COMMENTARY: A pep talk for progressives

COMMENTARY: A pep talk for progressives
November 17
03:30 2016

Rob Schofield

Guest Columnist

[As of Nov. 10] It’s been a devastating last 36 hours or so for millions of caring and thinking people in the United States and around the world. The very notion that Donald Trump (a man that one of North Carolina’s best known arch-conservatives described earlier this year as “completely unqualified to be commander-in-chief and … a contemptible human being”) is soon to occupy the Oval Office as the world’s most powerful human is, in some ways, a profoundly sobering – even terrifying – thought.

All of the anxiety that has accompanied this development is made that much more acute by the visceral reaction Trump provokes in so many as the result of his bluster, coarse-ness, vulgarity and narcissism. That such a frequently boorish character will soon presume to follow in the dignified footsteps of Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower and Obama just rankles to such a degree that it’s hard to get one’s mind wrapped around it.

And still we have no choice but to try. The inescapable reality of the matter is that in 10 weeks, John Roberts will read him the oath of office, the band will play “Hail to the Chief” and military officers carrying nuclear launch codes will commence shadowing him 24 hours per day.

So, given this unavoidable situation, how do we carry on? How do progressive-minded people maintain their sanity and maybe even stay engaged in the fight for a better, healthier and more just nation and world? What truths and motivating thoughts can we hold onto? What in the hell do we do tomorrow and in the weeks and months ahead?

Here are a few thoughts on each of those questions – especially for folks in North Carolina:

How to carry on and stay engaged

This ought to be the easiest of the challenges we currently face. Sure, the situation at the national level right now is dreadful in many ways. Our new president-elect is pledged to enact a raft of regressive and destructive policies that have the potential to bring misery to millions, endanger our personal freedoms and collective security and cause enormous harm to the planet.

That said, such was also the case with numerous past presidents; Nixon, Reagan and the second Bush come to mind. Sure, Trump is less polished and more personally abrasive and offensive in many ways than those men. And Trump has no doubt brought along a louder and more provocative base of supporters in some ways. There’s no doubt that it’s profoundly discouraging.

But what are you going to do? Quit?

That’s not what people did in 1969, 1981 or 2001.

Instead, they got back to work and did their utmost each and every day to inform the debate, shape public opinion, influence the new leader, blunt the worst of his efforts and plant seeds for the future. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but there can be absolutely no doubt it was always worth the effort and almost always paid dividends at some point.

As things stand, it will only take three Republican Senators to stop a bill from receiving the 50 votes necessary to pass a new law in the new Congress (assuming Vice President-elect Pence as a tie-breaker). Trump has more enemies than that in the GOP caucus and no experience at all in crafting actual legislation. Surely there is a path forward under which he can be forced in many circumstances, to compromise and, as he might put it, “cut deals.”

In such an environment, progressives can make a lot of hay. As conservatives have rediscovered during the Obama years, it’s often a heck of a lot easier to stop things than pass them. Surely, progressives can return the favor now.

Hopeful thoughts to keep in mind

There are actually several.

The North Carolina situation – Here in North Carolina, of course, it’s all but certain that Democrats have, despite the Trump wave, captured two of the three main branches of government that they did not previously control – the Governor’s office and a majority on the state Supreme Court. With Roy Cooper in the Governor’s Mansion and a fairer and less ideological majority running the court, the Republican majority at the General Assembly just lost a lot of steam. The addition of a couple of new and promising progressive legislators and the defeat and retirement of some prominent right wingers are icing on this cake.

*More of a ripple than a wave – The fact that it was Donald Trump surfing on top sure made it seem like a tsunami swept the nation Tuesday. But given the actual vote totals and the progressive results in numerous states, it was really more like a ripple. If the new President were named Rubio or Bush and the vote results were the same as last night, that’s exactly how experts would be characterizing the situation. By all indications, the Republican nominee lost the national popular vote for the sixth time in the last seven elections. Surely this isn’t the sign of an ascendant movement.

As was noted on The Progressive Pulse blog yesterday morning:

“The nativists and others fearful of change and modernity may have eked out an electoral win last night at the national level, but they do not have a mandate for radical change and will not be able to resist the demographic tides that continue to sweep the country (or modernity itself, for that matter).”

The 2018 elections –Off-year elections typically favor the side that’s out of power – especially when and if the president in question gets off to a slow start. Progressives need to be planning now to seize the initiative in 2018 so that they can push back aggressively against conservative gerrymandering in anticipation of the 2020 election that will decide who draws the political maps after the next Census.

*Trump’s conciliatory acceptance speech –Granted, the standards are pretty low when it comes to assessing Donald Trump speeches, but on Wednesday morning, at least for one day, the rancor and bullying of the campaign were missing as Trump was, for him, almost gracious. Perhaps now that he has won, he has at least some intention to ratchet down the bombast and vitriol.

What’s next?

The obvious answer here is twofold. First, of course, comes the organizing and advocacy alluded to above. Progressives have many tools and millions of motivated citizens standing ready to push back against regressive proposals and, at a minimum, demand conversation and compromise in policymaking – “deal making,” if you will.

As D.D. Guttenplan wrote in The Nation, yesterday [Nov. 9]:

“The stakes are also too high not to be strategic. Not all of Trump’s impulses were wrong; not all of his support comes from racial or sexual fear or resentment. A trade policy that puts not just American manufacturing but American workers first would be a worthy goal for any president. And though his mixed signals on foreign policy defy easy interpretation, the rejection of American imperialism that earned Trump the disdain of the foreign-policy establishment might well deserve critical support from progressives — and anyone else fearful of our current plunge into a new Cold War.”

And last, but far from least, is the matter of recommitting ourselves to fighting and winning the battle of ideas. Progressives will not prevail in the great national debate in which they find themselves by devoting their time and treasure to focus groups, poll-tested messaging and sanitized, Wall Street-approved candidates. Trump should have taught us this.

The key to real and last-ing policy victories lies in redoubling our commitment to engaging and organizing real people of all races and backgrounds and empowering them with coherent ideas and policies driven by solid research and a deep-seated commitment to genuine systemic change in the nation’s increasingly stratified economy.

Simply put, progressives must build the lasting, multi-racial coalition that President Obama started, but, unfortunately, couldn’t sustain. And the key there involves real, different and even radical ideas – not just another new scheme to merely garner 50.1 percent of the electoral vote. Let’s get back to work.

Rob Schofield, director of research at N.C. Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer, commentator and trainer. Contact him at or 919-861-2065. Follow him @Rob_Schofield

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Copyright © 2016 NC Policy Watch. All rights reserved.

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