In this wrenching week, I have been thinking about something my former boss Paul Wellstone liked to say: “You’ve got to start a fight to win a fight.”
An animated professor-turned-senator from Minnesota, Paul’s willingness to be confrontational, and his refusal to back down from a fight he believed in, was central to his political and organizing strategy. It’s a lesson that the progressive movement and everyone who holds dear the values of equal justice, democracy, and basic compassion can take to heart this week: we can’t win a fight we’re not in.In 2002, he took a risky stand when he announced his opposition to the Iraq War during a tight reelection campaign. I remember that day in our senate office. After his floor speech, our phones started ringing off the hook. He knew that his position might put his job at risk, but the majority of the calls turned out to be calls of support. “I don’t agree with you,” they said, “but I appreciate that you took a principled stand.”
In this election our country took a devastating blow, especially so for women and racial and religious minorities. Many of our fights going forward—from the Supreme Court to abortion rights to immigrant rights—will be uphill battles, to say the least. But principled stands in support of our values, in support of fundamental rights, in support of a country where everyone is safe from violence and hate: these are more important stances than ever. If we don’t show up, the fight has been lost before it started.
To be clear, this fight is unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime. Our next president has made it known that he does not respect our democratic norms. He has incited violence against protesters, threatened to open up libel laws in order to go after journalists, proposed a ban on all Muslims, casually declared that he might not accept the results of our election. He made a man who promotes white nationalism and anti-Semitism his chief strategist in the White House. This is not business as usual: it is a crisis for our democracy and for our values.
But it also means that the work to protect those values took on a profound new importance overnight. We can’t win a fight we’re not in.
Paul put himself in the middle of a number of fights that seemed impossible, and which sometimes turned out to be doomed efforts. In the mid-1990s, as public assistance programs were being gutted and every other Senate Democrat running for reelection got on board with the cuts, Paul was resolute in his opposition. He told a journalist, “You could stick a gun to my head, and I’m not going to vote for a bill that will hurt children.” Despite the fact that most of his constituents favored the cuts, his numbers shot up in the polls.