I started my last blog, The Spencerian, which was an entirely political venture, in 2005. It was only a couple of years after George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq War began, and a few months before the unforgivable bungling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was also a year after the Democrats were defeated in the presidential election by a man who only four years before that had lost the popular vote (take note, young Democrats in the Age of Trump). We also managed to stay a minority party in the Congress. It was a year and a half or so before the housing market collapse and the global financial crisis that followed.
Personally, I had also been involved in two losing campaigns in 2002: a governor’s race in Arkansas and a congressional race in Florida. I got my first taste of real, hard, bitter loss in Election 2000, but then again so did a lot of us.
So after five years of losing, I was ready to speak up.
I shuttered The Spencerian in 2013, and haven’t looked back. Blogging about politics was great and some days I miss it, but I doubt I ever changed anybody’s way of thinking. I doubt I moved any needles. Sure, my writing got better over time, the blog got better over time, but I don’t believe it changed any hearts or minds. The hard truth is, I don’t know that it made a difference for anyone but me.
Today, our nation finds itself in a situation that makes the early years of the George W. Bush Administration look like a trip to Disney World. And once again, I’m afraid blogging just isn’t going to cut it (although I don’t think those who do it well should stop).
What was most offensive about the Bush Years? Was it the bungled, ill-fated Iraq War? Was it the inexcusable handling of Hurricane Katrina? (“Heckuva job, Brownie!”) Was it the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib? The obviously idiotic marrying of tax cuts and escalated Middle East war which lead to the global economy in the ditch?
Was it the failure to save thousands of American lives on September 11 after dismissing a presidential memorandum that said “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.“?
The sum of these sorry parts added up to the eight awful years of the Bush Presidency.
Donald Trump has been in office a couple of weeks, and he is already redefining the words “failure” and “disaster” as they relate to presidential leadership. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it.
But I also find myself to be hopeful.
For more than a generation, we’ve had conservative leadership in the Executive Branch. It started, roughly, with Richard Nixon, followed by Gerald Ford. (I’ll get to Jimmy Carter’s brief intermission in a minute.) Things really took off for the conservative movement with their golden boy from the Golden State, Ronald Reagan. There were four years of George H. W. Bush, and that was followed by eight years of Bill Clinton, who was himself conservative.
Remember, I said conservative, not necessarily Republican. And Bill Clinton, who I love, who I worked for, was nonetheless a DLC, triangulating, self-proclaimed centrist Democrat, not by any definition a liberal or a progressive.
After that we had the eight years of George W. Bush, which we already covered, followed by eight years of Barack Obama. And there are plenty of folks who would argue that Obama was a conservative in the same vein as Clinton (expanded drone warfare, failure to hold big banks accountable for the mortgage crisis, immigration). It is even easier to make this case when you look at the Democratic base as disenchanted, diffuse, and disorganized to the point of being non- (or barely-) functional against, of all people, a reality show host and steak salesman.
Now, there’s no question the government currently being overseen by President Trump is, well, conservative. Or a some sickly strain of conservative, at least. I mean, there are actual white supremacists working in the White House, so I suppose that’s a safe statement.
Why does any of that make me hopeful?
Because politics swings on a pendulum. See, before Nixon, we had an era of populist and progressive politics that dated back to 1933 and President Franklin Roosevelt. (People smarter than me might argue that it went back further, to 1913 and Woodrow Wilson, the leader of the Progressive Movement, but let’s roll along with my take for now.) After twelve years of Roosevelt was Harry Truman. And following him, was one of the leaders of moderate Republicanism, General Dwight Eisenhower. And after him? Well, it’s John F. Kennedy, who said a liberal, “cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and to that end, he said, “I’m proud to say I’m a ‘liberal.'” Then there was Lyndon Johnson, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, the Great Society.
And the run that started in 1933 ended in 1968.
Nixon and Ford were next, and I think Jimmy Carter was just an anomaly at the start of the real conservative pendulum swing in America, a last gasp of that progressive, populist movement.
Trump represents the apex of the conservative swing. This is it. The system just can’t take it any further. We have nowhere else to go but back towards populism, liberalism.
But this cannot happen in a vacuum. It needs a well-organized party on the other side to foment that change. It needs leaders, sure, but it needs people more.
I have a lot of faith in the people. Seeing the number of people who turned out for the Women’s Marches around the country only validated that.
I have much, much less faith in Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C. Sure, I think they’re doing a fine job obstructing a heinous Republican agenda (to say nothing of the insane agenda coming out of the Executive Branch). But in order to move the needle in the direction it needs to go, they’re going to need to do more than just obstruct.
It’s a bit of a tangent, but I believe that real, progressive leadership in today’s America is diffuse throughout our urban centers. It lies with mayors in places like New York with Mayor DeBlasio, Los Angeles with Mayor Garcetti, Chicago with the (albeit troubled) Mayor Emanuel, Boston with Mayor Marty Walsh. It’s Mayor Jennifer Roberts in Charlotte. It’s Mayor Mike Rawlings in Dallas. It’s Mayor Libby Schaaf in Oakland. It’s Mayor Sylvester Turner in Houston. It’s Mayor Kasim Reed in Atlanta. And yes, it’s Mayor Buckhorn in Tampa, and my boss, Mayor Rick Kriseman here in St. Petersburg*
I have been in politics, government and the non-profit world my entire professional life. I have invested too much in it, professionally and personally, to stop believing in the efficacy of our governmental and political institutions (though I will agree both need reforms; that’s a post for another time).
When I started The Spencerian, I was also living in Virginia, working at the Parkinson’s Action Network. Duncan and I had moved in together. We wouldn’t be married for another year.
Today is different for me, too. Duncan and I have split up. I work for one of the best mayors in the nation**. And most important of all, I’ve got two great young kids.
This is no longer about writing into the ether to validate my own political views. It’s not about right or wrong. It is about nothing less than their future.
Politicians say it all the time, but it really is true: I want to leave this country and this world better than when I found it. It is why I keep coming back to politics, government and the non-profit world.
I used to think that was enough. But now I’m not so sure. The Trump Administration is like nothing we have ever seen. It is testing every boundary, every check and balance of our way of governing.
We fought George W. Bush’s Iraq War and achieved none of our stated objectives, notably destroying Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (there were none, in case you’d forgotten; Lord knows we’ve forgotten our outrage). Today, we get to deal with the fallout, which in no small part is mentally and physically wounded soldiers.
We suffered through Katrina and the aftermath, and today, it still serves as the poster child for distrust in government action.
We muddled through the housing crisis, and not one banker or Wall Street one-percenter has gone to prison because of it.
Today, we owe the righting (in large part) of our economy to our system. I am putting a lot of hope in my understanding of history and that system , in our politics, and in the people of our nation, and that will right ourselves once more. And if we’re lucky — and I’m right — maybe set the next generation up for a whole new deal.
*An excellent time to remind you that this blog is personal, is written on personal time and not during work hours, and is only reflective of my personal views, not necessarily that of my employer, Mayor Kriseman and the City of St. Petersburg, Florida.
**One more time: Personal blog. Not done on work time. My personal views, and is in no way reflective of the views of my employer.