David Michael Miller
It’s well beyond the dinner hour. In a drafty room amid bad lighting, a handful of people sit around a battered table in old chairs that creak when their occupants shift in them. The committee is on item 29 of a 32-point agenda, so tantalizingly close to freedom they can almost taste it. But one member — it’s always that one member — needs to ask several more questions of the highway commissioner because next year’s pea gravel contract is just so very important. There’s an old saying in government: Everything’s been said, but not everybody has said it yet.
This is what democracy looks like. A properly humming civic engine runs quiet. It’s boring. And boring is beautiful.
Not so these days. There are lots of rallies and marches. People are storming the offices of their congressional representatives — even friendly ones. They are cramming into town hall meetings to scream and shout. Michael Moore tweets and folks race off to the Dane County airport to stand up for immigrants, no matter that our airport has flights from Detroit but not Damascus.
For a lot of people, an angry crowd is either an inspiring expression of First Amendment rights or a mob, depending on what it is they’re angry about. For me, loud, indignant speech always obscures and darkens the message, even when the message is something I agree with.
But I get a sense among some of my liberal friends that they enjoy their indulgence in righteous outrage. For those of a certain age it reminds them of their youth. For younger people the street theater makes politics seem exciting and maybe even a little dangerous. There’s a man with a gun over there. Of course, these days, with concealed carry and ever more liberal gun laws, there can be a man with a gun just about anywhere.
For political extroverts the era of Trump is horrible, but also wonderful. It gives them a chance to display their moral superiority and get some fresh air at the same time.
But while all of the Trump insanity is driving some to the street, it’s forcing me deeper into the library. I am burrowing into my vow to spend the entire year exploring little but Midwestern-born-and-bred literature, history and even recipes. Recently I made some amazing venison roasts from a deer I shot, gutted and dragged last November.
Up at our cabin I learned to split wood with a maul — Madison-based Fiskars makes the best one! When I’m done chopping I read Jim Harrison, the late, great Upper Peninsula writer, or I read Hemingway on Fishing, much of it about that Chicago boy’s adventures in the upper Midwest, or I read any of the other regional volumes I’ve collected on my slowly filling bookshelf.
No, I don’t think I’m becoming a survivalist, but still, it’s a curious reaction. The more my fellow liberals want to loudly protest, the more I want to just do something useful and tangible. The more they want to speak truth to power, the more I want to go looking for it on my own. Let power find its own damn truth.
I am not becoming more conservative, but I am turned off by what looks to me like the indiscriminate frenzy of angry liberals. The jury comes in on the first Tuesday in November 2018. Win a bunch of elections and it will all have been worth it. Lose and it’s all just a lot of sound and fury.
When I broached this topic a few weeks ago I got pushback from folks who said that the protests were about expressing resistance, electoral consequences be damned. I could not disagree more with that sentiment. For me it’s all about winning elections because I would rather see liberals making policy inside those big white buildings than protesting it outside of them. I would set aside half the liberal agenda if I could get the other half, because right now, folks, we’re getting 100% of nothing.
In any event, I have been thinking about organizing a rally of reasonable moderates who believe in compromise. We could get David Brooks to speak, followed by a panel of rumpled Brookings scholars moderated by Judy Woodruff.
We could even have chants:
What do we want?
Sensible public policy!
When do we want it?
After due deliberation!
Look, even though I do not do protests, I understand why they’re happening and why they might be necessary. But when citizens believe they can only be heard in the street and not in the hearing room, that’s a sign of trouble for democracy.
My fondest hope for American democracy is that it stop being so damned interesting as soon as possible. On to item 30.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at Isthmus.com.