T.A. Barnhart

This is the time in the political process when things go dry. Off-year, as we call it, even though this still is a year in the less insane sense. We just happen not to have much going on in the way of elections in off-years; in 2005, some school board races and not much else. Here in Benton County, there were numerous boards and commissions and such, most of which had no real races. If you signed up to run, you won. I won an election, sort of: I applied to be on the high school "site council," a group of parents that meet monthly with the principal and department heads to provide input on policy and such. Four of us applied, three won; I may have gotten four or five votes, I don't know. Appropriate for an off-year.

Off-years are tough for most political organizations, more so when they follow a year that was as huge as was 2004. The amount of energy given to the race last year was staggering, not to mention the money. Seven months later and many people have yet to recover; I still seem unable to truly accept that Bush is still president. People who came running down to Dem headquarters begging for something, anything, to do have now retreated back home to wait for the next big campaign, and that may not be until 2008. But politics has not stopped just because the counts have ended for last November; politics is 24/7 and many organizations are finding themselves grasping for volunteers to help with the multitude of vital issues coming at us like a runaway freight train.

The trouble, though, is not burn-out. I think the people who were active last year would continue to be active throughout the off-years if they saw politics as something good, something meaningful on a day-to-day basis. The problem is our perspective of politics, our definitions of it. Too many academics and cynics define politics in terms of adversaries, struggle, war; group against group for scarce resources. Power. Yes, political activity takes these forms far too often, but politics is much simpler than that.

Politics is about getting along. When two people are in a relationship, they have to figure out how to get along, whether it's who sleeps on which side of the bed, who does what chores, who gets the last cookie, or when not to bring up embarrassing incidents from the past. Add another person to the mix, and the goal is unchanged: How do the three people live together? Share things? How do they creative an environment that is productive for each? It's not nearly as easy as with two people, but it's pretty much the same process: discussion, experiment, compromise, error, forgiveness, and so on. Keep adding people and the process grows only in complexity, not in substance. Whatever size the groups of people involved, the basic question remains: How do we get along with each other?

And that pretty much sums up politics. If we've made it so complex and ugly that few people want to participate, then it is we who have failed. Blaming, and avoiding, politics (and government) as if it were a creature with a life of its own is nonsensical. We need to examine our own behaviors, attitudes, processes, and so on. What is it, for example, that we as active members of the Benton County Democrats are doing, or failing to do, that has reduced participation so dramatically? Blaming the calendar is easy and convenient; it is also wrong. If I'm  not mistaken, during this off-year we have a war going on, children are dying of starvation, the environment is being shredded, the courts are being packed with fanatics.... In short, the world has not stopped, and our lives are being threatened on a daily basis. We cannot blame politics, we cannot blame the people who misunderstand politics, and we cannot blame the off-year.

An off-year does give us on thing: a bit of breathing space. Yes, there is much to do, but the absence of major campaigns allows us to assess what we're doing and try some new things. But if we use that space to excuse a serious fall-off in participation, we are taking several large steps backwards from last year's progress. This is not an off-year; this is now. We need to create a political environment that excites people on a year-round basis. Politics needs to be as essential as a couple of friends sitting down to talk over a problem so they can find a good answer. Sitting down over coffee, chatting and joking, and coming up with a solution that works for them both. It really is that simple -- and essential.

  • forethought (unverified)

    The next big election is 2006. Democrats need to start taking congressional races very seriously, contesting every seat. We need to never have another cycle like 2002, where we basically got our asses handed to us while we weren't paying enough attention.

  • (Show?)

    It seems like this is the only time to retool strategies and visions. For ten years the Dems have been losing power; they were beaten rather roundly (at least nationally) in 2004. At the local level, the party networks have broken down--the level at which campaigns are won and lost. I understand Dean has made this a central priority--good!

    Then there's the big-level thinking that needs to get done. One of the central legacies of the GOP rise has been Democratic disunity and confusion. We have no foreign policy, and our domestic vision is limited largely to opposing GOP gains. Once the elections start, we won't have the freedom to consider these issues on their own merit. Candidates will begin to set the agenda, and the party will fall in behind. But elections are really the fruit of the process. The planting, nurturing, and growing happens between elections.

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