Louder may help us heal, but it may not help us win
Like a lot of people, I have been struggling with how to respond to the events of the last couple weeks. As a straight white male raised in the same DC prep school culture that was (rightly) indicted during the Kavanaugh confirmation process, I find myself compelled to reexamine my own upbringing, to stand up as an ally for my wife and friends who are at once furious, scared, and in pain, and to consider, as a political operative, what I can do to help find a coherent, forward-looking path.
I have been doing my best to react in all the ways a human must and in all the ways our society and culture needs people like me to and trying to stay out of the way in the ways we need people like me to as well. But there's only one mind and one heart at work here, so how do I know when to respond with comfort, with fury, or with strategy?
The Kavanaugh confirmation battle inflamed deep wounds, both personal and political, and created new ones. The shared personal pain given voice by Dr. Ford’s testimony was amplified by the political reality that surfacing her pain had no value, that women would be ignored (again) regardless of facts, and that the GOP wanted this particular person as Supreme Court Justice more than it cared about the pain of women or the appearance of ignoring that pain. The GOP could have confirmed almost any conservative jurist in the country. They chose to nominate a hyperpartisan one, and they chose to stand by him once the sexual assault allegations became public. Inflaming partisan tensions as a strategy makes sense only if winning matters more than women in America being believed and feeling safe. But this is exactly where our response gets complicated: there is a political trauma embodied by a more conservative court compounded by echoes of personal trauma AND the new trauma of being ignored, of our worst fear that we don’t matter being confirmed mercilessly and publicly. Senator Collins' focus on fairness and due process might have made sense if this were a legal proceeding, but since it was a political one, her dissembling public justification on the floor of the Senate was nothing more than cover for a lack of political courage for which I hope she pays a political price. But if we are stuck in our pain over her betrayal and that of Senate Republicans (plus Senator Manchin), our response is going to end up misdirected, and we may well miss the opportunity.
The problem here is that some of the things that make us feel better don't heal us, and some of the things that heal us don't help us strategically. There is a process to grief and recovery. There is an well-understood landscape of self-care for dealing with pain and trauma, a path that leads us to health. Unfortunately we don't have the same clarity about the process for political self care and are at risk of misinterpreting one for the other. How do we take care of ourselves politically? How do we find our way back to our foundation, our ideals, our confidence, and a strategic moral authority that's more than self-righteousness? We need to embrace a path that guides us back to and restores our faith in civic life and puts us back on our front foot rather than reacting from our heels.
Just like the process of grief and recovery begins with honesty about where we stand and a commitment to walk toward the best versions of ourselves, political self care has to be about more than medicating frustration. It has to take us toward the ideals that inspire us in the first place. We have to be willing to set aside self-medication that doesn't serve us. We have to embrace the things that heal us, and then we have to be careful to distinguish between things that heal us and things that are strategic.
The question facing all of us is what do we do now?
First, we each need to take care of ourselves. Sometimes peace is on the other side of rage. The courage to sit still with our pain, to feel it deeply, to stare straight into it and learn and draw strength from our experience comes after we look and share it with others. We cannot wait for the courage to heal: we just have to do it. We need to do that work, and we need to do it before we’re going to be able to expand our view and think strategically about our collective path forward. This is not a luxury: it is an absolute necessity. Once we do that necessary work of self-care, we need an approach to political self-care that builds resilience and power. This isn’t about new messaging or better rapid response. Tactical improvements are no doubt needed, but the “more better” plan where we just need to do a little more x and a little better at y does not gets us where we need to be.
Political self-care must be about turning back toward civic life and embracing our ideals, leaning into the institutions we rely on for consistency and boundaries that protect us from our lessor angels. Recovery is something we do together with people we trust and with whom we share a vision for the future. For us to succeed, we need clarity on where we hope to go, how we want our politics to function, and then we can start walking in a new direction. This is when we need leadership most -- when we are feeling a deep-seated collective anxiety, when frustration is our first answer to almost every political question, when our default posture is one of existential threat and our default setting is eleven. One of the key functions of strong leadership is to see, hear, and speak to that emotion, to meet that fear and uncertainty about the future with empathy, and to help channel it toward constructive self care -- both personal and political.
With new footing on firm ground, new strategic thinking comes next, but first things first.
