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(The following was in response to a right-wing poster who had “steam coming out of [her] ears” over some left-wing commentator suggesting that “conservative values” was code for racism. She ended by saying that “we have to take back this country, or we are screwed!”)

You’re right Susan: “Conservative values” isn’t code for racism; “taking back this country” is.

The United States was born with slavery, fought a Civil War to get rid of it (against people who adhered to a very strong “states’ rights” political philosophy, much like a certain political faction of today), then endured another century of Jim Crow, which was abolished in a Civil Rights Movement confronting a new version of that extreme “states’ rights” perspective (much like a certain political faction of today), and has since fought an uphill battle to address the social injustices that remain embedded in our political economy, against a faction which clings to a strong “states’ rights” philosophy.

Or is it “liberty”? A great antebellum statesman wrote a tome called “Union and Liberty,” about the threat of federal tyranny to the liberty of minorities. His name was John C. Calhoun, the minority he was concerned about was southern slave owners, and the “liberty” that was being threatened was their liberty to own slaves. There’s a long tradition in America of using the word “liberty” to mean preserving the advantages of the few at the expense of the many.

You doubt that that’s what today’s use of the word means? Do you know the two peaks in the last century of the concentration of wealth, the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity? I’ll give you a hint: Both dates are notable for being immediately followed by the two largest, catastrophic economic collapses of the last century. And both dates are also notable for following a decade or two of the ascendance of a notion of “liberty” which favored unregulated, unchecked, predatory redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the extremely wealthy. Those two dates are 1929 and 2008.

And from whom, exactly, are you “taking the country back”? Blacks (except for the few who have become exactly like you)? Hispanics? Gays? Muslims? I see conservative threads insisting that every act of Sharia law somewhere in the world, or every court respecting the free exercise clause of the United States Constitution (which conservatives revere by crapping all over), is proof that we’re being taken over by it. And the uber-lame argument is that Islam isn’t REALLY a religion, but rather a plot for world conquest, which distinguishes it from Christianity by being spelled with fewer and different letters.

Probably the most infamous racist movement in 20th Century world history was one in which a whole country spiralled down into a belligerent hysteria over a group perceived to be “foreigners” living among them, who needed to be rounded up, detained in unpleasant detention centers, and removed, in order to preserve the purity of the nation. And it’s also well on its way to being an infamous racist movement of the 21st century, across an ocean and among people who take offense at being called “racist.”

Yeah, you keep right on “taking the country back,” because we sure don’t want it stolen by all of those “others.” Right?

Yeah, I get it. You mean “take it back” from the “socialists.” The people who helped ensure that the United States Constitution empowered Congress to tax and spend in the General Welfare (you know, the Founding Fathers?). The people who 80 years ago started to put into place the administrative structure and welfare state that has formed a part of the foundation of every single country that partook of the post-WWII explosion in prosperity. The people who passed an overdue Civil Rights Act that established that “liberty” and “property” don’t mean the right to discriminate against people on the basis of their race (a law that Rand Paul said he wouldn’t have been able to support). You want to take America back from the Americans who founded it, who fought for it, who have molded it, and who are it. That’s not “taking it back.” That’s just “taking it.” And we’re not going to let you.

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A reader’s comment on the Denver Post article ( 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.