THE AUSTERITY OF HOPE
Even though they were longshots, back to back to back losses in special elections cultivates damaging demoralization.
After 2017’s first round of special elections, all us Democrats know the talking points:
· the districts were historically heavily Republican
· only six times has a special election resulted in a seat flipping parties
· the numbers show we’re making gains
· we were never supposed to have a chance, so this is a moral victory
Sure, all of these are true. Data shows that we performed historically well in extraordinarily difficult districts, and it’s entirely reasonable to advance the case that three straight losses in Montana, South Carolina and Georgia don’t indicate how the 2018 midterms will shake out.
It makes me feel better to parrot back this argument when debating gloating Trumpites and bitter Berniecrats. Funny enough, I find myself defending my party from attacks on the left and right, as both share an intense hatred for “Nancy Pelosi brand” and point their fingers at her to blame for our losing streak — ironic proof that bipartisan limps on in American politics.
But try as I might, all the talking points in the world can’t dismiss this nagging sense of dejection that I’ve felt since November.
Let me start with some background:
My political awakening coincided with a remarkable time for the Democratic Party: the Presidency of Barack Obama. I remember rooting intensely for Obama in 2008 and then again in 2012. I remember his steady hand during the Great Recession, his courage in fighting for the Affordable Care Act, and his commitment to finding solutions to global problems. I marveled at his rhetorical skill, the eloquence of his writing, the ease with which he could command a crowd. I worshipped the cast of characters — from Joe Biden to David Axelrod to Jon Favreau to Dan Pfieffer to Josh Earnst — around him, all passionate, talented and dedicated to the cause.
For eight straight years, through ups and downs, I always felt one thing: hope.
Because I knew the president was on our side, the economy was recovering, nations were cooperating, consumer goods were getting safer, marginalized people were gaining more agency and protections, and so much more, I was able to feel hope that things would continue to get better. I was confident that we were progressing as a nation and life was getting better, so I could continue feeling optimistic about our path forward.
Today, I have no such hope. With Republicans in full control of the levers of power, we have been regressing as a nation on a daily basis.
When I worked on the Hill last semester, I had the opportunity to sit in on a Senate session in which the body nonchalantly voted to allow states to restrict access to federal funding for organizations such as Planned Parenthood. I sat there powerlessly as Congress struck FCC privacy requirements. I watched regulations from consumer protections to environmental safeguards get rolled back. That’s on top of the health care fiasco and phantom tax code — both of which harm the vulnerable to favor the fortunate. And don’t get me started about the Russian investigation, our international posture, and freedom of the press.
These three special elections — Montana’s at-large seat, South Carolina’s fifth district, and Georgia’s sixth district — are embedded in and therefore cannot be removed from the contemporary political environment. Following the utter devastation all of us felt last November, we were extraordinarily cognizant of the dangers of allowing ourselves to hope. And there was already very little space in this political climate for Democrats to preserve the hope we still had left.
We had to dole out our hope in small but powerful doses, employing it to energize movements that would add fuel to the fragile flame. We were told that despite how the odds were stacked against us, we could win these races. We began to envision victory, a chance to loudly refute the course Republicans have set us on. The energy, the excitement, and the hope were palpable.
But then we lost. Not once, not twice, but three times. And one of the losses was to a candidate who literally assaulted another human being the day before the election.
And with that, we all experienced a rush of emotions reminiscent of election night last November. We had allowed ourselves to hope again, and were let down once again. Sure, we knew that was possible — and even likely. But, after all we invested both politically and emotionally, that doesn’t make it hurt any less. It’s hard not to feel demoralized from our recent defeats — despite the reality telling us that it’s not really a bruising political loss.
Unfortunately, we’re living through a time when hope is in short supply. But in times like this, I like to remember a quote from a man I greatly admire, Governor Martin O’Malley. He once told me that “darkness makes a great canvas” — meaning that with the right message and the right messenger, we can once again light the flame of hope to guide us through these uncertain times.