During our last episode, Zach and I began working through our grief over the outcome of the election. Tonight, with Horace, Tom and Winston’s help, we start getting back into the game . . .
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 25: A Time to Teach
by Steven C. Day
Winston sat up straight in his chair. “I’ve just had an Eric Segal moment,” he said with gusto.
What might best be described as a communal sense of cognitive dissonance settled over the rest of the table. Winston and Eric Segal are two names that don’t fit comfortably together. Sort of like Albert Einstein and George W. Bush: Not exactly two peas in a pod. Segal, as you probably know, is best known for writing the hugely popular and overwhelmingly sappy book, Love Story. And while Winston may fairly be described by anyone of a large number of expressive phrases, sappy definitely isn’t one of them.
“Okay . . .” responded Horace tentatively. “An Eric Segal moment in the sense of . . . ?”
“In the sense that I just realized that being a Democrat today means never having to say you’re sorry.”
“I thought it was George W. Bush who never has to say he’s sorry,” countered Molly, as she breezed by with a tray of cocktails.
Winston huffed, “Wrong! Being George W. Bush means always having to say you’re sorry, but never admitting it.”
Molly laughed as she disappeared around the corner.
Zach took the bait next, “Okay, I’ll bite . . . why then does being a Democrat mean never having . . .”
“Because Democrats today have about as much chance of affecting the policies of the federal government as a flea has of getting blood out of a stuffed animal . . .”
“And if you lack the power to impact the decisions being made,” Horace, who had clearly figured out where Winston was heading, joined in, “what have you got to apologize for when those decisions go bad?”
They were right, of course. Not only are far right wing Republicans now firmly in control of all three branches of the federal government, they’re exercising this control in ways that make the opposition largely irrelevant. It’s their show. And for better or for worse, when the reviews come in, they’ll be the ones either taking the bows or taking the hits. They’ve got nowhere to hide.
It’s a reflection, I suppose, of just how pathetic the current state of liberal politics is that one of the cheerier thoughts most liberals can summon up right now is, “Oh well, at least the bastards will be accountable for once.” No small thing, actually. For decades, liberals have had to listen to the right blame us for anything and everything that’s arguably wrong with our society. Are you out of work? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain shipping jobs overseas to China, busting unions and favoring accumulated wealth over work. It’s those damn liberals who are to blame.
No, we can’t really explain exactly how it’s their fault. But don’t you just know those tree hugging, pot smoking, French loving, latte drinking, sushi eating, commie-hippie-snobs are behind it all. I mean, what could be more obvious? And they’re also why your teenage daughter got pregnant and your son doesn’t show you proper respect. True, your daughter never received instruction on birth control because of the new “abstinence only” sex education curriculums. And, of course, your son rarely even gets to see you anymore, since both you and your wife are working two jobs, as you fight a losing battle trying to provide your family with a basic, no-frills middle class lifestyle. But, hey, that’s not the problem. It’s those damn liberals and their gay marriages — that’s the real bogeyman.
Well, folks, the right wing’s days of whine and Rushes are over. It’s their country now. They stole it fair and square. And from now on, when they royally fuck everything up, which, rest assured, they will continue to do on a regular basis, they’ll have a hell of a time trying to blame it on anybody else.
Horace spoke up, “I agree . . . we do have nothing to apologize for. And I mean that even more broadly than what Winton is saying. We gave this election our all. John Kerry may not have been . . . well, the other JFK, or Bill Clinton, for that matter, but he ran hard and he ran tough. Sure, he made some mistakes. He should have struck back faster and harder on the swift boats crap . . .”
“And holding back so much money was stupid . . .” added Tom, referring to recent reports that the Kerry campaign ended up with somewhere in the range of $15 to $45 million in unspent campaign funds, apparently held back, at least in part, to fight possible post election battles.
“. . . but he won all three debates . . .” continued Horace.
“. . . and he gave a hell of an acceptance speech at the convention,” continued Tom.
Horace nodded in agreement, “And the Democratic rank and file were simply awesome. They worked hard, dug deep . . . and here’s a first, the Democrats even managed to keep most of their fire directed against the bad guys, instead of each other.”
“We were organized like never before,” said Tom. “We got out the vote like never before . . .”
Horace added, “I honestly believe that we did just about everything we reasonably could have done in trying to beat Bush.”
I signed bitterly, “Yeah and we still lost.” Then I gestured for Molly to bring another round of drinks. The conversation was clearly moving in a direction that contraindicated sobriety.
“So we did,” agreed Horace, his voice sounding surprisingly philosophical. “I mean, we’ll probably never know for certain what would have happened if the vote had been totally fair in Ohio . . . without the vote suppression. And I know some serious charges have been raised about the integrity of the computer voting. These need to be investigated. But the bottom line is, unless somebody can really prove massive fraud, as matters stand, we lost the popular vote nationally . . . and although I still find it hard to believe, the truth is that while it was close, it wasn’t all that close. Three and a half million votes is no landslide, but it’s no squeaker either.”
