Now that the election is over and the votes have been aptly counted (or not, depending on who you believe), New Yorkers are hesitantly accepting the harsh reality that George W. Bush is still our president. It was not the result most of us wanted, and weeks after the election, a cloud of disappointment still darkens the city. But beneath our disillusionment and the uncertainty of the next four years, a reason for optimism lingers: we put up one hell of a fight, and it looks like it may just be the beginning.
For all the significant changes George Bush brought about over the past four years, the most lasting contribution of his first term may be his role in arousing the American public from a long era of political slumber. Around the country, millions of people came together to oppose the policies of the Bush administration and engaged in this campaign in a manner not seen in generations. They hosted house parties, sought out undecided voters and started organizations. Progressive groups like MoveOn.org and America Coming Together (ACT) attracted millions of members and raised, combined, a record-breaking total of nearly $45 million, most of it in small contributions.
In New York, a political awakening was felt from Brooklyn to the Bronx. It was evident last summer, when neighbors in Manhattan sold cookies shaped like vaginas in the (B)EAT BUSH Bake Sale to support MoveOn. And on August 27, when more than 300 families marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in what was expected to be a small event organized by one woman from Mothers Opposing Bush. And especially in the days and weeks before the election, when hundreds of New Yorkers piled onto buses and headed to Pennsylvania and Ohio in hopes that while a New York vote may not make a difference, a choice on how to spend a Saturday afternoon might.
Compare this to the rather quiet response to the disastrous 2000 elections. The Florida recount, the Supreme Court decision, and Bush’s oath of office were met mostly with silent reserve. Now that the tide has apparently turned, the question for today, of course, is now what? According to some blogs, the Five Stages of Grief include Drinking, Eating Chocolate, Organizing, Opposing and, finally, Building a Better World. Conventional online wisdom says we’re still stuck at Drinking, but when the hangover clears, then what? Will the level of engagement that flourished during the final months of the 2004 campaign survive the sweeping defeat of the election, and eventually emerge as an organized progressive movement? Or must we quietly accept that red is the new black, at least for now?
It depends, say many people familiar with the history of political participation in the U.S. “It may still be too early to read the tea leaves,” says Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Vanishing Voter: Civic Involvement in an Age of Uncertainty. Because progressives lacked a structured agenda outside of ousting Bush, Patterson explains, their ability to maintain the energy of the campaign may largely depend on Bush’s performance during a second term. “If the economy comes out of its doldrums and if the U.S. government can pull off the [January] elections in Iraq,” he says, “it will be tougher to mobilize large amounts of people.”
Others, however, believe that the political dynamic of the last year could ultimately emerge as nothing less than an organized left-leaning movement. This idea is being championed by individuals like Howard Dean, who is vying to take over leadership of the DNC, as well as organizations like MoveOn. “Our journey toward a progressive America has always been bigger than George Bush,” wrote organizers from MoveOn’s Political Action Committee in the week after the election. “Today, we’ll take a breath. Tomorrow, we’ll keep moving toward the America we know is possible.”
It may currently require a healthy dose of optimism to believe that the energy will continue, but the idea of a progressive movement is not a wholly idealistic notion. In many ways, this election wasn’t about the typical campaign promises on such matters as the economy and fiscal policy. In fact, it may not even have been about the candidates. Rather, this election embodied far more critical questions, like the way we want our democracy defined, and the role of America in a changing world.
Many organizations and individuals who fueled the movement to decide these issues were relative newcomers to the political playing field. For some, a presidential victory in 2004 was never a realistic expectation. Emily Wynns of Billionaires for Bush, an organization that employs satire and street theater to raise anti-Bush awareness, explains that her organization grew from a handful of chapters to more than 100 just eight months before the election. “The progressive movement—Billionaires included—has only been working for less than a year,” Wynns explains. “It would have been a gigantic victory to get the Presidency and while we’re all disappointed, I can’t say it’s necessarily surprising.”
Perhaps the most significant factor to lend continued momentum to a progressive movement is how incredibly divided our country remains. Despite a majority vote of only 51%, Bush has haughtily declared his reelection a “mandate” to aggressively forward his agenda and his recent Cabinet appointments demonstrate his growing unwillingness to consider viewpoints in opposition to his own. Events like this have instigated an immediate response. “There’s clearly so much work to do now that Bush is back in office, and while we’re tired, there’s no time to rest” says Beth Reisman, who heads the Brooklyn chapter of Mothers Opposing Bush. “The only difference now is we know a whole lot more about how the whole thing works.”
The role of organizations like these under the second coming of Bush II has yet to be determined, and at all levels it appears that the immediate goal is simply to regroup. Billionaires for Bush is holding a Billionaire Convergence in January to formulate an agenda, and Emily Wynns predicts it will include issues like Social Security privatization and the repeal of the estate tax. Mothers Opposing Bush, which was launched last April by women in Annapolis, Maryland, will become MOBilizing Mothers in January 2005 (thus keeping their nickname, The Mob), and will focus on issues affecting families and children. Similar efforts to reorganize are appearing among individuals who once wore the Kerry pin but did not affiliate with specific organizations. At a recent informal gathering in Park Slope, several women met to discuss how to channel their existing momentum into a legitimate path to change. The conversation included a number of areas of concern, such as voting reform, the environment and the future of the Democratic Party.
“While I can’t say we came to full consensus on anything,” says Laura Hansen, who hosted the meeting, “there was some agreement that a local focus—from working harder to support and influence our representatives, to running our own candidates—would be both doable and satisfying.” As the evening drew to a close and children beckoned, the group came to their only decision: they wanted to keep meeting.
With New York as blue as it is, the energy of the 2004 elections largely turned outward, but even here, there were reasons to fight. In Staten Island, Vito Fossella was reelected to Congress with 53% of the vote. A fierce conservative, Fossella is a strong supporter of President Bush. He has been assailed by groups like the National Education Association for his opposition to public education policies and the League of Conservation Voters for his stance on the environment. The ACLU also gave him failing marks for his positions opposing progressive civil rights legislation, including his support of a measure to prohibit gay couples in Washington, D.C. from adopting children.
New Yorkers who were active in this election may focus more attention on local politics, and there’s certainly a wide array of opportunity in the year ahead. City Council elections will be held in 2005, but the more pressing campaigns may be the mayoral election next November and the Governor’s race in 2006. Both those offices are, of course, Republican controlled and may become a ready source of attention for scorned New Yorkers. Even Mayor Bloomberg, who is widely believed to be Republican in name only, may be at risk of guilt by association.
“I’ve already started planning Billionaires for Bloomberg,” says Emily Wynns, an idea that first occurred to her during the 22 hours she spent imprisoned at Pier 57 after her arrest during the RNC protests. “To truly turn back the tide of the Republican machine will mean having an influence at the local level as well as nationally,” she says.
Beth Reisman of Mothers Opposing Bush would like to see that organization focus on passing legislation at the state level. Reisman says that the group will pay attention to federal issues like Supreme Court appointments, but she hopes to concentrate more fully on local efforts such as paid maternity leave and universal child care. “Maybe I could help get paid maternity leave in New York during my lifetime,” she says. “How great is that?”
Only time will tell if people like Beth Reisman will ultimately stay committed to the cause and help usher in a new era of progressive politics. For the moment at least, she and many others like her are preparing for the long battle ahead. “I feel depressed,” says Emily Wynns, “but I’m also more hopeful and optimistic than I’ve been in a long time. We had a few months to do what we could and we now have four years to really focus. I can only imagine what’s possible if we all just keep working.”
Molloy is a New York-based writer, journalist and has written for Architectural Digest.