I'm a political junkie. I stayed up much too late on election night watching the returns and thinking about the impact of who'd won and who'd lost. By 3:00 am I was awake worrying about the impact of the national results. And yes, while I'm relatively happy with the results in California, I'm worried about the election results in other states and in on the federal level. I'm worried that we are in danger of losing our democracy.
With this election there is plenty to reflect on:
• We have hard work ahead to create jobs, yet much of the talk from the newly elected Senators and Representatives is about repealing health care. This is despite the fact that most Americans say they are happy that health care reform passed!
• Our social safety net is more fragile than ever. Yet people need it now more than ever. So where is the will to sustain it, much less strengthen it?
• How will we create fair and just immigration reform?
• How will we increase the number of elected officials who are women in DC? In this election, we lost ground.
In many of the elections around the country, we are finding ourselves further away from understanding one another, further away from being able to listen to one another. We are further polarized; the people who lost were often the moderates, the bridge builders. John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, has tweeted about not making any compromises. Is this what we want to teach future generations? Is this how we are going to solve our biggest challenges?
I ask myself how we got here. How have we allowed ourselves to become so polarized?
For two months we've been inundated by unprecedented spending on angry campaign ads, and an unbelievable number of robocalls. So much noise made it hard for people to examine their own hearts, minds and values for the answer to which candidates and which propositions would get them closer to their personal vision of the quality of life they held dear.
I believe that we all have a deep and abiding hunger to participate and influence our surroundings, to have a say in the matters that affect our personal destinies and the fortunes of those we care about. So how do we do that?
I am continually moved by the vision and resilience of our grant partners and their leaders. While vision was lacking in most of the campaigns, I'm fortunate to hear clear and positive visions (and victories) every day from those in communities, working on the ground to make their communities better. Strela Cervas, an alum of the Women's Foundation's Women's Policy Institute, is a coordinator with the California Environmental Justice Alliance. Working in South East Los Angeles, her group partnered with Communities for a Better Environment and helped lead the defeat of Proposition 23, the proposition that would have rolled back environmental regulations.
Crevas and her colleagues went door to door in Huntington Park and Wilmington, two heavily industrial cities, and talked to neighbors about the impact of Prop 23. These communities are among the hardest hit when it comes to environmental pollution. They are inundated by pollution from refineries and power plants as well as fumes emitted by diesel trucks, and heavy traffic on freeways. The result is that these communities have disproportionately high levels of exposure to chemicals that cause illnesses such as asthma, cancer, and reproductive harm If Prop 23 had passed, there would be less hope of reversing this bombardment.
The leaders I work with every day are able to think about their communities. They know their values and do the research and strategic thinking on what is most needed to make their families and communities healthy and safe. Then they take action.
We all have to be willing to think and do our own research on candidates and propositions. If we are going to hold on to our democracy we have to be able to see beyond the ads, often paid for by corporations. We have to get deeply involved in the decision making process. Progressive candidates lost, not because previous supporters changed their minds, but because supporters failed to turn out to vote.
Work on the 2012 elections has already begun. What if we each resolved over the next two years to engage more with the important issues? What if we have conversations with people who agree with us, as well as those who don't? What if we got involved in local campaigns, volunteered for community-based organizations, turned down the volume on the political ads and instead, we listened to and voted our hearts?
Living in democracy is hard work. But it's the work that matters most.