Episode 24: Democrats — The Wilderness Years
All across America, Democrats and other assorted liberals tried to come to grips with what happened on Nov. 2, 2004. We here at The Last Chance Democracy Café were no exception.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 24: Democrats — The Wilderness Years
by Steven C. Day
As regular visitors to The Last Chance Democracy Café know, I generally don’t do a lot of talking. I leave that to The Three Wise Men. I guess after 25 years of working as a litigation lawyer — my vocation before opening the café — I’m pretty much talked out. Since the election I’ve started wondering, however, whether it may not now be time to begin speaking out more. When you stop to think about it, this really isn’t the time for any responsible voice to be still.
Zach was fiddling nervously with his empty beer bottle. He had arrived at The Last Chance Democracy Café earlier than usual this evening — a good hour before I was scheduled to head out to collect Horace, Tom and Winston. He clearly had something on his mind. I thought I knew what it was.
“They’re all big boys, you know,” I smiled.
Zach, looking to be deep in thought, seemed surprised by the interruption. “What . . . I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“The guys, you don’t need to worry about them. Sure they’re upset about the election . . . we all are. But they’ll be fine.”
“Oh, I know that. I mean, Horace marched with Martin Luther King . . . right?”
“Yeah, if Bull Connor couldn’t shut him down, George W. Bush sure as hell isn’t going to.”
Damn, I like that kid. Now, he may well have studied the civil rights movement in one of his college classes. Or maybe he just happened across a television documentary that discussed the anti-segregation marches in Birmingham. Maybe — but I sort of doubt it. I’m more inclined to think, having heard about Horace’s work in the civil rights movement, he made the effort to look it up. He’s that kind of young man.
Still, there was the question of what was bothering him.
So I asked him, “If you’re not worrying about Horace and the guys . . . if you don’t mind my asking, what’s the problem? You don’t look very happy.”
“It’s the election. It’s just got me a little down.”
I felt dumb. Of course, it was the election.
“It kind of sucks, doesn’t it?” I said.
“Big time. I mean, I just don’t get it. How could people be so stupid?”
“We’ve got to keep the faith, Zach. Stay in the fight.”
“No offense, Steve, but that’s easy for you to say.”
I watched the cars wandering by on the roadway outside the window for a short time, then replied in a melancholy voice, “No offense taken. But you’re wrong. Those are actually among the hardest words I’ve ever spoken.”
This was to be the first evening The Three Wise Men had come to the café since Nov. 2, or, more precisely, the early morning of Nov. 3. That’s when our election party officially broke up — shortly after NBC called Ohio for Bush. Horace, Tom, Winston and I stuck around for a couple more hours, hoping — I don’t know, hoping for something. But this was one bad dream we wouldn’t wake up from. Bush had done it. Four more years. Four more years. Four mother fucking more years. And with increased majorities in Congress to boot.
And the thing that drives me absolutely nuts, as I stew in my juices about it, is the fact a huge percentage of Americans are blithely going on about their business, utterly unconcerned with what’s happening to American democracy. It’s mind numbing, really. Even as the pundits blather on about the huge voter turnout, the truth is that only about 55% of the voting age population bothered showing up at the polls.
If a truly accurate opinion poll had been taken on election day of the nation’s entire adult population, whether or not they voted, here’s roughly how I think it would have come out: Strong for Bush: 13%. Weak for Bush 11%. Strong for Kerry: 15%. Weak for Kerry: 11%. Decided the outcome of the election by picking which lever to pull more or less at random at the last minute: 5%. And for the final and largest category, “Oh, yeah, there was an election, wasn’t there?” 45%. And many of those 45% are among the very folks who will most suffer under Bush’s policies. But they couldn’t be bothered to dedicate a few measly hours to go register and vote.
Winston Churchill once said, “In a Democracy, people get the kind of government they deserve.” If that’s true, then I guess those 45% of nonvoters deserve the crappy government they’re getting. The same can be said, of course, for all of the working stiffs who voted for Bush — surely the most anti-labor president in memory — out of fear that two guys might get married to each other in Boston. I just wish they’d all stop dragging the rest of us down with them.
As you may have guessed, I’m a little bitter. But there was no way I was going to show that to Zach.
“The thing is, we all worked so hard . . . and for what?” Zach rubbed his hand across his cheek.
