Monday, July 11, 2011

Quiet Desperation No More

This summer I have experienced a number of things that leads to this post. These events were a union convention, a parade, a sermon, and an activist workshop. It may be more of the same mildly interesting blather no one ever reads and even fewer care about, much less become motivated by. On the other hand, with some nurturing, a fair dose of collaboration, a heap of hope and positivism, through persistence, this just might become the great manifesto that ushered in a new order.
My basic premise is that the “Left” is presently a loosely and vaguely defined and organized collection of issue groups that will never accomplish any of its varied goals unless it comes together around a single issue and message that appeals to a majority of the electorate. I propose that the issue be campaign finance overhaul and the message be Restore Democracy – Power to the People!
The Order of Things
Let’s look at the present order of things, what I think of as the era of Quiet Desperation. To call this an era congers up an image a space along a timeline like the roaring 20’s or the favored 60’s. If so, the era of QD pretty much takes up the whole dadgum timeline! As a people, perhaps as a species, we strive for quiet. We like to enjoy life simply without muss or fuss. True, we know that any moment can and eventually will bring some measure of calamity and strife and ultimately an end. Still, our primary goal is simply to get by without unnecessary conflict. I have come to believe that this is fundamental and crosses all strata of culture and class. What we all seek is quiet – give us the basics of what we need to get along and we’ll get along and own our quiet. I am not knocking quiet time. Actually, my big mission is to spread quiet like wildfire – in the long term.
Of course this notion of the basics required for quiet varies widely across culture and class. To many, basic consists of clean water, minimal nutrition, and the ability to respirate a few more moments. For others basic is a six thousand square foot living area nestled in several acres of rolling hill, under shady tree, along clear stream. In between lays the majority of the folks I am hoping to reach: the Great Bread and Butter of Society, the revered Middle. I like the middle, I find my quiet there, always have and always will.
In the middle, though we have no real empathy for the poor bastards scratching for subsistence, we would like to, but let’s face it, we have our own problems. For those few that sit in comfort on the high point of Shady Acre Estate, we actually have no empathy either, but we so badly long to know and feel like they do. This intense longing rages along fueled by jealousy and envy. For a few these emotions transfer to resentment, frustration, anger, and action – activists! (Sheesh, who has the time? More on that!) But for most of the middle, we channel our longing into hope that one day soon we can take our place at Shady Acre. If we play our cards right, if we believe our cultural lessons of hard work, clean livin’, and God fearin’, we will eventually arrive.
Hey, I’m not knockin’ any of those lessons. I have learned my lessons well and have tried to apply them. It’s not the lessons, it’s not the values they presume, and it’s not even a distaste for Shady Acre livin’! OK, then WHAT is the PROBLEM? It’s that the entry game is rigged, the rules are stacked high against me, and the playing field is not open. I can handle an unlevel playing field, but I have to be able to get on the field to play. The Shady Acre field is CLOSED and it is not ever going to open – at least on its own!
The Playing Field
For centuries we slugged it out with bigger and better clubs and spears. Then we moved to clans and tribes and turf battles. Then we trudged through monarchies and larger turf battles. Finally, with the arrival of the radical notion of human rights we arrive at a system based on fairness, justice, and the value of the individual voice. One Human, One Vote = Fairness. Majority Rule + Minority Rights = Justice. Individual Voice to Assembly to Legislation = Democracy. Think of the real, raw power this concept wields! One voice can change the world! An idea can take root to grow and thrive! Of course, being a human system, it is not without flaw, but it’s a pretty darn good idea. While we deeply value democracy and applaud its growth, it is under attack – always has been, always will be. Today the threat is not from any external menace foreign or domestic. It comes from our tendency toward Quiet Desperation.
Since its inception, the Democracy playing field has been under the process of un-leveling. Powerful interests enter the playing field, holding the predetermined, democratically created rule book and play the game. The game is played to fashion a working order in which the society will operate. As problems arise with the rules, the players may rightfully make adjustments. If those adjustments facilitate desired outcomes of particular plays or of the entire game itself, so be it. If I don’t like that outcome, particular plays, or the rule adjustments, I can speak up. I can garner support for my position. I can enter the field, make my plays, and realize an outcome that suits my interests. This dynamic is a very good thing. In fact, it is the foundation of free society, the essence of democracy.
