An Open Letter on the Day Before

To Whom It May Concern,

I have spent, off and on, the better part of the last 6 years trying to engage people in political discussion. I’ve especially tried it with people who don’t share the same beliefs as me, in an attempt to take the high road and try to understand their point of view. I’ve done it (counterproductively) on Facebook. I’ve done it (far too often) on Twitter. And I’ve done it frustratingly and haltingly in forums such as this. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve failed in my task.

I dramatically overestimated the appetite for actual engagement among people for whom politics is simply something of a flirtation. Whereas I have been in a long-term, occasionally abusive relationship with it for the entirety of my adult life, both professionally and not, for most people, politics is more casual. An every-four-years affair, that runs hot and heavy but never sustains itself for very long. As with those sorts of relationships, most people’s political engagement runs deep, but not very wide. When a major political event occurs – and election, passage of a major new law, a mass shooting, a court decision – I get my hopes up. I hear from people that they want to engage, they want to discuss, they want to be involved. But it never takes.

I have to admit, that approach has its appeal, especially as we all board the Trump Train destined for Parts Unknown together. There is a real allure for myself and other denizens of blue territory to simply watch the rest of the country burn for four years. To keep our own roofs wet, to hunker down, and to let the great expanse of Real America finally feel what they didn’t want to hear. I shut down my Facebook account and (momentarily) left Twitter, and can honestly say that aside from President Obama’s speeches and press conferences, I haven’t watched cable news since election night.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is I’m doing exactly what I’ve lectured people about for these last 6 years. Disengagement is easy. It’s why so many people do it. It allows you to avoid the rage-inducing way that politics is covered by our media, and talked about by your fellow citizens. It’s comforting not to have to know just how much ignorance is out there in the hinterland, to not be confronted with it by strangers on Twitter or, worse, by “friends” on Facebook. But is it what I’d counsel people to do for the next four years? Is it what I’d want my daughters to do?

Now, just to be clear, the other lesson I learned from these years of attempting to “reach out” to people is that there are opinions – lots of them – that don’t deserve to be considered. A lot of the postmortem from 2016 seems to revolve around how Democrats need to “understand” Trump voters and what drove them. I believe that only to a very small extent. Because while not all Trump voters are racist or bigoted, as someone on Twitter said, racism and bigotry wasn’t a deal breaker for them. Yes, Democrats need to alter their strategy. Yes, Trump won fair and square. But Democrats also need to recognize that there are still more of us than there are of them. A majority of the country rejected Trump, his ideas, and his followers. To go out of our way to reach out to or welcome into our tent the deplorable elements of Trump’s voting bloc because we think we need them to win an election would be a profound misstep, and one that would doom the party moving forward.

A while back, shortly after Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment, I wrote that I’d rather her lose while being honest about what we’re up against than win by ignoring it. I obviously didn’t want that to actually happen, but here we are, and in case you can’t tell from this stream of consciousness, I’m trying to work through exactly where to go from here. On a national level, obviously I hope Democrats learn what Republicans just did – that obstruction doesn’t necessarily come with a political cost. But they also need recognize that their leadership needs to look more like their constituency. The days of Sanders and Schumer and Warren are numbered, both literally and figuratively. This is the party of Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, and the Castro brothers, and Tammy Duckworth, and Maggie Hassan.

But while the national Democratic party needs to make some cosmetic changes, it’s at the local level where an overhaul is more urgent, and it starts this year. Off-year, local elections have not exactly been a Democratic strength recently. The drop off in turnout from presidential years to midterms and especially odd-numbered year elections put us at a huge disadvantage, but it is these elections where we need to start to rebuild.

Specifically, 2017 offers the first real test of whether living in a post-Trump America will finally spur the type of engagement that less tangible motivations have failed to bring about. First, there’s North Carolina, the battleground of the future, where Democrats were able to win back the governor’s mansion even while Trump was carrying the state and Republicans held on to their Senate seat. Thanks to some gerrymandering overreach by the Republican General Assembly, the entire body will be up for election in 2017, and while even a fairer map will likely lead to Republican control, Democrats have a real chance to even the legislative playing field a bit and prevent Gov. Roy Cooper from having to deal with a Republican supermajority.

But even more importantly, 2017 brings about a long list of mayor’s races in some of America’s largest cities. I really think that Democrats have to fight Trump from the local level, and many have already made it clear that they will do what they can to protect their citizens, especially the most vulnerable to Trump’s anti-immigrant proclivities, from federal actions that would harm them. In New York, where I live, the attorney general issued legal advice to municipalities to help them protect their immigrant populations, and many of the 300 sanctuary jurisdictions in the United States can only remain so under the right leadership.

In 2017 alone, Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, San Antonio, San Bernardino, Seattle and St. Louis, along with many smaller cities, all have mayoral races on the schedule. While many of these cities (all but Miami and San Bernardino, in fact) are in Democratic or progressive-leaning independent control, complacency should not be in our vocabulary after 2016. Not only do Democrats have to make sure they field their best candidates in those races – and in some places, New York included, that may mean-spirited primaries – but they have to be certain that they don’t hobble themselves in their ultimate goal: victory.

With President Trump’s inauguration, the time to debate 2016 is over. The time for purity tests and squabbling is over. It’s time to work. It’s time to win.

What part I have to play in that, I’m still not sure of. Part of me wants to get back at it, and write every day, and engage locally here, and make sure my kids are aware of what’s happening. Part of me is exhausted just thinking about it. But regardless of whether I have it in me to continue to engage, I encourage you to be stronger than me. Volunteer. Read. Write. Don’t worry about reaching out to people with whom you have nothing in common. Part of our rebuilding process has to be to reach out to each other. To consolidate effort.

And as always, if you have something to say, say it. If you need a forum, this one will always be open.

Charles Yeganian

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