Our Moment Of Truth

Election '04

The hopes of the world were dashed on Nov. 2, 2004.

An indescribably beautiful, vibrant and diverse people's movement had formed inside the United States, aiming to free the planet from the madness of George W. Bush. Ordinary people of every class and color had come together: donating, volunteering, phone banking, poll monitoring, dancing, praying, stabbing voodoo dolls and anything else – all to oust that villainous cowboy-in-chief.

On Tuesday morning, TV news showed urban voters, youth and students flooding the polling stations. By Tuesday afternoon, exit polls were predicting a Bush defeat in Florida and Ohio. Even the most jaded, cynical leftists were starting to get a little excited. A delicious upset victory seemed to be in the works.

Then came Wednesday morning – and the awful truth: a majority of U.S. voters had cast their ballots for George Bush after all.

Across the country, people of conscience were stunned: "Can you believe it?" ... "I'm just numb. I think I'm still in shock, or something." ... "I would leave the damned country. But where can I go that Bush wouldn't bomb?" ... "I'm so sad that I can't even cry about it."

Will Our Movement Survive?

And now we're wondering: what next? What will happen to all this energy, creativity, and momentum?

The good news is, it's entirely up to us. We can let Bush's victory shatter all our new coalitions and efforts. Or we can use the pain to deepen our commitment to transforming America.

Let's stick with it. Because, without anyone consciously trying to do it, we have already created something quite without precedent in our nation's history.

It was not the Kerry campaign or the Democratic Party that almost unseated Bush. It was a wildly decentralized people's movement. No one designed it. But somehow we have hatched what looks like a genuine, cross-class, multi-racial, "pro-democracy" movement – standing up to an increasingly authoritarian regime. And we did it all in about 18 months. We should be damned proud.

And now, like the pro-democracy movements that we admire in South Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, our fledgling movement must struggle. It will be years and decades before our dreams are realized. But if we choose to fight on, ultimately, we will prevail.

Fortunately, the initial steps to preserve and strengthen our movement are straightforward.

First, we must comprehend the true magnitude of this defeat – and grieve. Second, we must acknowledge the breadth of our accomplishments – and celebrate. And lastly, we must identify promising areas of collaboration – and act.

Understanding the Implications

In trying to comprehend the Right's triumph, one is tempted to minimize it. But "denial" is a poor basis for good strategy. We must come to terms with the dire implications of the GOP's sweeping victory. And weep.

Bush won an outright majority of the popular vote, the first president to do so since his father in 1988. And because of population growth and massive voter turnout, he racked up more votes than any U.S. president, including Reagan. He got three million more votes than Kerry. This is the same Bush who was insufferably arrogant as a Supreme Court appointed president. Watch him strut now.

And the damage was not limited to the presidential election. The GOP enjoyed gains in the Senate and House.

Meanwhile, "freedom to marry" advocates got hammered, with measures banning gay marriage passing even in Oregon. Arizona passed a truly disgusting anti-immigrant measure, despite Republican Sen. John McCain and the Chamber of Commerce begging voters to reject it.

And don't think the red states are the only places contaminated. Californians passed a measure to allow police to collect DNA samples from arrestees, even those who haven't been convicted or charged. Californians also voted down a mild modification to our ultra-draconian Three Strikes & You're Out law. (Former liberal Jerry Brown joined hands with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to kill the much-needed reform.)

The bottom line: the GOP totally dominates the federal executive, legislative and judicial branches. And its ideology carries weight, even in places where its elected officials do not.

What will Bush do now? That's obvious: Dubya is the living, breathing embodiment of an unholy union between the "military-petroleum" complex and the "religious right." Now he will reward that power base.

  • Bush will work to intensify the "borrow and spend" tax policies, "drill and burn" energy policies and "lie and die" military misadventure in Iraq. The over-stretched U.S. military may not be able to start another "pre-emptive" war. But the bloodletting in Iraq will continue on both sides for years and years. And a draft is a real possibility.

