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Seeing Red? Think Blue

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
A protester celebrating President Barack Obama’s decision to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Washington, D.C., November 6, 2015

On Friday evening, the Democratic National Committee reversed a decision it had made two months ago: the committee would now welcome money from fossil-fuel corporate PACS. In the same resolution, the DNC saluted “forward-looking employers” who are “powering America’s all-of-the-above energy economy.”

My heart sank when I read the news. I’d spent a good deal of time and effort in 2016, as one of the Democratic Party’s fifteen platform-writers, removing the “all-of-the-above” energy language that was code for “fossil fuels” from the party platform, and replacing it with a straightforward commitment that America would be “running entirely on clean energy by mid-century.” Now that work has been undone—and in a summer week in which the smoke from wildfires covers most of the lower Forty-Eight. I suppose I had as much right as anyone to feel undercut.

Actually, if anyone had that right, it was the young people of the Sunrise Movement, who have spent this election season encouraging candidates to sign a pledge not to accept money from the fossil-fuel industry. These kids have been exemplary activists, risking time in jail for their civil disobedience and dedicating months of their lives to getting dirty money out of politics. They have signed up nearly a thousand election candidates, and the DNC ban, passed two months ago, had been a high-water mark of their achievement. Now they will have to fight this backsliding—and knowing their organizing skills, they will do it with verve. Here’s the online petition they’re circulating, and I imagine there will be protests outside the next DNC meeting in late August.

Still, I can only imagine that they must feel deflated, too. And in truth, that’s the main reason my heart sank. The fossil-fuel decision is a stupid setback. I think it will eventually be reversed because the physics of climate change makes clear which direction we, as a nation, must go. But the deflation is a mortal peril headed into the fall election. Immediately, my Twitter feed filled with dismayed reaction, some sad and some cynical and some both: “Tell me again how the parties are different?” “The final straw—Bye Bye Dems.” “Can’t even say I’m surprised.”

As much as I sympathize, this scares me. We desperately need a huge Democratic turnout for the midterm elections. So let me explain why I’m laying my own anger aside and hoping everyone else will do the same—why it’s important to distinguish between “the DNC” or “the Democrats,” on the one hand, and whoever is running for office in your local district, on the other. And, in the process, let me explain how this one activist, at least, thinks about electoral politics.

The first reason is obvious: the Republicans are worse by an order of magnitude, on environmental issues as well as many others. Fifty years of environmental progress, established and maintained under administrations of both parties, are now being undone in a single presidential term—protections that millions of people fought for over decades are simply disappearing. In this case, it’s less the responsibility of Donald Trump than it is of the Koch brothers, who have long lobbied against regulations in the fossil-fuel industry. On these questions of regulation, as with tax policy, the Kochs are reaping a return on their long-term investment in the GOP—and at precisely the moment when the planet can least afford it. The Democrats may move more slowly on climate change and environmental protection than they should—and with climate change, going too slow is a huge problem—but at least they don’t go backwards. If they were in power today, we would not be seeing these shameful regressions.

Still, this goes beyond any particular field of policy. The Republicans under Trump are a crazy-eyed threat to the constitutional order. Their leader is a corrupt racist who clearly seems willing to bring down our democracy. I listen every week to the former high-level Obama staffers who run the podcast “Pod Save America.” The environment is not one of the issues they spend time on, and my guess is they don’t have much use for activists like me—they were serious insiders, after all. But the basic point they repeat in each segment is undeniable: if the Democrats don’t regain control of at least one wing of Congress at the next election, there will be effectively no check of any kind on Trump. He will be able to fire the prosecutors investigating him without interference; his plunder of the government will continue without oversight. A GOP win in the mid-terms would further engorge his ravening narcissism, with ramifications from which the country may never recover.

