Yes We Can (Make Slow, Steady, Unsexy Progress)
Ten years ago, I was standing on the porch of an old historic house in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. My volunteers and I had erected tents on the lawn, we were canvassing the city. Upstairs, one of my team leaders and the owner of the house, was welcoming volunteers into her living room. There was chili and apple cider, a warm embrace before they hit the pavement again. We could barely keep up with our walkers, packet after packet went out.
I was so tired, I had not had a good night sleep since joining the campaign seven months before. The bulk of my diet was cold pizza and lukewarm coffee. But the adrenaline surge and heady idealism of youth was carrying me as I launched the last group of canvassers into the night.
It was there, standing on that porch, watching what we’d built do the real work of winning an election that I learned that it had all paid off; we’d just made history. Barack Obama had been elected the 44th President of the United States.
There has never been a greater feeling. I collapsed onto my back and lost myself in an uncontrollable, uproarious laughter. It was like my body had conserved just enough energy to get me to that exact second and as the relief flooded over me, I allowed myself to be carried away for a minute into the exhausted euphoria.
I tucked that moment and the joy it inspired into my internal memory box. Over the next eight years, I could temper even my most jaded impulses simply by revisiting that beautiful, audacious, hard-won hope. Until the Election of 2016.
If Obama’s America was Dr. Jekyll, we were about to come face to face with its Mr. Hyde.
I’ll admit that in the two years since we elected Donald Trump a lot of my optimism was lost. I have managed, most of the time, to pick myself off the mat following each successive blow (of racism, xenophobia, sexism, baby cages, corruption, Supreme Court sexual predators, scandals, white supremacy, assaults on the press, et al), but a gnawing cynicism resided where I had once kept my hope. Every time I stood up, a little more battered, to stagger into the fight once more, I could feel the shift inside towards pain, terror, rage. I was no longer in the battle for a better, more prosperous union; I was in an ugly, fatalistic war for the continued existence of the union itself.
Let’s just say it was much less fun than the floaty, changy feelings that had fueled me a decade ago in Wisconsin. Until Tuesday.
Over the last week of GOTV, I parachuted into the Kentucky 6th to help Amy McGrath’s team over the finish line. I stood in that field office on election day eating cold pizza and drinking lukewarm coffee checking out walk packet after walk packet. I watched as good, smart people organized around me, and my hope came roaring back.
The mid-term results were not a resounding return to 2008-level ideals or idealism. Amy didn’t win. Dr. Jekyll did not vanquish Mr. Hyde. (We will never again be able to pretend he isn’t woven into the viscera of this country; a pulsing part of our collective blood supply. But I think acknowledging him — the darker, insidious part of us — is an important step towards real progress.)
We certainly took some exceptionally hard hits. I wanted to see Beto trounce the blowfish in Texas too, y’all. Yet, we know that the enthusiasm and hustle around his campaign and the record-setting turnout it inspired likely brought at least three Congressional races home in Texas. Whatever happens next in the Georgia gubernatorial, we know that one million people in the state voted for the first time despite Brian Kemp’s best efforts to keep them from the polls. This almost certainly helped Lucy McBath secure Newt Gingrich’s old seat in the Georgia 6th. Florida probably elected a racist sycophant by the slimmest of margins, but they also restored the voting rights of 1.4 million former offenders. (Forty percent of African-American men in the state will now be eligible to vote in 2020; I highly doubt they’ll be voting for Trump.)
Where we did win — and oh, boy did we win — we won big, with soaring, inspirational candidates. Women, especially women of color, broke through the glass ceiling like it was made of spun sugar. Over 100 of them will be headed to a Democratically-controlled Congress in January. You better believe that our native daughters and immigrant sisters will change the face of this nation.
The wave also hit the states with huge gains in legislatures and governor’s mansions, where we regained 333 seats of the 900 we lost during the Obama years. These victories maybe don’t seem as sexy to cable news pundits, but they’re arguably the most important. These are the people who can right the wrongs in our deeply-broken electoral institutions. They’ll have the opportunity to fix the map before 2020. This will surely make our elections fairer and easier for all. (Michigan, just for example, already passed automatic DMV and same-day registration via ballot measure.)
There would have been a danger in an outcome on Tuesday that bolstered the narrative that Trump was a fluke, that we as a nation are better than our ugliest pieces. He’s not. We’re not. But what the hard-fought, historic wins of this week represent is a more contradictory, frustrating, tempered hope that we can be. In my opinion, this type of hope will prove considerably more useful as we move forward.
For my part, that’s the hope I am tucking back into my memory box, the hope that will sustain me for the next two years.