Strategically, turning up the temperature in the fight-fire-with-fire strategy is just participating in the slow, downward spiral of American politics. We may find some personal relief from unloading our anger and frustration on the opposition, but that relief is misleading: it doesn't lead us where we want to go. That kind of relief requires constant fuel and leads to an ever-escalating bonfire of rage, disrespect, and contempt. The same is true with discussions about Presidential impeachment. Making the impeachment of Justice Kavanaugh a litmus test for 2020 plays into the President’s core argument that Democrats are partisan, cravenly political, and cannot be trusted to govern. It does not matter that those attributes accurately describe the President and his party. If the argument is “I know you are but what am I?” or just a fight over who’s most hyperpartisan, then citizens lose as everyone turns away from civic life as a source of morality or leadership.
This is not to be confused with the “when they go low, we go high” strategy. Bullies must be fought: but not on their own terms. Allowing the President to set the terms of conflict is how Republicans lost the primary to him in the first place. If our opponents define which questions we argue about, we lose. Gramsci would be proudly vindicated by the way our political leadership abuses their power and institutional inertia to undermine debate and absolve themselves of the responsibility of inspecting their own complicity in the disquiet and inequality in our society. In many instances, insisting on civility may very well just be code for “stay in your place,” but that does not justify participating in the breakdown of the institutions we both believe in and also need to help create a more equal society. Taking the bait is how we end up fighting losing battles we didn't choose about things we don't care about, punching ourselves out to the point of exhaustion while our real priorities, the things Americans need us to win on languish in the dark. We must push harder on opportunity, inequality, governance, norms, immoral behavior, and the abuse of power everywhere we speak. News, social, the floor of the Senate -- whatever mechanisms are available to us. And we must do it in service of the better path forward demanded by our political self-care, a longer horizon that envisions leadership and politics in service of Americans, not just a rhetorical victory or short-term political point scoring.
When the President suggests that Democrats are getting violent, we must remind Americans that only one side in this conflict is currently not just threatening but actually using the state as an instrument of violence against its own citizens. When Senator McConnell tries to turn the narrative of last week’s grassroots advocacy by saying that GOP committee members were “literally under attack,” we must remind Americans that only in his fragile and desperate grasp on power would our shouting and pressure to justify his immorality feel like an actual assault. When men question the fear that many women in this (and every other) country feel daily, we must ask them to catalog when and how they feel afraid in their daily lives and if they’ve ever asked the women in their lives to do the same.
While we do our work of both personal and political self-care and define that longer, better horizon, how do we start fighting for the things that matter in the middle of a circus with a master ringleader? We start here:
- Stop repeating attacks: when responding to an attack, respond don't repeat. We give way too much oxygen and lend way too much reach to whatever the latest unhinged thing the President says or tweets.
- Stop using the language of war: by conflating political conflict with armed conflict, we end up muddying the waters, overheating our own rhetoric, and undermining our own arguments. We must live in the world with people with whom we disagree and acknowledge when their ideas might help serve America and Americans. I'm not talking about making space for or validating white supremacy. I'm talking about neighbors who see the world differently. We should argue like we're prepared to coexist with our opponents and like the intended result of these arguments is to get us to a better future, animated by stronger ideas and better policies for the country not the public destruction of our enemies.
- Argue for the truth not your truth: our embrace of the whole idea of “speaking my truth” inadvertently validates our opponents “truth” as well. If someone is lying about you, you aren't standing up for your truth. And stating it as such gives credence to their version of reality and creates space for them to redefine you and sow doubt and uncertainty. Case in point: Justice Kavanaugh’s truth about a high school party in 1982 and Dr. Ford's truth about her assault. Only one of their stories about what happened that night actually happened. We might debate whether a certain set of actions and intents qualify as sexual assault, but there were only one set of actions. I believe Dr. Ford told the truth while he lied and obfuscated his way onto the Supreme Court.
- Stick to your own path: march, rant, rail, protest, but do it for something not just against something. We need to start walking a new path, not participating in the downward spiral, the inexorable race to the bottom that we've been baited into by politicians (especially our President) only interested in power and the economic status quo.
- Show don't tell: actively push back on and move away from our declaration culture by demonstrating the norms and principles we're working to reclaim rather than simply naming them.
Yes, we need to ensure there are political consequences, and those consequences need to start at the ballot box in 21 days. However, we shouldn't think of a victory in November as a foundation for political retribution (impeachment or otherwise). Instead, political consequences provide the beachhead we need to demonstrate to the American people what genuine leadership looks like when when elected officials fight for the things that matter to all of us and not just for the sake of their own power.