Waking Up to Reality

Today many of us woke up to find ourselves in a different country than the one we had convinced ourselves we lived in. It is a hard reality we dragged ourselves out of bed to confront; a dreary and terrifying world stares back at us today.  


Progressives and even radicals have been acting as if the Bush administration was an historical accident, the result of an illegitimate power grab on the part of a Right Wing minority. But instead of pushing an unpopular and questionably elected president out of power, an unprecedented number of Americans turned out at the polls, and the majority of voters gave Bush's second term what will surely be interpreted as a blank check mandate, plus a more entrenched Republican Congress.  


The Right Wing of this country has proven itself stronger and more organized than most of us had acknowledged, and conservative social agendas appear more popular than previously realized.


But we have to remember that reality itself has not changed overnight — only our understanding of that reality has been altered. And while we were hoping for a shift in the political climate in which we wage our struggle for social change, we have to keep fighting for a better world, rain or shine.  


In the days and months to come, many of us will be rethinking our strategies given the new version of reality in which we find ourselves. Not ones to waste time, we went searching for an elusive glimmer of possibility — a new way of approaching social change. Our day-long journey concluded where we stood four years ago, as if there had never been any hope that a liberal presidency was possible, which it never was. At last, we hope that more progressives and radicals will see in retrospect that what some of us have been saying for years is more true today than ever.




Take a moment to appreciate reality  


Though most of us knew a Kerry victory would not solve the problems faced by people in this country and around the world, we dared hope that removing Bush from office would make our struggles easier. Additionally, we thought, it would be an important show of force and a clear political statement to unseat a regime unresponsive to human need.


We dared hope that the American people would hold the Bush administration accountable for launching an illegal war abroad and plundering the poor in favor of the rich at home.  


So our short-term hopes have been handily dashed.  


Bush has been rewarded for lies, theft and aggression. Telling ourselves that most Americans are unaware of Bush's real agenda amounts to condescension the majority no longer deserves, and a benefit of the doubt we cannot afford to give them.  


No matter how we might be tempted to spin the "real meaning" of the election results, the outcome was essentially a worst-nightmare scenario. Record voter turnout failed to back the liberal or progressive candidates altogether. As it happens, there was a significant, silent batch of conservative voters we had heretofore discounted, including many in the Religious Right. According to exit poll data, one out of every five voters in this election was a Christian fundamentalist. The same portion cited "moral values" as their primary issue of concern, making it the biggest reason people reported coming out to vote.


Even if we were correct that Bush-haters are the majority in this country, we are clearly not the voting majority, and we do not hold much political power. Rallying our undefined base and rhetorically trashing the Right is not good enough anymore. It is not a realistic way forward.


If social activists can agree that the sickening, cynical version of America by which we are confronted today is in fact reality, perhaps we can finally move forward effectively, not as an isolated, alienating mass of ideologues, but as a an inviting, growing collection of committed human beings.


None of this means doing away with our ideals. Without our ideals, we will lose our way just as the liberals have. We must hold steadfast to humanist values and revolutionary aspirations. On one hand, we have to hang onto the realistic belief that dramatic, fundamental changes are needed before a better world can be achieved — and that they are possible. But at the same time, we must admit to ourselves that unless we maneuver for real gains in the not-so-distant future, our society will suffer irreparable damage waiting for our lofty aspirations to pan out.




Wage a real battle for public opinion


With the "public" and corporate airwaves largely dominated by the interests of the wealthy, alternative media institutions have been growing in number and power to fill a widely felt need. But, unfortunately, the message of the Left over the last four years has been largely rhetorical and colored with language that most non-progressives readily dismiss as conceited and offensive. Leftist pundits and journalists alike have been packaging crucial information found nowhere else into writing styles digestible only by the converted.


If we are to make change in our communities and on the national level, we are going to need to learn how to address Americans across the divide that keeps people in this nation from hearing one another. We need to come up with new ways of presenting information in a format that educates and persuades without alienating. It may feel good to hear and see like-minded people trashing those who hold opposing viewpoints; and it may be fulfilling to see commentators taking radical stands lacking any hint of compromise or concession; but if the last four years should have proved anything to us, it is that appealing to ourselves translated to no significant impact on the political scene.


This means we have to tone down the rhetoric and the name-calling that mark most alternative media. The more loud-mouthed progressive bloggers and radio personalities will almost certainly continue with their rancorous antics as well as their counter-productive distortions and exaggerations. But people truly committed to social change will step beyond complaint and attack, presenting serious progressive and radical ideas in a respectful, accurate language that most people can listen to.  




Choose wisely what battles to fight using the system


It has always been difficult to win reforms or defend our rights through the US political apparatus. The odds have long been stacked against us, our government systemically unresponsive to popular demands when they conflict with the interests of the powerful and wealthy.  


Now, with a larger margin of Republicans in both the House and Senate, we can expect increased and aggressive attacks on what is left of our social safety net, our jobs, our environment, our civil liberties, and people throughout the rest of the world. And we have to accept that, as always, our ability to stop the onslaught will be limited to our capacity for rallying enough of the public to scare lawmakers out of (or in some cases into) action.