I spoke sternly, trying to display a certainty that truth be told I didn’t actually feel, “You should never feel that way. It’s people like you . . . especially young people like you, who will keep democracy alive in this country. We need you Zach. Your country needs you.”
“I suppose.” Zach didn’t sound all that convinced.
Zach sighed, then said, “But, I mean, four more years of Bush. Think of what that means. Ultraconservatives in charge of every branch of the government . . . And from what I hear on television, they’re getting all revved up to try to push through their whole nutty agenda. Like you guys keep telling me . . . they’re already so powerful. And now they’re becoming even more powerful. If we couldn’t beat them this time, how can we ever hope to beat them the next time?”
God, I thought to myself, what to say? Without really ever considering what the consequences might be if we ended up losing, Horace, Tom, Winston and I had been preaching to Zach for more than eight months about how critical this election was. How we were reaching a point of no return in this country — a tipping point, where our nation’s growing tendency toward plutocracy would so overwhelm the principles of broad based liberal democracy that there would be no way to reverse course — at least not until the inevitable abuses some day led to a national catastrophe. Well, like I said, he’s a great kid. He listened to us. He took it all to heart. Now, how were we ever going to talk him down from the ledge? How were we going to keep the spark alive — keep him from giving up?
Then I had a thought.
“Zach, how much do you know about Winston Churchill?”
The question seemed to take him by surprise. “I’m not an expert, or anything,” he said. “I know a little about him.”
“I’ve always been a big Churchill buff, myself,” I told him. “Did you know, for example, that he rose to high office at a very young age?”
“It sounds vaguely familiar.”
“Churchill was named Home Secretary, a big job, when he was only 35 years old. And he became the First Lord of the Admiralty at age 36 . . .”
“Okay . . . ?” said Zach, his voice displaying a hint of a “what the hell are we talking about this for” tone.
“Don’t worry,” I smiled. “I won’t give you his whole bio. What’s important is that beginning in 1929, he fell out of political favor. And, as a result, he held no government post for the 10 years leading up to World War II. Historians sometimes refer to this as Churchill’s wilderness years. Can you imagine how hard that must have been on him?”
“Think about it. After having almost reached the very top at such young an age . . . he now found himself, in his very prime, stuck being what they call a backbencher, lost in the political wilderness.”
“Yeah, I can see how that must have sucked.”
“So, let me ask you, Zach, would you have blamed Churchill if he had just given up? Gone home and concentrated on making money?”
“I guess not.”
“Do you think that’s what he did?
“Well, I’m guessing no, since I happen to know that he was Prime Minister during World War II. And, also, if he had just given up and gone home, I’m kind of doubting you’d be telling me the story.” Then he smiled.
I returned the smile, “Point well taken.”
It was only 5:15 in the evening, but the Café was already buzzing. The usual Wednesday evening crowd in the lounge was gathering and most of the tables on the dining side were already full. My fears of a post-election drop in business appear to have been misplaced. I guess in light of what happened, Democrats (and other liberals) still feel the need to spend some “quality time” with fellow travelers.
Molly and the other servers were busy delivering the platters of Liberal Burgers, Bleeding Heart Spareribs and Chickenhawk Caesar Salads to the customers. Fortunately, my employees (all co-owners you’ll recall) are among the best in the business and were handling things well on their own. I wasn’t helping much. My attention was on Zach.
I looked at my watch. I was ready for Horace, Tom and Winston to get there, to help me buck up Zach’s spirits. But it was still a good 40 minutes before I was scheduled to even begin the process of picking them up. I was on my own.
And here’s the problem. How was I supposed to find the right words to convince Zach that all was not lost, when the truth of the matter is that I was kind of feeling myself that everything might well be lost? It wasn’t just Zach who needed bucking up. I was, and still am, terrified by what the next four years may bring. Will there be more unnecessary wars? Seems far from unlikely. Continued incompetent management of the current War in Iraq? A virtual lock. Continued growth in inequality? Without a doubt. Increased concentration of wealth through regressive tax policies? Bring it on. Growing environmental degradation? Bank on it. And even more frightening from the standpoint of American democracy, will we continue to see an ever increasing concentration of economic, cultural and political power in hands of the super rich? Frankly, I don’t see how it can be avoided.
