Bad-Ass Democrats

This article appeared November 16, 2006 on The Huffington Post.


“I’d rather vote for what I want, and not get it,” said Eugene Debs, “than vote for what I don’t want, and get it.” Debs, of course, ran for president several times, never came close to winning, but put forth insistent ideas on labor rights, civil liberties, economic justice, and enduring world peace (he served time in jail for opposing American entry into the First World War) that in time became part of the American mainstream. Nearly a century later, progressive Democrats appear to be promulgating a different model. We’re voting for what we want, and getting it!

January will see no less than nine new senators sitting on the Democratic side of the aisle. In three of the most closely watched races, moderate Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, and James Webb of Virginia won by a razor’s edge – probably all with less than 50% of the total. But the three most progressive major U.S. Senate candidates in the country each won going away. On a day of record turnouts nationwide, Sherrod Brown garnered 56% of the vote in Ohio, Amy Klobuchar secured 58% in Minnesota, and Bernie Sanders (actually not a Democrat but a socialist!) pulled a full 65% in Vermont.

None of these three candidates apologized for their unabashedly progressive principles. None of them pandered to people who voted Republican in the last election to convince them to come over to the other side. Instead, all of them fired up the Democratic base, put forth big uncompromising liberal ideas, and inspired thousands of citizens who otherwise might not have cast a ballot to show up on Tuesday at the polls.

And now, as they join Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and arguably a few other Democratic firebrands, we may see in the U.S. Senate for the first time the emergence of a genuine progressive caucus.

It is a little known fact that 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry actually finished not second, but third in the nationwide popular vote. The totals? 55 million for Kerry. 58 million for Bush. And 70 million eligible citizens who didn’t even bother to vote, despite all that was at stake for our nation and our world. Many believe that the key factor behind the Kerry fiasco was that his focus on “swing voters” – probably best epitomized by his prancing about in the woods with an awkwardly held shotgun in hunter camouflage in October 2004 — failed to motivate enough of the Democratic base to show up on Election Day 2004. (President Bush and architect Karl Rove, in stark contrast, made little effort to persuade Democrats to come over, concentrating instead on generating passion — and turnout — among evangelical Christians.) Next time around, Democrats can obsess, again, about how to get 2 or 3 million of that 58 million to change their minds. Or, they can try to elevate the souls of 5 or 7 or 10 million of that 70 million, so that they care enough about the fate of our civilization to actually vote on Election Day 2008. For us.

Perhaps the biggest untold story of Election Day 2006 is not just the ascendancy of Democrats, but the triumph of these intrepid new progressives. The resounding victories by Brown, Klobuchar, and Sanders may mean that the salvation of the Democratic Party – perhaps not only in traditional bastions of liberalism like Minnesota and Vermont but also in critical swing states like Ohio — is to go after our base. To be not timid Democrats, but bad-ass Democrats. To give the millions of Americans who previously did not show up the kind of vision and boldness and hope that will move them next time to turn out, and perhaps even to devote some of their treasure and toil to our collective struggle. To stand by our beliefs, with a bedrock confidence that no matter how far out of the mainstream they may appear today, eventually those beliefs will prevail. “First, they ignore you,” said Mahatma Gandhi. “Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

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