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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Coping with catastrophe: Some counsel and advice for weary progressive activists

As many activists know from experience, there's little that's more painful in politics than getting clobbered in an election by the other side. It sucks and it hurts.

Wonderful public servants, like Russ Feingold, get unceremoniously thrown out of office by an ungrateful electorate for no good reason. Promising challengers come up short and don't make it. The survivors are left in the minority, or in the majority, but without a clear mandate to govern.

All of that and more is happening as I type.

It's hard not to give into despair and turn into a cynic. It's hard to accept the reality that winning what seemed like the biggest and most historic presidential election in decades doesn't guarantee change or future electoral success.

The fight to raise America's quality of life is never-ending. It goes on and on. There's always another election, and that's why it's so important that there be a permanent campaign. It's easier to replicate success when the people and tools are in place to organize and mobile volunteers and voters. The vaunted organization that elected Barack Obama was somehow allowed to be dismantled a couple of years ago, to the detriment of the Democratic Party and the country.

But despair is a greater enemy than the right wing, for it can inflict far more damage. America's not going to benefit from more apathy and despondency. Our country's future is at risk, and we can't improve matters by giving up or giving in. We have to be resilient.

It sorta goes without saying that it's hard to be resilient.

I know how it feels to lose... I've seen this movie before. No, I wasn't around for the "Republican Revolution" in 1994, but I remember losing the Senate eight years ago, and I remember losing the battle to defeat the first Tim Eyman initiative I was involved in fighting (I-776) that same night. I also remember feeling miserable on Election Night six years ago, and taking some solace in Patty Murray's victory speech from the stage in the Westin's grand ballroom.

(That scene, as fate would have it, replayed itself last night.)

Many people become motivated to work in politics (either as an activist or in a professional role) after having been a part of a successful campaign. I wasn't. I was motivated to become more involved as a result of losing.

If Initiative 776 had been defeated in 2002, I might have drifted away from politics and focused on other things.

The passage of Initiative 776 was, in retrospect, the catalyst that led to the founding of the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI).

Losing that battle forced me to think more critically about achieving change. I ultimately came to the realization that defining my own identity and values, and going on offense to advocate policy directions based on those values, were more important than merely maintaining a permanent defense right wing agenda I was trying to stop. That's why I created NPI. I figured what was needed was a strategy center that could revolutionize grassroots politics using innovative research and imaginative advocacy. That's what NPI is, and does.

If every progressive activist's response to losing was to create or to help build an NPI, our movement would be in much better shape.

But we're not machines, and it's hard to convert our feelings of disappointment, fear, and anxiety into energy for doing productive things.

We can more effectively manage prickly feelings through greater self-awareness, but that takes time to acquire. And it's hard to pitch a long-term prescription for emotional health to a frustrated and dispirited activist.

Here's the good news, though: Most of us are pretty adept at making small changes to the environment we happen to live in. By doing so, we can soothe or eliminate some of the symptoms that are contributing to our unhappiness.

Here are some "shape the path" ideas for coping with catastrophe.

First and foremost... Turn off the television. Definitely stay away from all the cable news channels, even MSNBC, for a few days. Keep the television off completely if possible. In other words, don't tune in to watch anything. Not having the distraction of television helps the mind sort things out more quickly and ably. There's nothing that TV can tell you that you can't learn from reading progressive blogs or from your local newspaper.

Put on some good music. Audio therapy can help a troubled mind. I like to listen to Celtic music or smooth jazz to relieve anxiety. Of course, what's calming and soothing to one person may not be to another, so my guidance isn't to listen to any particular genre or artist, but rather, to pick some tunes that will relieve the tension, and listen to them while working or doing chores.

Go for a long walk (or bike ride). A breath of fresh air and exercise does a body good, and helps the mind to do some processing at the same time. In this day and age, we feel a lot of pressure to be doing something at seemingly every moment. It's important to set aside some thinking time, however. A peaceful walk provides for thinking time, while putting one's limbs to good use. Exercising has the power to simultaneously promote physical, mental, and emotional health all at the time.

Reach out. Call campaign staff and candidates, and thank them for their efforts. Assure them that they made a difference even if they didn't win — let them know that their hard work is appreciated. For people who actually work in politics for a living, losing a hard-fought race is a pretty depressing event. They'll appreciate the sympathy and the support. Friends stand by friends, no matter what.

Help build infrastructure. Finally, do something constructive for the long-term health of the movement... make a commitment to help build infrastructure. Right wing Republicans were able to bounce back from their losses in 2008 in part because they had idea factories, a noise machine, a leadership pipeline, and a bevy of civic engagement efforts at their disposal. We don't have all the institutions and tools they have. We need to build them so we don't have to play catch-up every single election cycle. You can help by volunteering for or donating to organizations like NPI, Progressive Majority, Democracy for America, ProgressiveCongress, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.


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