Tonight the democrats conclude their convention. After two weeks of sometimes carefully orchestrated events, other times not so carefully orchestrated events, it all comes to an end.
Beginning Friday, July 29, there are 102 days until the election. We have already seen numerous twists and turns in this year’s election process. On the republican side, we saw the most unlikely candidate, a “businessman,” devour sixteen other candidates, many of whom had previously been successful and experienced politicians. On the democratic side, an “independent socialist” nearly wrested the nomination from the odds on favorite. Both the businessman and the socialist tapped into the broad unease of many voters.
But now it’s done. The businessman won the republican nomination, the socialist lost in the democratic primaries. On to the election…
On the republican side we have Donald J. Trump; leading the charge for the democrats is Hillary Clinton. With respect to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, Trump/Clinton is the main event; Johnson/Stein are at best the under-card, the warm up as it were. So I’d like to take a minute to recap where we are.
Clinton is a flawed candidate. She is guarded and calculating in public, lest she again become a target of baseless accusations from those who hate her, or who hate her husband and take it out on Ms. Clinton. Over the years she’s been accused of everything from fraud to murder. Her opponents become increasingly and relentlessly more shrill in their hate with each passing week. But she keeps coming, no doubt in pursuit of what she sees (and rightly so) as her historic mission, and in some measure fulfill her desire to serve. She’s served most of her adult life, often in anonymity and sometimes publicly, to try to make life a little more gentle for those with the least among us.
Is Clinton calculating? Sure. Does she have an out-sized ego? Absolutely. All politicians are. Even President Obama. You have to be that way in order to even think about running for the presidency. Running for office, any office anywhere, in 2016 is tough business. It’s expensive, exhausting, and a daily struggle to fend off opponents and gain supporters. It is the ultimate personal exposure – all a candidate’s warts and flaws exposed for all to see and jeer. Because in modern America, we love to jeer.
So here’s my message to those who sit back in the cheap seats and jeer and ridicule those in the arena – put your names on a ballot; hold yourselves open to the often brutal inspection of your personal, family, and business histories; formulate and communicate coherent positions on often complicated and nuanced public issues; and be prepared for the election to become your life at your families’ expense.
And be negatively portrayed as a person unrecognizable to family and friends. Be prepared to be the target of the scurrilous lies about your character. I don’t care how thick your skin is, these things hurt, as too often the cut runs deep.
As the saying goes, it’s easier to destroy than it is to build. This is as true in politics, both the electoral and governing politics, as it is in anything else. Those who stand in the arena pay to cost for that destruction. So give these folks a little credit – it takes guts to open yourself up for brutal personal inspection by the public. My hat is off to three out of the four candidates with any shot at making the presidential debate stage. I’ll deal with the fourth guy another time.
First, a message to the Bernie or Bust brigade, and to all the other Sanders’ supporters. Congratulations – you won. You pulled your candidate, a virtually unknown senator, and almost knocked off a colossus of the Democratic party. You got most of your policy proposals incorporated into the party’s platform. Due to your efforts, the character and culture of the party will change going forward, unless….
… you sit on your hands and pout until November 9, the day after the election. As Sarah Silverman said at the convention, “you’re being ridiculous.” I say this as a friend but let me give you some of my bona fides:
In 1964, I participated in a debate with my best high school friend about who would make the better president, Lyndon Johnson or Barry Goldwater. I took Johnson’s side. In 1968, I worked on Bobby’s campaign and after the events in Los Angeles, McCarthy’s campaign. Over the years I worked on campaigns and supported McGovern, Pell, Udall, Mondale, just to name a few, along with several candidates on the state and local levels.
In 1980 I ran for the democratic nomination for Congress from my congressional district. Central to my “platform” was public financing of campaigns, for it was evident then that increasing amounts of large sums of money, cleverly targeted, could irreversibly damage policy outcomes and as a result, the country. I also advocated for the expansion of Medicare benefits to include prescription medicines because it was evident in 1980 how difficult paying for life sustaining medicines was to those on modest fixed incomes.
In 2006, I ran for the state senate in large measure because of the tax structure implemented that year favoring high income earners at the expense of middle and low-income Rhode Islanders.
