By Peter C. Herman
Okay, we lost. We lost “bigly,” as President-Elect Donald Trump might say. So what advice do our favorite writers give us?
John Milton was in an even worse situation. Initially on the winning side of the English Revolution, he defended Charles I’s execution and joined the Republican government. But as things in England went sideways and pressure mounted to bring back the monarchy, Milton penned a desperate attempt to convince “a misguided and abused multitude” otherwise. It didn’t work. Charles II returned as England’s king, and Milton faced the prospect of being hung, then eviscerated for his political views. Instead, he was pardoned (to this day, nobody knows how) and went on to write “Paradise Lost.”
Milton’s reaction to “the experience of defeat” was, in part, to give up. “Tyranny,” the angel Michael tells Adam, “must be.” Never mind the world of political change. Focus instead on the “paradise within.” Never mind grand deeds like overthrowing a tyrant. Instead, accomplish “great things by things deemed weak.” In other words, retreat from the “dust and heat” of the political world, write poems, and tend one’s garden.
But at the beginning end of the Renaissance, Sir Thomas More gave different advice. Faced with the prospect of joining Henry VIII’s government, More staged an argument on political involvement in book 1 of “Utopia.” On the one hand, argues his antagonist, the sailor Hythlodaeus (his name means “peddler of nonsense”), joining a king’s court is insane since they will never listen to reason anyway. More responds that attitude is unacceptable because you have a duty to help, regardless of the outcome. And if you face a wall of opposition, you do what you can: “what you cannot turn to good you must at least make as little bad as you can.”
While More’s situation isn’t exactly analogous to the Democrats (and besides, things did not work out all that well for him), his basic point remains valid. Faced with a Republican president and a Republican Congress, we must try to make things as little bad as we can.
But that also means that to remain effective, Democrats must alter their ways, to adapt to the “play in hand,” as More says.
I don’t mean that we should, as Trump has done, lie, ignore science, abuse women, and encourage racism. Instead, we need to stop focusing on the people within our bubble and learn how to talk to the vast swaths of Americans who responded to Trump by voting for him.
For example, Steven Rattner writes in the New York Times an incisive takedown of Republican economic policy, showing how Trump’s proposals would “confer vast monetary gains on wealthy Americans while leaving middle- and working-class Americans—his electoral base, further behind.” But do the readers of the New York Times need to be told this? The people Rattner needs to reach are the disenfranchised blue collar workers in Pennsylvania. We need to find a way to take Rattner’s article to them.
The Democrats should host public forums in rural areas and small towns to talk with those who have rejected them. They should appear on local radio and local television stations. Clinton made a major strategic mistake, I think, by not making at least one foray into, say, West Virginia, to explain to coal workers that their industry’s decline is not just due to Obama’s environmental policies. Obama made the same mistake. And as Trump rolls back the Affordable Care Act, we need to be there explaining how the lack of health insurance hurts people, or how other policies benefit the 1 percent and the rest of us not at all.
Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the Democrats are now in exile. And while Prospero gets his dukedom back from his usurping brother (granted, with a little supernatural help), he learned from his mistakes, and we can be confident he will be a better, smarter ruler. Democrats need to learn from their mistakes, and start talking outside the liberal silo. Otherwise, we will be in exile a long, long time.
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