Democrats and the election quest

October 28, 2014

IN RESPONSE to "The progressive face of a regressing party": "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Whether or not Einstein actually is responsible for that quote is unimportant. The word "insanity," doesn't quite work either, but the spirit of the quote exactly captures the mindset of Progressive Democrats. In some ways insanity would be preferable, antipsychotic drugs could be prescribed and the problem solved.

Sadly, the problem is more intractable. Election cycle after election cycle, the same story repeats. The names change from Dean or Kucinich or, in 2008, to Obama, or in 2016, to Elizabeth Warren. . The issues vary as well, from Iraq to Guantánamo to the Great Recession. But the scenario plays out again and again, more like a medieval romance or a quest myth than rational political behavior.

THE QUEST begins with an Outsider, or a perceived Outsider. The Outsider is seen as pure of heart, with only the best of motives. The Jeffrey Hunter character in The Searchers, James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Telemachus in The Odyssey are the archetypes. Something has been stolen or usurped or lost and must be regained or avenged at all costs. This parallels the mantra of "take back the Democratic Party," or its variant "take back America." In some versions, our young hero, or the hero from the hinterlands, assembles a band of followers.

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Our quest continues in Iowa. The "Democrat From Nowhere" is reluctant, maybe even to the point of refusing the mantle thrust upon him or her. Undaunted, the true believers begin moving to Des Moines, Dubuque and Ames. What they lack in money they make up for in commitment. They work long hours, they ring doorbells and trudge down dirt roads leading to isolated farm houses. They are on a mission.

The unique nature of the Iowa caucus gives them a fighting chance. As the snow begins to fall, more and more young people flock to the banner. Over late night beers at the local hangout, or over coffee at the campaign headquarters, they repeat the same Progressive Democrat equivalent of the serenity prayer: "This time it will be different." Then in the middle of January, the results will come in. The anointed candidate wins, or does just well enough to keep the quest alive.

New Hampshire will be another story. Now the serious money pours in. The real challenger, to the real threat--the threat being the Republican dragon--begins to call the shots. At this point in our story, the grizzled veteran, tough enough, and pragmatic enough to do what must be done: slay the dragon, moves the Outsider to one side and takes over the leadership.

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The Outsider is replaced with the hard-nosed realist, Jeffrey Hunter is replaced by John Wayne, Telemachus is replaced by Odysseus, and Elizabeth Warren will be replaced by Hillary Clinton. The amateurs are replaced by professionals and the nickels and dimes will give way to Wall Street money and the people "who really matter." The big guns come in: Bill, Barack and Biden--and that's just the B's. The election is a landslide defeat for the Outsider, the quest is over.

The coda is played out at Elizabeth's (or the Progressive Du Jour's) campaign headquarters. The camera pans the faces of teary-eyed supporters, they are crushed. Now the Outsider steps to the front of the room and says to them: "Thank you for your tireless, valiant effort. I know how hard each and every one of you has worked. I'm proud to have been associated with you. But, now is the time to come together as Democrats. Now is the time to get behind Hillary. We all know what is at stake--the Republican dragon cannot be loosed upon the land--and we cannot let that happen."

The last scene: Hillary and Elizabeth unite in a sisterly embrace. Fade to black. The country can get back to business as usual.

IN 2008, the story didn't end in New Hampshire, it ended at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I remember the heady days of that November. Within minutes of the election being called for Obama, I received a text message from an African American co-worker, it read: "Yes we can." Days later, my wife and I went to hear Joan Baez at Chicago's Symphony Center, she began the concert by triumphantly thrusting her guitar high above her head, and shouting: "Yes we can." That Veterans Day there was a demonstration against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rally began with a long-time national leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, taking the microphone and proclaiming, "Yes we can." The quest was a success; the holy grail returned to its rightful owners.

Millions of young people had their first experience in politics by joining that 2008 quest. It was their moment to fight for Hope and Change. They were ready to be turned loose. They were ready to slay the dragons of endless wars and rampant inequality. They were ready to pursue the dragons down the corridors of power and through the streets of Lower Manhattan. But that was not to be. Once elected, the new president made sure that the 5 million names on his e-mail list of activists were buried deep in the memory of a hard drive, in a file marked "do not open until the next election."

The 2009 inauguration came and the young crusaders wept for joy, but now was the time for practical politics. Practical politics did not include aid to foreclosed homeowners, the Employee Free Choice Act or closing Guantánamo. No, bailing out the big banks came first. Then next on the new administration's agenda was the protracted fight for health insurance reform. The 5 million names were waiting to be called into action and sent into battle. Hundreds of thousands of young people were primed to be mobilized, capable of being foot soldiers in the fight for single payer health care, or even the anemic "public option."

They're still waiting. Bringing people into the streets is never part of the Democratic Party game plan. Instead, the streets and meeting halls of 2009 belonged to middle-aged white men in three corner hats. For months on end, these puppets of Americans for Prosperity dominated the nightly news. The chance for meaningful change was lost, gone without a real a fight. Because the truth is: quests and odysseys are for elections, not for fights. The message is: be passionate, be committed, but remember, do it on our terms.
Guy Miller, Chicago

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