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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

 

Think small

by Tom Sullivan

Vox's Dylan Matthews cautions against the allure of a deus ex machina arriving from the wings on a clothesline to end the Trump era and fix our beleaguered democracy. We would prefer to see the scoundrels swept out on a tempest followed by a return to democratic tranquility. But that that is both politically unlikely and an oxymoron.

Matthews writes:

This yearning is understandable — but it is both dangerous and misplaced. Ending the Trump presidency will not fix, or even substantially ameliorate, most of the problems plaguing the American political system. They were mounting for years before he took office — indeed, they made him possible — and they will continue to plague us for years after he leaves.
Our current fix breeds a host of conspiracy theories, Matthews believes, plus predictions of and a desire for revolutionary change that will repair the republic in a twinkling. They are driven in part by the sense that things just can’t go on like this and that only dramatic change will suffice to repair the damage to the republic (and to the planet) in time.
We can’t see what’s happening to American politics as just a succession of events that, in themselves, mean nothing. They have to be leading up to a climactic Götterdämmerung in which our slate is wiped clean. This is the yearning behind bold predictions of the Trump administration’s collapse, or of a dramatic descent into tyranny at Trump’s hand.

We fantasize about an early, dramatic end to the Trump years in part because that signals a return to normalcy and a rejection of all the dysfunctions he symbolizes. For more sophisticated observers who know that the forces that produced Trump will continue after he’s gone, you see either a wallowing into dystopia — musing about an American descent into outright tyranny, of the kind occurring in the formerly democratic Hungary and Poland right now. Or you see fantasies of utopia, as in Bernie Sanders’s characterization of the anti-Trump resistance as a broader “political revolution, something long overdue” that will sweep into power “an agenda that works for the working families of our country and not just the billionaire class.”
We like a clean narrative with a beginning, a middle, and a dramatic ending. "Shit happens" leaves us as uneasy as an unresolved musical passage. A big finish is more satisfying. It's just that revolutions generally end poorly. What if we just have to muddle along? Matthews asks. He offers a few suggestions, however unlikely:
What does that look like? An unsatisfying litany of heavy political lifts, most of which will fail, and each of which on its own would only mildly improve matters if adopted. We should abolish the filibuster and Electoral College and eliminate midterm elections by having the House, Senate, and president serve concurrent four-year terms. We should adopt the Fair Representation Act to end gerrymandering and move toward proportional representation. We need a robust right to vote in the Constitution, public financing for elections, and more transparency for corporate and nonprofit political spending.
But all the energy of the first Obama presidential run quickly melted away. Watergate did not leave us purified and renewed. Clearly, Matthews writes, "the financial crisis did not usher in a new era of ethical banking."

Maybe that is why my motto these days is: If you're not Goliath, fine. Be David.

After an acquaintance's misdialed yesterday, I listened to a familiar rant about the Democrats' dysfunction and another of frequent demands for better messaging. Agreed. What message exactly? Republicans bad. Right. And there progress comes to a halt before it begins. Even if "the Democrats" (whoever they are) could agree on a message with vision, the left lacks the message discipline and the budget for making anything of it.

Think small.

It is not magic potions that win in sports (honestly, at least), but retooling a golf swing, timing the leap from the starting block, and the work of perfecting the slider. Building skills is the difference between a revolution that peters out and change that is sustainable. Many activists have no patience for working at small improvements that make big wins possible. We want dramatic. John Snow would probably have prefered his party had "game."

Perfecting the unsexy nuts-and-bolts of campaign grunt work can provide an edge where endless arguing over what message or policy will win elections fails. I'm not suggesting message and policy are unimportant. I'm just tired of getting nowhere arguing over them. Mechanics are chronically ignored. The field is wide open. Plus, there's little competition.

I would rather be lucky than good, the saying goes. "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" would seem a better bet.

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For The Win 2018 is ready for download. Request a copy of my county-level election mechanics primer at tom.bluecentury at gmail.