“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” – John Lewis
I’ll never forget watching Obama give his victory speech in Grant Park, Illinois on November 4, 2008. Unlike his inaugural address, and indeed unlike many of his presidential speeches, this one was more raw, less polished; combined with the elation of the moment, it hit me with the full force of relief, hope, and optimism for the future. He told the story of a 106-year-old Black woman, Ann Nixon Cooper, who had lived through so much–segregation and suffrage and depression and moon landings and wars–only to touch “her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.”
Everything felt possible. The first Black president, Democrats in control of all three branches of Congress, talk of an ambitious response to the Great Recession–one that would accelerate justice, reduce inequality, tackle climate change. At the same time, however, a countervailing force was plotting: Mitch McConnell, the Koch Brothers, and other of their ilk were determined to stop Obama in his tracks, to “make him a one-term president” as McConnell famously proclaimed. And by 2011, the Republicans had won back control of the House and Senate; the Affordable Care Act had passed, but in a watered-down version, and the fight over its passage had emboldened right-wingers to rally around the Tea Party, which was, in many ways, the proto-Alt-Right. It felt, in short, that the opportunity for real change had slipped through our fingers. And while Obama won re-election, Democrats did poorly in the House and Senate, as well as in local and state races across the nation (to put it mildly).
Then Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president and I, along with millions of others, watched in horror. During that awful campaign, I donated the maximum amount to Hillary’s campaign, but beyond that, I did little: no phone or text banking, no door knocking, no fundraising. It wasn’t until I woke up on November 9, 2016 to a new reality that I realized I had regrets. Why had I not done everything I could to prevent this nightmare? I resolved to fight back, and for the past four years I have been engaged in politics as never before. I’ve called and texted elected officials and voters; donated to political campaigns and the ACLU and Indivisible and myriad other groups; created and signed petitions; written essays and poems; and attended more protests and rallies than I can easily count. That the Democrats won back the House in 2018 and the White House in 2020 comes down to this: millions of people contributed, in ways big and small, to the resistance. In the run-up to the election, groups like Vote Forward and Postcards to Swing States facilitated the sending of over 20 million letters to potential voters. When Trump tried to use the USPS to sabotage vote-by-mail, the House held hearings and people organized rallies. And knowing that Trump would never accept the results of the election, a broad coalition of groups came together to prepare, for instance by starting Protect the Results. Had Trump made a serious attempt to overturn the election–one with an actual chance of success–we were ready to fight back, nonviolently, and stop him. In other words, it wasn’t luck or inertia or Covid-19 or the shifting winds that led to Trump’s downfall, though those all helped. The reason he lost is because the citizens of this nation flexed our Democratic muscles.
But now we find ourselves in a dangerous moment. While Biden’s victory is nowhere near as inspiring as Obama’s in 2008, it brings with it perhaps a far greater sense of relief, a sense of having dodged a bullet. After a year of pandemic and protest and preparing for a coup d’etat, I find it hard to resist the desire to rest, to disengage. And therein lies the danger: just because Obama or Biden won does not mean that justice is assured. The pandemic rages; income inequality and food insecurity have surged; climate change doesn’t care about politics. The lunatic right is not going to go away, and the next Trump “will be much more competent” and dangerous. Absent profound, structural reform, we risk dodging a bullet only to forget about the still-loaded gun. The greatest error we made in 2008 was to assume that justice would take care of itself, that we could create the nation we needed without the daily, unglamorous grind of engaging in the democratic process. Why, after all, had I never contacted an elected official until 2017, one of the most basic actions a voter should take in a representative democracy? In retrospect, it’s stunning that I, the founder of a nonprofit, had done so little to advance my organization’s mission through the political process.
Here’s the thing. The forces of injustice–the uber-wealthy, big business, the nut jobs that want to be able to carry a bazooka in public–never rest. Right now, they are planning to take back the House in 2022 and the White House in 2024. The are preparing to stop every attempt to deal with the multitude of crises we are facing, if addressing them confronts their power and privilege. The federal justiciary is stacked with Trump appointees, the federal government weakened and demoralized, our reputation in tatters. We should all breathe a sigh of relief–had Trump won, the American experiment would’ve been over. But if we don’t stay engaged, ours will have been a pyrrhic victory. Fortunately, there are lots of fantastic groups you can plug into, from Indivisible to Swing Left to the Climate Justice Alliance, Movimiento Cosecha, Never Again Action, the Sunrise Movement, and others. So keep donating, keep calling your election officials, keep writing op-eds, keep organizing and joining protests, keep engaging in our democracy. There’s simply no other way to avoid another Trump, to build a more perfect union.
Speaking of a more perfect union, here is a poem I wrote by that title:
“And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” – Albert Camus
A More Perfect Union
When children by gunfire die,
When the dreamer and the warden clash,
When statues betray the sculptor, we proclaim
This is not who we are.
Who are we?
I take my chisel to Plymouth Rock
But the rock gives no blood;
Our history is like that stone,
Heavier than its weight…
Standing at a dank underpass, I rattle
A tin cup, wave a sign that reads
This is not who we are—
I can grow rich here, devote my life
To the pursuit of happiness…
It is said that upon his murder, Lincoln belonged
To the ages: Why do we wait for blood?
We’ve planted great forests of headstones.
I wander their lush paths, the sanguine streams,
And amidst this grandeur, this horror,
I glimpse both what is and what could be.