Dealing with our mess

Sam Smith

According to the NY Times only about nine percent of all voters cast a ballot for either major candidate in the primaries. An AP poll found that only 22% of respondents said they would be proud to have Trump as president, while 27% said they would be happy to have the former first lady as president. 23% of the respondents said they would be afraid if either Trump or Hillary is elected to the presidency.

But that’s what we we’re stuck with – two of the worst choices in our history. Yet expressing our personal virtue, treating our stance theologically, or bailing out entirely won’t change anything. Reality will still leave us with either Trump or Clinton.

In recent weeks, I’ve come to realize how differently I came to politics than many do today. When I was a 13, I stuffed envelopes in a Philadelphia election that ended 69 years of corrupt Republican rule. While I certainly liked the leading Democratic candidates, I didn’t expect them to be saviors or do no wrong. In those days, you went to church for salvation and to the polls for survival and the best you could do this time round.

Learning more about politics in places like Boston and Rhode Island reinforced my belief in politics as a pragmatic rather than a spiritual adventure. You learned to live with real trouble rather than fantasies.  Besides, politics in those days was more of a feudal arrangement. The politicians got power but were expected to do things in return. And they did.

With a few exceptions traditional politics was not of much interest to the left in the 1960s.  There was of course the Gene McCarthy effort and for those of us living in DC, the prospect of home rule coming to the colonial capital at long last.

Still, even for those of us forming the DC Statehood Party, we saw elections and traditional politics as an important tool of a movement. But our goal remained statehood and other issues, and not merely to get our members on the city council.

As for Gene McCarthy, Reilly Atkinson wrote recently on Facebook:

Let’s go back to 1968, when the Vietnam war was raging—hundreds  of US soldiers were dying every day. The country was passionately divided, 50-50 for and against the war. For those of us very opposed to the war, Sen. Eugene McCarthy was initially the only national politician actively against the war. He was our eloquent hero. He gave us encouragement to pursue the electoral process, and throughout the country we elected many delegates to the 1968 Democratic Convention.

I know something about primary elections. – I ran one in Medford Massachusetts with the help of “Clean for Gene McCarthy” Tufts students. Day after day we canvassed Democrats door-to-door, for several months. And we beat the local conservative Democratic machine, by electing three out of four delegates.

But then Chicago’s Mayor Daily called out his thugs and goons to beat up delegates and friends, and they did just that to a peaceful rally. The result: McCarthy lost with his support greatly diminished—with some delegates in the hospital. Hubert Humphrey, once a beloved Democratic leader, became the tainted Democratic nominee. The anti-war folks considered him a traitor. So, many of us did not vote, including me. We made a huge mistake: we helped elect Nixon—the rest is horrific history. Lesson over.

Today, a combination of factors – led by television and modern advertising – has turned politics into an personality contest, with elections being not just another tool of a movement, but the official gauge.

Neither the recent conventions nor discussions about them gave any significant time to major issues. The media did not help its audience understand the difference between a GOP and Democratic platform, preferring to spend its time on things like whom Trump had insulted today.

Still, you are electing a party as well as a president.  Whatever the faults of the candidates, the positions of their party can be far more important. Electing a Republican would have a truly bad effect on many programs such as Medicare,  Social Security and food stamps. And even Hillary Clinton would not  destroy many positive of the Democratic policies.

We tend to treat elections these days as though we were joining a fan club.  Regarding politicians as stars really started with TV, and the huge advertising culture that accompanied it. Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were early, easy examples but today even a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton gets the Hollywood treatment, including  from a media that once regarded politicians with far more skepticism.

And today politicians don’t have to return the favor. Thanks to rule by dollars, politicians can get away with doing little or nothing in return for their progress. For example, DC Mayor Marion Barry was of the older tradition and provided a great summer youth program. After he had gone to prison and our politics had turned its back on service in favor of financial contributions, another prominent Washington politician was caught stealing a couple of hundred thousand dollars from, yes, a youth program. Another example was Arkansas where its governor was making his way to the White House doing hardly anything for his constituents. It just no longer mattered.

But this is the way it is. Our challenge is not to pout, retreat or find a self-serving but politically ineffective niche. It is to treat the election as part of a movement and keep it going no matter who the next president is.

As Bernie Sanders himself said:

Together, my friends, we have begun a political revolution to transform America and that revolution – our revolution – continues. Election days come and go. But the struggle of the people to create a government which represents all of us and not just the one percent – a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice – that struggle continues. And I look forward to being part of that struggle with you…

Our job now is to see [our] platform implemented by a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House and a Hillary Clinton presidency – and I am going to do everything I can to make that happen.

…. Let me be as clear as I can be. This election is not about, and has never been about, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders or any of the other candidates who sought the presidency. This election is not about political gossip. It’s not about polls. It’s not about campaign strategy. It’s not about fundraising. It’s not about all the things the media spends so much time discussing.

This election is about – and must be about – the needs of the American people and the kind of future we create for our children and grandchildren.

Consider politics like you would consider a tool. You don’t use a hammer to find salvation, but to solve a practical problem. It may not work but you don’t then give up trying to solve the problem.  You find another tool.

And movements are so much bigger than elections. Remember that almost every great positive change from abolition to gay rights to the environment – has come from a movement and not a politician.

The movement that started with Bernie Sanders has miles to go. Don’t dump it just because you don’t like some election results. Help bring it back the day after the election.


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