A brief recap: As long-term readers and guests know, our story begins as a young college student, Zach, comes to the Last Chance Democracy Café for the first time on a lark. To his surprise, he finds himself being drawn into a lengthy discussion with three elderly (and somewhat tipsy) partisans on the subject of economic inequality and its impact on American democracy (and many other political topics). Surprisingly, given his previously apolitical nature, he finds that he likes it and becomes a regular. In the weeks and months that follow, The Three Wise Men, as we call them, discuss with Zach the growing economic polarization within our society, the horrific impact that has had on our political process and the growing specter of plutocracy.
For the most part, as the proprietor of the café, I’ve always left it to the wise men to do the talking. Then two episodes ago, I mentioned that I had started wondering whether I should start speaking out more on my own. In this evening’s episode, I make good on that threat.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 26: How To Grow Smart Voters
by Steven C. Day
Though it feels like something from very long ago, almost, in fact, like I’m looking back at someone else’s past instead of my own, there was life before The Last Chance Democracy Café. A life without The Three Wise Men, the large round table, Zach, Republican darts, liberal burgers and the Bushspeak machine. I used to be a lawyer. Actually, I still am, but back then, I wasn’t a lawyer just because I have a piece of paper saying I’m one. Back then, I actually played one in a courtroom.
Law became my “chosen profession,” in much the same way many people choose political candidates — the lesser of two evils, or in this case the lesser of three evils. The year was 1974 and college graduation — with its much-vaunted entry into “the real world” — was bearing down on me like a planet killer asteroid. What next?
I had followed my passion for politics into my college studies, majoring in political science. Politics was central to my universe back then, and had been for as long as I could remember. In grade school, while other kids watched cartoons, I watched the news. By the time I was 12, I could list the name and home state of all 100 members of the Senate. And I also knew which Republicans we had the best chance of knocking off in the next election. Yes, I was a confirmed Democrat even back then. I can remember how in 1968, I balled my eyes out while sitting in my 7th grade science class — to the utter astonishment of my wholly apolitical classmates — because Richard Nixon, the antiChrist as far as I was concerned, had just picked up the last state he needed to beat Hubert Humphrey. Four years later, it was George McGovern. More tears.
Well, at least I learned how to handle losing early. As a Democrat that’s proven a valuable lesson.
Following your passions is a good thing. It is not, however, always conducive to a full employment agenda. And as I surveyed my post college options, my upcoming shiny new poly sci degree offered limited market appeal: Only three options seemed reasonably possible: First, I could drive a cab (or something similar). Second, I could enter graduate school, earn a doctorate in political science, and then drive a cab. Or, third, I could go to law school.
Law school it was.
And I did well, graduating near the top of my class and all that. I landed a good job and my legal practice took off. And although I never really loved practicing law, I threw myself into it like a teenager pursuing his first lust, to the exclusion of just about everything else, including politics. After that I still voted regularly, of course. And I cared about political issues — somewhat, anyway. But the old fire was gone.
It’s a funny thing about a life’s passions, though: You can run away from them, ignore them, even bury them under a million tons of other, more pressing, business — but in the end, they always hunt you down.
I would be 20 years on the run from mine.
Now, it goes without saying that any job can wear you down. But there’s something about the practice of law that seems especially primed to suck the life out of a person. Maybe it’s the long hours. Maybe it’s the pressure. Maybe it’s the frequent emotional upheaval. Maybe it’s that we’re all just a bunch of wimps. I don’t know. But at age 25, working 60 hours a week, I was hot stuff. At age 30, working 60 hours a week, I was good to go. At age 35, working 60 hours a week, I was getting by. At age 40, working 60 hours a week, I was surviving. At age 44, working 60 hours a week, the bottom fell out.
