Deafening silence

Two nights ago, in the early-morning hours after the Republicans’ first day with their 41-59 Senate majority, after that first day in which the Democrats put on their weakest, most pathetic costumes, I sent the following email, copied below in its entirety, to a listserv of Democrats here on campus:

For the last 24 hours I’ve been wondering how I can possibly motivate myself to go vote in November. Ezra Klein has been putting into words what I’m feeling and why:

For now, it’s worth observing that a Democratic Party that would abandon their central initiative this quickly isn’t a Democratic Party that deserves to hold power. If they don’t believe in the importance of their policies, why should anyone who’s skeptical change their mind? If they’re not interested in actually passing their agenda, why should voters who agree with Democrats on the issues work to elect them? A commitment provisional on Ted Kennedy not dying and Martha Coakley not running a terrible campaign is not much of a commitment at all.

And here‘s a longer way of saying that:

The loss in Massachusetts was a terrible disappointment to Democrats. But it can be explained away. Martha Coakley was a terrible candidate. Scott Brown ran an excellent campaign. These things happen.

But the reaction congressional Democrats have had to Coakley’s loss has been much more shattering. It has been a betrayal.

The fundamental pact between a political party and its supporters is that the two groups believe the same thing and pledge to work on it together. And the Democratic base feels that it has held to its side of the bargain. It elected a Democratic majority and a Democratic president. It swallowed tough compromises on the issues it cared about most. It swallowed concessions to politicians it didn’t like and industry groups it loathed. But it persisted. Because these things are important. That’s why those voters believe in them. That’s why they’re Democrats.

But the party looks ready to abandon them because Brown won a special election in Massachusetts — even though Democrats can pass the bill after Brown is seated. What that says is crucial: Whereas the base thought it was making these hard compromises and getting up early to knock on doors because these issues are important, the party thought all that was happening because, well, it’s hard to say. It was electorally convenient? People need something to do? Ted Kennedy wanted it done?

If Democrats let go of health care, there is no doubt that a demoralized Democratic base will stay home in November. And that’s as it should be. If the Democratic Party won’t uphold its end of the bargain, there’s no reason its base should pretend the deal is still on.

Luckily Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that shit’s a little more complicated, and reminded us that we should think back a few years:

All that said, and as horrible as the Democrats have been all year, the most amazing — and depressing — aspect of all of this is how Americans have so quickly forgotten how thoroughly the Republicans, during their eight-year reign, destroyed the country.  Whatever the source of our national woes are, re-empowering that faction cannot possibly be the answer to anything.

So rather than ask others to convince me why I should bother voting for a party that shows no evidence of principles or a spine (I get it, the Republicans are a lot worse), I’ll ask this: Shouldn’t the primary goal of anyone who wants to support a progressive agenda be, not the election of more spineless and unprincipled deal-breakers, but rather the end of the filibuster? Is there anything that can be done in the next year or five years that will more effectively advance these causes (not to mention the cause of democracy) than the mounting of a large-scale campaign to convince Senate leaders to ditch the filibuster now and forever?

Maybe there’s something else that can be done. Maybe a grassroots campaign showing strong political support for the end of the filibuster won’t work. But there must be something that passionate citizens can do that will be more effective than influencing electoral outcomes. After all, this group of elected Democrats has shown that elections can be ignored even by those elected. So are there any ways we can empower our elected officials to work for the better future we envision—across the board, not just by, say, lobbying issue to issue—that won’t set us up to be betrayed by those very people?

I received three replies, all from people I know. (The list includes, I believe, hundred of students, most of whom I do not know.)

One, a close friend, sent back a video of Noam Chomsky with the title, “In swing states vote Obama without illusions,” and asked whether I wanted to get lunch soon. (We’re on for next Tuesday.)

One, a budding politician, wrote a thoughtful, three-paragraph response, making the following arguments (with more words in between): “There should have been a greater effort to restrict the filibuster months ago,” “I don’t think that we’ve been abandoned by anyone either. … The spineless dealbreakers who slow-walked the process are exactly who we thought they were; did you expect anything different from Lieberman, Nelson, Baucus, or Conrad?” and “I think that the take-away is that we have to stop voting for candidates because of their partisan affiliations or because of what they run against. We have to become active in primaries and put our energy and resources behind those who actually seem to have agendas. And, of course, we’ll be disappointed sometimes.” He finished by writing: “But the next election is never too far away.”

And one wrote back: “Nice email,” before a couple more paragraphs about how bad the Democrats’ “messaging” has been and how Obama has “abdicated all pretense of leadership.”

In the last couple days, since I sent my email, the listserv has seen emails about an event discussing Israel and Palestine, Cindy McCain appearing in the “NO H8” campaign, a used 2008 Princeton Review MCAT review book, an effort to get Yalies to fill out their census forms in New Haven, and a poll showing Mike Huckabee barely beating Obama in a hypothetical election today.

No one came close to answering my questions.

Of course, they don’t have to. I’m just one person; I’m a reasonably cynical voter, so some who know me might have thought that any response would have been a waste of their time; and no one has to answer any email. But I think the fact that the above are the only responses I got from hundreds of young, active Democrats is telling—and discouraging.

As much as it was an invitation to engage in discussion on an issue (which I very much hoped people would do), it was also a challenge to the people in this group to think about how they want to spend their time and energy between now and November, and beyond

Many of the people on the list have devoted hundreds or thousands of hours to campaigning in recent years. So I understood I was challenging the activity they’ve poured themselves into, and which many of them find as rewarding as any in life. I wasn’t trying to dissuade them from their passion, but I was trying to get them to think about it, to think about whether that’s the best way they can work toward their goals for the country and the world.

And, more than that, I was hoping to inspire them to make their case for something—anything—to a depressed voter right now who has voted before and seen that elections aren’t enough to make a difference. And I got silence.

I understand that many of them are similarly depressed. I think it’s fine to check out from time to time, to give yourself a break from your passions when they become too much. And, again, I recognize there are countless good reasons for individual people to have ignored my email, or to have read it and not responded. But I’m discouraged that the collective response was so weak.

This generation of young activists is being squeezed on both sides by two competing, and very much related forces. On one side, the public is increasingly cynical, a trend that began decades ago and will continue until something acts to stop it. On the other, individual people have ever less ability to make a difference. (Big news announcing one more step in the the perpetual march against real democracy came out yesterday, thanks to five justices on the Supreme Court.) And caught in the middle for the coming generations will be these young activists, the people on the listserv—if they keep up the fight.

If they want company in the cause, they’ll have to take up the challenge I gave. They’ll have to convince me and millions of other voters not only why we should vote a certain way, but also how we can work to change the political system. Right now—if they didn’t before—the arguments for voting smell like bullshit. As I wrote in my email, we’ve seen that elections can be ignored even by those elected.

This week has been one more reminder that in our political system as it is today, electing some people over others won’t create the meaningful progress craved by people on the left. (And maybe people on the right feel the same way, but I won’t speak for them.) “Messaging” certainly won’t. Maybe something will. I challenge someone to help motivate me, and show me what I can do to make a difference in American politics between now and November, and beyond.

Please don’t say “vote.”

Update 1/23/10: The House is doing something to try to fix the Senate, urging the upper house to restrict its use of the filibuster.

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