Liberal optimism in a conservative year
So our side lost. Bush retook the White House, the Republicans kept majorities in both the House and Senate. I'll admit I felt pretty depressed about the whole thing—for about three days. Then I started to take a closer look at where our side stands. The situation is definitely bad, but I don't think there's any reason to resort to the effete liberal stereotype and sit around wringing our hands. There are plenty of reasons to hope.
One: Bush only won 51% of the popular vote, which is a majority, but not a mandate. Now, there's no reason to expect him to move cautiously; he certainly didn't after the 2000 election, when the popular vote wasn't even his. But what's different today is the mood of the opposition. In 2000, many young urbanites were too busy trying to become the last dotcom millionaire before the bubble popped, and while we made jokes about Bush's malapropisms and his Texan drag, few of us understood how conservative a President he was planning on becoming. Today, those same people are outraged and involved, and even now they are ready to pounce if called into action by the right organizations. Even if we can't impeach this President, we can try to block him every step of the way.
Two: When you consider how far behind we started, we should be proud of how close we were to the finish. Writing in Washington Monthly earlier this year, Todd Gitlin sets 1964 as the year in which the modern conservative political machine was born. As a result of that long, hard work, the conservatives now have a massive propaganda machine at their disposal: right-wing cable channels and magazines, well-heeled think tanks churning out position papers, devoted cells of religious fundamentalists taking over school boards and city councils. Considering all that, Kerry should have received a lot less than 48% of the vote. They've had 40 years to build their war machine, and we've had four. How's the playing field going to look in another four years?
Three: The flame of activism isn't dying out quite yet. Almost everybody I know was more politically involved this year than before. And while we were extremely frustrated with the loss, nobody I know has given up on being active. We're losing our typical liberal impatience, not to mention our individualist distaste at being foot-soldiers in a bigger battle. We know how much is at stake, we've seen the results of our hard work so far, and we're not dropping out.
Four: It's not state vs. state. Sure, all those secession maps helped us with some much-needed venting. But far more relevant was the county-by-county map showing the Bush-Kerry voting ratios across the country. These maps don't just show us that the geographic polarization of this country is being oversold by a simple-minded media. They also show us every area in which coastal liberals have sympathetic voters with whom we can partner to influence local issues. They're our "boots on the ground", to use a military term. In every state where fundamentalists are trying to restrict abortion rights or push creationism into public schools, there is a minority that wants to push back. I'd bet that coastal liberals could make serious gains by supporting those people on the front-lines.
(For what it's worth, I think secession is a legitimate political tool. But while it might be useful to raise the issue to prepare the left for the possibility, I don't think we'll need to consider it any time soon. But then, I have been accused of excessive optimism before.)
I don't want to understate the difficulty of the task. The federal government is in the hands of the other side, and there are many in this country who genuinely hate us with a pointedly un-Christian fervor. And yet this country's been through much worse. Is it naive to think we can pull ourselves from the brink of fear and theocracy now? Maybe it is. That's a bet I'm happy to take.