This a great playing field with decent rules and I will fight to the death anyone that desires to replace it with another. This is happening as we speak. The playing field we treasure is being closed. Having rightfully manipulated the game and the rules to advantage, a minority of interests have turned the game on its head. If it were Minority Rule + Majority Rights = Democracy, that could be dealt with according to the rules. In fact, this, or at least the appearance of this, happens all the time. Unfortunately the powerful are uneasy with this dynamic. They have grown far beyond weary with these incessant ebbs and flows, tits for tats, see - me on top, saw – they’re on top – Enough!
Power Talk:
“Look, resources are getting scarce; we only have the one pie. Our pie has only so many slices, and these folks – these…Voters, want their own pieces – My God, they want to be the Slicer! They think it’s THEIR pie AND it is only going to get worse! If we don’t change this dynamic now, we never will!”
The game is becoming Minority Rule + Majority Compliance = Oligarchy – and in we are allowing it happen with Quiet Desperation.
Hope and Optimism vs. Gloom and Doom
There is plenty of room and opportunity to attack my words as hyperbole and typical lefty polemics. I admit that much. What I think cannot be reasonably debated is that our society is in the midst of a fundamental shift in the body politic. We have gone beyond the long standing arena of decision making where reasonable minds may differ. This arena has long handled our society’s important decisions.
In regard to Social Security for example, the debate has revolved around our reasonable differences in how we structure, fund, and dispense services of a publicly controlled apparatus that exists under the mantle of performance of a social contract between successive generations. The bargain struck is that the young will pay into a system and the old will be cared for within some commonly acceptable minimum standard. The details of that system’s operation are and should be debatable. The underlying social contract has not and should not be debatable. Yet, presently and persistently, that is EXACTLY the debate. Privatize the social contract is the palatable way of framing the debate. Eliminating the social contract is what is being discussed. In Quiet Desperation we allow ourselves to be distracted. If we follow the thinking here, we have to question the impetus that fuels this agenda. Certainly, it is about lining the pockets of “those that brung ya” in terms of the vast number of private retirement accounts created, funded, and serviced. OK, what’s new? It is the manner and means of controlling the operation of those accounts and by whom. Elected representatives are taken out of the mix and replaced with corporate boards, that by the by have been rendered completely “unaccountable” to anyone. It is a David and Goliath set up - Grampa vs. ACME Multinational Inc. Is this contest fixed?
Wait, David wins that battle. How? David chose not to exist in Quiet Desperation. David decided, ENOUGH himself. He chose to take the only weapon he had and faced off against a clearly physically superior adversary and changed the game on ole Goliath!
Grampa has a tried and true weapon to slay the privately held, Gods among themselves, Goliaths of the world. Democracy! Collective action! We should despair that this fight is over before it has begun. We have to remember those that came before who refused to despair, whose very lives gave us the opportunity not to despair! What the Goliaths of the world have accurately counted on is the inability of the left to act collectively.
A recent sermon I heard put part of this in my mind. The gist was that pessimistic, gloom and doom messages, rather than intuitively spurring caring folks to action, actually diminishes ones capacity to act. I am still working through this, but my initial thoughts are that it has merits.
The Painful Glitch of Optimism
I recently joined an obscure political party that hasn’t had any measurable effect on public policy in 75 years or so. It exists solely to say it exists. Its name is a very dirty word in American politics – Socialist! I don’t think it’s a dirty word, but then I was one of the say, 1000 or so in a nation of 300 million to “come out” for something we actually believe in. I carry my card with me. It gives me a sense of pride that I, ME, stand for something! I get to pat myself on the back and have meaningful conversations with people that position themselves on the edge of mainstream – margins if you will. And there I operate at the margins, shouting to earless rooftops, outside the real debate. I ask myself why? Why did I choose this path?
One feasible answer occurred to me this past weekend. I attended the Houston Peace and Justice Center’s “Power to the People” day of training. The sub title was “Saving Democracy through Strategy, Timing and Turnout”. I was pleased by the size of the turnout. I’d say close to 75 or so folks dedicated to preserving democracy. Although those 75 would very likely agree on a number of broad propositions in the “progressive” repertoire of issues: universal healthcare, collective bargaining in the work place, supporting promoting civil rights of minorities and the disenfranchised, et. al. I feel safe in declaring that the one thing equally shared would be the “general” defeat of the right wing ideologies would be a very good thing indeed.
