Don’t Mourn: Organize!

by John Lawrence

(Printed in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Saturday, November 13, 2016)

A decade ago, after Democrats had seized control of both houses of Congress, President George W. Bush admitted that Republicans had taken a “thumping.” Two years later, Republicans were plunged into even greater despair when Democrats won the presidency and enacted a substantial litany of progressive legislation.

Last Tuesday, Democrats took a “trumping” that has left progressives alternating between shock, anguish and, in some cases, genuine fear of what an America governed by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and the House Freedom Caucus might unleash.

They should be concerned. The people who will soon be in charge of the U.S. government are hard-line ideologues. It seems highly probable that ISIS or some other bad foreign actor will quickly test the inexperienced President Trump, and no one has an idea how he might respond. Domestically, he and congressional allies will use their newfound power to unwind as much of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid legacy as they can, employing every governing device at their disposal from executive orders to the complex reconciliation process that will limit Senate Democrats’ opportunities for obstruction. In the House, the Freedom Caucus has apparently decided to give Speaker Paul Ryan a pass, choosing a unified GOP front to advance its agenda rather than devolving into a counterproductive internecine struggle at the outset of the 115th Congress.

There is not much point in sugar-coating what lies in store for progressives: It is going to be at least as demoralizing and destructive as the Obama salad days were for conservatives. But it is one thing to be weepy and dispirited, or to take to the streets questioning the legitimacy of the election outcome (that was going to be Trump’s response, remember?) and another to plan a serious political response to the events of Nov. 8.

Let’s take a deep breath. Allowing a little time to pass will facilitate clearer thinking than is possible immediately in the concussive aftermath of Trump’s victory. Much of what passes for “fact” right now consists of pundits inventing stories to fill dead airtime or self-promotion from aspirants to positions in the Trump administration. Prepare for the inevitable aftershocks: the Electoral College vote in December; appointments to Cabinet and White House positions; the inauguration on Jan. 20; the arrival of the first Trump budget in early February. Each will generate a paroxysm of anxiety among Democrats, which is understandable, but which doesn’t take one step toward achieving a political outcome more reminiscent of 2008 than of 2016.

It is instructive to remember than in response to the 2008 blowout, Republicans turned their energies to the state and local elections of 2010. Over the course of the Obama presidency, Republicans have amassed an increase of more than 900 such positions, and as of January will control more governorships than at any time in history. These positions have been the springboard for controlling the redistricting process that immeasurably helped the GOP build and hold its congressional majority in the intervening six years, and provided the farm team from which current and future political leaders are being promoted.

Democrats need to replicate such a strategy for all the same reasons. If Democrats pay as little attention to preparing for the upcoming 2020 reapportionment as they did a decade earlier, the possibility of controlling the House will be lost for another decade. Moreover, Democrats are in desperate need of a bigger farm team. One reason Hillary Clinton emerged as the inevitable if flawed nominee was the paucity of credible alternatives capable of challenging her. The party’s current leadership is mostly well into its 60s and 70s, and offers no credible candidates for national office. For a party predicating its appeal on young voters, a new generation of inspiring and motivating leaders is needed, not simply at the presidential level but within Congress as well.

In those states with progressive governments already in place, or those that can be won in the coming years, Democrats should embrace a “progressive federalism” that initiates policy experimentation where real impacts can be measured and replicable prototypes can be developed. Smart, creative people should look to opportunities in state capitals and city halls, not simply languish in powerless congressional offices where good ideas have little chance for advancement.

If the opportunities for creative policymaking in Washington are stymied, build capacity in Sacramento, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., in Springfield, Ill., and Denver, in Lansing, Mich., and Trenton, N.J. If Trump and Congress send block-grant federal money to the states (a strong likelihood), fight for control of state governments that can demonstrate the effectiveness of progressive policies precluded at the national level. Conservatives have long advocated devolving power and money back to the states; maybe that’s not such a bad idea if Capitol Hill remains a sclerotic gridlock.

Lastly, stop with all the self-flagellation. “We liberal elitists are wrecks,” Garrison Keillor complains. “America died on Nov. 8,” Neal Gabler mourns. “It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety,” declares David Remnick. Oh, please! We lost an election we should have won, largely because nearly half the electorate didn’t vote, key portions of the Democratic base didn’t bother to show up, and millions of those who did fell for a lot of hooey from a non-taxpaying, subcontractor-stiffing, immigrant-bashing, bankruptcy-declaring, job-exporting misogynist.

Wallowing in self-pity, anguishing that we are, in Gabler’s words, “a pariah country,” or engaging in symbolic paroxysms of futility like a “Cal-exit” secession of our largest state or abolishing the Electoral College are wasteful diversions, luxuries for people who really do want to make America great again.

A century ago, the famed labor organizer Joe Hill confronted a future far more bleak than that facing today’s Democrats; he was about to be executed. Hill’s advice to his compatriots: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” Still good advice.