Lessons Learned & Signs of Hope

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Andrew Pulrang

It has been a little over a week since Election Day, which is probably just enough time to recover and think about what we have learned, and what we have to look forward to.

Here are some things we have learned, or been reminded of:

You can be part of a huge and exciting movement of people that feels like an unstoppable force, yet in sheer numbers it might still represent a tiny sliver of votes. 10,000, or even a million motivated voters seems like a lot, until you compare it to the hundreds of million voters who live in the United States. Elections certainly involve morals and principles, but they are also cold, cruel numbers games.

In American politics, there is no political influence built into the system for candidates who come in second or third. In some countries, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson would have formal posts leading opposition parties, or smaller parties that could join in governing coalitions. In the U.S., their only influence is what they can make of it, informally, through residual loyalty and public admiration.

It is true that the disability vote can sway an election. However, there is little clear evidence that disabled people vote much differently from the general population. On average, we may be a little more progressive. We may vote a bit more often for Democratic candidates. There are lots of obvious and fairly logical reasons why this might be true. But we don’t know it yet, and the difference might not be as big as we think.

Republicans will control two of the three branches of the Federal government … the Presidency and Congress. Republican and conservative views may soon completely dominate the Supreme Court. This means that a lot of government programs, supports, and protections most of us take for granted could actually be changed or eliminated. Not just talked about, but actually done.

The Trump campaign didn’t spend much time at all targeting specific disability programs, so their indifference may actually be a small asset. However, the longstanding Republican agenda absolutely includes:

– Weakening regulations that protect people’s’ rights, including people with disabilities, and

– Turning entitlements like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security into decentralized, privatized, discretionary programs that can be easily changed or cut at any time.

On top of this, we have to deal with Donald Trump’s uniquely aggressive appeals to racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice. Whether he was totally serious about it or not, Trump signaled in a dozen or more ways that it’s okay again to be “sick and tired of minorities,” and that “regular people” are long overdue for some kind of return to power and dominance. While most of us with disabilities probably think of ourselves as “regular people,” we are not. Having disabilities makes you an oppressed minority, even if you’re also a rich white man. And if you are disabled and oppressed in other ways … through race, religion, economic status, gender, or sexual orientation … then you experience this fundamental rejection and persecution on several levels at once.

Yet, there is still hope.

Congress is still almost half full of Democrats who now have even more reasons than before to oppose Republican policies, for substantive as well as purely partisan reasons.

Republicans are not all 100% on board for what Donald Trump campaigned on. It’s unclear right now whether there is a big divide in the party, or whether most Republicans will jump on the Trump bandwagon, at least for awhile. But it’s at least possible that significant numbers of Republicans in Congress will oppose Trump’s … and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s … most radical plans. Even a stacked Supreme Court may help at times, as some ideas are so plainly unconstitutional that party and ideology don’t matter.

Many disability issues really are, or should be, bipartisan. It’s important to be careful with this. The quest for fabled bipartisanship has led to a lot of mischief in the past, especially for progressives and Democrats. Still, disability occurs in Republican families as well as Democratic, in “Red States” and “Blue States.” There are big differences in how different disabled people view disability. But we all share certain core experiences, needs, and hopes. We don’t have to “work with” or endorse Trump or Trumpism, (whatever we finally figure out that is), but we can reach out to Republicans who take an interest in disability issues and seem to know something about them.

We have expertise. Disabled people themselves, ourselves, constitute a strong base of practical knowledge on what does and doesn’t work for disabled people. Mainstream citizens and politicians still puzzle over what to do with us, but there is almost no disability problem that is truly an unsolved or unsolvable mystery. They just need to ask us. Scratch that. They don’t need to ask. We will tell them. They just need to listen.

Most of all, we have our voices. Through a series unplanned events and deliberate initiatives, disabled people got noticed in this election. We never quite heard a full public exploration of disability issues, but we tested our political voices in new ways this year. A few politicians also tested whether disability could be more than just a niche issue in national campaigns. How did the test work out? We may not know for awhile. We may not know until the next midterm elections, in 2018, or the next general election in 2020.

Still, I think the disability community should continue on as if testing our voices this year was a smashing success. We should keep speaking up about disability issues. We should defend the supports we need from attack, and keep talking about what disability policy should look like. No matter how you feel about how this election turned out, don’t let your participation end here. The campaign for disability rights and a better life never ends.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang