Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What Effective Political Idealism Might Look Like

I wrote most of what follows for Maine’s caucus day on Sunday. I am republishing it here today because I find the increased rhetoric from liberals who support Sanders, as well as his “victory” in Michigan, upsetting.

The increased polarization of the electorate bodes well for no one.

To the many liberals who continue to push for Sanders and to denounce Clinton, I hope you will read this carefully as a cautionary tale. In Maine, the liberals who are crowing about Sanders victories are the exact same people who voted early for Libby Mitchell for Governor in 2010 because she said what they wanted to hear. And the increasingly vitriolic denouncements of Clinton—including those Sanders supporters who say they will not come out to vote for Clinton--indicate only that the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, are wrestling with a body politic that fears a woman in power and is under-educated about how democratic change truly happens.

Like many Mainers and unlike the majority of Americans, I live in a small, rural community.

I know everyone and they know me. Most of us spend a lot of time volunteering - for our schools, ambulance corps, fire departments, community nonprofits and municipal governments - to make our communities work and to encourage them to thrive.

We’re all so wonderfully various! Aging hippies. Young adults coming into their own as entrepreneurs. Middle-aged adults, with or without kids, some activists and some not. Pioneering artists. Fishermen. The elderly retired, the elderly infirm. And across all of these demographics are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. To move the needle forward we have to find common cause with those whose perspectives and beliefs are different from ours. We have to make compromises and deals and know that we can continue to hold our ideals while respecting others and moving toward them for the sake of a bigger, more common good.

The empathy, tolerance and respect required by small community life has traditionally been a hallmark of Maine culture, whose Senators have proudly included Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Margaret Chase Smith alongside George Mitchell, Ed Muskie, and Mike Michaud.

To regain our civility and continue the change that eight years of the Obama administration started, we have to understand that real change happens in the middle ground between us. A sweet spot that neither end of ideology — liberal or conservative — represents. This is why I find the extremely polarized nature of the current Presidential election so depressing — particularly on the liberal side.

The conservatives can deal with their own house. I’m talking about the ways liberals, progressives, Democrats and the like often shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to electoral politics.

It appears, from evidence on the great blogosphere, from Nader’s impact on Florida in 2000 and the many small elections that lead up to that, from our own three-way races for governor in Maine, that few of us have received adequate training on how to be an effective citizen for democratic change, i.e., how to move forward together for the sake of a common good. The evolution of American culture and media have made it far easier to cling to our individual identities and to the ideologies that support those.

Understanding and valuing a common good means that as citizens we are required to move our votes out of the realm of ideas and personalities we "like" or don't like: away from ideology and toward common cause.

This doesn't mean the end of idealism, although it does mean the end of ideology.

I remember my own youthful idealism, when the only things that mattered were our radical beliefs for "a better world" and the sometimes extreme ideologies that pulled us toward these personal utopias. 

I am idealistic for a better world these days in a different way. Oh yes, I absolutely believe we need to deal solidly and effectively with income inequality. Our work for education and against poverty is paramount to me.

Yet based on my experience in community, I am also aware that we have very different ideas about how to achieve these goals. And as an historian, I am very aware that the characteristics that most distinguish American culture from the European models held up by most liberals is that we are a country founded on a tax revolt and with an urban (manufacturing/banking/big government) / rural (agrarian/slaveholding/local control) split at our core (for those who don’t know the history of our two parties, start with Hamilton on Broadway!).

My idealism today is for a civil, democratic world in which we respect each other in all our (conservative/liberal urban/rural black/white male/female etc. etc.) differences, and demonstrate that respect by not only finding common cause but rolling up our sleeves and getting to work with those with whom we disagree. It is an idealism against ideology and for commonality--or community. For liberals, that means that Republican community members often have good ideas, too. It is an idealism for the sweet spot in the middle, not for a tenacious clinging to either end.

This idealism informs my decisions about for whom to vote. To be effective, our votes have to represent our hopes that change is possible for all of us: not just socialists on the left and Tea Partyers on the right. Not just for the usual types of authority we've been taught to trust (white, male) and not just against those whose solutions we consider "crazy." Our votes have to represent our knowledge that the middle ground is not only respectful but effective in moving us toward the better world for which we are all crying out.

Ideology, as advanced through rhetoric, is about ideas, not people. One can favor the idea of increased national security and be deaf to its impact on refugees. One can be opposed to income inequality and be oblivious to the the fact that change requires bringing vested interests along for the ride.

If leadership is only inspiring others to follow a shared vision, then both Trump and Sanders are performing beautifully in this race for President. But isn't leadership also about knowing how to work with those who disagree with you? Acknowledging the validity of their beliefs, fears, and solutions, and being willing to meet them half way to get the job done?

Our current American “idealism” for ideologies on the far left and far right bodes ill for the long term future of our democracy, because a democracy depends on voters willing to give up individual positions to ensure better governance for our common world. Through our behavior and rhetoric and public education system, through the mass media and social media, we are educating our young people only to follow their individual hearts and beliefs. These are important, but not all that make an effective voting electorate.

Yes: I continue to believe that the ends keep pulling the center forward, and are therefore always necessary. I am glad Bernie Sanders entered this race to do just that. I also know, after advocating for women's, gay, and economic rights for 35 years, that real change doesn't happen in “one fell swoop.” It does not surprise me that Sanders support is heaviest among white, young liberals; demographics who rarely question what their own privilege really means, or how it takes shape in the world. I support Hilary because she shows more respect for and understanding of how to work with my fellow community members, and can get the job done.

I’m crossing my fingers that we can rally behind her, and that liberals as well as conservatives don’t again shoot American progressivism in the foot by clinging to ideologically-based voting.