I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few days about something that happened to me back in 2004. It was primary season, Howard Dean was all the rage, MoveOn.org was filling my inbox every day, and I went with a friend to a Democratic party Meet Up at a bar somewhere in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. George W. Bush was running for re-election, and who to put up against him was the topic under discussion at the big table we all sat around. What I remember in particular is that there were these two guys kind of in the center of the group who kept hijacking the discussion, talking about how what we really needed to do was purge the ranks of DINOs so that a pure, unadulterated liberal message and messenger could emerge, which would then, through some magical Underpants Gnomes-type process, rally the faithful, convert the skeptics and doubters, and win the White House back from the disastrously incompetent administration occupying it at the time.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I wanted and want that, too. And though I found their continual hijacking of the discussion off-putting and rude, in the end I have to thank them, because they provided the opportunity for something of an epiphany for me.
Now, let me back up for a moment and reiterate that in terms of desired end-states, these two insufferable prigs and I were in more or less complete agreement. Where we differed was in our assessment of where we were at the time and how to get where we all wanted to go.
I don’t remember exactly what I said once I managed to get ahold of the conch for a couple of minutes, but the gist of it was simply this: we didn’t have the numbers. There simply were not enough people who agreed with our desired ends for their strategy to work.
Love it, hate it, or just grudgingly accept, the way to move any agenda forward is to get enough people on board and willing to go to the polls and write letters and make phone calls, etc to make it happen. It means building coalitions. Convincing people that the agenda is not only the right thing to do, it’s the right thing for them. If step one of your plan to elect someone or enact policy is to purge the ranks of all but true believers, you might be able to exert enough influence to stop things from happening (as the Tea Party has so ably and maddeningly demonstrated). But (as the Tea Party has also demonstrated, at least on the federal level), if you don’t get enough of a majority, your positive agenda doesn’t move forward so well.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of the previous post I put up here, wherein I expressed my full-throated support for Bernie Sanders and his agenda, and suggested that the best way to move it forward was to get him as many primary and caucus votes and delegates to the Democratic convention as possible, even though the electoral math for him actually winning the nomination is looking increasingly unlikely. To my mind, the more support his agenda and candidacy are able to rally, the better the chance that agenda will make it into likely nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform, because without our support it’ll be a lot harder for her to win the general. I ended with the suggestion that, given her likely nomination, maybe it might not be such a bad idea to scale back the attacks on her as a person and candidate, and save it for whichever crazy-pants would-be dictator wins the Republican nomination.
This being the internet, it will not likely surprise you that some folks only managed to digest that last bit, and they’ve been all over my facebook feed telling me all sorts of nasty things. One guy even referred to me, via meme, as an enemy of democracy. He went on to explain (quite condescendingly, really) that he was calling me out because I support the failed neoliberal ideology that’s been ruining the US, and telling me I was no true Scotsman (I mean Bernie supporter) because I did not agree with him one hundred percent on strategy.
Look, I’m all for being passionate about what you believe in. Something has to drive change. But while I remain an idealist at heart, I am temperamentally a pragmatist. In fact, one of my ideals is that a genuine idealist must be pragmatic, in order to most effectivly accomplish the change you want to see. If you want to elect a candidate, you have to convince other people to vote for that candidate. The question you have to ask, before every blog post, or meme share, or in-thread debate and discussion is “How likely is this to advance the agenda which best embodies my ideals?”
Folks who know me will tell you I love to argue. It’s fun, it’s enlightening, and it keeps my critical edges sharp. And after decades of engaging in the hurliest, burliest intellectual and political debates, I can tell you with very little doubt that I’ve changed very few people’s minds about anything. Because that’s not how people work. Even when they’re objectively proven wrong, most people just double down on their confirmation bias, and that’s if you even get through in the first place. If you actually want to change someone’s mind, and not just fight them, you have to establish some common ground. Then you can plant a seed. And if you’re lucky, it’ll grow. Put it this way, even if you’re right, beating someone down with your rightness is still abusive behavior, and nine times out of ten it’ll backfire on you.
So, back to our current election cycle (at least on the Dem side), I suppose what I’d like to come through is this: whatever your agenda, whoever your preferred candidate, make the positive case for what you believe. Try and understand why someone else might feel otherwise or support a different agenda or candidate. Find common ground (of which there’s a hell of a lot between Sanders and Clinton, policy-wise) and plant seeds. Democracy is a numbers game, love it or hate it, and if you ain’t got the numbers, you don’t get what you want.