Burnout is one of those overused words, drained of meaning by popular culture. Being burned out is one of the “in” things these days — everybody who’s anybody is doing it. I hear it all the time in the café. “Man, I’m really burned out on this project, I need a vacation,” or, “I’m burned out on baseball, can’t wait for football season to start,” or, “My wife’s been working late, am I ever burned out on frozen dinners.”
That’s not the burnout I had. I had the kind where you sit in a dark office, door closed, staring out the widow for hours on end. You dodge phone calls, miss appointments and sometimes court appearances. You avoid talking to people — clients, partners, even your own family. You still put in the hours, all right, you just don’t do the work. You can almost smell the stench from the overripe cases, the rotting projects now weeks overdue. It might only take a few hours to get the most pressing things done — but still you sit there in the dark, looking out that window. “Tomorrow,” you tell yourself. “Yeah, tomorrow I’ll get back on track.” But then there’s another tomorrow, and another . . . You make excuses. You get extensions. If it gets bad enough, you start to lie, to cover up. You feel sad — no, you feel numb, numb like an anesthetic agent’s been injected into your soul. And you feel alone, so terribly alone.
Sometimes you’re saved. Sometimes you crash and burn.
Salvation, when it comes, can arrive in many packages — professional counseling, antidepressants, support from family, clergy and professional colleagues. Or, as in my case, through the rebirth of a long forgotten passion.
My personal salvation came by way of a circuitous, but not terribly surprising, route. Another thing that burned out lawyers tend to do, is to play FreeCell (or some other game) on their computers — often for hours on end. And then, when at last they get bored enough, sometimes they start to surf the web. And in my case, by and by, as I surfed, I found my way to various liberal web sites. There was a lot less to the liberal web back in those days, of course. But a lot less web content, is still a pile of information. And so I started reading and reading and reading, not just on the web, dead trees, too. And bit by bit, page by page, the long-dead political fire in my belly started to flame again. I was still a lawyer, of course, forcing myself to do just enough to beat off the Grim Reaper, but that was no longer my true vocation.
Then came the theft of the presidency in 2000. And like so many other Democrats, political interest quickly turned into political fury. And then, gradually, as the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policy agendas unfolded, fury turned into something else — fear, an overwhelming, sleep robbing fear for the future of my country.
So one morning as I looked through the pile of legal documents sitting on my desk, it struck me how little they had to do with what I really cared about. It struck me like a hammer smashed against the very center of my head.
And I thought, Fuck it. I’m done.
Eleven months later, The Last Chance Democracy Café opened for business.
* * *
On the day I left my law firm, Doug Morley, one of my partners, said, “Steve, I don’t get it. How can you just throw away everything you’ve accomplished as a lawyer? Everything you’ve worked for?”
From the look on his face, I could tell he was sincerely baffled. I didn’t blame him. A few years earlier, I would have been too.
“I’m not throwing anything away,” I told him, adding a friendly slap on the back. “All of my knowledge, my experience and my memories are coming with me. I’m just taking them down a new path.”
* * *
As Molly cleared away the last of the dinner plates from the large round table, I said to Zach, “You know what the worst thing is about the way conservatives have been able to sell the idea that liberals are a bunch of snobs who look down on ordinary working people and farmers?”
Zach, sensing correctly that this was intended as a rhetorical question, merely nodded in response.
“It’s the fact that to a certain degree they’re right.”
“Now, wait just one God damned minute.” roared Winston. “That’s a bunch of . . .”
The spectacle of Winston springing into action at a moment like this is something well worth seeing. He’ll be sitting there, calmly caressing his bourbon, seemingly oblivious to what’s going on. Then suddenly, without a moment’s warm up, he launches into a full hurricane force tirade.
But this time, I cut him off, “Let me finish first, okay?”
“But . . .”
“Really, I mean it, let me finish,” I repeated, trying to sound firm, while conveying a calming influence at the same time.
Winston let out a soft growl, but then did slide quietly back into his chair. It would be a short-lived retreat.
