Members Only | November 6, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Today Is Easy. Tomorrow Is Hard

If Democrats do well, liberals will believe they won. That's wrong.

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Liberals are feeling today a mix of dread and hope as they cast their ballots. For many of us, these midterm elections are about more than representation in the Congress, about more than an awful president. It’s about the character of our country.

Do we want to be a land of the free or of justice denied? Do we want to be a beacon of hope or shroud of darkness? Do we want to welcome the earth’s huddled masses yearning to be free or throw up walls to protect the rich and powerful?

For some liberals, it’s impossible to accept an America turning away from the wider world, seeking to establish a government not with the goal of securing everyone’s natural rights but of purging “impurities” from the nation’s blood and soil.

For some, today’s vote is way of restoring the balance lost after the presidential election, of righting a historic wrong, of making a statement: that 2016 was a fluke that does not represent the people as we really are. We are better than this, we liberals tell ourselves. It was only a decade ago that we elected our first black president, an event we were told that was never going to happen. And that was supposed to be the “post-racial” end of hate and bigotry. What has happened to our nation since then?

Well, nothing happened. We are the same country. We are better than this. We are worse than this. This is the way it has been for a long, long time. We are very good nation. We are a very bad nation. We are exactly the kind of country you’d expect from one founded on the principles of liberty and the practice of slavery. The question is which will it be today, and whether liberals are determined to fight tomorrow.

I fear today, if things go well for Congressional Democrats, will be a repeat, in obviously different form, of what happened after Barack Obama’s election. Liberals got soft. If not soft, then oblivious to what was happening. Many Americans grew enraged at the sight of a black man taking his place at the pinnacle of power. Many saw it as an act of betrayal. Many believed it to be a crime demanding punishment. Liberals thought everything changed. We laughed at them along with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But nothing changed. We were the same country we had always been.

Yet liberals failed to show up in the midterms of 2010 and 2014, sowing the seeds for the grave evils we now face. Yes, that’s painful, but I think it’s true. If we had shown up, maybe no one would have heard of the Tea Party, maybe Justice Brett Kavanaugh wouldn’t be. Liberals weren’t alone. Democratic leaders shrugged, believing history and demographics were on their side. We believed our spin. We were wrong.

We are paying for it.

We are hearing now a lot of concern about unity versus division. The president’s bigotry and racism are the source of division in the country. But the fact is, it’s a source of unity, too—among liberals fighting for a country they want to see.

The trick is getting liberals to fight when we are not facing peril. It’s easy to get people from one party to vote against the other party in power. That’s letting partisanship do its thing. It’s harder to get people to vote when their party controls the White House. Only self-directing individuals who see themselves as citizens, not just as mere partisans or (worse) consumers, but as a people working for the greater good in creating a country they can be proud of, are going to do that kind of hard work.

If the Democrats perform well today, liberals will believe they have won. But they won’t have, not really, because we will still be the same country we have always been, a country capable of great destruction as well as great nobility. Our democracy faces a crisis, but it might not be if liberals had had the habit of practicing democracy. Let’s be as critical of ourselves as we are of the Republicans and this awful president. Let’s make a country that’s not only democratic but republican in all the right ways.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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