Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote over 125 years ago, trans., “What does not kill me makes me stronger."
That’s how I feel after the midterms. Despite uneven results, I continue to believe that our Sisyphus-like work will eventually win-out, that a Progressive America is more of a possibility than a chimera.
While opinions abound about where we stand following the election, I think The Nation’s D.D Guttenplan picked the right metaphor—a curate’s egg (an object or circumstance that’s ‘good in parts’). In some parts of the country, ‘The Blue Wave’ hit a ‘Red Wall.’ Other parts of the country give me hope.
Despite uneven results, I continue to believe that our Sisyphus-like work will eventually win-out, that a Progressive America is more of a possibility than a chimera.
As for the good parts, I was buoyed by voters’ actions in historically Red States—Utah, Idaho, Nebraska—by voting for Medicaid expansion. Three Rust Belt states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the states that sealed Trump’s 2016 election—went Blue. An important demographic slice of the electorate—young voters—turned out at a rate of about +10% when compared to those who voted in 2014. And Tuesday’s election will send the most women—and diverse women—to Congress in history.
But Nietzsche’s refrain hits home, too. And I mean literally my home.
I disaggregated the numbers in places that are close to me—in my home state of Michigan, in my wintertime home of Florida, and in my birth state of New York. In all three states, there are pockets of Liberal and Progressive support, largely in metropolitan locations, coupled with entrenched Conservative support (very much Trump-related) in outlying (especially rural) areas.
- In my home county in Michigan (a small, mostly rural, economically-challenged county) voters preferred every one of the Republicans candidates who lost statewide races to Democrats. That included support for the Republican challenger to sitting U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D).
- In Florida, my home county is the only major metro area in the state that’s ‘Ruby Red.’
- In New York, more voters in my former home county preferred re-electing Trump-supporting Chris Collins, a man who has been indicted for insider trading, than electing his Democrat opponent.
My conclusion? While there’s plenty to cheer about, there’s also plenty to be concerned about.
What would it take to tilt America more and consistently in the former we prefer? Here are two ideas.
A Vision, Plan, and Persistence
Years ago, I read a document that frightened the hell out of me. Written in 1971, it’s a 7000-word private memo written to key American business leaders, authored by soon-to-be-appointed (by Nixon) U.S. Supreme Court jurist, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. The document is a Conservative call to arms and includes a roadmap to achieve valued ends. Known as The Powell Memo or The Powell Manifesto, the ideas from nearly a half-century ago pulsate today through the veins of America’s institutions and political life.
The Conservatives had a vision of an America they prefer. They had a plan. And they’ve stuck with it for decades. They’ve made incredible gains. And, now, they’ve taken it to the next level.
Trump knew that he could never be elected as a third-party candidate, and he also knew that his ‘base’ included a variety of extremists who sit at society’s political margins, including conspiracy theorists and White Nationalists. While it’s not unusual for selected ideas and practices from the margins to be appropriated by the mainstream (e.g., the Mafia-operated ‘numbers game’ operates today as the state lottery), Trump took things to an entirely new level. He took ideas from the margins, incorporated them under the banner of a mainstream institution, and made that institution—the Republican Party—‘his.’ In doing so, Trump was able to retain his base and add to it by getting the support of the vast majority of everyday Republicans, persons who routinely support Republicans--Donald Trump, in this case.
Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives—none of them—have a Powell-like grand strategy. There isn’t a game plan, either. Argument replaces persistence. And in 2015-16, when Bernie attempted to move the Democratic Party to the Left—to make it more Progressive and link it emphatically to a Progressive platform—Democratic Party leaders held hands and shouted, “NO!” Democratic Centrism triumphed. Donald Trump won.
Independents Have to Stand For Something…Other Than Being Independent
Depending on how you count them, Independents (party-unaffiliated voters) are somewhere north of 40% of America’s electorate. These Americans run the gamut of political orientation from Right to Left.
America is well-served by having such a larger number of voters unaffiliated with political ‘clubs.’ But a problem keeps Independents from becoming a political force. It’s a common organizational problem, too, namely, how to retain diversity while simultaneously affirming a common point (or two) of agreement. That’s not easy to do.
Is it possible for Independents to do that? Perhaps. But, first, Independents can’t just agree that being Independent is a good thing and that the parties are problematic. One way for Independents to become a political force is to consistently affirm politics for the public good.
Is that possible? Certainly. As an example, let’s look at what happened in Michigan last Tuesday night. A group called, Voters Not Politicians, secured the support of two-thirds of state voters to change the Michigan Constitution. Party victors will no longer draw district boundaries. A citizen-based committee will. The preferred approach will end gerrymandered districts in Michigan.
Yes, there was a lot to cheer about from last Tuesday night, but there was also a lot to be concerned about, too. There are ways to tilt the table more aggressively in the right direction, but accomplishing that outcome will require being more strategic, skillful, and persistent than we’ve been.