positively moving forward

One day in the fall of 1972, my mom took me to Logan International Airport in Billings, Montana, to see the arrival of George McGovern. This was the day my life in politics began.

He was late, of course; they always are. I don’t recall how late, probably an hour or two. I now know this is standard practice. But it wasn’t that bad. The small concourse was packed with people; it wasn’t often someone as exciting as the Democratic nominee for president came to town. Hell, the first “rock” concert I saw in Billings was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition along with the Cowsills.

The electric life in a small inland city in the early Seventies.

Eventually McGovern arrived, worksed his way up the concourse, shaking hands, acting far more happy than I bet he felt. When he got to me, I handed him a piece of paper and a pen; he signed his autograph, handed it back to me, and then – asked if I wanted the pen back! He did so with a twinkle in his eye, and I can verify that, to this very day, it’s the only time I’ve been teased by a presidential candidate of any party.

All Obama did in 2007 was promise to take are of my son when Alex deployed to Iraq.

McGovern got creamed that year, of course, and the Democratic Party roiled with breast-beating and blame-throwing. They tossed in some reforms that promptly got rejiggered when Carter won utilizing the “Iowa Strategy”. The party again roiled after the 1980 theft, I mean, election (a big Thanks? to the Ayotollah and Reagan for teaming up to keep those hostages long enough to defeat Carter), and then in 1988, and 1992….

We Dems are nothing if not consistent in our contortions of self-flagellation following any electoral defeat.

Meanwhile, going to see George McGovern with my mom solidified my captivation by politics. Some years later, as a born-again Christian, I was taken in by the Francis Schaeffer-led movement against a woman’s right to choose. Soon after that, I discovered “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” by Ron Sider, which returned to core gospel values of caring for the weak, powerless, indigent, etc.

I watched Christians in the United States and in the UK, where I lived from 1976 through mid-1982, become fixated on abortion and the gays. The former issue had not become critical to me; the latter appalled me. In the Air Force, I served for over a year (1976-77) with a totally out gay man – crossdressing off-duty, no attempt to hide his gayness on-duty – and he was such a normal human being, I failed to understand how a problem that Jesus said nothing about was such a threat to so many people of alleged faith.

By 1984, I was no longer the born-again evangelical fundamentalist pentecostal that I had been; I still wanted to believe, and later participated in a Quaker meeting, but, for all intents and purposes, my faith was dead. I eventually embraced atheism as the most rational and meaningful way to live my life.

Politics wove in and out of my life for the next twenty years. My then-wife and I volunteered against Measures 9 and 13. I volunteered for various campaigns. I worked briefly for SANE/Freeze, and did their statewide newsletter in Oregon for some time. I assisted the family of Ben Linder in starting their own newsletter (getting to use Reed’s brand new Mac lab). But that was it: intermitent and not really committed to any particular cause.

Then came the Dean for America campaign of 2003, and I’ve never looked back. I learned that politics is what we, as individual citizens, make of it. I can’t do a damn thing about Trump or Schumer or Paul Ryan. I can make a difference in my own community, however. And I came to believe that politics is about combining ideals with pragmatism. You need to believe in something worth working towards, but losing elections and other political battles didn’t bring those goals closer.

And in light of this past election and the awful outcome – an outcome based on voter suppression, an abysmal mainstream media, the Electoral College farce, and James Comey’s spanner-in-the-works – I have decided the most important thing in politics is to identify the positive aspects of what you believe in and make that 90% of the work. I have a couple of critical reasons for this:

One, if we attack them by saying “Their tax cuts are awful”, then what most people, who are not paying attention to politics or the news beyond the headlines, will hear is “tax cuts”. And they’ll think, “Tax cuts good – liberal Dems want to hurt good tax cuts!” Frank Luntz knows this, and so he’s managed to create a whole new conservative vocabulary – death tax is the most famous example – and has been discouragingly successful at making his terminology what everyone uses.

Including those of us who oppose him. Now that’s success.

Simply repeating a phrase over and over normalizes that phrase. This is why some folks don’t want us using “alt right”. We need to be using our vocabulary; we need to be selling progressive ideas in a positive manner, not as a mere alternative to ideas that are already thoughtlessly accepted by the majority of voters.

A Lakoff example from a recent interview on “On The Media” – if we rail against cutting regulations, most people are going to hear that we want to impose even more regulations; we want to attack freedom! Instead, we should be talking about “protections”. “They want to destroy protections that keep your children’s water safe.”

(Read Lakoff’s "Don’t Think of an Elephant”. He explains it much better.)

My second reason for wanting a “positive” politics is that what I care about are progressive outcomes, not simply blocking bad outcomes. We can either be a wall or we can be a road, just to over-simplify this thinking.

I believe in politics. I believe in doing politics in a positive way. 2017 is going to be a hard year. I can’t stop Paul Ryan from trying to destroy the ACA, Medicare, Social Security, etc. But I can help Portland to be a place where people are treated well, where everyone gets a decent shot at a decent life. Grassroots politics is where individual citizens with limited time and limited bandwidth can make a difference.

And as I unite with others who are working locally, we can unite our voices – and votes, and dollars, and activism – to support our members of Congress to stand against those who’d cause such harm. We can unite to push the Dems in Salem to be aggressively progressive. We may not be able to directly stop Paul Ryan, but we can empower those few people who can. The more of us who stand united at their back, the stronger their opposition.

As progressives, we can do more than simply hold back the forces of conservatism and authoritarianism, which is a vital task. Local activism allows us to be progressive and generous in ways that protects and expands our common welfare. This can’t happen with a negative perspective to politics; you really do reap what you sow. A positive, progressive outcome requires our work in politics be positive as well as progressive.

And in the end, there’s no reason why saving the world shouldn’t be something we enjoy doing. It damn sure beats the alternative.