[Note: Apologies to email subscribers who received an earlier draft in their inbox. I accidentally hit publish too soon.]
One of the 2016 campaign’s most enduring lines—from either side—belongs to Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”
At the Democratic convention in July, it resonated as a counter to the baser appeals and divisive campaigning on the Republican side. Over the summer, it became a popular call-and-response at rallies. The First Lady would say: “When they go low…” And the crowd would shout back: “We go high!” By the fall, she tacked on a GOTV message: “How do we go high?” Crowd: “We vote!”
It was a good line. It worked for the campaign, insofar as good campaign lines matter, but the election is over. What does that line represent now?
In the transition period, we’re seeing new lows: a cabinet full of the uber-rich, many staunchly committed to undermining the agencies they’ll lead; white supremacists and conspiracy mongers staffing the White House; an attempted partisan power grab in North Carolina (which may no longer be a democracy); a spike in hate crimes after the election; a president-elect who seems disconnected from the reality and gravity of the position he’s about to take (which a majority of Americans don’t think he can handle); a dangerous flirtation with nuclear weapons policies; and, of course, the general tide of nepotism, conflicts of interests, and potential corruption that has everyone googling “emoluments clause“.
In the face of this, can we “go high” in the Trump era? The Democrats are coming to terms with being an opposition party at most levels of government. This is manifesting in a reconsideration of policy priorities, leadership elections, and some speculation about the next national elections.
However, the line was never about policies or even strategies. It was about values—a deeper fight that we need to have. Deciding what it means to go high requires answering a pair of related questions. First: What do we accept as the new normal going forward? Normalization is at stake in media framing and politicians’ rhetoric. Do we maintain our outrage over every norm violated and every absurd tweet? Or do we let some things slide, triaging to the most important?
Second: How does the opposition fight for what it believes in? Several pieces have been written about how Democrats need to fight like Republicans. Liberals and progressives are too soft, the argument goes; they need to go for the jugular and not worry so much about being criticized in the press or turning off their opponents’ supporters. The party rallying version of: “They’ll like us when we win.“
With those questions in mind, going high means a few things. Start by staking out the norms as we wish to see them. Not a reactionary defense of the status quo ex ante, under which corporate media was a bigger problem than fake news, politics was inaccessible, politicians were unaccountable, and executive power was too concentrated in the presidency. Those were all norms too; we should welcome seeing them smashed against the rocks. The forces that are reshaping these norms and their accompanying institutions won’t be held back. To stop Trump from channeling them toward his ends, we need to channel them toward ours.
That means fighting, but not like Republicans. It’s always easier to tear down a system than to build one up. Tactics that undermine people’s faith in democracy and government are a fool’s bargain. We don’t need a “Breitbart of the left” or better Democratic gerrymandering. We need checks-and-balances, as in the old days, but also 21st-century channels for citizen participation and open governance. We should always be pushing forward to what’s next and better.
Focus on substance, as it affects real people, not style. Attention is limited; Trump would be happy to distract us with shiny objects and fake controversies. We need focus. The line gets blurry when the president-elect takes to twitter, but a good guide: typos and exclamations (“Sad!“) matter to the future of the republic about as much as ill-fitting suits; what matters much more is the undermining of media institutions, citizens receiving death threats after Trump bullies them, or the dismantling of the social safety net.
Finally: Keep making progress where it’s possible. That means going local, extremely local, if needed. Organize in your congressional district around the federal issues (the Indivisible Guide has some good advice); track all of your elected officials at every level on social media, sign up for their newsletters, set up Google Alerts, and show up for their events; put every 2017 election date (including primaries) in your calendar now; and find the others who are already organizing in your area.
Most importantly: show up, in person. Solidarity is catalyzed by personal relationships, not retweets.