What's Your Most Powerful Political Force? Your Memory

02/13/2017 01:25 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2017

More than massive protests or passionate posts, perhaps the most powerful way to repudiate the actions of any Administration—whether it’s Trump’s or a future president’s—is to remember.

To be sure, many progressives feel slightly soothed by seeing displays of discontent of today—from the minute attendance on Inauguration Day, to the unprecedentedly large Women’s March on Washington. But crowds are just a precursor to progress, not a guarantee of it. Channeling today’s frustration into something productive—say, changing the composition of Congress—requires patience, commitment, and more than anything, a memory.

To change the policies of any administration, we need to make a difference where it hits hardest: the ballot box. But in order to vote complicit legislators out of office, we need to remind ourselves, years from now, precisely how it feels in this moment. On Election Day 2018, we must ignore the headlines that offer revisionist history of this moment. We have to recall the frustration and fear of right now, before we grow desensitized by a constant barrage of controversies. 

Remembering modern history is what progressives failed to do in the 2016 election. In a year where the capabilities of government itself were effectively on the ballot—“Drain the swamp”—many voters forgot how Washington got so broken in the first place.

In 2010, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” McConnell may have failed to send the president packing, but he did succeed in creating the most obstructionist Congress in history. Literally. In terms of laws passed, from 2011 to 2015, Congress was the least active it’s ever been since George Washington.

Let’s remember that, during the same period, Republican Senators shut down the government, and as The Atlantic reported, “it was basically for nothing.” Rankled by the implementation of Obamacare, Republicans left the federal government unfunded for 17 days. Sure, it imperiled vital services for vulnerable people and furloughed tens of thousands of civil servants without pay. But the GOP was playing the long game. After the shutdown, Washington’s poll numbers tanked. Congress’ approval rating plummeted to an all-time low of 9 percent.

And then something curious happened. Furious voters, fuming at the partisanship and ineffectiveness of Congress, rewarded the very people who gummed up the gears of governance in the first place. Just a year after the Republicans shut down the government, they surged to power in the 2014 midterm elections. The GOP wrested control of the Senate from the Democrats. And in the House of Representatives, Republicans drove up a commanding majority, the biggest since World War II.

Why did this happen? Many choose to blame the partisan vitriol spewed by both sides on cable news. Others point fingers at the surge in dark money and Super PACs after Citizens United. Everyone’s concerned about the influence of “fake news” spread on social media.

But none of these accurately diagnoses of the problem. The simple truth is this: in the 2016 election, voters forgot what happened. In critical swing states, Democrats shrugged their shoulders and didn’t turn out to support Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, traditional Republicans chanted “Drain The Swamp” while re-electing the officials who broke Congress.

On both sides of the spectrum, voters reacted without reference to the recent past. As citizens, we didn’t tap into our most potent political asset: our memory of how things actually happened.

In light of President Trump’s steady drumbeat of scandals, it’s time to move beyond blaming external influences for our political crisis. It’s on everyday people to fix it at the ballot box. No matter the surge in negative attack ads, emergence of Russian propaganda, or infusion of Koch Brothers’ money, our votes are up to us.

When we enter that voting booth, we are presented not only with a choice of candidates—but also a choice of whether or not to tune out the noise. If you want your elected officials to be more responsive, effective, and able to compromise, then they need to pay a political price for their stubbornness. But it requires every disappointed citizen—Democrats and Republicans alike—to keep paying attention. To read reputable news sources well before Election Day. To ignore the sway of salacious headlines, and trust that our memories are what should guide our votes.

In quiet conversations across the country, friends of all political stripes are asking each other the same question: “What can we do?” To be sure, donating your time, volunteering with charities, and joining demonstrations are positive. But if you reject Washington’s style of governance—no matter where you stand politically—the first and most important step towards fixing our broken government is to remember precisely how it got this way. 

Informed by these pesky things called facts, we can serve our democracy as better citizens.

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