Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Reject the conventional wisdom: An open letter to fellow progressive activists

Editor's Note: The following is the text of a letter that I drafted and sent out to the many progressive activists in the Pacific Northwest that I know. This letter reflects my own personal views, and not those of the Northwest Progressive Institute. As an organization, NPI does not endorse candidates for office. Nor is it aligned with any political party. Staff and board members who are involved as Democratic officers — or as volunteers for Democratic campaigns — serve the party in their individual capacities.

Brothers and sisters:

If polls and pundits are to believed, Democrats have already lost the 2010 midterm elections to Republicans without a single vote having been cast. As you are no doubt aware, our brain-dead traditional media — which is obsessed with picking "winners" and "losers" — continues to endlessly play up Republicans' chances of doing well while knocking Democrats.

Consider these recent headlines from The Associated Press:
Obama: Voter anger could hurt Dems in elections
Dems could lose 8 Empire State seats in US House
Obama's blunt take: Poor economy hurts Democrats
Sheer number, sour economy favor GOP in govs races
Economic worries strain loyalty for some Democrats
Fewer Democratic candidates seeking Obama's help
DNC chair: Dems underdogs, but fight for progress
Dems' prospects threatened by economic woes
Those are all from the last week. I didn't cherry-pick the headlines, either... that's a representative sample of what the AP is putting out.

Notice how many of the headlines seemingly paraphrase each other? The same premise is being recycled over... and over... and over...

Meanwhile, pundits and talking heads are already declaring the Democrats finished, as Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly observed in his column this morning. Even on the so-called "liberal" MSNBC:
The House is "lost" to the Democrats, Savannah Guthrie of "Daily Rundown" pronounced earlier this week, talking about a "Tsunami" based on the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Co-host Chuck Todd was beside himself last week at a Gallup generic ballot showing the GOP 10 points up.

Never mind that this week's Gallup Poll shows a 46-46 tie. Forget that polls are only a snapshot in time. Overlook your obligation to report seriously on issues rather than numbers from some Robo-poll.
Self-professed public opinion experts are making predictions and projections left and right, which are immediately accepted at face value and then furiously promoted. The latest is Nate Silver's "model" which "forecasts" that Republicans have a two-in-three chance of retaking the U.S. House.

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats have already failed, with the obvious implication that there's nothing that Democrats can do at this point to win. All we can do is grimace and bear the losses that the voters intend to inflict upon us.


This election is not over. If anything is certain, it's that nothing is certain. This is the most volatile election cycle in years. The landscape is constantly changing. And we have the ability to affect how it changes.

Contrary to what the other side wants us to believe, we are not powerless. Far from it! We can shape our own destiny. Unlike the chattering class who are paid to pontificate about the public mood, we are doers, not talkers.

I'll put it another way: There's a reason we call ourselves activists. It's because we work issues and we work for worthy candidates. Each of us is "an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause" (which is how Random House defines "activist"). We don't describe or think of ourselves as passivists.

Republicans are trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by declaring victory early. They are deliberately trying to strangle our spirit and destroy our enthusiasm, so that we won't man phone banks, knock on doors, distribute literature, put up yard signs, write letters to the editor, or encourage neighbors, friends, and family to vote Democratic. They need us to stay home so they can win.

The worst thing that we can do is play into their hands by accepting the electoral narrative that they have already sold so successfully to the traditional media.

It is absolutely critical that we reject the conventional wisdom. Apathy, resignation, and complacency are our greatest enemies.

We must motivate ourselves if we want to preserve the gains that we have already made, and set the stage for future advances.

Remember the Bush error? Those were dark times, weren't they? Well, that's where the Republicans want to take us back to. They are bent on pushing through the exact same agenda as before. America cannot afford to go through that again.

To the practical activist, polls, focus groups, and pundits are worthless. The practical activist fights for what he or she believes in as a matter of principle, and doesn't choose to participate in a campaign based on whether paid prognosticators have judged it winnable or not. As the folks at the Rockridge Institute observed in their 2006 handbook Thinking Points:
Many progressives slavishly follow polls. The job of leaders is to lead, not follow. Besides, contrary to popular belief, polls in themselves do not present accurate empirical evidence.

