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Don't dare despair!

By Ravi Rajan

Americans who read the headlines on the state of the economy, the Iraq war, and corruption in the White House have every reason to be disappointed with the results of what has been appropriately described as the Apocalyptic Election. The specter of four more years and an escalating war on our environment and civil liberties is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any thoughtful citizen.

The seemingly abrupt extinguishing of the candle of hope has produced a wave of despondency, yet this is time to recommit, regroup, and galvanize the sheer potency of people power. Given the gravity of the issues that face the nation, the slogan for the moment is simple and compelling: Don't dare despair!

A quick glance shows the Democrats united as perhaps never before. Despite all the talk about a divided nation, states as varied as North Carolina, Montana, and Colorado awarded Democrats significant victories in the state legislatures even while looking elsewhere for the national ticket.

And let us not forget that barely two electoral cycles ago, Bill Clinton won Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia. To write off the South in what was an extremely close and complex election is to be needlessly knee-jerk.

If there is one thing to learn from the Republican success in this election, it is that people power does matter. Yes, we in the liberal Democratic camp tried hard, and we must congratulate ourselves on this. But let us face it, they did more. Our response, therefore, should be sustained activism--not cynical analyses that engender either paralysis or despondency. Every one of us matters, every little contribution counts. And we dare not despair.

The goals for the Democratic camp are obvious. We have to do our best to defeat the White House oligarchs as they attempt to push through their pet projects. We also need to reclaim lost ground in Congress and the Senate in 2006.

It is important here to remind ourselves of what is at stake. Put simply, the War on Terror is a guise to wage three other potent and deadly wars: against innocent foreigners, against the poor and elderly at home, and against the environment at home and abroad. The war in Iraq, the proposal to dismantle Social Security, the Alaska drilling proposal, and recalcitrance over Kyoto are daily reminders that there is work to be done and no time to despair.

Despite Bush's claims to the contrary, the election results do not indicate a clear mandate. Almost half the electorate voted against Bush in Election 2004 and a sizable portion of the rest chose his ticket in the context of a campaign framed by mind-numbing fear. It is therefore possible to forge new coalitions across party lines on specific issues, from Social Security to Alaska oil drilling.

Our task as liberal Democrats is to unite the people over these issues by building issue-based coalitions and thereby challenge, or limit the scope of, the mandate claimed by Mr. Bush. Those of us on the coasts must reach out to the heartland, just like our predecessors did during the Civil Rights movement. We have our task cut out and do not have the luxury of despair.

To this end we must first ensure that the issues that unite us are covered by the media on a regular basis. We must organize a relentless campaign to let editors know that we care about issues and demand serious, investigative reporting. Similarly, our representatives will listen if they sense that there is real and tangible public outrage that could upset their re-election chances.

While we regroup, we must also remember the historical examples of religious institutions acting on behalf of justice and fairness, most notably during the Civil Rights struggle in the deep South, and forge alliances with such institutions.

I have every confidence that a combination of Republican hubris and misrule, effective new strategy gleaned from hindsight, and some plain old-fashioned luck can again bring the Democrats to power.

I am also sure that as we speak there are many politicians plotting and hatching just such comeback schemes. However, we must ask whether our goal is to merely bring back the Democratic Party. I refer here to the constant refrain about the need to be centrists to win the electoral game.

The question, however, is: Should politics be based on values or on expediency? The Republicans have, over the past three decades, answered this question clearly and unequivocally and as a result appear consistent and principled, and to some, inspirational.

The liberal Democratic camp has consistently compromised and been complicit in perpetrating the excesses of globalization, the loss of jobs, and the despoliation of the environment. We are also guilty of tolerating, if not abetting, corporate scams on ordinary people.

The question we all need to ask is: "What do we stand for?" Do we represent the aspirations of common people and stand for justice and equity? Are we an alliance of people who aspire to the higher ideals of freedom and liberty for all?

If the answer to either question is "yes," then we should not be cowed by concerns of being on the fringes of mainstream culture. Let us remember that the Far Right was out in the boonies of popular culture but a couple of decades ago. For all our disdain, let us recognize their discipline, their organization, and their commitment to a set of core values and principles. Popular culture is not and has never been a static entity. On the contrary, it is shaped by blood, sweat, tears, and inspiration. We have our work cut out, and definitely no time to despair.
Ravi Rajan is an associate professor of environmental studies at UCSC.

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