“Let’s face it,” I continued, “most prominent liberals in this country are urban, well-educated and professional in background . . .”
“Well, so are the leaders of the damn conservatives,” said Winston, testily.
“In fact, almost every one of those hypocritical bastards writing essays about how virtuous red states are and how evil blue states are choose themselves to live and work in those very same evil blue states . . .”
” . . . and they go to evil blue state parties, attend evil blue state cultural events and get down at evil trendy blue state clubs.”
“So, if I’m so exactly right about everything,” said Winston, his voice deep in sarcasm, “then please explain to me how your comment about liberals being a bunch of high and mighty snobs is anything other than a huge pile of Grade-A manure.”
Zach seemed nervous. I suspect he was concerned that Winston and I were getting into a serious fight — one that might leave hurt feelings. Maybe even break up the group. After 10 months of Wednesday evenings at the café, he should have known better. Horace, Tom, Winston and I are like an old married couple who have become so comfortable in their relationship they can fight without fear.
Trying to slow down Winston when he’s on a tear, is not, however, generally a task fit for a mere mortal. You can’t out talk him, out argue him, out scream him, out huff him, or even out sarcasm him. Your only hope is to throw him a curve ball.
So I smiled. A broad toothy, show your bridgework, sort of smile. “Now, Winston,” I said in the slow, soft, sweet voice of an overly officious teacher scolding a young child, “I can’t believe that you, of all people, would exaggerate in that way.”
Molly, walking by with a platter of empty cocktail glasses, stopped dead in her tracks. “Excuse me,” she said, looking at me with a stunned expression, “but I’d like to introduce you to Winston, a man who . . . based upon your last comment, I gather you’ve never met before.”
Winston glared at her. And she walked off laughing.
Here I saw my opening, and rushed to take it. “The point I’m trying to make here, Winston,” I said quickly, “is that the political, economic and cultural elites in this country . . . of both the left and the right, tend to work and play in and around big cities, most often on or near one of the coasts. They’re well educated. They’re professionals or business people. Well paid. Well pampered. And well out of touch with the lives of workers and farmers in places like Ohio, Kansas and North Dakota..”
” . . . Okay, I’ll give you that much,” said Winston, his voice sounding a little sad. I think he wanted to keep arguing and was disappointed to be losing his chance.
Tom, apparently gauging that the water was safe again, jumped in. “And the fact members of Congress are elected from their home states changes nothing. Given how few truly competitive seats there are, few of them face any real risk of being sent home. So it doesn’t take long for a new congressman or senator to become Washingtonized.”
An interesting story: I have a friend, a man who used to be very active in the Young Republicans national organization, who back in 1996 went along as part of Bob Dole’s entourage when the Senator traveled back to his hometown of Russell, Kansas, shortly after receiving the Republican presidential nomination. In addition to many media events, Dole also held a private get together for Republican bigwigs at his Russell home — the house that had been the basis for his residency in Kansas during his decades in the Senate.
My friend, upon entering the house, immediately noticed that it was still decked out in the long shag carpets and avocado green and harvest gold colors so popular in the 70s. He said the place seemed frozen in time.
For many years, Russell, Kansas posted a huge billboard along Interstate 70, proudly proclaiming that it was Bob Dole’s hometown. True enough, but that didn’t seem to mean that he’d been spending much time there.
“I know I’m not supposed to say this out loud,” I said, as the conversation continued at the large round table, “but the truth is that the current elite of the Democratic Party, at least for the most part, don’t have a lot to say to workers and farmers. They don’t speak the same language. And you have to give conservatives some credit here. The leaders of the Republican party are at least as socially and culturally elitist as any Democrat, and probably more so, and they represent financial interests that are much more elite . . . Yet, they’ve found a message that resonates well with many workers and farmers in the Heartland.
