In the Midst of Uncertainty: Know Hope

The thing that frustrated me about working (ever so briefly) in politics is that the energy one expends is likely to be utterly in vain.

At least, that’s what it often feels like in the moment.

You go all in on a cause or a candidate–knowing that losing is always a possibility–but, at least for me, it was sort of hard to deal with the moment when that possibility became reality.

But what I didn’t recognize then, as today’s US Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act suggests: politics is all about the long game.


I worked for Howard Dean‘s presidential campaign in 2003 and early 2004. He was the first politician I’ve ever supported because he spoke to my gut. Sure, I agreed with him intellectually on most issues, but that’s not why I moved to bloody freezing New Hampshire for him. No, Governor Dean was visceral: a man unafraid to get angry when there was a hell of a lot to be angry about.

But his anger wasn’t pure pathos–it was born of logos, of a deep understanding of what was going on the country, of the idea that the fuel of the Bush Administration was fear, pure and simple: take the fear away, put reason and hope in its place, and the White House would flip.

Man, I loved HoHo. I loved that he gave me a cause through which to transform years of fury at Bush and Cheney into positive, productive action.

But, of course, the very vitriol and fire that I loved in the guy is what helped to spell his defeat.

HoHo lost big, and lost early. Senator Kerry got the nomination, the turnout in November was huge–and Bush was still reelected.

So. For a long time, I felt like my efforts for Dean–small in the grand scheme of things, but incredibly significant in my life–had been in vain.

But a funny thing happened in the next election cycle, in 2008: this dude named Barack Obama:  ran for the Democratic nomination on a platform of reason and hope, and what do you know?

He WON! overwhelming, in no small part because of his campaign’s use of social media and the internet, of organizing voters electronically *and* through face-to-face interactions–working from a model based on the work of the Dean campaign four years before.

Howard Dean lost, sure. But he laid the groundwork and the infrastructure for Obama–a politician better suited for the national stage, better at channeling his anger, more in touch with the kairotic moment than HoHo ever was–to win.

You need patience to work in politics. You have to have an eye for the future, for the long game. For, as the President likes to say, quoting MLK, the “arc of history.”

I was thinking about this today in the midst of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the absurdly named Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which forbid the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. This prohibition had the effect of denying same-sex couples the financial benefits of marriage (filing taxes jointly, being exempt from estate taxes, etc.) and of installing inequality into the law: hetero marriage was established as a protected class, thus in effect negating the concept of same-sex marriage within federal law.

Yes, the Bug Bladder Beast of Traal theory of governance at work.

But consider the timeline:

September 1996: DOMA is supported and signed into law by the last Democrat to sit at 1600: Bill Clinton. Not your finest moment, Bubba, especially when paired with the also recently deceased (and equally terrible) Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for the US armed forces.

Legal attempts to overturn the law begin almost immediately, and continue into 2010.

  • December 2010: A provision in the annual Defense Reauthorization Act provides a process through which the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy can be repealed by the Defense Department. The DRA survives multiple filibuster attempts on the part of Congressional Republicans and is signed by President Obama, paving the way for the policy’s repeal.

…some might be heard to say.

  • February 2011: The Obama administration announces that its Justice Department will no longer defend DOMA in court from the many legal challenges put forward against it. While only Congress could repeal DOMA and render it null and void, the Justice Department’s refusal effectively ended enforcement of the law–a roundabout way of neutering DOMA while it officially still sat on the books.
  • September 2011: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is officially killed by the Defense Department. America takes a fumbling baby step towards this kind of equality. There is much rejoicing.

  • March 2011: Congressional Republicans freak the fuck out about the Justice Department’s refusal to defend DOMA. They dispatch a conservative legal team–the Anti-Justice League–to defend the law in federal court. This exercise costs the American taxpayer over $2 million dollars over the next two years. Awesome.
  • March 2013: The Supreme Court hears arguments in United States vs. Windsor, which raises the question of DOMA’s constitutionality.
  • TODAY, June 26, 2013: DOMA is finally killed. Let’s hope the bitch was salted and burned.

All of this to say: you need a particular kind of patience to work in politics, to labor for what you see as justice. You have to be willing to work every day knowing that the fruits of your labor may not bloom for many years; hell, that you might not even be around to smell the flowers, when they do.

It’s like Michel Foucault says in The Use of Pleasure: “as to those,” he writes, in “for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet” (7). I am grateful–always, but especially today–that there are so many smart, dedicated, and kick-ass people who thrive on apprehension, who translate uncertainty not into fear, but to hope.

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