That kind of effort requires a lot of energy, time, and resources, so we need to pick our battles. Given what we (and the politicians) now understand about the demographics of the American voting public, we need to focus on issues around which we can build coalitions. In order to do this, we are going to have to work with people we are not used to reaching out to and who we do not agree with on every issue. And we need to limit those costly and exhausting fights to issues that are absolutely crucial to life itself and which expand our ability to continue organizing and agitating.  



Battles we can and need to win include:  


Repealing the Patriot Act and other laws that inhibit the right to dissent: Protecting the right to organize and agitate for social change is crucial to the struggle for a better world. Luckily, there are already many conservatives up in arms over these policies, and some are already joining with progressives to protect fundamental rights.  


Future Wars: George Bush believes he has an open mandate to do with Iraq and Afghanistan what he will. If he harbored any concerns before that "going too far" would upset his chances of reelection, he no longer has to weigh such considerations. But he is still supposed to seek Congressional approval for the next war, wherever it may be, and Capitol Hill can still be potentially frightened out of supporting another unpopular war effort.


Economic Issues: Yesterday, millions of Americans, in backing candidates that espoused their social values, voted against their own economic interests. There will be some issues that we can organize around to drive a wedge between wealthy Republican lawmakers and their base.


Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: If we lose the battle over opening up national parks to oil exploration and energy development, those regions will be spoiled for good, and with each case of exploitation the door to the next will open that much wider. Fortunately, environmentalism is not a "moral values" issue, but instead cuts across party lines and religious affiliations.




Reject the Democratic Party and work for third party and electoral reform


Not only are the Democrats' platform and aspirations pathetically insufficient for making the kind of changes truly needed by people of color, poor people, women, immigrants and so many others in this country, now we know for certain that the Democratic Party is utterly incapable of challenging the Republicans. The only "viable" presidential candidate the Democratic Party will ever allow itself to nominate would have to be ridiculously "moderate" on most issues, and despicably conservative on the "moral values" issues we refuse to surrender.  


Wasting time, energy and money in support of such a campaign would be a travesty. And, let's face it: the resources put into Kerry's campaign by progressives were almost completely wasted, too. Even those of us who did not actively support John Kerry in many cases did nothing to oppose him. We may have been critical, but we did not speak out the way retrospect reveals that we could have. We didn't echo conservative barbs labeling Kerry a "flip-flopper," even though we knew all too well he was exactly that, and that he likely intended to sell us all out the minute he took office.


We gave Democrats their fair shot; we got burned — can we please now stop the insanity?


Since the Democratic Party, unlike the GOP, is fundamentally unwilling to try mobilizing sympathizers who do not vote, progressives who are inclined to take the electoral path must do three crucial things.


First, completely abandon the Democrats and support a third party.


Second, work hard for common sense electoral reforms at the local and state levels. While there is no hope in the foreseeable future of instituting real democracy on a national level, most people (if not Democratic and GOP loyalists) should be able to recognize the inherent fairness of ideas such as instant run-off voting and proportional representation on state and local levels. Likewise, wherever ballot initiatives are not permitted, let's take the plunge and work to see them instituted. Structural reform efforts represent the only hope of attaining noteworthy influence on government from the inside.


Third, go on the offensive with ballot initiatives wherever they are already allowed. For too long now voter propositions have been the domain of the Right. Even most radicals can appreciate this one element of direct democracy allowed in our system. Ballot initiatives can be used for better or worse, so as long as we lack legislative representation, we need to use propositions for good purposes.  




Build alternative institutions (or die)


We all know what is coming. The last four years have seen continued losses for working Americans. Millions of individuals and families are worse off than they were four years ago and it's only going to get uglier. We can expect an enlarged health care crisis, more job losses and more poverty.  


With control of the Supreme Court, Republicans will almost certainly install justices in the coming years who will reverse Roe v. Wade, effectively denying women the option of a safe abortion anywhere in the US.


Everything from food and health care to heat for our homes and transportation to and from work is at risk for millions who have not already had these necessities stolen from them.


The creation of alternative institutions that provide for the basic needs of people is no longer a strategic option we can overlook in favor of taking the electoral route or merely protesting in the streets. Out of necessity, a significant number of us will have no choice but to seek alternatives to the current economy and other social infrastructure that will become inaccessible in the coming years. And we will need the help of those who are more privileged if we hope to obtain for ourselves any semblance of the services we are sure to lose.


If we meet these needs in an organized and determined fashion, not only will we all have a better chance of surviving this chapter of our country's history, but we will be closer to the position we need to hold anyway if we wish to make radical social change in the future.


When a movement is down as badly as ours is, reaching for small, achievable victories is the only sensible short-term goal. Lest we grow sullen over the prospect of another four years of losses, we'd best organize for some attainable gains that make people's lives better and can rally us for success while showing the rest of the country (and the world) that we have not evaporated.




Jessica Azulay and Brian Dominick are long-time activists and co-founders of The NewStandard (http://newstandardnews.net). They can be reached at uts [at] tools4change [dot] org







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