"What Else Can We Do?"
A question for our times
I want to start out by thanking all of you who engaged with and commented on our recent post “In the Face of Despair.” We had hoped that a message that both acknowledged the dread, fear, anguish, and yearning of these troubled times and also encouraged hope and steadiness in response would resonate. And we are pleased that it did.
To keep the conversation going, today we are picking up on a specific line of reaction to that piece. Many of you took to the comments to express a concern we hear a lot from readers and that worries us, as well. Rather than put the thought in our words, however, we have chosen one of your responses from the “Despair” piece to lay out the stakes. It comes from Ellen Cecil:
“Mr. Rather, your observations on the state of our country are so elegant. They present exactly how I feel. What I want to know is what we can actually do to upset the MAGA Republican plans to overturn our democracy. I will most certainly vote for Democrats in every election in which I am allowed to vote. I will also spread, on social media, your messages, and those of others who can succinctly explain the dangers we all face. What else can we do? I feel so helpless.”
First, Ellen, thank you for your comment and the kind words. You identify several perspectives we know are widespread. While you found our observations of the “state of our country” to be “elegant” (again, thank you), you yearn for action. You recognize that you will “certainly vote,” and you will share news about the state of the country — including hopefully Steady pieces — on social media (which we encourage others of you to do). But you are still haunted by wondering, “What else can we do?”
It is that question that really is the singular query of our age. And as you note, Ellen, it is followed by a companion sentiment: “I feel so helpless.” You are not alone. Millions of others are with you.
As Ellen and others noted, we need to vote. And we must encourage others to vote, as well. After all, supporting pro-democracy candidates is the means by which we will strengthen and ensure our democratic institutions. But I recognize that this exhortation, while of course critically important, can be frustrating. You all are going to vote, I imagine. And most people you know will, too?
President Biden won the presidential popular vote in 2020 by more than 7 million votes and was the first presidential candidate to receive more than 80 million votes. That’s a lot of people coming out to vote. And yet, we still had a violent coup attempt and all the other ensuing destructive actions. Then there have been the frustrations of what a divided Senate didn’t pass. So vote, to be sure, but most of you probably want to do a lot more.
Politics, like almost everything else in the world, requires money. It’s a truism I know all of you understand. So people try to help by donating funds to campaigns they feel represent them. This is also important, but it comes with its own problems and frustrations. Many people struggle financially, such as those living on fixed incomes. How much money can individuals afford to give away to politicians? And we have seen in recent election cycles that some candidates raise eye-popping sums of money only to go down to defeat. For example, Amy McGrath spent more than $90 million running against Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2020 and received just 38 percent of the vote. Money isn’t enough to ensure victory. And in our current media landscape, with social media and viral messaging, it might be less important than it once was.
Political campaigns also run on volunteers. We imagine many of you who are mobile and live near competitive races have spent time organizing, knocking on doors, working phone banks, and sending postcard reminders to vote. But for some folks, partisan divisions and gerrymandered electoral maps might make you feel like no matter how much energy you devote, the results are preordained.
Here let’s return once more to Ellen’s comment, because I think there is something else at play. She writes, “What I want to know is what we can actually do to upset the MAGA Republican plans to overturn our democracy.”
Our very democracy is at stake. This conflict isn’t just about policy preferences on taxes, social security, or gun control, although those and similar such issues are all vitally important. Ellen is alluding to the fear, widely felt and completely warranted, that our democratic institutions are at risk.
Plenty of candidates currently running for office are spreading lies about “stolen elections,” even as they lay the groundwork to steal future ones. People already in positions of power are using gerrymandering, obstruction, and an endless pipeline of bad faith to undercut the will of the people. If these forces achieve even more power, America as we know it may be lost.
I wish there were a simple response that would vanquish this threat and the deep anxiety it engenders. There is none — but there are still actions we can take. As I’ve cautioned many times before, despair is exactly what the enemies of democracy want you to feel.
I believe the majority of Americans want to live in a country where election results are respected. I believe a majority want to see our democratic principles preserved and even expanded. I believe a majority would recoil at the sheer audacity of those who would rather undercut our electoral system than compete for the votes of the American people.
On the national level, it is vital that the story of what happened on January 6, 2021, is fully investigated and articulated. It is essential that there are consequences. It is also important that the press shine a brighter spotlight on the threats to our electoral integrity at the state and local levels.
We need to find ways to make the issue of our democracy a rallying cry. This effort should not be partisan. All who understand the risks and are willing to fight for our constitutional system should be welcomed.