Though that’s the main reason for voting Democratic, it’s not the only one. The Republicans in their current form are detestable,while the Democrats—though compromised at the top, chummy with corporations, frustratingly split on crucial issues, and notoriously unwilling to stand their ground—are, in certain ways, sort of great. I don’t say this as some party lackey—in fact, I helped organize what I think were the largest demonstrations outside the White House during the Obama years, to protest the Keystone pipeline—and I don’t say it as some kind of party insider. Actually, I’d never been to a party meeting or paid any attention to its inner workings until Bernie Sanders named me to that platform-writing team at the end of the primaries in 2016.

The first day of our work, the fifteen of us gathered in some miserable hotel ballroom and spent a solid eight hours listening to nonstop earnest testimony from different groups that wanted their viewpoints represented in the platform. I was sitting next to Representative Barbara Lee of Oakland, California, who was quick, sharp, and quite delightful. After the first forty witnesses, I leaned over to whisper: “You know what’s interesting: we haven’t heard from a white guy yet.” She took a minute to look up and down her agenda to make sure I was right, and then she flashed me a wide grin. “Now you know how it feels,” she said.

My sense, after many days of such hearings, was that the Democratic Party at its best operated as a kind of support network for the decent people who get pushed around in America—people of color, working people, disabled people, gay people, people who have to breathe the fumes from refineries. It’s highly imperfect: one wants to distinguish between the party and the DNC, because self-interested (and not all that competent) campaign consultants and pollsters clearly infest the upper reaches of the machine. And even many of the groups with which one wants to feel solidarity are compromised and short-sighted. It appears, for instance, that the DNC reversed its decision on fossil-fuel funding less to please the oil companies than to appease a couple of the labor unions that have aligned themselves with the industry they serve by building pipelines and refineries, and who work hard to keep the party from having a whole-hearted commitment to a clean-energy future.

For all that, there was something very moving about sitting there day after day in those hotel ballrooms and hearing from voices like Rev. William Barber’s, and from civil rights icon Bob Moses. Or, even more, the women of color who are clearly the party’s backbone. At its most compromised, the Democratic Party nonetheless remains a bulwark of America’s minimal efforts to support the vulnerable, efforts that would otherwise disappear. If you don’t depend on food stamps or Medicaid or Head Start or free school lunches, it’s easy to forget how important this is.

And the third reason is that—on election day—there is no alternative. If you don’t vote for the Democrats, or the Republicans, then, in effect, you don’t vote, and if you don’t vote, then, for practical purposes, you vote for the Republicans, too, since in our gerrymandered nation they have a built-in advantage. This is only true in America—I’ve given grateful speeches, for instance, at Green Party gatherings in Europe and Australia and Canada, and I count my colleagues there among the most astute and capable politicians I know. But in their political systems—parliamentary, for the most part—you can vote for the Greens without being a spoiler. In fact, sometimes, they end up holding the balance of power. Here, you simply can’t. We have plenty of evidence, between Ralph Nader’s and Jill Stein’s runs, that it doesn’t result in building an important or useful third party; it just makes it easier for the right to rule. Longtime Green Party member Ted Glick—a veteran activist I greatly admire—recently made a powerful case that though there may be local races in which the Greens could safely and usefully run, they should stop fielding a national candidate.

Still, I think I understand the impulse to support such a third party. In 1980, I wrote my college newspaper endorsement of a man named Barry Commoner who was running for president. He was the candidate of the Citizens’ Party, a kind of precursor to the Greens, and since I was disgusted with both Carter and Reagan, and because he was an environmentalist well ahead of his time, I thought it made sense to back him. It made emotional sense at the time—though it’s hard for me to remember why I was so righteously indignant about poor Jimmy Carter—but it made no logical sense. Since this was a college paper, and since it was in reliably Democratic Massachusetts, it didn’t really matter—but my self-absorption did teach me a lesson I haven’t forgotten.

That lesson wasn’t: do not disrupt the political status quo if there is a risk of making it worse. Instead, it was figure out how to disrupt the status quo in other ways. I can think of three ways, immediately.