My sense is that each has their own agenda in terms of issue focus, method of operation, and electoral strategies. This is anecdotal of course, but one of the publications focused on Peace issues, had a one half page section on the various groups operating in Houston that could be considered sympathetic if not like minded. There were at least 50 separate groups listed with names announcing the focus and meeting times and locations. They will each operate issue politics and peel off a few supporters here, a few support dollars here, and occasionally notch a few successes to keep the process going. Consistently, however, they will continue to lament their dissident position in the political arena and continue to vie for the scraps from the table at which they are denied a seat!
Now the right has its share of splintering to be sure. However, I would argue that the right has an underlying and more cohesive message. Yes, they want to outlaw abortion, prevent same sex marriage, rid business of regulation and legal liability, reduce or eliminate taxation, on and on. The difference is that those groups have quietly but loyally agreed to channel their pet issues onto a single path. They have looked at the arena in which they operate and determined just what the problem is that prevents them from realizing their goals – Democracy! Those pesky numbers! They don’t have the votes! They KNOW this and it terrifies them! Message: Dilute Democracy in the Name of Democracy!
You could attend a Tea Party rally and get all types of wing nut declarations without any real focus – They are MAD, that’s it! Mad is code word for SCARED. Their justified fear has been skillfully and willfully manipulated into a clear message that screams, “You’re values, faith, and standard of living is in danger from the terrorists, the socialists, the liberals, the immigrants, the unionists, and the teachers! Fight Back! Be Against! Be Against This!! Get Your Government Hands Off My Medicare! Give Me My Machine Guns! Deport those Freeloaders! Hate the Poor! Get Rid of this BLACK President! Ask them why and mostly what you’ll get is the same litany of unfocused, unsubstantiated, unjustified rants. These are not evil folk. These are bread and butter, salt of the Earth Americans, in short Good People! Their fear and uncertainty has been skillfully managed into following, supporting, and electing those that support a radical agenda that I am confident they don’t realize is against their interests.
What is common among those that owe their elections to those wing nuts? There is only one issue: dilute the power of the people to determine public policy. One only needs to look at the attacks of public workers unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states to see a clear focus on that issue. If you think about it, this is a very logical first step. Unions operating in the private sector have CONTRACTS….and those blasted athletes! Don’t mess with the Atheltes…yet!
Until the left arrives at an issue that appeals at a gut level to a wide swath of the electorate, our hopes of realizing ANY of our various issues are slim to none and slim has packed up and ready to leave town.
The Answer
Many progressives have a very jaded, even cynical view of the electoral process. This is completely justified. Even if they have a political friend elected, eventually the rubber will meet the road. The rubber is the constant need to raise funds and the road is the system that requires large amounts of money to be raised in order to be elected in the first place and then to remain in office. This is nothing new. We KNOW it is the reality. Congressperson X is a friend of the poor and disenfranchised. If X is in office, she/he will work tirelessly for her constituents. Madame Y desires to replace X – rather the interests that X has royally pissed off desire Madame Y in office. It might very well be that Y is a good person that really wants to do a better job that X, but how? Y seeks support from the interests that X has alienated and she gets it. Y fully intends to be independent and maintain her principles, but not be so pushy as X and certainly give access to other interests. Would she like to remain in office for more than one term? If so, she does what is necessary – she dances with them that brung her! Around and around we go.
What if the left coalesced around the issue of campaign finance…change. If we get the money out, we can give the greedy bastards the boot. Despite all the Tea Party polemics, there is a deeply felt and widely held view across our land that politicians are bottom feeding slime. That was implicit in the Contract for America and the Tea Party successes. We are watching!
The left could bring back a favored slogan – “Power to the People”. It is, in fact, closely aligned with “Don’t Tread on Me”. The all powerful Left Leaning Liberal Media Machine certainly has its share of skilled message framers and ad folk. Surely we could craft a gut grabbing message. It would not be about right or left, it would be about democracy, the right of the individual to have a realistic chance to affect change. It is the re-leveling of the playing field; it is about the fundamental and conservative value of playing by the rules – fairness. It is something we could build majorities around.
If we were successful in restoring the level playing field, we would be viable players in the game. Would we win all our battles? Probably not, but if we are right as we profess and really do speak for the interests of the people, we should win most. When we stop representing those interests to the satisfaction of the voters, we get kicked out. Just as it should be!
Restore Democracy – Power to the People!

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