  • The GOP will unleash a fearsome assault on civil liberties, especially targeting Arabs. And Team Bush will carry out its own 21st century Christian jihad, persecuting Muslims, feminists and "sexual deviants" wherever it can. Bush will try to stack the courts, including the Supreme Court, with right wingers. (That's the main way that he will undercut reproductive rights.)

  • He will try to reward big business by privatizing social security and ramming through "tort reform" to shield corporations from lawsuits.

Bottom line: the twisted agenda of right-wing Christian fundamentalists, Pentagon warmongers, corporate war profiteers and the U.S. petroleum industry will reign supreme. And there will be no change in that balance of power until at least 2008 and (probably) much later.

All this means that we will likely witness at least four more years of aggravation and heartbreak. We will win some battles, surely. But we will lose some dear fights, too. So there is a temptation to succumb to despair and give up trying. And there is the opposite impulse – to skip the tears and dive into a righteous frenzy of activity.

Instead, let us take a moment to honor our fears and sorrow. The pain has something to teach us. Let us see what wisdom rises up, when the sobs have ebbed away. Later on, we will need those precious insights.

Reasons for Hope in the Midst of Despair

But grieving is not our only work. We also have much to celebrate. Let us never forget that Bush's win was not the result of a single campaign season. Rather, the GOP is inheriting these gains as the result of 40 years of consistent right wing organizing, institution-building and propagandizing. The clarity of the right's policy agenda, and the maturity of its political apparatus, is still unparalleled and unrivaled on the left.

We faced an experienced adversary in GOP mastermind Karl Rove. In the post-9/11 environment, we could not rely on our familiar themes. We didn't even have a compelling candidate. And yet our newborn, little movement still came within striking distance of unseating a "war-time president." And we can already identify many exciting, positive trends.

The campaign broke down ancient divides between anti-electoral "outsiders" and election-friendly "insiders." For years, many progressives (including myself) refused to get involved in electoral politics. We didn't want to legitimize the system, compromise our beliefs or be co-opted. But this year, many rabble rousers walked precincts, patrolled polling stations and voted. In the process, they brought new color and energy to the staid world of GOTV. This motion toward more inside-outside collaboration was not universal, nor without challenges. But it was significant. A wellspring of talent is presently locked within 501(c)3 and non-electoral groups. Tapping that energy will be key to a winning, progressive electoral strategy.

For too long, progressives have been divided into lots of fragmented, single-issue groups. We have lots of leaders and groups. But we don't know how to work together. Fortunately, that is beginning to change. Serious progressives don't ask "whether" we should now work across lines of race, class, gender or issue. They ask: "how" to do it effectively. This is immensely promising. Combining into relevant, effective coalitions could instantly multiply progressive power a thousand-fold.

Communications technology has become reliable, ubiquitous and cheap. We can network tens of thousands of people; record and share high-quality independent music; and create professional quality DVD's – all on a few desktop computers. MoveOn.org, Howard Dean and Indyvoter.org are just the tip of the iceberg. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald combined new technologies by partnering with MoveOn.org to promote his Bush-slamming, documentary DVD's online. We are really just starting to leverage online communities and digital technologies. (Luckily, the right is too top-down to use these liberating tools appropriately. So we have an advantage in this domain, for now.)

Thousands of youth got involved in electoral politics for the first time. They made voting seem hip and slick. A miracle! The League of Independent Voters, Slam Bush and the Hip Hop Political Convention were especially effective. Role models from the corporate hip-hop world also plunged into presidential politics. Everybody from Russell Simmons, to P. Diddy, to Eminem sounded off. Urban youth were told that their voices – and votes – really mattered. And the youth responded.

The media is trying to pooh-pooh the youth vote. But they aren't fooling anyone. The turnout was phenomenal. And the youth activists and organizations that emerged during the "War of 2004" will be supplying leadership for decades to come.

