Welcome to the Arena! We’re Not Just Marching Anymore
If I were to pinpoint the single worst failure of the idealists of my generation, it is that we did not believe that the “System” could be changed from within, so we didn’t try.
We knew, young as we were, that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was demonstrably, gut-level true. If we had no other information, we had Watergate, Nixon and all his King’s Men. It’s fascinating now to hear the anti-heroes of that fiasco, like John Dean, reflect on the antics of the Trump administration. Their ruminations contain a higher level of thinking about the value of integrity than they found within themselves at the time. While they may believe Nixon to have been a teddy bear compared to Trump, they know he wrote the book on situational ethics.
We dropped out of the political mainstream—I’m talking about my progressive, liberal, radical friends, and I. Some of us were determined to contribute politically, becoming activists, journalists, professors, working in non-profits. But few of us ran for office.
So that’s a long way round of explaining how it was with great excitement that I attended the Arena Summit.
The Arena is a new organization that hosted its first summit in Nashville last November. A friend who went described it as the “the only thing that gave me hope and roused me out of my post-election despondency.” On her recommendation, I attended the second summit, held two weeks ago in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Arena takes inspiration from an unlikely source—a quote adjusted for our times, from Theodore Roosevelt, “The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…” Interestingly, this quote actually begins with the thought, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” And there you have it—a different approach to Progressive thinking, and I wanted to see it in person.
The conference was designed for people considering a run for public office—as mayors, state senators, governors, or national congress people. Others aspired to work on Progressive campaigns, putting their talents as filmmakers, graphic artists, writers, organizers, or even clerical volunteers on the line for the cause.
There were about six hundred people at this Arena. Those under age 25 questioned that they might be too young to run, but none who attended thought they were too old—okay, I was in the one percent with gray hair.
No one there looked jaded or tired. The enthusiasm was like a champagne fountain—heady, bubbly stuff. Not to say I suspected anyone of being a lightweight, far from it. These were people who were planning on dedicating their lives to something good.
My favorite presentation was given by Katherine Poindexter, who runs Campaign Greenhouse. A funny and vibrantly intelligent women, she focuses on helping people who are beginning their political careers, running modest campaigns, usually for the first time. She stressed the value of failure—get the experience, get name recognition, even lose strategically. Let people know who you are. When you dust yourself off, you may find the voters you only came close to swaying last time have turned into your best and most ardent volunteers. We won’t build a new Rome all at once, but we might get small towns, state legislatures, congressional districts, and maybe even some US Senate seats made over in the 2018 midterms.
Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was one of the keynote speakers. A Democrat, he embodies one of the Arena’s key ideas: Go Home!
“Go home” is a message to most all those who have moved from where they were raised to major metropolitan areas, seeking congenial environments, only to wake up in November and find their country in the grip of a kind of madness. Those who are in a position, by temperament and circumstance, to rise to this challenge know their greatest impact can be made in the places they know best. Pete Buttigieg was Harvard educated, a Rhoades Scholar, and a veteran of the War in Afghanistan by the time he decided to return to his hometown. He knows what’s important, where some of the bodies lie, and he comes across as a smart and friendly guy who’s the kid next door. And while in office in 2015 he came out as gay in Mike Pence’s state, which is quite an achievement in and of itself.
The summit was a one-day conference, and I am sure I speak not only for myself when I say I could have used at least half a day more. Too many of the general sessions were conducted on a speed-dating model, each speaker having but five minutes to outline their expertise and strategies. The breakout sessions all looked excellent, the problem was they were concurrent over the afternoon; too many voices, too little time.
The point here is that we could have used more depth. The presenters were high-level politicos, many drawn from Barack Obama’s administration and/or Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I wanted to hear about their strategies and experiences. In one session, for example, there was an excellent riff on whether one should mount a negative campaign. For many, including me, our response was a pearl-clutching “oh, no!” But the voices of experience said yes, go for it if you have the stomach and no skeletons in your own closet—who is going to point out your opponent’s faults if not you? I wanted to hear more about this sort of thing—stuff I wouldn’t have considered before.
I also longed to be back in college, sort of. I wanted insight from someone smarter than me about which battles might prove most crucial to the future of this country. Should I stick with women’s issues, or must I roll up my jeans and wade into environmental concerns? I love natural beauty, but I’m not outdoorsy, and I’d rather write than hike and know I’d be better off doing so. Nevertheless, if I knew that kind of battle would provide the most strategic gains, I’d put my head down and fight for it. But this conference was not about issues—the assumption was that we agreed on the basics and had already chosen our positions and that we would work to our passions.
I’m not going to run for office. It won’t be my smiling face on a billboard; I’d rather be an engaged and educated supporter. I want to see the concerns of the Women’s March coalesce into a broader proactive agenda that will inspire my fellow citizens. We need everyone to get energized and stick together if we are going to have a better democracy.
The next summit will be in Detroit—locations are chosen strategically, held in tipping-point areas. Here’s the link to their website, and I really suggest going—there’s a lot to learn in the Arena.