“Sure, it’s all a smokescreen,” I continued, “a bunch of empty moral platitudes . . . otherwise referred to as lies, used to cover-up economic warfare against the middle class, but, hey, it works. And meanwhile, the Democrats offer next to nothing in response. I mean, look at what’s going on right now. It’s the same old tired fight between the DLC and the establishment liberals . . . Should we move right? Should we move left? I mean, who really gives a shit? They both keep losing elections.”
Horace, who had been sitting quietly, enjoying the fireworks, spoke up, “You’re right. The problem isn’t with the fine points of the message . . .”
“No, it isn’t,” I charged on. “It’s in figuring out how to get these folks, these working people, farmers, store clerks, homemakers and the rest to understand, not just how badly they’re getting screwed economically, but also who it is who’s doing the screwing. If we can get that done, and if we can articulate a clear, reasonable alternative, the rest will be easy.”
Zach spoke up, “So I guess that bring us back to where we were right before we broke to eat (the end of episode 25), when you were getting ready to tell us why you believe average voters are, in fact, capable of understanding these issues. Right . . . ?”
He was right. In fact, I had all but guaranteed I could prove that. It was time to put up or shut up.
“As you know, Zach,” I started out, “I’m a lawyer . . .”
“But we try not to hold that against him,” smiled Tom.
I smiled back. Like every other lawyer in America, I’ve heard comments like that at least a thousand times. It’s usually best just to smile and move on. After all, pointing out what an unoriginal pack of dither heads they are, would hardly be polite.
So I plowed ahead. I told Zach about how back when I was actively practicing law, a large part of what I did involved defending doctors and hospitals in medical malpractice lawsuits. The juries hearing these cases tended to be very blue collar — lots of factory workers, store clerks and clerical workers. Very few had college educations, almost none had any expertise in the field of medicine.
And this used to scare the hell out of my clients. “The jury will never be able to understand the medical complexities,” they’d say, or, “I don’t see how they’ll ever be able to get past their sympathy for the plaintiff.” Reasonable enough concerns, certainly. But, the funny thing is, most of the time we ended up winning. And when I would talk to jurors after the trials were over, sure, I would sometimes find a few who had gotten seriously off track — but, on the whole, I was consistently amazed by how well these ordinary Americans were able to grasp extremely complex medical issues.
People are a lot smarter than most lawyers, or most politicians, for that matter, give them credit for. I know. I’ve seen them in action.
Trial advocacy experts teach that the key to making complex lawsuits understandable to a jury is to “keep it simple.” In defending doctors and hospitals, I found that this didn’t work a lot of the time. In malpractice cases, the simple explanation generally favors the plaintiff (the injured party bringing the suit).
A baby is born with profound cerebral palsy, one of life’s great tragedies. The simple explanation — the one the plaintiff is usually proffering in a lawsuit — is that the fetus suffered from a lack of oxygen during labor and delivery. The defendant’s response is usually much more complex. It’s undisputed in medical science that in the vast majority of cases, certainly far more than 80 percent, cerebral palsy is caused by things unrelated to the birthing process, often occurring very early in the development of the fetus. And in over half the cases, no specific cause can ever be found.
I could never figure out how to make this complexity simple for a jury. But I did believe I could make it understandable. And in my experience, jurors, for the most part, did understand.
In fact, I think as a general rule, juries tend to end up being just about as smart as we lawyers treat them.
And by the same token, I’m inclined to believe that in an election, voters end up being just about as smart as the candidates and the media treat them: Which means, of course, that here of late, they haven’t been very smart at all.
At this point, Horace interrupted my monologue, saying, “It has always struck me as unbelievably hypocritical the way the national news media goes on and on about how ill-informed voters are on the issues . . . for example, in believing that Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. My God, maybe they should try giving just a little thought as to why that’s true. Has it once occurred to these overpaid prima donnas that perhaps . . . just perhaps, a big part of why so much of the public is so miserably misinformed is because they, the media, do such a crappy job of informing them?”
“Physician, heal thy self,” nodded Tom in agreement.
