Once upon a time, there dwelt a family in a small town in northern New Hampshire. There they lived in community, some recent immigrants and others Mayflower types, farming the thin soil and trying not to get buried in the snow. But it was a good life, even though it was hard, and visitors to Landaff always commented on the tightly-knit village and its friendly people. The family shrugged off these comments with customary mountain skepticism, saying “yeah, maybe…”
One day, the eldest scion announced that he was leaving Landaff. He’d heard the call to ministry, and would leave soon for divinity school. It was nearly time for the harvest, and the family would struggle to get its food into the barns before the snows began to fly. “This is a calamity!”, cried the family. “How could you leave us?” But the son could not be swayed, and soon he left. “This is the worst thing that could happen to us!”, they moaned around the kitchen table. Grandmother said, from her chair in the corner, “yeah, maybe…”
Word got around. People in small towns take care of each other. Before long, there was a knock at the door. A crowd had assembled. Someone came forward, a bit awkwardly, and said, “well, it’s like this. We know you’re short. We’ll help.” Together, they got the family’s harvest into the barns just as the first flakes began drifting down from the mountains. “We are the luckiest people around,” said the family, “to have friends who will help us like this.” Grandma said, “yeah, maybe…”
Later on, a man in Europe capitalized on social tensions and seized power, claiming the arc of history pointed clearly toward his nation’s people on the top. They needed more room to live, and they planned to take it from others. They said “work will make you free”, even as they locked people up and murdered them. World leaders decried that nation’s actions, and people across the planet said it was the worst thing they’d ever heard of. Grandma had died years back, but it had become a tradition for the eldest member of the family to respond with “yeah, maybe…”, so that’s what Grandpa said.
It wasn’t long before nations around the world got involved, and there was a war. A war to stop the atrocities, a war to stop the grab for land. A war to prevent murder. People across the globe signed up to fight. Eventually, they won—and nations agreed to create a global organization in which all countries would be represented, with the express purpose of protecting human rights and preserving peace. People said it was the best thing that had ever happened. Grandpa said, “yeah, maybe…”
You can see where this is going. We have a human tendency to see calamity or jubilation in the events around us, to think that whatever’s happening right now is either the best or worst of all possible worlds, depending on how it fits our views.
This isn’t wrong, but it’s not the only way to look at things.
Yesterday, there was a national election. A lot of people feel its result was cause for celebration; others now cower in fear. Many think we’re finally going to get back on track as a nation, and many more think we’re going to fall off the rails entirely. We’re all right, and we’re all wrong.
I felt that George W. Bush’s policies were disastrous, and that the legal ramifications of his presidency will continue to reverberate for decades. It was the worst thing, so I cheered Barack Obama’s election. A President who shared my values… and who made history by being the first black man elected to that office! The best possible thing.
But Obama’s record has been deeply troubling for me. We’ve seen an expansion of war, a failure to lead on a lot of things that matter to me, and an inability to get much done with a gridlocked Congress. The worst possible thing.
Andrew Cuomo was elected in New York and promptly moved to legalize marriage equality without regard for the gender of the partners. The best possible thing!
Andrew Cuomo has also moved to legalize fracking statewide, and has gone on the record saying that he wants to “bust the monopoly” that public schools have on education. He’s starved our schools, cut funding again and again, violated ethics rules, shut down his own ethics commission when it started investigating him, and done a host of other things that make me furious. The worst possible thing.
But because of Cuomo being in office and doing so much that we, his electorate, hated, we have started to have a real movement toward multiple parties and meaningful choice. I got to vote for Zephyr Teachout in the primary for governor, and she came damn close to winning. I voted for Matt Funiciello in Congress this time. I had the opportunity to vote for candidates who actually shared my values and ideas! The best possible thing!
Last night, people who shared my values got pretty soundly voted out of office around the country. It feels, manifestly, like the worst possible thing.
I’m really concerned about a lot of things in our nation right now. Attacks on women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. The question of how—and even whether!—we should all contribute to educating children. What that education should look like. Fights over whether corporations should be allowed to speak with dollars in the political arena. Our disastrous inaction on climate change that means the planet will burn, and the earth become unlivable, unless we steer a new course. Enshrining one religion in power where the Constitution demands a plurality. There’s a lot to worry about.
But last night’s elections will spur tomorrow’s activists. There’s always more to do, more organizing to do, more direct actions, more change needed. Without a goad, people don’t sign up to do the work. Nobody builds a United Nations unless there’s a world war—and while that doesn’t come close to erasing the bad stuff that happens, it does remind us to keep working. It’s the work we do now that turns disaster into “yeah, maybe…”
So let’s work.
One last thing
Our national flip-flopping of power is a consequence of the two-party system. This bipolarity is caused by the endless swapping of power between Democrats and Republicans. When you only have two choices, you’re either happy with the present regime or you vote for the other side. And eventually it flips, and flips, and flips.
When we have politicians who’ve made a career out of shutting down “the other side”, when it’s a campaign promise to do nothing once elected, we’re never going to fix this within the existing system. It remains an abusive relationship between two embittered fighters.
Voting for Democrats who turn out to be Republicans (I’m looking at you, Cuomo) is heartbreaking. I’m sure it’s the same for people who see their conservative candidates act like liberals. But this problem is largely created by the two-party system because it trains us to think that all of us can have things exactly our own way… about half of the time. And that when we don’t get our own way, we have to seize control again so we can reset things.
There isn’t much place for compromise in that system. And that means that politicians will always focus on undoing what was done before and making it impossible to change back.
I’m tired of that. Are you? Let’s start voting like it, and demanding multiple parties that can actually work together, compromise, and build something that lasts. The best possible thing, from the worst possible thing.