The first is: make use of primaries. The only real way to introduce new ideas into our political system is during primary season, in the narrow window when the otherwise entrenched have no choice but to listen. It was crucial that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran in her New York congressional district primary, not because her opponent Joe Crowley was a bad guy (on roll call votes, I imagine they’d come out in the same place 98 percent of the time), but because a new, different, loud voice pressing new priorities had emerged.

It’s tricky—you need to run a vigorous primary campaign without so weakening your opponent that the Republican can then pick them off, and given human nature (and Russian bots), campaigns routinely get overly intense and personal. It helps, I think, if you emphasize programs over personalities, and it helps even more to have a sense of both humor and humility. When the Bernie-ish candidate Abdul El-Sayed lost his primary bid for governor in Michigan last month, he told the crowd, “Do not walk out of here saying anything like ‘Abdul or Bust.’ Tomorrow, we turn around and we turn this into a movement,” to beat the Republican in November. (Props to Crowley, too, who picked up a guitar during his concession speech and dedicated a reasonably rocking version of “Born to Run” to his opponent.)

The second way is to change the system so that outsider parties aren’t automatic spoilers. This is less impossible than it sounds: virtually the only good result of the 2016 election was that Maine adopted a ranked-choice voting system, which could potentially revolutionize politics in America. Under this system, you’ll be able to vote for, say, a Green, but without wasting your vote: if they don’t win, your ballot will pass to whomever you marked second—a Democrat, say. The change would mean everything to the way we think about election, opening up the system to a much wider range of views, while simultaneously encouraging people to be civil. (If you’re the Democrat who wants the number two votes of the Green Party candidate, then you don’t disparage them or their ideas, and vice-versa). The group Represent.Us, which helped win the Maine fight, is trying to bring ranked-choice voting to many more places: anyone who cares about a vibrant democracy should be helping the effort in some way.

Third, and most important, we need to remember that elections are not synonymous with politics. Yes, in the autumns of even-numbered years, elections offer a high-leverage opportunity to make one’s voice heard. But election day is just one day in the political calendar: if you care about climate change or medical care or mass incarceration, all the other days are just as important, because it’s then that you build the movements that really shift the Zeitgeist.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can’t, on her own, go to Congress and make huge change: she’ll be stuck in a system that needs us to keep pushing it. Some of her Democratic colleagues will be as progressive and dynamic as she is, and others will be mediocrities, and still others will be annoyingly conservative. For all of them, though, the most consequential vote they could cast next year would be to elect a member of their party as the Speaker of the House. If the Democrats win a House majority, then they will get to form committees, approve hearings, organize investigations, and schedule votes. The world will be different—mostly in the sense that those of us currently shut out of the system will have a chance to take part again. It’s both unfair and unwise to elect people, even very good ones, and then consider our part of the job done.

If you think about it this way, it’s a little easier to swallow your hurt and disappointment when the DNC does stupid stuff. Elections are not about electing saints, or giving power to parties who will then automatically do the right thing. Elections are about electing people whom you can then push effectively to do more. As FDR is said to have told labor leaders: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

Hillary Clinton would have been far, far better as a president than Trump not just because she’s sane and competent, but because she would have been susceptible to pressure from those who care about, say, the planet’s future. Bernie would have been great, too—but as I told him at the start of his primary campaign, “I’m happy to stump for you, but if you’re elected you’ll doubtless find me chained to the White House gate six months later, pushing you to do more.”

The moral choices are: Do I get arrested to take a stand? Do I devote many hours of this day to making phone calls when I’d rather be making dinner? Election day, oddly, is the only day not to make moral choices. It’s the day for clear-eyed logic to rule. Which of these people makes it easier for us to make progress? And this fall, even more than most, the answer couldn’t be clearer. Even if you’re seeing red, think blue.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The author being arrested along with the social justice activist Julian Bond and Sierra Club director Michael Brune during a demonstration outside the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline, February 13, 2013