I’m sitting here in Berkeley, California feeling very mixed about the results of Tuesday’s election. On one hand, I am incredibly elated that our local voters in Alameda County generously decided to approve a parcel tax that will help local community college students have a chance at a real education. This generosity of spirit and genuine commitment by a community to invest in its own future is inspirational.
And, at the same time I am deeply saddened and confused by Wisconsin. The Billionaire coalition outspent us better than 7 to 1. The results? The very voters who elected an ultra-conservative, anti-worker governor a year ago then re-affirmed him in office, even after he demonstrated his complete commitment to cutting public programs that benefit the average citizen AND his commitment to destroying the power of working people and engaging in the worst kind of divisive and destructive politics.
So, in the midst of all of these thoughts, I’ve decided that I’m still feeling optimistic. Why? Because the results in the Bay Area tonight tell me that we can act, organize for power, and win. In fact, if we look at a different moment in history, one region of our country—the upper Midwest—elected progressive political heroes like Senator Russ Feingold and Senator Paul Wellstone. So, I’m feeling optimistic because nothing is settled. Even when things are hard, we have already proved we can win.
Looking forward, what will determine the outcome in a contest in which we know we will be badly outspent and in which all of the institutional and cultural might of corporate capitalism will be thrown at us? This was the very question that Paul Wellstone faced in 1990 when he challenged a Republican incumbent for a seat in the United States Senate. In this contest, Paul Wellstone was a novice to the electoral arena,, having never been elected to public office. The Wellstone campaign was going to be outspent by 7 to 1. Wellstone would and did face unrelenting attacks on his character and on his politics.
So what did Wellstone do? He knew that his campaign could never hope to match the financial or formal institutional power of the Republican money machine. So, he organized…. and organized and organized. The question Paul Wellstone asked in every political campaign he ever waged was this: “Win, lose or draw: who will we bring with us?” At the end of the day, will we have built a stronger movement of empowered citizen activists who know how to fight for themselves and for their communities? Because if we do not build this movement, even when we “win” electoral contests and we put our people into office, these candidates will then be sucked up into a system that will twist and distort them and turn them into creatures of “the system.”
But if we do use the process of elections— or any political processes—to build our movement, then eventually, inevitably the candidates we elect into public office will stay connected to their base. They will stay involved in the lives of everyday people not only because they will want to, but because they will have to. And even better, if we adapt the same strategy that Paul Wellstone pioneered and then refined to an art, then we will use each election as an occasion in which we not only advance candidates who will cast good votes; but we will also elect candidates who are dedicated to using power of elections and then the power and resources of public office to continue building our movement for social justice.
This is not the corrupt model used by the right wing to fund their partisan patronage cronies with self-aggrandizing jobs on the public dime. Instead, it is a model of democracy that genuinely cares about what happens to regular people and that self-consciously engages in the act of community building and community organizing.
So, yes—I’m feeling hopeful. Politics and culture are malleable. If humans in the East Bay can be generous of spirit and vision, then so can humans anywhere. If we have mobilized 1.1 million Wisconsin voters despite being outspent 7 to 1, then we’ve also built a campaign apparatus that can knock on almost a million doors and make almost a million phone calls. I’m feeling hopeful because we are also in the midst of an amazing period in history— one that has so far given us Arab Spring, Wisconsin’s incredible occupation of state capital for weeks on end by thousands of activists, then “Occupy!” and just this past month the Quebec student strike. Why not feel hopeful!? We’re changing history, and who knows what’s next.
“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
― Howard Zinn