Point Austin: Keeping Hope Alive
Obama and Doggett on our renewed responsibilities
"Show up, dive in, stay at it."
– President Barack Obama, in his Jan. 10 farewell speech
Considering our current national predicament, it's not clear whether to weep, or to laugh to keep from crying. Tears were flowing for President Obama's moving farewell oration Tuesday night, but followed Wednesday morning by Donald Trump's incoherent press conference, cynical horse-laughs might seem the order of the day. Obama reiterated his resistance to the latter impulse, but during the next four years, laughter will undeniably be a refuge.
Nevertheless, it's not a luxury we can indulge very often. Earlier this week, I talked with Congressman Lloyd Doggett, and like the president, he insisted on our collective responsibility to keep working hard for progressive change, under difficult conditions. He acknowledged the serious dangers represented by Trumpism, but argued, "I think my pressure-point responsibility here, at the moment, is to keep hope alive – making our neighbors aware that we can't give up on our democracy, that we have to stay involved, participating, and presenting alternatives. That's much of what I'll be about here in Congress, much of what I'll be about, there at home."
Asked what he considers most worrisome of Trump's inclinations, Doggett pointed to his simultaneous ignorance of international affairs and his reflexive belligerence. "In addition to him doing something ill-considered," Doggett said, "as he did in relation to Taiwan and China [violating longtime U.S. precedent by directly contacting the Taiwanese government] – there's the possibility that he'll react to some insult from North Korea, and drag us into a conflict that good judgment would not have led us into. I am concerned … that his policies and comments with regard to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin could encourage Putin to engage in activities that really do get us involved in conflicts."
Doggett said he's concerned that Trump's continuing deference to Putin could encourage more Russian "adventurism" in Ukraine or the Baltic states. "Getting through the next four years without a major international incident is worrisome."
In the shorter term, the Trump regime has begun with a direct attack on health care, specifically the determination to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act. Doggett noted the lack of an actual GOP "replacement" to provide health insurance to the millions of Americans who acquired it under Obamacare, and to divisions among the Republicans, particularly in the Senate, over how to actually fulfill their threats.
"I think there is a huge gap between their ideological commitment to repeal it, and with what Trump and other Republicans have said they intend to preserve. … If they pursue that," Doggett continued, "it's clear that it will be very destabilizing, and have a big negative effect on the insurance market. But they have never been able to agree on what the replacement should be, and all of the replacements that I've heard Republicans advance would mean millions of people would lose their insurance."
That indecision provides another opportunity for the Democratic opposition to defend against the GOP attack, Doggett said – Republicans don't want to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. "The odds are against us; it's a big mountain to protect it. But the effects of what they're doing will be so much of a calamity for so many families across the country, that if we can engage the danger of their approach, I think we can reduce the damage, if not eliminate it."
If that seems an overly optimistic description of the prospects, it's of a piece with Doggett's (and Obama's) insistence that the main responsibility for Democrats and other progressives during this next period is to "keep hope alive." Asked for his judgment of the crucial factors that led to the Democratic defeat, Doggett answered that in an outcome as close as it was – Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote while losing the Electoral College – "any of the [speculative] factors could have made the difference."
Rather than rubbing the Democratic wounds, he argued, progressives need to go to work expanding the movement. "I think we need two years of trying to engage more people, to keep hope alive … [and] reaching out to people who might not agree … on everything. … But we don't need all the guns focusing internally, and focusing all our attention on demanding 100% ideological purity, and finding fault with one another. Let's learn from our mistakes, yes, but try to expand our base, rather than having a smaller, pure base."
It was much the same theme adopted by Obama – for activists to "dive in and stay at it," even as the near-term odds of success seem very long. "Hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves," said the president, and believe in your own ability to create change. Doggett has a similar message: "It's not like there's a magic way that 2020 suddenly changes everything. We have to build a little each time."
All we've got – as always – is each other.
See a full transcript of the Chronicle interview with Lloyd Doggett. Follow @PointAustin.