In 2008 I formed a legal services organization dedicated to serving poor and near poor Rhode Island individuals, families and seniors. In 2016 we had to shut down for lack of funding.
I go through this brief resume merely to point out that I’m well aware of losing, or coming short of your goal. Losing is painful, it sucks, and it stays with you for a long time. And there are some other things I’ve learned over the years, chief among them is that change is hard, if not impossible.
At its essence, change is really about a power shift from those who have it to those who don’t. As Saul Alinsky once said in an interview, “power is never given, it must be taken.” Those with the power will never relinquish their power – you must be willing to change the power paradigm in order to effect the change you advocate.
That struggle in a democracy is a daily struggle. You can anticipate, if not expect, major push back from those who seek to defend the status quo. At this juncture you have several choices: one is to continue to adopt an “all or nothing” strategy, which almost ensures that you will lose; you can go home and sulk; or, you can strategize by building support and finding common ground with others in order to move your agenda forward.
This last choice is the one that works. It’s tough, largely unsatisfying to those who seek the all or nothing outcome. Even when you come away with something, anything, there will be those who will second guess the outcome and argue that you should have gotten more. You may even be accused of “selling out” and get booed like Warren and Sanders were by their own supporters and friends.
Welcome to the arena where the first truths are that while your goals may and should be comprehensive, implementation of those goals is always incremental; and where in a democracy the struggle always continues, no matter the outcome of the previous struggle. Change is hard – you really gotta want it. For 240 years, the story of America is a story of progress. I’m not going to sugar coat our history and tell you that the virtual genocide of native Americans was progress, or that the internment of American citizens solely based on their heritage and ethnicity was noble. They were neither progressive nor noble and remain a stain on our history.
But we cannot ignore that due to the ceaseless efforts of reformers along with the expense of blood and treasure, millions of people were freed from bondage; one-half of our population were finally permitted to vote; and recently the law recognized that we are free to marry whomever we love, irrespective of gender or orientation. Until recently we had the most vibrant middle-class, which was the envy of the world. And throughout our history, America has been the beacon of hope and the melting pot for millions who come from elsewhere to make this country, our imperfect country, their homes.
Yes, America is a flawed country. We have many things to do and much to accomplish. Individually and collectively, we are all flawed and can all do better. That’s why Hillary Clinton is the perfect candidate for these times. Like us, she is flawed. And like us, she seeks to do better, and seeks to make this country a better place to live for all of us. If elected, she won’t get to where she and all of us might want to get to, but she’ll move us forward, closer to our goal. I do not base this conclusion on her past public record, but rather on her prior history before the bright lights of scrutiny and fame were directed toward her.
So the question to the Bernie of Bust brigade is simple: what do you do? Do you continue to engage in the fight, not only up to November 8 but thereafter? Or do you continue on well after election day? Do you take the easy way and jeer at those in the arena or do you climb in and engage in the struggle?
Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote has been bandied about several times over the week and is worth repeating here:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So it comes down to this, are we to be the critic, the cold and timid soul who points out failings of others, who “neither know[s] victory nor defeat”? Or are you, we, to be the strong man, the doer of deeds, who while daring greatly sometimes falls short of the goal? For as true as it was in 1910 when Roosevelt in delivered his speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” participation in this election season is a worthy cause.
For all of her faults, Hillary Clinton at least gets that there are millions of people ignored, marginalized and forgotten. She has at least acknowledged that income inequality not only exists but is a social evil. And she has more than an appreciation for the complexities and nuances of the world and is unlikely to recklessly engage in armed conflicts. The reality of her career is more important than the comic caricature that becomes the object of her opponents.
And what’s at stake here? Who is her chief opponent? I’ll have more to say in a future post, but at this point suffice it to say that he is the embodiment of existential evil. I promise all of you who will either sit out this election or participate in campaigns of fringe candidates that you will not want to live in a country with Donald J. Trump as your President, along with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell leading the legislative branch.
This isn’t a partisan piece. This is a simple explanation of our civic duty to preserve at minimum a semblance of the societal and cultural values that have moved many of us to engage in the work of improving our communities. This is a close race, with the outcome in doubt. So the final question is, do you want to sit on the sidelines, or do you want to get in the game? I hope you join all of us who care about the outcome in this election and get in the game.