Sighs punctuated the silence as everyone took a moment to sip their drinks.
On a happier note, now that Thanksgiving is over, we’ve started putting up our holiday decorations here at The Last Chance Democracy Café. Our approach is, as you might expect, somewhat nontraditional. One of our new Christmas posters in the lounge, for example, features a perplexed looking Santa Clause examining a long list of names. Santa’s quill pen is hovering over the name George W. Bush. The caption reads: “I think I better just skip this one. If I give him all the lumps of coal he has coming they may open up a new strip mine.”
Adding yet another layer of cheer to the conversation, I spouted off, “And if we couldn’t beat them this time, how in the hell can we ever hope to beat them in the future?”
As you may have noticed, my attitude was deteriorating. Earlier this same evening (episode 24), I had been preaching to Zach not to lose the faith. And here I was just a few hours later, sounding like I’d already lost mine. Well, I hadn’t — not really. Like a lot of Democrats, I’ve been subject to some fairly significant mood swings in recent weeks, rocking back and forth between despondency and hope.
“Bullshit,” barked Winston.
“Actually I agree with that . . . it is bullshit,” said Horace in a calmer voice. “That sort of defeatism totally lacks any sense of history . . . Back in 1964, for example . . .”
“I know,” I said. “Johnson swamped Goldwater, with what . . .”
“More than 61 percent of the vote,” said Tom, our own personal trivia computer.
Horace continued, “And I’m old enough to remember how in the aftermath commentators rattled on about how this overwhelming defeat for Barry Goldwater . . . the poster boy of American conservatism back in those days, by the way, marked the death knoll of the conservative movement.”
“Reports of conservatism’s death were, it seems, greatly exaggerated,” I acknowledged.
“As are reports of liberalism’s today.”
Another new Christmas poster hangs on the wall right next to where Horace was sitting. It has a large picture of Dick Cheney speaking on the telephone. He has a wild, mad scientist-like expression on his face. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary. The caption reads: “An unauthorized sleigh and eight reindeer, you say? Shoot it down on my authority! I’ll tidy things up with the kid later.”
Horace’s expression grew more serious, as he said, “Now don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of differences between the two eras. There’s no guarantee history will repeat itself with the left rebounding the way the right did back then. And make no mistake, beating these people is going to be even harder next time. They’ll use all this power they now have to make it harder, much harder. But all this moaning and groaning about the death of the Democratic party is still, well, Winston said it best . . .”
“Bullshit,” repeated Winston in a strong voice. There was no cognitive dissonance here. It was pure Winston.
“And hopefully we’ve finally learned the most important lesson of them all . . .” said Horace thoughtfully. Then he paused.
Usually when people use this kind of over the top language — “most important lesson of them all” — I blow it off as hyperbole. But Horace is different.
“Which is?” I said after a moment.
“Which is . . . we will never be able to build a lasting Democratic majority simply by trying to change people’s votes. First, we have to change their minds.”
I know it may sound odd, but Horace’s words struck me as an epiphany.
“You’re right,” I said after a moment. “Ever since the election, even if we haven’t all been saying it out loud, Democrats nationwide have been asking ourselves one infuriating question . . .”
Zach, who had been unusually quiet to this point, broke in. “I bet I know what that question is,” he said.
I was glad to see him speaking up. Hopefully it meant his spirits were improving. “Great, then tell us.”
“How could people be so stupid . . . right?”
“Exactly. How could so many Americans do something as mind numbingly dumb as giving Bush a second term? In fact, I think this is one of the main reasons why we’re all taking the election so hard. We just don’t get it. How could anyone with a lick of sense . . . no, make that one tenth of a lick of sense vote for Bush? He lied his way . . . no, our way, into a war and then once he got us into it he grossly mismanaged it. He’s mortgaged our nation’s future, just so that he could pay back his wealthy contributors with tax cuts. He . . .”
“We know,” said Horace. His voice was kind, but the “we’ve heard this all before” message was unmistakable.
I nodded, “Sorry . . . end of rant.”
Horace smiled. “Nothing to be sorry for. It was working up to be a good one. But I think we should try to stick with this question of how, for the love of Pete, so many people could fail to grasp what a miserable failure El Presidente has been.”
“Mass insanity,” snorted Winston.
“I’m holding out for some sort of alien mind control,” nodded Tom.
“On second thought, I think you’re right,” said Winston in a rare retreat. “I’ve always been a little suspicious Tom DeLay may actually be some sort of invader from outer space . . . You know, sent here on a mission to take over the world by slaughtering all of our bugs.”
