Many years ago, literary critic Dorothy Parker skewered an unfortunate author with her sharp wit: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly,” she said. “It should be thrown with great force!”
That’s how a lot of us feel about this presidential election year, distinguished by an incumbent who is so self-centered, incompetent, and both mentally and morally unsteady that he’s more dangerous than a baby who’s gotten hold of a hammer — demolishing truth, shattering law, smashing rights… well, generally eradicating our egalitarian principles. The worst, most divisive election ever, right?
No. That honor belongs to the 1860 contest that Lincoln won, despite rabid racism, furious intimidation of voters, vicious personal attacks and daily death threats not only from the goofball “Proud Boys” of the day, but from public officials and establishment newspapers.
Yet Lincoln stayed both calm and firm in a time of dangerous turmoil, and not only did he hold a bitterly divided nation together, but he expanded our democratic ideals and advanced the power of ordinary people to achieve them. So, 160 years after that toxic election, here’s another one, and there’s no Lincoln in sight. That means that We the People have to do the healing ourselves, based on our shared values of fairness, justice and opportunity for all.
Political pundits have rushed out to say (even gloat) that Nov. 3 was a debacle for Democrats, especially for the progressive movement — and we certainly did not match our extraordinarily high expectations. But despite a queasy roller-coaster ride in the Dump Trump race and disappointing shortfalls in some other contests, 2020 is hardly a debacle. Take heart from the phenomenal victories scored this year by our grassroots progressive movement, from picking up a dozen congressional seats to winning hundreds of local offices. Especially significant are the increasing number of overtly progressive sheriffs, district attorneys and other criminal justice reformers we’re electing, including in counties across the South.
This is movement-building at its best and purest. Not only are we electing a broad and expanding network of officials, but also these runs (even those that fall short) do three essential things that advance the overall democratic cause: 1) They increase the number, skills and collective experience of our grassroots volunteers; 2) they spread and refine our progressive/populist message; and 3) they teach us how to run better next time — if we’re willing to learn.
My message is an old and proven one: Persevere, keep pushing, build on what you learn, reach out. A movement is not a weekend project — ask those who launched the women’s suffrage movement in 1842. None of them lived to vote, but they kept advancing. Or ask any of the various communities of outsiders who’ve fought (literally) and are still fighting for civil rights and human dignity. Also, wallow in the true glory of it all — the reality that these are the fights worth being part of, joining in the joy of steady democratic progress. “Winning” doesn’t come on one election day, but over a lifetime of participation.
And remember this bit of wisdom imparted to me years ago by a West Texas farmer: “Battling the bastards is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.”