But the job at hand that evening was to help Zach. Maybe in the process, I’d find a way to help myself.
I gestured for Molly to bring Zach another beer on my tab. I don’t think I was trying to get him drunk, although that would have been one possible strategy to buy time until the wise men arrived. “Zach,” I said as Molly poured, “the amazing thing about Churchill is that his decade out of power . . . as painful as it was for him personally, was probably one of his greatest periods of public service.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Zach played along. “In what way?”
“By becoming a royal pain in the ass to the British government. By raising hell. By challenging the conventional wisdom. By obtaining secret information and then leaking it to the public. By engaging in a course of conduct that many in leadership roles in England regarded as little short of sedition.”
“I think I remember some of this. It was about Hitler, wasn’t it?”
“Exactly. After coming to power in 1933, Hitler began to systematically resist the terms of The Treaty of Versailles, which, among other things, had mandated German disarmament. As Hitler became more and more belligerent, the British government, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, adopted a policy known as . . . Well, can you tell me what it was, Zach?”
I guess I’ve been around Tom too long. Now, even I was slipping into a Socratic style of conversation.
“Appeasement . . . ?” offered Zach after a moment.
“Bingo. That’s absolutely . . .”
“Yeah. I remember seeing something about that on television. Churchill was opposed to Appeasement, right?”
“Right. In fact, he was violently opposed to it. He attacked it on the floor of Parliament, in speeches to other groups, in articles and in conversations with anyone who’d listen. And he . . .”
Zach broke in again, “I forget. Was he in favor of attacking Germany?”
“No. Not at first. But he did favor taking a very tough line against Nazi Germany and he pushed for increased armaments . . .”
“But since he was out of power, did he really change anything?”
“Not right away. But eventually he had a critical impact in helping to prepare Great Britain for war psychologically . . . No small feat, given the deep wounds left over from the First World War. And of equal importance, most historians believe that as a direct result of his meddling, the RAF . . . the Royal Air Force was straightened before the war. And that may well have saved England.”
Zach’s face took on a mischievous slant as he said, “You aren’t turning pro war on me, are you? I mean, it sounds to me like you’re using the very same argument about Appeasement that the neoconservatives used in pushing for war in Iraq?”
I shook my head in disgust — not at Zach’s question, but at the neoconservative position. “Yup,” I said, “it’s true. They actually did try to compare the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in 2003, with the threat posed by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. Absolutely moronic . . .”
“Because . . . Well, for one thing, in 1938, when the Munich Agreement was signed, Hitler was actually making credible threats of war. Hussein, on the other hand, hadn’t lifted a finger against any other nation since being blasted out of the water in the Gulf War 12 years earlier. And he wasn’t threatening . . .”
“Actually, we were the ones making most of the threats, weren’t we?”
“That we were. Now, no one’s denying that Hussein is an evil man who deserves whatever he gets, but, unlike Hitler, he posed no immediate threat to the U.S. or our allies.”
Zach nodded, “And he had no weapons of mass destruction.”
“Absolutely. But even aside from that the Munich analogy was silly. People forget what Appeasement meant back in 1938. Under the Munich Agreement, the Western powers turned over to Germany a portion of Czechoslovakia. They literally gave away the territory of another sovereign nation! By contrast, Iraq was given nothing . . . nothing that is other than crippling sanctions, stringent limitations on its national sovereignty and regular bombing attacks. Germany was appeased. Iraq, under Hussein, got clobbered.”
“Okay, I got us off track,” said Zach. “So explain again the point you’re making about Churchill’s opposition to Appeasement.”
“It’s about the power of honest dissent. It’s about what one man . . . let alone a whole party or political movement, can accomplish by standing up against those in power and shouting for the whole world to hear, ‘Sir, you are wrong! You are wrong! You are damnably and unforgivably wrong! And for so long as I have the breath necessary to form the words, I will never, never allow your falsehoods to go unchallenged!’”
“And you’re saying we can do that again today.”
“I’m saying we must do that again today.”
Zach smiled. “I do see your point,” his voice sounding just a little brighter, more hopeful than before. “Because, at least in the case of Churchill himself that one man was able to change the world . . .”