Plus, we have a plethora of new leaders and smart organizations. They include Code Pink. The Hip Hop Summit Action Network. Barack Obama. America Coming Together. Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans. MoveOn.org. Progressive Majority. Michael Moore. Rock The Vote. Michael Franti. The list goes on and on. All this new and renewed activist energy is barely standing up on little fawn's legs. And yet we almost defeated the right wing's fearsome dragon. Just imagine what we will be able to do in four years, or ten.

Nov. 2, 2004, actually could turn out to be a high-water mark for conservatives. For one thing, Bush will try to reward the social conservatives, especially on issues like gay marriage and abortion. That effort will strain the GOP, as Republican moderates and libertarians drag their feet or push back.

The neo-conservatives are already fighting among themselves over the mess in Iraq. Paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan hates them all. Colin Powell will surely bolt, leaving the moderates with even less influence or reason to play along. Sen. John McCain is always a wild card. The lesbian and gay Log Cabin Republicans refused to back Bush in 2004. John Ashcroft is rumored to be leaving the administration, and it's hard to imagine that there could be someone more reactionary waiting in the wings. Eventually, there will be a succession fight to replace Bush, now a lame duck. Any of these factors could undermine Republican unity.

The GOP looks all-powerful now. But hubris catches up to everybody. We can help peel away groups and deepen splits. Then when the Bushies start reaping all the dirt they have sown, we can be ready – wearing big smiles.

Opportunities for Collective Action Local activists can find each other and hatch schemes. We don't have to wait for 2008 to start promoting local ballot measures or candidates. Besides, as strategy gurus Joel Rogers and Dan Carol keep stressing: we must build state-based, election-oriented networks before we can win nationally.

At the federal level, we can prepare now to fight Bush hard on abortion, privatizing Social Security, Patriot Act II, drilling for oil in Alaska, any escalation in Iraq and the federal judgeships (especially the Supreme Court). Plus we can play offense. Bush has been totally MIA on energy independence and nuclear proliferation – two mainstream issues where progressives can lead. The new Apollo Project is smart to demand clean energy jobs for U.S. workers – putting oil man Bush on the spot. And there are thousands of other great ideas gurgling out there.

Our Pro-Democracy Movement Will Prevail As we find and elevate those ideas, I hope we will let those feelings of hope and excitement from election day morning sustain and nourish us. We must not let Wednesday morning's pain wipe out Tuesday morning's pride. The bright promise we all felt at dawn deserves to be cherished, nurtured, protected, honored, remembered and cultivated. It is the candle that will someday be a great flame.

And in the light of that flame, we will lift the sword of war from over the heads of our sisters and brothers around the world. We will set this country on the path of partnership with, not domination over, the world community. We will retrieve the Bill of Rights from John Ashcroft's garbage bin. We will use our genius to heal the earth, not pave it. We will deepen our nation's commitment to human rights for people of all races, religions, genders and birthplaces.

These are our sacred duties. And we will meet them. When we do, the United States will once again, be the leader of the whole world. But this time, not in war. Not in pollution. Not in incarceration rates.

Instead, we will lead the world in human rights and in social justice. In world-saving technologies and sustainable job creation. We will lead by showing the world how a strong, multi-racial nation can unite itself, to solve its toughest problems. That's where our new movement has the potential to take us all.

Our moment of truth did not come on Nov. 2. Our moment of truth is today, now, in the aftermath – and in the choices we make going forward. And I know that we will choose wisely.

I know because I saw those long, snaking lines of disenfranchised people, standing for hours in Ohio rainstorms, waiting to vote. I saw those students sleeping on the ground. I saw those Haitian grandmothers in Florida, black hands gripping steel walkers, asserting their dignity and humanity before the whole world. And in seeing that, I looked into the very heart and soul of this amazing movement we are building.

You saw it, too. So did millions of others. And that's why I am confident that the hopes of the world are absolutely safe with us. Still.

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