For 2017: Grit, Hope, and Cher's Feathers

by Robert Verchick

December 31, 2016

My, but the year 2016 has been a humdinger, a whopper, a real sockdolager. Donald Trump is measuring drapes for the White House. His allies in the Republican Party hold both chambers of Congress. At the state and local levels, Democratic influence is at historic lows. Did I mention there are more than a hundred vacancies on the federal court to be filled by a soon-to-be President Trump, including an open seat on the Supreme Court? 

I will not lie. In the weeks after the November election, my brain and body felt like an empty husk. I camped out on the couch grading papers, watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and talking to my cats. Later, I pulled out the books. I browsed through works by Desmond Tutu, read Tich Nhat Hanh's meditation on fear, and, of course, revisited Orwell. Not as fun as Swing Time, but it did help me sleep. 

Since then, we at CPR have been thinking about how to leverage our organization's capabilities during the Trump administration. After sighs and hugs, we've started planning a strategy to make our case throughout the country, at the national, state, and municipal levels.   

As we greet the new year, I offer these resolutions – based on some studied reflection and many conversations I've had with others – for those dedicated to defending and promoting progressive ideas in the next four years. 

"Pick Yourself Up. Dust Yourself Off." The line was made famous by Fred and Ginger, but I found extra meaning in those words after reading a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The week Trump was elected, many of my progressive friends crumpled up and hid indoors, as if even the experience of natural light might betray their solidarity with anyone less advantaged and more at risk. That sort of empathy is healthy and even desirable – to a point. But what Tutu learned fighting for racial justice in South Africa was that to be an effective advocate – for yourself and for others – you must be able to create a buffer between your current self and those ugly, despondent feelings. Those feelings are important because they allow you to know the stakes and care about others (including those in the nonhuman world). But that buffer – or detachment, if you like – gives you the ability to see the big picture and act with force and deliberation. So take that nose dive into wretchedness and eat that dirt. But after a week or so, it's time recover and again take flight. Others depend on your grit. 

Focus on policy, not personality. Oh, reader, I know this one is hard. Our incoming president comes off as rash and ridiculous. He is unprecedented and enraging, a walking trigger warning. Write this all down in your journal. Hang an orange punching bag in the basement. But keep in mind that not everybody sees him this way; and even among the many that do, Trump's personality is not a deal-breaker. What could become the deal-breaker is his implementation of policies that clearly contradict what most Americans want. For instance, a large majority of Americans (88 percent) favor immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Most Americans (59 percent) also say stricter environmental laws are worth the cost, compared with only a third (34 percent) who say such regulations kill jobs and hurt economic growth. Americans' views on such issues are not just at odds with Trump's views, they are at odds with the publicly stated views of nearly every leader in his party. This is important. You can organize a city-wide march against an outrageous personality (and many groups already have). But to sustain a multi-year, civically engaged resistance movement, you will need to focus on issues that affect people and their neighbors in concrete ways. Besides, when Trump moves on, the target of personality will be gone, but our issues will still need defending. 

Meet people where they are. As adorable as we progressives can be, let's face it, not everybody likes the communitarian left. Growing up in the Intermountain West, I learned this at an early age. What's more, it turns out that many large-hearted, hardworking people absolutely detest government subsidies and safeguards – even when they benefit disproportionately from those activities. These communities are not necessarily ill-informed, but they have their own value systems and circles of trust. And, yes, like everyone you know, they have social biases. (For more on this topic, pick up Strangers in Their Own Land, a fabulous book by Arlie Russell Hochschild). But we shouldn't write off communities that disagree with us. Instead, we should meet people where they are. We need to listen to their stories, understand their values, and do the gradual work of building trust. In this process, we will find areas of overlap, I guarantee you. 

Show up. I'm sorry to say the next revolution will not be tweeted. Or "friended," either. As with all effective political movements, you will have to show up in person. By this I mean attending the rally, clearing shoreline debris with the Waterkeepers, calling your lawmakers on the phone (which is what staffers pay attention to most), and much, much more. "Liking" Facebook posts and sharing memes is fine, but those acts don't nourish the social bonds needed to sustain long-term political change. And they are not as fun or as enriching, either. When you sweep a riverbank, you make friends and greet herons. And sometimes there are donuts. Please don't think you must say yes to every opportunity or agree with your colleagues on every point (I don't eat beef, but still eat fish – deal with it). Set a modest goal – one project a month, for instance. Choose something you can do with a partner or your kids. Bring others along on your journey. 

Take a pass on optimism if you like, but never lose hope. Optimism and hope are different things. Optimism asks you to believe that sun is more likely than rain. Hope asks that you never forget the possibility of sunshine, and that when clouds break, you are ready to make hay. Hope, thus, requires faith, which even Lou Reed said you need a busload of to get by. Recently, I gave a talk in Singapore about the dangers of climate change in South Asia. Afterwards, an Indian colleague gave me what I think was a compliment. "You talk about floods and mudslides," he said, "and the pneumonic plague. But you still keep a bon vivant attitude." The truth is my glass often flips between half-full and half-empty, and I'm fine with that. I know everyone likes optimists. Psychologists say they are happier and healthier. Columnist Thomas Friedman says they get more done. They probably have whiter teeth and straighter down-dogs, too. If you want to believe the worst is yet to come, I won't stop you. But have faith that good things are always possible – if only statistically speaking – and work like a soul inspired to make space for that change. If hope is the thing with feathers, you want to be Cher in a Vegas showroom. 

Pay up. This may sound self-serving, but it's true: The change you want to see in the world requires material resources. If you think truthful, investigative journalism is essential to democracy, you should contribute to the nonprofit news sources you value most and spend to jump a newspaper's paywall. If you believe that long-term change, at scale, requires smart policy analysis and fierce advocacy, support the institutions that do that best, including CPR.

During my election slump reading, I learned the Tibetans have a saying that "wisdom is like rainwater – both gather in the low places." If that is so, there must be fresh springs throughout our country just waiting to be tapped. Our job in these hard times is to find them … together.

Words to live 2017 by, and beyond. Thanks, Rob.
— Zyg Plater
Brilliant, thoughtful, insightful! Thanks for all of these! Perhaps this time is like Pandora's Box when after all the evils flooded out into the world...hope was there flittering about in the bottom! Hope! I have it now more than ever. Great writing! Happy and hopeful new year to you and the family!! Love from K.C.
— Rebecca Liberty
Great article with both main dishes and desserts included. I'd love permission to copy it and share it with folks along the way. Every journey begins with a single step/article. Thanks for the shoes.
— Penny Vederoff
Well said, Rob! Natalie Stephens posted your commentary on FB and I was lucky enough to stumble upon it. Keep it up! -- Ward
— Ward Morrison
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Also from Robert Verchick

Robert R.M. Verchick holds the Gauthier ~ St. Martin Eminent Scholar Chair in Environmental Law at Loyola University, New Orleans, is the Faculty Director of the Center for Environmental Law at Loyola, and is a Senior Fellow in Disaster Resilience Leadership, Tulane University. He is the President of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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