Polls are only as accurate as the framing of their questions, which is often inadequate. Real leaders don't use polls to find out what positions to take; they lead people to new positions.
The simple truth is this: We cannot and will not succeed in reframing the debate if we are trapped in a mindset of defeatism. Americans vote their identity and they vote their values. What voter wants to identify with a political party that seems undisciplined, unfocused, and unsure of its own prospects? We have to define ourselves and tell our own story before it's too late. A prerequisite for doing this is rejecting the conventional wisdom.

The late progressive champion Paul Wellstone (whose position in the Senate is now held by Al Franken, Minnesota's junior senator) once said, "The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

If Senator Wellstone were with us today, he would undoubtedly be urging us to fight. He would urge us to be resilient. He would remind us that he would never have been elected without perseverance and determination.

As a candidate for Senate in Minnesota, he was written off, but he rejected the conventional wisdom and went on to win, despite being outspent seven to one.

We must do as Paul Wellstone did: Never give up.

A couple months ago, at the fifth annual Netroots Nation Convention, Van Jones reminded progressives what's at stake during his Friday morning keynote address:
There is a great danger that we're in, that we will go from despair — eight years of despair — to a couple months of hope, struggle to get to change, and then go all the way back to despair. Whether the country does that or not is largely in your hands. Whether the country sticks it out, keeps the hope alive, gets through the heartbreak, and finally gets to change, is largely in your hands.
It would be a travesty to squander what we've already won.
It took forty years — from 1968 to 2008 — for hope to become a mass phenomenon again in our country. Hope may be a renewable resource, but it sure takes a long time to replenish.

And so, we finally got the hope back. It's a little candle and it's flickering now. You cannot allow yourself, and your own heartbreak, and your own disappointment, on your own issue or your own cause, to let you be a part of blowing that candle out. You can't do that to America! It takes too long — it is too difficult — to get hope restored in a country.
When it gets harder to love... love harder, and keep hope alive!

This weekend, take a minute to share this letter — or at least the message it contains — with a fellow activist, or with a group of activists that you are part of. We must collectively rescue ourselves from becoming would-be victims of cynicism.

Future generations are counting on us.


Blogger Joe Brewer said...


Thank you for writing this inspirational and profoundly insightful letter. I support what you say 100%.

Fellow readers may like to know that the work of the Rockridge Institute continues here in Seattle through Cognitive Policy Works. We have published the entire Thinking Points book on our website to assist activists in their efforts.

It can be downloaded here:

In solidarity,

Joe Brewer
Director, Cognitive Policy Works

September 11, 2010 8:17 AM  
Blogger Steve Zemke said...

Good post. The election's not over until the polls close on Nov 2, 2010 and the last ballot has been dropped in the mail for a Nov 2, 2010 postmark.

If progressives haven't been forewarned by now that all of our recent progress is in danger of being stopped, they are either deaf or blind. The warning signs are all around us and we still have time to get out and prove the polls wrong.

The only poll that counts is the one that ends on Election Day. No one ever said it would be easy but if you accept defeat without putting up a fight till the last ballot is mailed, things will get much worse and you don't deserve to complain if you don't like what we get.

It's time to dig in and support our candidates who are in danger of losing without our support. It's time to fight for what we believe in.

The challenge is before us. Are you going to let the right wing run over us or are you going to fight back? Now's the time to get involved.

September 11, 2010 4:36 PM  
Blogger Daniel Kirkdorffer said...

I find the narrative that Republicans are going to sweep back into the majority in the House and that Democrats are doomed strange. What exactly have the Republicans done that voters would choose to put them back into power? The Bush mess was so colossal that it was always going to take decades to recover. Are Americans so devoid of sense that barely 22 months after they threw the bums out they'd hand them the keys once again? I'm not so convinced.

September 11, 2010 11:38 PM  

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