Don't Dare Despair
by Ravi Rajan*
Americans who read the fine print on the state of the economy, the mismanagement of the Iraq war and the corruption in the White House have every reason to be disappointed with the results of what has been appropriately described as the Apocalyptic Election. The spectre of four more years of the same, and of the escalation on the war on our environment and civil liberties is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any thoughtful citizen who shares the Great American Ideal. Understandably, the seemingly abrupt extinguishing of the candle of hope has produced a wave of despondency. Yet, this, if anything, is time to re-commit, re-group, and galvanize the sheer potency of people power. Given the gravity of the issues that face the nation, the slogan for the moment is simple and compelling – Don’t DARE despair!
A quick glance at some basic ground realities provides a starting point. At the outset, the diverse multitudes that take refuge in the democratic camp are united as perhaps never before. The almost genetic predilection toward chaotic dissent and mutual recrimination caricatured so tellingly by Monty Python in The Life of Brian has mercifully remained unexpressed so far in this election season. Second, despite all the talk about an irrevocably divided nation, the fact remains that in states as varied as North Carolina, Montana and Colorado, the electorate awarded Democrats significant victories in the State legislatures even while looking elsewhere for the national ticket. And let us not forget that barely two electoral cycles ago, Bill Clinton won Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Tennessee and West Virginia. To talk about a divided nation and write off the South in what was an extremely close and complex election, the outcome of which will take months to fully grasp, is to be needlessly knee-jerk. As the dust settles on Election 2004, pollsters and strategists will doubtless get busy exploring the scope and dimension of every potential and possibility. However, if there is one thing to learn from the Republican success in this election, it is that people power does matter. Indeed, but for the passion and commitment of the rank and file of their diverse coalition, Mr. Bush might well today be riding dust bikes in Crawford. Yes, we in the liberal democratic camp tried hard, and we must congratulate ourselves on this - but let us face it – they did more. Our response, therefore should be sustained activism - not cynical analyses that engender either paralysis or despondency. Everyone of us matters, every little contribution counts. And we dare not despair.
The goals for the democratic camp are obvious. In the short and medium terms, we have to do our best to defeat the White House Oligarchs as they attempt to push through their pet projects. We also need to reclaim lost ground in Congress and the Senate in 2006. It is important here to remind ourselves of what exactly is at stake. Put simply, the War on Terror is guise to wage three other potent and deadly wars– against innocent foreigners, against the poor and elderly at home, and against the environment at home and abroad. The continued offensives in Iraq, like the one currently underway in Fallujah, are illustrations of the first war. By all accounts, such campaigns inflict untold suffering on innocent people. In the process they also increasingly alienate the entire Arab and Islamic world against us, thereby contributing to the growing terrorist litter. An example of the second war is the proposal to dismantle Social Security. This scheme has the potential to wreak havoc on the lives of the millions of middle and lower middle class Americans who toil day and night to fill the coffers of the big corporations. As for the third war, what is more symbolic and material than the Alaska drilling proposal and the recalcitrance over Kyoto? There is work to be done, and most definitely, no time to despair.
The first thing that every one of us has to do to realize these goals is to take the responsibility to ensure that the issues that we all feel are so fundamentally important for our nation and our future, do not disappear into obscurity – but that they frame every political decision contemplated in the next four years. Mr. Bush and his portly deputy have not lost time claim the popular mandate. We, the people, have to make sure that the question of what exactly the mandate is - is highlighted and remains at the fore of the public debate. To this end, we need, first and foremost, to hold the media to task, and ensure that they do not quickly divert attention to some other topic, as is their wont. One way to attempt the seemingly impossible here is to organize a relentless campaign with the media – thousands of letters to editors, phone calls, petition drives, to let the editors know that we care about issues and that we demand serious, investigative reporting. Similar tactics, and also newer ones, such as internet blogging, can be employed with regard to our representatives who will listen if they sense that there is real and tangible public outrage that could potentially upset their re-election chances. It is important to remind ourselves that almost half of the electorate voted against Bush in Election 2004 and that a sizable proportion of the rest chose his ticket in the context of a campaign framed by mind numbing fear. It is therefore very much in the realms of possibility to forge newer coalitions – across party lines, on specific issues, be it Social Security or Alaska oil drilling. It is indeed possible to galvanize people and unite them on the issues that matter tangibly and in real terms. Americans may have differences on cultural matters and on how to fight the War against Terror, but all the opinion polls in the run up to Election 2004 indicated that the country also shares a great many concerns. Our task, as liberal democrats, is to unite the people over these issues by building issue based coalitions – and thereby challenge, or limit the scope of the mandate claimed by Mr. Bush. Those amongst us who are social entrepreneurs need to lead, organize and mobilize. Every one else must join the various groups, participate and pitch in. Those of us on the coasts must reach out to the Heartland, just like our predecessors did in the context of the Civil Rights movement. We have our task cut out, and do not have the luxury to despair.
