Democracy Alliance Blog / From The President / November 14, 2016

Opening Remarks from Gara LaMarche at the Fall 2016 DA Conference

On November 13, Democracy Alliance President Gara LaMarche opened the DA’s fall conference by addressing the election and rallying attendees for the fights ahead. Below are his remarks to the DA Partnership.

It may seem a cruel way to begin these remarks and to open the conference, but my thoughts take me back to the last time we elected a new President to succeed a two-term incumbent. Eight years ago, Kelly Craighead and Rob McKay invited me to speak at the opening dinner of the DA conference just days after the historic election of 2008. It was a heady time, with a young, barrier-breaking President, a veto-proof Senate majority, and a House under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi, all borne into power on the wave of support from what some were beginning to call a new American majority, prepared to address the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and pick up the unfinished business of the New Deal and the Great Society.

I was then President of the Atlantic Philanthropies, and we had already invested heavily in HCAN, the grassroots organizing campaign that would become critical in the fight for what became the Affordable Care Act. Many of you were in the room that night, and I said what I believed with every fiber of my being: that we stood at the crossroads of history, with the investments we had made together in building a progressive infrastructure coming to fruition, and I did not want to look back on that moment and lament that I did not do everything possible to make it a transformational one. It is a pledge many of us made together. And we accomplished a lot, particularly in those first two years – all of which is now in mortal danger.

“An ignorant, dangerous, lying, crude, insecure, narcissistic, fraudulent bigot and misogynist received almost half of the votes of the American people and is now a few months away from following Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama into the Oval Office.”

Here we are together again eight years later, gathering in a haze of anger and grief and asking ourselves how it came to this. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have acted with extraordinary grace and bearing in playing their parts in the acceptance of the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power, but I don’t have to. An ignorant, dangerous, lying, crude, insecure, narcissistic, fraudulent bigot and misogynist received almost half of the votes of the American people and is now a few months away from following Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama into the Oval Office. It is a catastrophe that threatens everything progressives have built, the foundations of our democracy, and the stability and safety of the world. I regret some of the hyperbole I have sometimes used in past elections. But it is no hyperbole now.

What, then, do we have to do, coming together here in a community of shared values that are under the most serious assault in our lifetimes? I believe we have to pledge together, with even greater passion than in 2008. But this time it is three pledges: to resistance, to reflection and to rebuilding.

First, resistance. We cannot enshrine the normalization of a man whose election was cheered on by the Ku Klux Klan, who brags about sexual assault and has a growing list of women who have accused him of it. That is not something to let bygones be bygones about. Some activists are in the streets, and some of us may join them, now, or as the need arises, as it will, in the next four years. But all of us need to reach deep into our wallets in the coming months and years to fund the defense of our most cherished laws, institutions and rights: abortion, religious liberty, freedom of the press, the Affordable Care Act, financial and environmental regulation, voting rights, Social Security, Medicare, marriage equality, the Supreme Court … it is a daunting list. The advocates and groups we support will need every resource we can muster to help them wage these battles. And in some of them, I think it is important to say, we will find allies across the ideological spectrum, for many principled conservatives stood strongly against Donald Trump in the election.

This is not just about policy, but what happens in our neighborhoods. This is about basic human rights and the safety of our communities: Muslims who may face stepped-up surveillance and screening by Trump’s Department of Homeland Security .. gay couples whose marriage could be voided by a Supreme Court skewed far right by several Trump appointments … women in a world where rank misogyny posed no obstacle to the Oval Office … Latina students who fear their parents’ deportation … or any Black or Brown person, already at risk for police violence, who must walk the streets in a world in which the worst bigots have been emboldened by the election of a President they see as one of their own.

Fighting back is the first pledge. We have no choice, and we have little time to waste. We will not win many of these battles – the country will look different, in disturbing ways, by the time the next election comes around. But we will be defined, and the future of our country will be defined, by how we act in this crisis.

The second pledge is reflection. We must look into our own house, and that’s something we also need to begin to do this week. You don’t lose an election you were supposed to win, with so much at stake, without making some big mistakes, in assumptions, strategy and tactics. The DA is not the Democratic Party, or the Clinton campaign, or a SuperPAC or message consultant or polling guru – we support civil society organizations that work on elections, organizing and policy. But all of us who are involved in civic engagement and mobilization for elections need to ask ourselves hard questions in the coming weeks. It is a process we should not rush, even as we gear up to resist the Trump administration. It must take place without recrimination and finger-pointing, whatever frustration and anger some of us feel about our own allies in these efforts. It must be guided by data, and we should be prepared to learn and hear things that may challenge our own dearly-held theories. We should not overreact – more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump on Tuesday, and as we will hear more about tomorrow, there were bright spots in the states where progressive measures triumphed and emerging and diverse leaders were elected to office.

