Yes, Decency Can Win
Snapshots of three tight Senate races illuminate the possibility that the question of character can be the deciding factor
Maybe it’s the hellscape that the Elon Musk-era version of Twitter has become. Maybe it’s the horror over the 82-year-old husband of the Speaker of the House having been violently attacked by hammer and then the dehumanizing joking, the gleeful lying and the shameful indecency toward this event. Maybe it’s the terrible anxiety over the real possibility that a majority of voters are ready to toss away democracy, usher in autocracy and accept a future of violence and cruelty—all because they’re paying too much at the pump. Maybe it’s the awful sense that Donald Trump’s dream of American carnage is increasingly at risk of becoming true.
It’s enough to make an American exhausted, question reality, worry for the fate of our children and wonder whether it’s still possible to turn things around. Thoughts of President Biden’s belief in “the soul of the nation” can only be imagined in pitch dark. Questions about why anyone—anyone sane—would seek national office these days are unavoidable.
Into this swirling vortex comes the midterms four days from now and a handful of Democratic Senate candidates—making the case that down is not up, wrong is not right, and the demise of democracy and cruelty are not the better course for an exhausted electorate and a divided nation. How they are doing this is the topic here. And, if they are right, they have the ability to win close races, hold the Senate for the Democrats and, at least until 2024, sustain democracy. It’s what I would call winning big—and a reason to maintain optimism.
Take Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s incumbent senator running against the popular football player who’s never run faster than he has in recent months running from his own past. He’s speaking to all those voters who have had it with politics as usual and the escalation of lying to get and keep power.
“The reason why I return to my pulpit and the church every week is I don’t want to spend all my time talking to politicians. I’m afraid I might accidentally become one,” said Warnock, whose pulpit at Ebenezer Church once belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I confess: I’m in politics, but I’m not in love with politics. I’m in love with change.”
On this recent occasion, at a local Jamaican restaurant and bar in Jonesboro, GA, he didn’t even mention the name of his opponent who the polls say is nearly tied with him. He had more to say about Herschel Walker’s thin grasp of what’s true and what isn’t in the second debate that Walker chose not to attend.
He said that he graduated from college. He didn’t. He said that he was valedictorian of his class. He wasn’t. He said that he started a business that doesn’t even exist. And the other night when I said he pretended to be a police officer, he presented a badge as if that were proof that he really is a police officer. And now he wants us to think that he’s a senator.
Consider Tim Ryan and the topsy-turvy reality of Ohio politics, where it would be nearly impossible for a Democrat to take the Senate slot if the Republicans had just chosen a less extreme election denier than political neophyte and Trump bootlicker J.D. Vance. Rep. Ryan has chosen a path that emphasizes his sanity and decency.
“You want culture wars? I’m not your guy,” he has said in the most pleasant tones. “People are tired of the insanity. “We’re Ohio. Ohio doesn’t do crazy.”
A widely viewed TV ad showcased him as Mr. Nice, a happy father, a loving husband—typical fare except delivered with a sense of humor (albeit a big cringeworthy) that made the point that he’s all about finding common ground and love over hate. “We have to stop the stupid fights…and be Americans first.”
And even though most of the polls still have him behind, they are within the margin of error. It’s a topic that makes clear that Mr. Nice is both an optimist—"This is going to be the upset of the night,” he said—and convinced that being human can be a winning strategy. While Ryan hasn’t shied away from going on the attack against Vance—telling voters Ohio “needs an ass kicker, not [a Trump] ass kisser—he also grounds his working class, “real guy” appeal with compassion.
“I acknowledge, which a lot of Democrats haven’t done, I acknowledge the pain that they’re going through,” Ryan told Politico. “I’m not telling them the fundamentals of the economy are good, I’m not telling them that wages are up. I’m telling them that I agree with them that it’s painful.”
Then there’s the curious case of John Fetterman, whose medical misfortune has revealed his humanity and courage, offering a stark contrast to the doctor from the family of Oz, who we have learned killed hundreds of dogs for medical experiments and we have seen does not hesitate to mock his opponent’s struggles from stroke. (So much for compassion.)
It was hard to doubt Fetterman’s compassion before: His right forearm is lined with nine tattoos documenting the violent deaths of residents of Braddock, the impoverished steel town where he served as mayor. But at six foot eight inches, this big, brooding hulk of a man could be misunderstood. These days, even though his battle to speak precisely as he works to overcome his stroke has raised doubts about the pace and potential of his recovery, the slick TV doctor with 10 houses offers a stark contrast. Fetterman addressed his stroke in their one and only TV debate, an event he could reasonably have chosen to skip:
It knocked me down, but I’m going to keep coming back up…This campaign is all about, to me, is about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that got knocked down, that needs to get back up, and fighting for all forgotten communities all across Pennsylvania that also got knocked down that needs to keep—to get back up.
These three races are about much more, of course, than not being defined by politics or being defined by basic humanity, decency and courage. The reality of inflation may convince many to ignore such characteristics and decide that the cost of gas and the price of groceries are the Democrats’ fault and matter more than women’s rights and the survival of democracy. The election of Trump in 2016 and the continuing success of Trumpism since 2020 raises serious doubts whether character matters the way that it once did in America.
But I’m looking forward to Tuesday night with the hope that Democrats will come out in droves and Americans can prove that they won’t turn power over to a party bent on lying and determined to prove that cruelty is a path to victory.
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