“He probably saved it. And the funny thing is . . . and it’s something every left leaning politician should remember right now . . . that by doing this, by standing on principle and by speaking the truth, he not only saved England and probably the rest of the world. He also saved his own political future. Because later, when it became clear to everyone that he had been right . . . that Appeasement had been a disastrous policy, Churchill became the consensus candidate to lead Great Briton through World War II.”
I was glad to see Zach perking up. And I guess hope must be as infectious as they say it is, because I was perking up a little myself. And it felt good. I guess we all need a little hope, especially at times like these. But we also need truth. And Zach was entitled to know the score.
“I don’t want to mislead you, Zach,” I said. “The situation is going to be grim for some time to come.”
“I know that.”
“I know you do. But I want to be sure that you understand what that means . . . the full weight of it. The fact is that many of the things you and I care deeply about are going to be harmed. Some of them destroyed.”
“And the bastards will only grow stronger in the short term. They won’t be shy about using the power of the federal government to reward their friends and punish their opponents.”
“So you know the score?”
“Of course, I know the score. Why else do you think I’m feeling so down? They’ve got the power. They’ve got the patronage. They’ve got the press eating out of their hands. They’ve got everything . . .”
I stopped him. “No, they don’t have everything . . .”
He stopped me. “Okay, tell me something they don’t have.
“They don’t have the truth.”
“The truth?” Zach sounded a little incredulous. He thought for a little while, then added, “You’re right, of course. The truth isn’t on their side. But that doesn’t seem to have slowed them down much so far.”
“Never underestimate the power of truth, Zach. True, people can hide from it for a time, ignore it . . . even bury it a mile deep in the muck. But they can’t destroy it. It’s always there, waiting in the shadows, ready to pull down anyone who abuses it. We think George W. Bush looks unstoppable today. Hell, he’s a political pygmy compared to where Richard Nixon stood at the same point in his presidency. Nixon didn’t win by any paltry 3% of the vote. He won in a landslide, capturing more than 60%. Even with a Democratic Congress, Nixon was so powerful . . . and so arrogant that people referred to his administration as the Imperial Presidency. Sound like anybody we know today?
Zach replied, “So are you saying you expect Bush to end up being forced out of office in disgrace like Nixon?”
I have to admit it was sort of a pleasant thought. I was tempted to say yes. But –
“No. While it’s true that Bush has no shortage of scandals to contend with, the situation is different today. For one thing, the Republicans own both houses of Congress. And let’s face it, the press is a lot more docile now than it was back in Nixon’s day.”
“So, what are you saying then?”
“I’m saying that even though it probably won’t happen the same way it did with Nixon, truth still has the capacity to hunt down even the most powerful of men. And that includes Bush. And we aren’t just talking about scandals. Bush lies about everything. In fact, instead of offering a $10,000 cash reward for anyone who could prove Bush actually showed up for service with the Alabama National Guard, I wish that guy who does Doonesbury, what’s his name . . . ?”
” . . . Right, Trudeau. I wish that instead he had offered the reward to anyone who could prove that Bush has ever offered a major policy initiative that wasn’t based, in large measure, on deceit. Believe me, his money would have been safe.”
Zach said, “It sounds to me like you’re saying that the Democrats should just sit back and wait for Bush to implode . . .”
“No, I’m saying just the opposite. I’m saying that it’s time for Democrats and other liberals to quit licking our wounds and get back to work defending the truth. Defending the truth that the War in Iraq was both wrong and foolish. Defending the truth that Bush’s tax and economic policies are increasing inequality in this country. Defending the truth that the budget deficits are a betrayal of our children. Defending the truth that the quality of our natural environment is suffering irreparable harm under these yahoos . . .”
“And if we do that . . . ?” began Zach.
“If we do that . . . and if we do something else, if we use the next four years to think about truth, to speak about truth, to organize in the defense of truth, to build institutions and media centers dedicated to truth, to challenge every lie, every half-truth and every slander, to recruit candidates for political office who aren’t afraid to do these same things . . . ?”
“And if we do these things . . . ?” began Zach again.
“If we do, then maybe, just maybe, history will look back at our days in the wilderness as having been the first step toward a better America. It’s not the hand we wanted. But now that we’ve been dealt it, I say, let’s play it with style. Let’s fight so hard they won’t know what hit them. Let’s make a difference. So, are you ready to sign up for the team, Zach?”
He grinned, “Hey, I never left it.”
As I thought about it, neither had I.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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