“Not to mention our democracy,” Tom chimed in.
I gestured to Molly to check on our food orders. Somehow I felt that Winston and Tom might benefit from having something more in their bellies than bourbon and beer.
Not all of our Christmas decorations are funny, by the way. For example, another new poster in the lounge features a picture of a dejected Jesus Christ holding a badly wounded Iraqi child. The caption reads: “Please stop using my FATHER’s name to justify your killing.”
No, not exactly a laugh riot.
Faithful, as always, to his role as unofficial den mother to the table, Horace gently guided us back on topic. “Zach,” he began, “you’ve been awfully quiet tonight.”
“Just taking it all in.”
“You didn’t think we were going to let you get away with that, did you?” smiled Horace.
Zach smiled back.
“So tell me, oh ye young of heart and sound of mind and body, why do you think Bush won?”
Zach thought for a moment, before saying, “Well, the press keeps saying it was because of morals . . . or, how exactly do they put it?”
“Values issues,” offered Tom.
Winston huffed, “Which raises an interesting question. On average, does the fact the news media today says something is so make it more likely or less likely that it’s true?”
“To stay on point,” said Horace in a voice that sounded more hopeful than confident that would occur, “do you think the media is right that these so-called values issues, things like abortion and gay marriage, are what clinched it for Bush, Zach?”
“I guess . . . well, what was the percentage the exit polls gave of people who said they voted on that basis . . . ?”
“It was 22%,” said Tom. “And although you wouldn’t guess it from the news coverage that’s actually a lower percentage than gave the same answer in earlier elections.”
Winston growled, “But that’s no reason to let the facts get in the way of a good story line.”
Zach responded, “So what about the other . . . what, almost 30% who voted for Bush for other reasons? I mean, why are these particular 22% . . . the moralists, the ones getting all the attention? And another thing, just because those 22% said that moral values were the most important issue to them, how does that prove they wouldn’t have voted for Bush anyway, on some other basis, even if things like gay marriage weren’t an issue?”
A brief aside: Wouldn’t it be great if just one of our overpaid and over pampered major media news “stars” were to show even half as much willingness — as this 21-year-old college student — to challenge the conventional wisdom?
Horace slapped the table approvingly. “You’re exactly right, Zach,” he said. “And taking the other side of the same equation, who’s to say that some of those 22% might not have ranked something else, like economic issues, as even more important than these so-called values issues if a compelling enough case had been made for it.”
Zach looked puzzled. “But didn’t you say you thought Kerry did a good job in the campaign?”
“Overall, yeah, he really did pretty well. But that’s what I was talking about before when I said trying to win votes isn’t enough. We have to change minds. And changing people’s minds will take a lot more than one campaign. It will take a whole progressive infrastructure, shadowing the one conservatives have built up over the last few decades. Liberal news media outlets, liberal fund-raising organizations and advocacy groups . . .”
“Liberal think tanks,” added Tom.
“Maybe even a liberal book of the month club, like the one the conservatives have,” I threw in.
“And probably most important of all,” said Horace, “developing a new consumer friendly liberal vocabulary. A new way of expressing ourselves that will speak to ordinary Americans . . . laborers and farmers, homemakers and office clerks, middle managers and cops on the beat.”
Zach spoke up again, “Haven’t you told me before that these things actually are starting to happen?”
“You’re right,” said Tom. “Great strides have been made in the last few years. But we have a long, long way to go.”
The Christmas posters I’ve been telling you about are contributed to the café free of charge by Ann Samuelson, one of our regulars. A commercial artist for a large advertising agency during the day, she describes the posters as a much needed outlet for her “repressed revolutionary side.” She delivered a new one just this evening. It shows Santa Clause sitting tearfully on the witness stand in a military courtroom. The caption reads: “This Tribunal agrees with Attorney General Gonzales, Mr. Clause. Giving toys to Iraqi children in rebel controlled areas does make you an enemy combatant.”
The look on Horace’s face seemed oddly contented. Not happy, really. More like a man at peace.
“Let me tell you the good news of our current predicament,” he said. “True, we’re out of power. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. And it won’t change for at least two years . . . and given how few truly competitive seats there are in Congress, it may be even longer. So we’ve got nothing but time. And we need to use that time to think, to study, to organize, to write, to plan, to raise money, to network . . . and above all else, to teach.”
“To teach what?” asked Zach.
“To teach truth . . . The truth about where America is today, how we got here and most important, how we can build a better future. People know they’re hurting . . . They know they can’t find a job that pays for squat, their credit card balances keep getting higher and higher, they’ve got no health insurance and they can’t put a dime away for their kids’ educations or even for their own retirement. What many don’t know is why. We need to tell them . . . no, what we need to do is to help them to figure out why for themselves”
Tom nodded in agreement. “I think that may be the biggest problem I see with all this talk in the media about how economics isn’t what moves voters in politics anymore. That it’s all about values. How in the hell can we know that when there hasn’t been a serious debate in this country about economics and economic value systems for more than a generation?”