Whilst we re-group, we will also do well to recognize that for every Redneck who would like to eliminate “towel heads”, there are probably two or more who exercise their franchise in the belief that they are acting morally and justly in keeping with their faith. These genuinely God fearing people can, in principle, be touched by messages that appeal to the gospel. Rather than shy away from the Church, here is an opportunity to invoke the primordial messages of innate goodness that exist at the core of every religion. Rather than fight to keep the Ten Commandments off the City Square or government buildings or courtrooms, here is an opportunity to hold those who scream “religion” to account on their own terms. History is replete with examples of religious institutions acting on behalf of justice and fairness – one need only look at the Civil Rights struggle in the deep South to see several such instances. Then, as now, there are two diametrically opposed interpretations of the scriptures; then as now, there is an opportunity to forge coalitions and messages to enable the side of justice and emancipation to triumph over those of oppression and tyranny. We can choose to let Bush and co. gallop away in to the sunset on their hobbyhorses of patriotism and God. We can equally use moral suasion and religious commandments to show the believers in the Bible belt that Bush and his cronies are perhaps the best illustration yet of the famous Johnson quotation, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” To do all this implies repairing broken bridges and fixing abandoned roads – and indeed none of this can be done in one day. But again, Rome was not built in a day. We need to act now and think generationally. And if we are really concerned about our country’s future, it is absurd to waste time in a state of despair.
I have every confidence that a combination of Republican hubris and misrule, effective new strategy gleaned from hindsight and some plain old fashioned luck can once again bring the Democrats in to the centre of governance. I am also sure that as we speak there are many politicians plotting and hatching just such comeback schemes. However, while we give them our support, we need to ask whether the goal of all our political energy is to merely bring back the Democratic party. I refer here to the constant refrain about the need to be centrists, and to be in the “mainstream” in order to stand the chances of succeeding in the electoral game. I can indeed appreciate political strategy and can hardly blame politicians who propound “centrism” as the way to displace the far Right. Indeed, politicians can only work within the cultural parameters afforded them by the societies they work in. The question is: What do we want our polity to be? Should politics be based on values or on expediency? The Republicans have, over the past three decades, answered this question clearly and unequivocally and as a result appear consistent and principled, and to some, inspirational. The liberal democratic camp, on the other hand, has consistently compromised. We have been complicit in perpetrating the excesses of globalization, the loss of jobs, and the despoliation of the environment. We are also guilty of tolerating, if not abetting, corporate scams on ordinary people. It was in our watch that a social welfare system that lifted millions of common folk from poverty was thoughtlessly destroyed. And it is a liberal democrat who is the most faithful foreign ally of the Bush regime. The question we all need to ask is: “What do we stand for?” Are we are or we not a coalition that represents the aspirations of common people and stands for justice and equity? Are we or are we not an alliance of people who aspire to the higher ideals of freedom and liberty for all? If the answer to either question is “yes,” then we should not be cowed down by concerns of being on the fringes of mainstream culture. If we are indeed principled, and truly believe the values we profess, our task must be to re-shape our world brick by brick, edifice by edifice, song by song, idea by idea. Let us not forget the far Right were out in the boonies of popular culture but a couple of decades ago. For all our disdain for some of what they stand for, let us recognize their discipline, their organization, and their commitment to a set of core values and principles. Popular culture is not and has never been a static entity. On the contrary, it shaped by blood, sweat, tears, and inspiration. We have our work cut out, and definitely no time to despair.
* Ravi Rajan is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz. He can be reached at
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