Just for starters, a source of great frustration to me, and to the organizations which work with communities of color, is that this cycle showed yet again that we are still far short of the goal, as our friend Rashad Robinson recently wrote, of “investing in voter engagement programs and political constituency-building between election cycles [to] giv[e] Black-led – or any community of color-led — engagement and mobilization efforts a chance to take off.” Black, Latino and Asian voters are tired of too little, too late investments. And tired of not having the safety and security of their communities front and center on the progressive agenda. Time is running out for us to reverse that dynamic.

At the same time, Donald Trump’s appeal exposed just how estranged many white working class voters are from the elites of both political parties. What I said at the outset about Trump himself does not apply to many of his voters, who opted for a man they knew was unfit and hateful in spite of that because they wanted to give a resounding “fuck you” to the forces that have left them, too, behind. That Trump is a con man already filling his administration with K Street lobbyists, and will let down and alienate his new base before long doesn’t mean that what he was selling wasn’t seductive to many voters because of our failures to assure an economy that works for all. Surely there is room in a New American Majority for these voters, too. The DA has strongly argued, borne out by the Obama coalition, that we can win elections when communities of color, women and millennials are motivated and turn out. But if the interests of communities of color AND white working class voters could be aligned, a bigger, stronger New American Majority is possible – and, I would argue, necessary for the kind of country we must build. This is not an either/or proposition.

It is no surprise that in the big tent of the Democracy Alliance, despite a strong shared core of values embodied in the 2020 Vision we forged together – we have significant differences about some policies and strategies. Having honest discussions about these is not a sign of progressive weakness, but of our strength. We need to be listening to a wide range of voices in this process, and one of the things we are asking you for tonight and tomorrow, as you sit and talk together about what happened and how to go forward, is who you think those people might be. We’ve asked four of the most thoughtful leaders in our community to share with you in a little while tonight what they are thinking, but we should also be looking far and wide to make sure that what we are hearing is not bouncing off the walls of an echo chamber. This process starts over the next few days, but as we did in our 2020 Vision Process, we aim to continue it in the next few months around the country.

And finally, our third pledge must be to rebuilding. As you will hear tomorrow, this election, despite some bright spots locally, left us in the lowest point in the states in almost a century. This has profound consequences for policy and the daily lives of people in the thirty states in which the right holds all the chambers of power, just as it will now at the federal level. Realizing this well before the debacle of last Tuesday, the DA made rebuilding power and winning in the states a central plank of our 2020 Vision. We lost some ground last week, despite some bright spots in places like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and North Carolina, where the steady work of smart coalitions of donors and advocates supported by our State Engagement Initiative paid off. But Democrats now control only 13 state legislatures, and if they lose one more, we will lose the ability to block Constitutional amendments in the states. That is extremely sobering.

So even as we work to defend what is under attack from Washington, rebuilding and winning in the states is even more urgent than it was before Election Day, so the 2018 election for us began last Wednesday. We have a strong set of plans in the works and tomorrow John Stocks will announce a major donor gathering in March in DC to launch it and to attract hundreds of other supporters to the effort.

I wrote a short piece earlier this week in which I talked more personally about how the election of Donald Trump is affecting me. I have been working for human rights and social justice for over forty years, and it now seems I may spend the remaining years of my public life in opposition, and indeed in fierce resistance to those who have won power in America. I started at the ACLU in the Nixon era, with surveillance and wiretapping of the critics on its “enemies” list. I was at Human Rights Watch in the Reagan Administration, where the U.S. propped up murderous regimes in Central and Latin America. I was at the Open Society Foundations in the Bush years, where we fought the Patriot Act and resumption of torture, privatization of Social Security, right-wing Supreme Court appointments and huge tax cuts that redistributed wealth upward.

“It is time to get back up, put on some boxing gloves and hit back.”

And now, Donald Trump. It has been a tough week, but I drew strength yesterday morning from the Instagram post of the 13-year old daughter of friends of ours, who spent election night in tears. I want to close with it, because it will give you hope, as it did me:

“I am done mourning. It is time to fight. It is time to get back up, put on some boxing gloves and hit back. We are ready to make the changes we want and stop the ones we don’t. There are going to be people that will say sit down, stop fighting, let the adults take care of it. But just because we can’t vote doesn’t mean we can’t have as much say in what happens in this country. Our voices are a little bit harder to hear because we aren’t of age yet, but all that means is we have to scream louder. The following is a line I will say in four years: Donald Trump was good for one thing and one thing only, he subconsciously raised a generation of kickass activists who know how to fight back.”

Thank you.