Why I Don’t Look For ‘Bloodbaths’

I tend to agree with Martin. The singular act of either passing or failing to pass a bill to repeal/replace Obamacare is not likely to mean a “bloodbath” for Republicans in the near future. But then, I don’t tend to look for bloodbaths in general.

Years ago, I decided to adopt the tortoise as my totem. That was primarily based on an awareness that both my personal and professional life had taught me that “slow and steady wins the race.” I had come to be skeptical of anyone who promised that big gains could be achieved fast. Personally that was a result of believing and then being disappointed. Professionally I saw that anything short of slow sustained progress could be just as easily undone as it was accomplished in the first place.

The visionaries I worked with professionally would often see a lack of commitment in my attachment to slow and steady. But the opposite was actually true. I came to value the idea of digging into the trenches to understand what specific strategies could actually advance our goals, lay them out in logical order, and then maintain my commitment regardless of what it took to get there. That is why I’ve always loved the poem by Marge Piercy titled “To be of use.”

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

That approach is less valued in our culture that demands quick fixes. But it is what many of the people who have been responsible for the greatest changes in our political lives have always known. For example, most of this country’s original suffragettes didn’t live to see the 19th amendment passed in 1920 and it was nine years from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to passage of the Civil Rights Act. That is why Tim Wise wrote this:

Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it’s worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it. And it is that knowledge which allows a strength and resolve few members of the dominant majority will ever, can ever, know.

This is also the kind of thing Marshall Ganz was talking about as the distinction between mobilizing and organizing.

Many Democrats confuse messaging with educating, marketing with organizing. They think it is all about branding when it is really about relational work. You engage people with each other, creating collective capacity. That’s how you sustain and grow and get leadership. That’s how you make things happen.

When it comes to our recent history, we tend to spend a lot of time talking about the dramatic victories Republicans won in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. We forget that the 2006 midterms were just as dramatic in the opposite direction. In other words, we’ve grown used to the idea of midterm shellackings. But as I’ve already suggested, dramatic swings in one direction are often reversed just as dramatically. I’m more interested in sustainable change.

I’ll also admit that slow and steady change is difficult to embrace in a political atmosphere where Donald Trump is president and both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans. The threats we’re facing are dramatic, which can lead us to think that only a bloodbath will demonstrate success. If that is not realistically possible, we can be tempted to give up hope.

Right now there is a very real possibility that Republicans might fail to repeal Obamacare. Working to accomplish that will not be simply about saving health insurance for 24 million Americans, though that alone is worthwhile. A failure on that level right out of the gate puts the entire GOP agenda at risk. That is the struggle that confronts us right now. Digging into the trenches to accomplish that is also about building a case for what might be possible in the 2018 midterms and beyond. That’s how slow and steady wins the race.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.