Confessions of a Yellow Dog Democrat

These are not the most positive feeling days, as we contemplate the possibility of an imminent Republican/Tea Party take-over of Congress.

But I can understand why many Obama voters are disappointed. I am too. I think he would have been much more successful with what are now termed/tarred as "liberal" policies. I was depressed that in his October 27 appearance on The Daily Show, he came across dry as dust, he seemed to have forgotten who his target audience was in that context. If this was the chance to energize the youth vote, they may have gone to sleep the earliest since grade school. Not one political comment on how stupid it would be to vote back into power the "folks" most responsible for getting us into this mess (and by the way, Mr. President, PLEASE retire the word "folks," it was a Bushie expression, time to reinstate "people" as the word to talk about people). And since September 11 in particular I've continually been annoyed at how much Democrats have been running scared.

But I'm what's called a "Yellow Dog Democrat." In a nutshell, that means I'd vote for a yellow dog before I'd vote for a Republican (see contrast to so-called "Blue Dog Democrats," officials elected as Democrats but who support policies that are increasingly in line with Republican ideology even as Republicans are being pushed further to the right by the minute -- if you check the Wikipedia definition of the "Blue Dogs" scroll down enough to see the link to the Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats who blocked Civil Rights legislation in the '40s and '50s).

In recent years my primary contact with people in their twenties and thirties has been as a teacher of MFA students. I've grappled with their seeming disaffection from politics, except for the blip of excitement over the election of Barack Obama. Gradually it's occurred to me that the kind of interest that I have in politics may be as hard for them to relate to, having bought into the idea of the failed 1960s revolutionary left and seeing more and more of the cowardice of the so-called left and the Democratic Party, as it is for them as artists to really be able to inhabit the meaning and languages of painting when they are relentlessly exposed to and told they are in an irreversibly post-medium and trans-disciplinary world. Meanwhile the entropy of too much information (as in art the entropy of too many choices of potential styles and media) has affected their ability to filter and trust sources or dedicate themselves to one belief position. It would seem that my yellow dog views are as quaint as my love of painting.

Some background on my Yellow Dog Politics: my first political memories go back to the Army McCarthy Hearings. We didn't have a TV so my parents borrowed one in order to watch the hearings. (Refugee parents who had seen what ordinary political repression and fascism could lead to, who cared about history and politics, with family friends affected by the black list). For more on this time period, see Emile de Antonio 's news-footage only documentary Point of Order, (1964), (available here) and also Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney's excellent movie on this time period, seen through the lens of the courage of Edward R. Murrow. One of my first sharp political memories is from the beginning of the 1960 campaign: watching TV at the home of a neighbor, a sharply witty lady, elegant, well-mannered. When Richard Nixon appeared on the screen, she hissed at the screen image, "I hate you." That got my attention.

The summer I was fourteen, I watched both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party conventions, gavel to gavel. Republicans: white guys, boring yet scary, racist, super anti-Communist: Barry Goldwater's campaign Motto: "In your heart you know he's right." Democratic comeback, "In your guts you know he's nuts." Democrats: fascinating characters, the Shakespearean tragedy of Robert F. Kennedy's tribute to his brother, and down and dirty confrontation about civil rights between racist Southern Democrats and civil rights pioneers, including Fannie Lou Hamer's testimony before the Credentials Committee , a riveting moment of poignant political courage.

Other childhood memories included the reverence that my parents' generation held for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Wikipedia isn't enough to get a sense of the incredible accomplishments and scope of Roosevelt's career. Wonderful sources of information about Franklin and Elanor Roosevelt are Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor: The Years Alone, by Joseph Lash and Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933 and Vol 2. The Defining Years: 1933-1938, by Blanche Wiesen Cook, as well as the excellent PBS American Experience documentary, F.D.R. When people voice the need in our time for someone like F.D.R., these sources give you an idea of what that means.

When you listen to F.D.R.'s fireside chats (text only for subject of each one) or his famous speeches, you can't help but ask, Why can't this guy be President? What we need now, and for my younger friends, one of the reasons why when I got the chance to vote I registered as a Democrat and proud of it. Please listen and don't think about this as the past, but as inspiration for the present.
FDR on his foes: "I Welcome Their Hatred": "We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob."

Isn't this what we've wanted to hear Obama say to his enemies and to Wall Street? The election would be a breeze for him and Democrats if he had. Alas, to explain to my friends who are valiantly unwilling to listen to the slightest criticism of Obama, it is against the ground of F.D.R.'s clear, lucid, simply instructive, and yet upbeat voice, that I myself find Barack Obama surprisingly underwhelming as a communicator and as an educator, which would be so important right now. And even in this wacko atmosphere we're in, I think such a voice could still be effective. It is the change that we so desired.

The F.D.R. clip is one of a group of political speeches that have been as important to my development as a person in the world, therefore not just to my party politics, but to my work and my approach to writing, as any art work.In recent months, I've been collecting links to some of these moments of bravery, clarity, and eloquence in the sphere of American politics. There are many more.

For example, as an antidote to today's most disgusting idiocies, I really recommend listening to Martin Luther King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech, which he delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, a year exactly before his assassination. It is brilliant, intellectual, historic, piercing.

Or more extraordinary, Robert F. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. The most extraordinary thing about this speech, other than the precarious modesty and danger of the physical situation, as well as Kennedy's courage and presence of mind in a hauntingly shocking moment, comes at the end:

My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget/falls drop by drop upon the heart,/until, in our own despair,/against our will,/comes wisdom/through the awful grace of God.".... Let us dedicate to ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

What politician today would either be able to quote Aeschylus or would respect their (inner-city African-American) audience enough to think they could appreciate and respond to poetry? It is frequently noted that Indianapolis was one of the few cities in the US that did not experience rioting that night.

And Teddy, let 'em have it, on Healthcare in 1978 and in 2008. "UNIVERSAL COMPREHENSIVE COVERAGE"

And it's not only historical figures in the good old days: Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) on Health Reform, in 2009

So I'm still for the party of FDR, JFK, RFK, LBJ, of Ted Kennedy, and also of Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Sam Ervin, and Barbara Jordan. All dead you say? Well then I'm for the party of Senators Al Franken, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and of Russ Feingold of Wisconsin (fingers crossed he wins on Tuesday). I asked my Facebook friends to name some current Democratic Senators, Representatives, or candidates that they admire or that they just think are decent and doing as good a job as they can, and I am grateful for their responses which so far include Senator Feingold, and also Senators Bernie Sanders (OK, Independent but votes with the Democratic Caucus) and Patrick Leahy, both of Vermont, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Representatives Ed Markey of the 7th District of Massachusetts, John Lewis of the 5th Congressional District, Georgia, and 1st District CT Congressman John Larson. I hope you will add your own favorites in the comments. I'm not saying they're perfect, but they are pretty damn decent, are more likely to vote for civil rights and for the interests of the middle class and poor than for corporations despite the necessicity of corporate money, they are even occasionally courageous, and generally not bats#!t crazy. Even if I say that I think Obama was as dry as dust on The Daily Show given the audience he was trying to reach, I'll still take dry as dust, intelligent, thoughtful, professorial about policy and committed to some concept of political cooperation and politeness even to the point of timidity any day over lying, race-baiting, drown the government in a bathtub, super-money fueled bats#!t crazy (see incredible rogues' gallery of Republican Tea Party candidates).