Before I started writing speeches for Barack Obama, his words had already changed my life. On the morning of Jan. 3, 2008, I was a typical college senior, barely interested in politics. That night, I saw the long-shot presidential candidate address his supporters after winning the Iowa caucuses.
“Faced with impossible odds, people who love this country can change it,” he declared.
It was the electoral equivalent of love at first sight.
Over the next eight years, I was reminded many times that politics can be transcendent. I was in an Ohio campaign office when America elected its first black president. As a speechwriter, I met parents whose children’s lives were saved by Obamacare. The night gay marriage became legal nationwide, I stood with my girlfriend outside a White House lit up like a rainbow, surrounded by tear-stained couples of every stripe.
But here’s something else my time in Obamaworld taught me. Most of the time, politics is really dull. Entering data on the campaign trail, or parsing policy memos in my White House office, changing the country didn’t feel like magic. It felt like work.
That’s a lesson my fellow Democrats need to absorb as we chart a path forward in the post-Obama era. Obama was an exceptional figure in politics and — it’s implicit in the word — an exception. Democracy isn’t always infused with drama. If progressives want to regain power, we need to embrace boring.
Potential for lasting change has never been greater. On Jan. 21, millions across America participated in the women’s marches — the largest single-day protest in our country’s history. When Republicans in Congress have tried to strip health insurance from millions of Americans, advocates have flooded their offices with phone calls — an effort that continues today.
But the dismal election turnouts are a perfect example of the problem progressives face. How do we turn unprecedented energy into political power? We must figure how to protect our democracy, even on days when it feels like a chore.
It begins with the ballot box. Right now, we think of voting as a choice. Progressives must turn voting into a habit.
This is especially true in primary and down-ballot races. It’s tempting to skip them because they seem unimportant, or because both candidates are Democrats. (Full disclosure: I speak from experience here.) But small local elections help organizations gain strength for bigger wins. They build a bench of candidates. Those of us who vote religiously every four years have a responsibility to lead by example when the stakes are less high.
We also should recognize that far too many Americans want to participate but find themselves unable to. Progressives should make voting easier by pushing for automatic registration, re-enfranchising citizens returning from prison and reducing long lines at polls. We should also stop treating staying home as a legitimate form of protest. If you don’t like a candidate, vote for their opponent. If you don’t like anyone, write in Donald Duck. But either way, show up. The health of our democracy depends on it.
It also depends on having strong, qualified candidates. But in all but the most high-profile races, we ought to rethink what those words mean. We absolutely should expect our presidents to have charisma, and probably our senators and governors, too. But there are more than half a million elected officials in the United States. Not every state senator is going to be Obama. Not every candidate can be a star.
This can be particularly difficult for Democrats to accept. As the party that believes government can be a force for good, we have naturally high expectations of our leaders. But at times, we sound like the children wishing for a perfect governess in “Mary Poppins.” We want our candidates to be everything, and then we blame them for letting us down. When it comes to congressional seats or state legislatures, unrealistic expectations can stand in the way of progress. Sometimes, the best we can do is a placeholder who understands the issues and votes the right way. Sometimes, that’s good enough.
Finally, even those of us who disagree with conservatives’ ends can recognize that many of their means have been effective. Organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council push cookie-cutter right-wing legislation through statehouses, and the Koch brothers’ dark-money operation funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into political infrastructure. In a less broken system, these tactics would be politically harmful or in some cases prohibited. In the system we have now, they work.
There are, of course, ethical lines progressives must not cross. But we also have to recognize that the quickest way to fix our institutions is to win control of them. If we have to run a slightly more conservative candidate to flip a vastly more conservative district, let’s do it. And if the only way to elect a Congress that takes big money out of politics is by funding a super PAC, let’s fund it. There’s nothing noble about missing the chance to fight climate change, insure millions, raise wages for workers or protect law-abiding immigrants simply because we want to remain unsullied by the political process.
Not long after the marriage equality decision was handed down, Obama delivered one of my favorite speeches. “Progress on this journey often comes in small increments,” he said in the Rose Garden. “And then sometimes there are days like these, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”
It is easy to grow weary during the slow, steady days that define public service. But if progressives find a way to make the most of the promise those days hold, we will see far more thunderbolts of justice in the years to come.
David Litt, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, is the author of “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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