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A reader’s comment on the Denver Post article (http://www.denverpost.com/politics/ci_16245276) about my friend John Flerlage’s race against Republican incumbent Mike Coffman in CD 6 got me thinking about the title question. The reader wrote that the journalists at the Denver Post looked like fools for pretending that Mike Coffman and Diana DeGette had credible opponents. Which raises the question: Should the post ignore opponents in races where the odds are heavily against them? What should the threshold be?What criteria should be employed? Should news media acknowledge major party (i.e., Democratic and Republican) candidates regardless of the odds they face, but not long-shot minor party or independent candidates? Should the news media acknowledge all candidates, including every self-annointed outlier who manages to declare and file?

If any candidate merits comparable attention to any other just for declaring and filing, that invites a very high noise-to-signal ratio (i.e., the reporting of a lot of news that isn’t news worthy). But if major party candidates challenging incumbents in what are considered “safe seats” don’t merit attention, then the news media become complicit in an anointment of the incumbent, signalling through inattention that the challenger isn’t worthy of anyone’s consideration. As I wrote in response to that Denver Post reader, we don’t call elections before they’re held based on a projection of the odds; we actually hold them, and do not assume they are ever irrelevant. In fact, the news media should report on any candidate that represents a significant faction of the population in that jurisdiction, as major party candidates always do, and as others sometimes do.

Democracy is not just, or even primarily, about who wins elections. This is something that almost no one seems to understand, and least of all many of those who think they are the most politically savvy (i.e., political bloggers). Democracy is about a far more complex set of interrelated dynamics, of which electoral outcomes are just one facet. It is about the right of each to express their will in the political arena, regardless of whether that will is likely to prevail. It is about organizing, and communicating, and competing, affecting minds and hearts. And it is about minorities -some admirable, some reprehensible- fighting to prevail over majorities -some admirable, some reprehensible- against overwhelming odds, and over long periods of time.

The people whose ancestors were brought here in shackles to serve as chattel faced long odds every step of the way to emancipation and then, after another century of egregious institutionalized discrimination, civil rights protections. But that doesn’t mean that they, or their aspirations, were irrelevant until they won, or even until they had a good chance of winning. The outcome of that struggle depended as much on those who kept it alive through long generations of defeat as upon those who were eventually victorious.

Democracy is about a competition of ideas, of aspirations, of visions for the future. When a long-shot candidate runs in an almost impossible to win race, win or lose, that candidate, if successful, advances the ideas and aspirations and visions for the future that he or she holds dear. That candidate provides a rallying point for those ideas, those aspirations, those visions for the future. That candidate is the symbol of their persistence against the odds, of their unwillingness to die just because they are unpopular. And, if and when the tide ever turns, and that minority ever becomes a majority (or persuades a majority), or even gains enough numbers to influence policy in their district, it may, in some small measure, be due to the efforts of those previous candidates who couldn’t win, and didn’t.

Like John Flerlage, I’m running in a district (state house, in my case) in which the odds are overwhelmingly against me. I hate having to pretend that I don’t know the odds, and, in fact, rarely do. The numbers are worse in my district, by a considerable margin, than they are in any other that the Democrats have recently won against the odds. In 2010, it  really is all but impossible for me to win (2012 may be another story). And I’m running with that knowledge, not against it.

I’m running to move ideas, to move the center of gravity of my district, to sow the seeds of an eventual victory, and to cultivate the ideas and values that I so passionately believe best serve our collective interests. I’m not running just to engage in an empty ritual, going through motions that are not the best way to use my candidacy to maximum effect just because “that’s what candidates are supposed to do.” I’m running because by doing so, along with blogging and speaking and meeting people and engaging in various on-the-ground efforts, I can have a meaningful and positive impact on the distribution of beliefs and understandings both in my district and beyond. I’m running because unless those who are facing impossible odds continue to face them, reason and justice can never prevail against those odds. 

And that’s what democracy is really all about.

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