With this imperative in mind, I want Steady to be a forum for sharing ideas and information around this topic. Please encourage supporters of American democracy to come here. It is vital that voters in battleground states and places with election deniers in power be particularly engaged. This is the struggle for our time, and I believe our country can not only continue as a vibrant democracy, but even be strengthened and improved by the test before us.
For encouragement and inspiration, I think it’s important to look at history. The nation we are now, as imperfect and vulnerable as it may be, has made tremendous progress by almost every metric imaginable toward greater freedom and democracy. That we are now at a moment of dangerous regression should not obscure the distance we have traveled from our founding.
For causes ranging from racial justice — including the abolition of slavery — to women’s rights, child labor laws, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental protection, and many other bold steps toward greater equality and inclusion, the energy for change has come from the community level and bubbled up to shake the political class.
Many of these movements began as quixotic dreams that few imagined would alter the foundation of the mighty nation. Often those who advocated for change were dismissed as radical agents or harmless quacks. Few of these social campaigns started with an awareness from, let alone the support of, a majority of voters. So what made the difference? Energy, activity, perseverance, and hope.
These core beliefs were often matched by another attribute that I am convinced was key to success: a determination that change had to start somewhere. Often that somewhere was at the community level. Most of the effective leaders of social movements I have witnessed understood that long before you could influence entire nations, you had to test your message and find your victories with local audiences.
I saw it in the great civil rights leaders I covered, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. They were relentlessly focused on specific campaigns in places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi. And as a result, they changed America forever. I saw this with the early activists bringing attention to the horrible scourge of AIDS. I have seen this with those pushing for gun control, and immigration rights, and mitigating our climate crisis.
Another aspect of these efforts was that while there were certainly political implications, they were focused on specific issues that needed to be addressed rather than people or politicians. They were rallying cries around a particular action, such as ending the war in Vietnam. To achieve these objectives meant electing politicians who would pursue them, but the politicians (or parties) themselves weren't the motivation. Considering these lessons can help inform what we can do now.
If you will bear with me, I would like to use a baseball analogy to help illustrate our message today. There is an old saying attributed to Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner (though some say the source was actually one of his teammates): “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs; singles hitters drive Fords.” In other words, the big bucks are for the guys who can hit the ball out of the park — which is what the fans want to see. Or “long ball” is better than what’s called “small ball,” the scrappy aggregation of singles, bunts, stolen bases, etc.
The reality is, however, that small ball can also score runs. While a home run can help run up the score, it also clears the bases. Small ball, in contrast, is a source of constant activity and tension. And it puts sustained pressure on the other team’s pitching and defense.
I see presidential politics and national elections more generally as home runs. Those victories are big, and everyone takes notice. Home runs can shift the destiny of a game in a matter of seconds. A presidential election can reorient an entire country. But you can also notch up wins by acting locally. Many of the forces pushing a far-right agenda today understand the power of school boards, election supervisors, and county officials — and they're harnessing it. These efforts must be contested.
But it’s not just elected politics, as important as that is. It is also helping people and causes directly in your community. It is volunteering to help feed the unhoused, or bring joy to children with special needs, or clean up a local park. It is working with your neighbors and convincing others to pitch in. It is exercising empathy and hope to create a foundation for broader change.
Success will also require patience and perseverance beyond this year's elections, and even the one in 2024. Regardless of immediate political results, the effort to preserve democracy must continue. Other movements that ultimately proved successful suffered stinging setbacks and dismal prospects. But the forces of progress prevailed in ways and at times few could have imagined.
Outrage can be an inspiration for action. Millions of Americans are already trying to help. And as I said in our earlier essay, I believe these forces for good represent the majority of people.
For those of you engaged in pro-democracy efforts, it would be a great service if you could fill the comments with ideas to help galvanize others.
What activities have you found helpful?
What groups do you belong to that bring you hope?
How do you encourage others to join movements for change?
And to quote Ellen once more: What else can we do?
There can be a feeling, as we doomscroll our way through another news cycle, that our world, in aggregate, is hopeless. Bad news fills our feeds. Indignation is constantly percolating. Anxiety and despair are never far behind. But perhaps it is as much a function of the technology as it is the times. What would it have felt like if we had had Twitter during the “Red Scare” or the Great Depression? I imagine it would have felt similar, maybe in some ways worse. But looking back now, we can see that challenges can be overcome. Progress is possible. But it takes an awareness of the dangers, and a determination to push back.
I leave you today with this final thought: Action can be the antidote to despair.