“Love is a verb, not a noun,” our vows read. “It’s something you do, not something you feel.”

That also applies to political activism. (More)

Enthusiasm, Part III – ‘Little Things’ (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at enthusiasm, an essential element of progressive Democratic activism. Thursday we considered how the news cycle challenges our enthusiasm. Yesterday we saw how the political system offers still more challenges. Today we conclude with ideas for how to build and maintain enthusiasm despite those challenges.

“Love is a verb, not a noun.”

Most of us have been in relationships where love was a noun. When love was new or buoyed by an exciting event, the ‘little things’ happened. A note left a desk or dresser. A special dinner made or cleaned up after. A smile or a hug offered at just the perfect time. But once the newness wore off, unless something revived the feeling of love, the ‘little things’ went lacking … and the relationships usually failed.

Some of us have been blessed with relationships where love was a verb. In those relationships, the ‘little things’ happen because they are the loving things to do, and we do them even if we don’t feel especially loving. At least not when we start. Often, by the time we finish doing a ‘little thing,’ we do feel loving. And well we should. We also often feel more loved. Doing those ‘little things’ reminds us of how and why our partners are special. Doing them also makes us feel better about ourselves, and that makes it easier to appreciate others’ kindnesses. And doing them leaves less room to brood.

Relationships where love is a verb are more lasting, not because the feelings of love are more durable, but because we don’t rely on feelings to motivate the actions of love. And the actions of love – those ‘little things’ – make it easier to work through the challenges.

The Better Lesson of 2010

On Thursday we discussed why enthusiasm matters by looking at the 2010 midterms. It was a familiar story. Many progressive Democrats were disappointed by protracted struggles for incomplete progress on a range of issues, while the Tea Party dominated the media narrative. Last September, Public Policy Polling quantified the “enthusiasm gap” as worth about 7 percent in the polls. That prediction bore out in November, with a more conservative Republican electorate than in 2006 or 2008 resulting in GOP victories in the U.S. House, gubernatorial races, and state legislatures.

But I concluded that segment with this:

Note: The 2010 midterms weren’t entirely about enthusiasm. Where the Democratic Party had solid local organization, Democratic candidates still won despite often being outspent by huge margins. But where Democratic turnout relied on ad hoc volunteer enthusiasm, we lost badly. We’ll discuss this in depth Saturday.

I think we can learn more from the races Democrats won in 2010 than from the races we lost. There was no lack of Tea Party activism in states like New York, Connecticut, California, or Washington. And many Democratic candidates in those states were outspent by Republican opponents and independent PACs, sometimes by 4:1 or more. Yet Democrats won key races in each of those states, and some others, retaining the U.S. Senate and state government firewalls.

The media usually explained those exceptions in terms of personality: too-radical Republican candidates, or capable Democratic candidates. Yet equally radical Republicans won elsewhere, while equally capable Democrats lost. The more reliable distinction was local party organization. Democratic candidates backed by solid local organizations still won, despite the ‘GOP wave’ and despite being outspent.

The better lesson of 2010 is that relying on enthusiasm for a candidate or issue – or outrage about an opponent – is a high-risk strategy. As with relationships where love is a noun: if the feelings fade, the campaign falters.

Enthusiasm through ‘Little Things’

Enthusiasm still matters. We can’t wave a magic wand and create solid local Democratic and progressive organizations everywhere, overnight. Where those don’t yet exist, we will still need ad hoc volunteers who are enthusiastic about candidates or issues.

Yet as we discussed over the past two days, we can’t rely on the news or the successes of government to build or maintain that enthusiasm. The media peddle outrage and distraction, and The System is slow and cumbersome even when it works well. We need to stay informed, and we need to follow the workings or non-workings of government, but neither will reliably build and maintain progressive enthusiasm.

Doing the ‘little things’ can.

Doing the ‘little things’ – making phone calls on a local or state issue, attending a local event or government meeting, gathering signatures on a candidate or ballot petition, writing letters to elected officials or the newspaper, or Fred Whispering with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – lessens the sense of helplessness that leads to despair.

Doing those ‘little things’ also forces us to be more selective with the news, leaving less time to chase and fret about every rumor or brood over a disappointing policy outcome. We need to stay informed, but as most ‘news’ is really commentary – The Rage Page in the Information Age – less is often more.

Doing those ‘little things’ with other progressive Democratic activists is even better. The support of like-minded people both helps us build on positive responses and shrug off negative ones. We teach and learn from each other. We feel less alone, another emotion that leads to despair. And we build TRUST – The Rest of Us Standing Together – as we work for and learn about each others’ issues.

Most of all, doing those ‘little things’ with other progressive Democratic activists is how we build the solid local organizations based that recruit and motivate volunteers, turn out voters, win elections, and influence policy debates. Those solid local organizations don’t spring out of thin air, and for progressives they’re rarely built by well-funded donors who drop in skilled teams, fully finished and ready to go. Progressive Democrats build those solid local organizations by hand, doing those ‘little things,’ week by week, month by month, year by year, together.

The fact is, in a relationship or in a political movement, the ‘little things’ aren’t really little at all. Those ‘little things’ are the difference between drifting apart and growing together, wearing down and building up.

When your enthusiasm is flagging, find other progressive Democratic activists in your area and do ‘little things’ together. Those ‘little things’ … are everything.

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Happy Saturday!