Now that the initial disappointment of the elections has worn off a little bit...now what?
There's an old Taoist story that I keep thinking of. Once there was a farmer who had only one horse. One day the horse got loose and ran away. "What bad luck!" his neighbors said. "Well, good, bad, who can say?" said the farmer, who was obviously a bit of a philosopher.
The next day the horse came back - leading several wild horses that it had befriended. "What good luck!" his neighbors said. "Good, bad, who knows?" said the farmer.
The farmer's son, trying to tame one of the new horses, fell off and broke his leg. "How terrible!" said the farmer's neighbors. "Perhaps. We'll see."
A few days later, the army came through looking for young men to conscript, but they couldn't take the farmer's son because of his broken leg. "How fortunate!" "Maybe. Good, bad, who knows?"
(If this sounds familiar, the story has many variations, and was even told with a American Indian flavor on one episode of Northern Exposure.)
So is there some nugget of potential good fortune to be found in this? Can we take Monty Python's advice from The Life of Brian and "Always look on the bright side of life?"
Well, the Republicans have no more excuses. They'll have four years to establish in everyone's mind without a doubt the true effect of their policies.
Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we call this a "healing crisis". When the body is holding some pathogenic factor sufficiently in check that the pathogen is not doing much damage, the body will compromise rather than rally itself to kick the thing out. (Think of those mild colds that you weren't able to shake for a month.) It's only when the pathogen starts to really do damage that the body marshals its defenses and kicks the damn thing out once and for all.
Now is the time for the "body politic" to do the same. A healing crisis is not fun. The symptoms get worse, the patient feels lousy. But it passes - and the patient is healthier than before.
Secondly, the sheer grassroots activism in this election gives me a lot of hope. So many people I know, myself included, got directly involved for the first time - made phone calls, knocked on doors, or made sizable donations. For the past decade or more, conservatives have played much better politics than the left; now, only a year or two after a standing start, we're running close. We're running close enough to take a senator and almost make him president - Americans haven't elected a senator to the presidency since JFK, and even he barely squeaked by against Nixon.
(I'll repeat an observation: since WWII, Americans have elected for president governors, vice-presidents, and war heroes. (The war heroes part may only apply to WWII.) Who does that give us for 2008? Start looking at governors, and keep Al Gore warm. And speaking of Nixon, if someone tells you that Bush's electoral victory is some sort of validation, remember that Nixon won himself a second term in a landslide in the middle of Watergate; elections often speak more about the gullibility of the voters than of the policies, or general decentness, of the candidates.)
For far too long, the left has been divided and fractured, while conservatives have built a coalition that includes people ranging from small-government low-tax libertarian types to the fundamentalist religious right. But we came together pretty well this time.
If we can keep the infrastructure and momentum that we built going into the 2006 elections, we can make a difference in the midterm Congressional races. More importantly, we can have an nationwide impact on state and local races. If you don't think that's important, look at the recent Texas redistricting fiasco. Or remember who got to determine how the 2000 Florida votes were counted.
Two groups that were especially powerful in organizing grassroots efforts this cycle were MoveOn.org (http://www.moveon.org) and Howard Dean's Democracy for America (http://www.democracyforamerica.com).
Howard Dean points out on the DFA site that "Montana, one of the reddest states, has a new Democratic governor. First-time candidates for state legislatures from Hawaii to Connecticut beat incumbent Republicans. And a record number of us voted to change course - more Americans voted against George Bush than any sitting president in history."
And MoveOn notes how successful volunteers were in Wisconsin and New Hampshire; in Wisconsin MoveOn and others turned out over 27,000 voters and Kerry won by only 11,813 votes. And New Hampshire went from red to blue when they turned out 9,820 people from their list and Kerry won by 9,171 votes.
So don't give up. Check these groups out. Send 'em a check.
Thirdly, we can take a lesson from the exit polling. It's a hard and bitter, but very important, lesson: that a disappointingly large percentage of this nation is intolerant and homophobic. The religious right turned out a tremendous number of voters on "cultural issues", mainly gay marriage.
Does this mean that we should abandon our efforts for tolerance and diversity? Pander to fear and prejudice? HELL NO! But it means we need to take our efforts to a more personal level. Intolerance and homophobia are conditions of ignorance, and ignorance is curable.
It's easy to get angry at small-mindedness. It sure makes my blood boil. But also I know that whether I like it or not, we're all in this together.
To use a bit of a parable, the Mahayana Buddhists believe that no one can enter Nirvana until every sentient being is enlightened. Can you imagine, somewhere off at the end of time, the one guy holding everybody back? The last soul in the universe to get the joke? Wouldn't everyone else be really pissed at him? Well, no, because in this case everyone else is enlightened, compassionate. They remember when they were ignorant and fearful. They'll work really hard to help him get it.
Some years ago, I stumbled across a book by Kerry Thornley called Zenarchy, in which he puts forth some very interesting ideas on a Zen/Taoist sort of politics. "ZEN is Meditation. ARCHY is Social Order. ZENARCHY is the Social Order which springs from Meditation. As a doctrine, it holds Universal Enlightenment a prerequisite to abolition of the State, after which the State will inevitably vanish. Or - that failing - nobody will give a damn."
So remember to do your part to help bring about Universal Enlightenment. Take a deep breath, and do what you can to help out those guys at the end of the line that are holding us all back.
Tom Swiss / email@example.com
November 4 2004
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