Winston joined in, saying, “It’s the same pathetic old story . . . lazy journalism, parading under the banner of objectivity. You have Dick Cheney lying through his teeth, claiming that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda and that Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction. All said at a time long after these allegations had been completely discredited. And what does the major media do . . . ? Do they call him out for being a lying SOB, whose mouth should be washed out with soap and his nose surgically enhanced to look like Pinocchio’s? No, they just merrily report what he says, then add as an aside that John Kerry, or whoever else, “disagrees.”
“No, wonder people are confused,” sighed Horace.
“And most political candidates are no better,” I added. “Politicians have become so sound bite addicted, they’re afraid to say anything requiring more than 10 seconds of air time. So, instead of trying to explain the substance of issues to voters, they spend their time and money spouting off meaningless platitudes and running attack adds that just serve to confuse the situation even further.”
“It’s sort of hard to blame them, though,” said Horace. “Any political operative worth his or her salt knows that if the candidate’s comments can’t be encapsulated in a quick, snappy sound bite that it’s an absolute lock they won’t make the news.”
“And as for attack adds,” Tom threw in, “nothing gets better media coverage than a down and dirty attack. They eat it up . . .”
“At least when it’s the Democrat who’s getting attacked,” scowled Winston.
I decided that it was time for me to try to bring together for Zach the strings of my various comments. See if I could draw some sort of coherent picture out of the conversational chaos. “The bottom line,” I started out, “is that for years now both the media and the two major political parties have been treating the American electorate as though they’re incapable of understanding anything more complex than the average third grade curriculum.”
Then something I hadn’t thought of before popped into my mind — something important, I think. When you think about it, I told Zach, this third grade level status quo is working just great for conservatives. They’re the top dogs now, and pretty platitudes, not hard questions, are the governing party’s best friends. But Democrats, and liberals in general, don’t have that luxury. We’re the folks on the outside looking in, which means we bear the burden of proof.
Zach nodded that he understood.
“And, I’m sorry,” I added, sounding, I think, a little frustrated, “but the Democratic party isn’t going to become the majority party again on the basis of sound bites and attack ads. It ain’t gonna happen. It’s like Horace said earlier . . . It isn’t enough for liberals to try to change people’s votes anymore. First, we have to change their minds. And to do that we have to stop shying away from the complexities of economic life in today’s America. We have to stop assuming that people will never understand . . . that they’ll always be easily buffaloed by false claims of class warfare. We have to talk about economic inequality. Talk about the shrinking middle class. Talk about the shit hole of debt, environmental degradation and increasing foreign hostility to America that we’re passing on to our kids. Talk about the real class war in this country, the one being prosecuted by wealthy corporate interests against the rest of us. The one that caused Warren Buffett to say, ‘If there was a class war, my class won.’”
“You couldn’t be more right,” said Horace. “And as we’ve talked about before, accomplishing these things is going to require an entire liberal infrastructure, of the type we’ve only barely started building, with liberal media sources, liberal think tanks, liberal fundraising organizations, liberal advocacy groups, all working together to spread the word . . . no, to spread the truth.”
“And in the process, to help grow smart voters,” I added.
The table became quiet for a moment, as I was collecting my thoughts. Then I said, “And in order for any of this to happen, we will first need to learn to trust . . .”
Zach interrupted, “Let me see if I’ve got it. In order to make this happen, we first need to learn to trust that if we do spread the truth . . .”
I added, “Using plain and understandable language, tied to traditional American values, like fairness and equality of opportunity . . .”
” . . . that people will be willing to listen to what we have to say and will be smart enough to understand.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Because everything in my life’s experience tells me that’s true.”
“It damn well better be true,” said Horace, in a thoughtful voice. “Because if it isn’t . . . if people really aren’t capable of comprehending anything more complicated than a 10-second sound bite, or a 20-second attack add, then just what’s the point of democracy anyway?”
* * *
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