“Zach, do you remember last week when I told you about Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas??” said Horace.
Zach said he did.
“Then you’ll probably also remember that Frank believes conservatives have been winning in red states, like Kansas, despite how miserably many of them are doing economically, by manipulating public outrage over social issues, like abortion and gay marriage.”
“Right. I remember.”
“Well, it’s a great book. But if you’re not careful, you can take the premise too far. And as it happens, I know quite a bit about Kansas . . .”
“Your daughter went to law school there, right?
“Good memory. And after she graduated she joined a firm in Wichita. So I get out there quite a bit. And since Elisabeth and her husband both work and the grandkids are in school during the day, I spend a fair amount to time out and about. And knowing me, it won’t surprise you I spend a fair amount of that time . . .”
“Talking to people . . . ?”
“Talking to people. And you know what talking to all those people has taught me about Kansas?”
Zach asked him what.
“That there are a lot of God damned Republicans there, that’s what.”
When the laughter died down, Horace continued, “But I also learned something else. I learned that all those Kansas Republicans aren’t cut out by the same cookie cutter when it comes to social issues. Many oppose abortion. Some don’t. Many love guns. Others don’t. Most oppose gay marriage, but many don’t give it much thought. Many take religion very seriously. Many others are slackers. A few are out-and-out atheists.”
“So are you saying that the Religious Right isn’t that powerful in Kansas?” asked Zach.
“No, it’s powerful, all right, but largely because it’s so well organized and its people are so motivated. In terms of raw numbers, it doesn’t come close to representing the majority of the state. The Religious Right isn’t why Kansas is Republican. It was solidly Republican long before they first arrived on the scene.”
“But the most interesting part comes when I talk about economics with working class Kansans who do support the Religious Right. Because, I’ve got to tell you . . . the conventional wisdom notwithstanding, these aren’t folks who’ve made some conscious decision to vote against their own economic interests. They believe in right wing economic dogma almost as strongly as they believe in right wing social dogma. They aren’t trading bread for morality . . . at least not in their own minds. As illogical as it may seem to us, they honestly believe that the GOP is their best bet for both. So, even as their pay checks get smaller and their benefits drop away, they despise unions. Even as their jobs drift off to India and China, they revere the free market . . . whatever that may mean to them. Even as what little remains of the diminishing regulatory role of government is all that stands between them and a less safe, less secure and less fair workplace, most express nothing but contempt for government regulation of business. Even as their share of the tax burden increases under Bush’s so-called tax reforms, they support more of the same.”
“So, what? Are they ignorant?”
Horace gazed thoughtfully across the room. “No,” he said at last. “They’re not ignorant. They’re ignored. We’ve ignored them . . . liberals and the Democratic party. And to a large extent, we’ve also ignored their problems. In the New Democrat days of the 90s, for example, they weren’t part of the business crowd we were trying to win over. And for the first two presidential elections of this decade . . . hell, I don’t even know. It’s hard to say what they were about other than trying to somehow throw together enough electoral votes in battleground states to pull off a close win. They sure weren’t about trying to change attitudes on fundamental economic issues.”
“So, like I said before,” agreed Tom, “how can anyone claim that economic issues won’t sway working class and farm voters in places like Kansas, when, as matters stand right now, no one’s ever really tried to make it happen.”
Horace added, “And certainly no one . . . until very recently, at least, has ever tried to put together the type of comprehensive progressive infrastructure we’ll need to effectively spread the word.”
Zach still seemed skeptical. “Okay, suppose we do all that,” he said, “how can we know if anyone will even listen? And if they do, whether they’ll understand?”
The food had finally arrived. “It’s been my experience,” said Molly as she dropped off the plates, “that when you talk sense to people, they tend to listen to what you have to say.”
“And you can take my word for it,” I said in a firm voice, “if we make the effort to speak to them clearly and respectfully, they will understand, or at least many of them will. They may not buy everything we say, but they’ll hang with us. And I can tell you how I know that . . .”
Then I caught a whiff of the food. “On second thought, I’ll tell you after we eat.”
* * *
In case you’re interested, everyone at the table had ordered the Blue State Special, which includes California red and white wine, Wisconsin cheese, Seattle blend coffee, Boston clam chowder, New York strip steak and Maine lobster.
Oh, and I forgot to mention our Red State Dessert — Texas pecan pie.
Why do we include a Red State Dessert with a Blue State Special? Because we’re not giving up on you guys. Not for a second.
Coming up next episode on The Last Chance Democracy Café: “How To Grow Smart Voters.”
* * *
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