) and are collectively realizing that America is open to our message, that on-the-ground organizing is effective, and that our ability to form a coherent American narrative with a liberal democratic motif could position us well for decades into the future.

So I'm going to start there and keep working, and I hope you'll come too. Are you in?

Love,

John

If you would like to respond, please e-mail me at john@democracyinthepark.org.


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