The Long Defeat
And how we defeat it, dammit
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
Every week, I help 21,000+ humans understand and unfuck the rapidly changing world around us. It feels great, and we’d love for you to join us.
THE LONG DEFEAT
The late John Lewis called your right to vote “Precious, almost sacred…the most powerful nonviolent tool or instrument in a democratic society.”
Since Selma, since the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts, since Shelby County, voting rights have expanded and then been massively restricted all over again.
In Wisconsin and Alabama just this year, Republicans have fought to preserve power, despite state Supreme Court rulings, and against the clear sentiment of voters, exercised despite illegal gerrymanders, threats of violence, and more.
Across America these last five years, despite a growing population, nearly 2000 polling places have been closed amid hundreds of new anti-voting laws and even more bills.
It can understandably feel like the power structures of old will never, ever stop trying to take your sacred voice and vote away from you.
To be clear: they’re trying to take your voice away from you.
Many of you already know this. They never wanted you to have one in the first place.
But through centuries of Compound Action across millions of people, new voices were incrementally allowed, new votes were cast and counted, new faces and perspectives entered the halls of power.
Not that the kinds of people who forbade them in the first place ever gave up. Oh, fuck no.
Their tenacity, their seemingly inexhaustible resources and penchant for just I guess whisking Supreme Court justices wherever they want to go, oh and also the hate, well, it all makes it easy to wonder if we’ll ever win, if we can ever take a breath or a year or an election off, if their insidious tactics and outright corruption make defeat inevitable.
It’s a fair question. But before we answer it, let’s get some elves involved.
This may surprise you because I am a fucking dork, but I don’t necessarily believe in Tolkien’s “Long Defeat” theory.
Oh, you haven’t even heard of it, because you are a mature, functioning adult?
Fine, fine. But you signed up for this, so let’s talk about it anyways, because — I promise — it’s actually relevant to how you’re feeling right now.
The Long Defeat theory — specifically converse to MLK’s famous long arc bending towards justice — says that history is “a long decline from perfection to a state of destruction, when the forces of good win only occasional and incomplete victories against those of evil.”
Now, that’s just one fellow nerd’s interpretation, but read this, from Tolkien’s own letters:
Look, I am not on the…friendliest…terms with Catholicism, and perhaps more impactfully, unlike Tolkien, I didn’t lose most of my friends in the trenches of World War I, either. So fair game, man.
Like so many who’ve served, Tolkien never really overcame his experiences and grief. He claimed Middle Earth’s fictional battles weren’t directly inspired by the Somme (and then got shit for his stories not being realistic enough — fucking critics, man), but they sure as hell feel eerily and tragically derived from The Great War.
A war so horrific the people said another would never be fought. A war with both bayonets and tanks, when penicillin was at least ten years away.
Even CS Lewis, another literary legend who loved wardrobes, a fellow Christian who was no stranger to allegory, and WWI vet, reviewed Tolkien’s main LOTR series:
The man buried himself in his work, in his worlds. He revealed his jaded intentions through his maps and prose. This world would have bright spots, but the forces of evil were just too many. They would outlast us.
Perhaps Tolkien’s journey — his perspective — then, is closer to that of the half-elf Lord of Rivendell, Elrond.
Tolkien, as we have discussed, was traumatized by World War I, a war with uncountable costs, that basically ended in stalemate and armistice. That would be enough.
But it’s actually what happened after World War I — after peace was salvaged amid a generation of young people sent to death — that most inspired his mainstream collection, The Lord of the Rings.
Over the next twenty years, Tolkien bore witness to peace, yes, but only briefly. Soon after came the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, and yet another World War (one where his sons were on the frontlines), and after tens of millions of additional lives lost from Stalinburg to Bastogne to Okinawa, to the fall of the Nazi’s — a timeline that neatly mirrors the writing and publishing of The Fellowship of the Ring*.
Meanwhile (well, not meanwhile, but you get it) Elrond the healer spent a few thousand years slumming it in the Montecito of Middle Earth.
Along the way, he saw some shit, by Tolkien’s own hand, the details scattered across the big books and also a bunch of scattered, tiny poems.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Elrond summarized the prospects for the future Fellowship:
And later, ruminating more fully on Middle Earth’s own arc towards justice:
Anyways, good luck guys! No pressure.
What I think he’s saying, and what I think Tolkien was trying to say was, “From everything I can tell, the job is never done.”
But here’s the thing: despite all of the history and forces allied against them, the Fellowship did have (relatively) good luck. I mean, when you consider it, the odds were firmly stacked against that crew.
They persevered, but it required everyone stepping up and sacrificing everything. And it still almost didn’t work.
Whether you love the books or loathe them, the climactic turns at the end of The Return of the King are telling:
In the end, at the culmination of three long ages of gods and elves and men, after six months of travel and torment, his dearest friends and thousands of their often-reluctant allies sacrificing themselves as decoys at the Black Gate — enormous losses masking his secret entrance into Mount Doom, Orodruin, Amon Amarth — the ring-bearer, Frodo, finally failed.
This, despite powerful, timely gifts from Galadriel and Boromir’s tragic, selfless fight against a phalanx of orcs, all to protect hobbits he’d only recently accosted, among other timely cheat codes, like Gandalf the White.
The Ring was too strong. Darkness prevailed.
Frodo failed at last, until Gollum — whom Frodo had previously spared because he’s a way better person than I’ll ever be — gave it one last attempt to take back His Precious, at all costs. Frodo’s grace blew up in his face, the long defeat nearly complete.
Gollum got The One Ring, but — here’s the twist — he also paid the costs, all the way down into the fire. He inadvertently saved the day (for now), in what Tolkien described in his letters as a “eucatastrophy”.
Said the orphan Tolkien:
(A less poetic version of his eucatastrophy is a deus ex machina, which always feel a little bit lazy, because that’s just not how real life goes, where random shit happens to save the day, but hey, the Writer’s Guild (myself included) is still on strike, so that’s what you get.)
“A sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” That’s an interesting metaphor applied to America, a wonderful country where the promise of equal rights remains steadfastly unfulfilled. Was the limb really ever in place? A more apt version — should we succeed — might be the short videos of people who are blind able to see for the first time, or children who are deaf able to hear their mother’s voice.
Like any great challenge with enormous stakes, the road is not straight: not for deforestation, for lung cancer, for HIV, for malaria, for clean energy, for voting rights. There are wins and devastating setbacks.
You can attribute the wisdom to anyone from Batman’s dad to a real person, they key is what happens when we get knocked down. The key is we get back up again. However long it takes.
There’s great news here:
In reality, in modern times (I told you we’d get here), there are some real-world eucatastrophical-type reversals of late that simply wouldn’t exist without your hard-earned vote:
Senator Schumers and Manchin secretly reviving what became the IRA, an imperfect, enormous renovation of American industry with the goal to electrify everything and maybe save some Medicare participants some money, too
mRNA vaccines becoming available to the vulnerable public years before traditional vaccines might have — because everyone in the world needed one, and because of decades of work to make them effective and safe
Blue Waves in 2018 and 2020 — including Georgia! — that kept Trump from ever-becoming fully operational, and eventually, voting him out altogether
Here’s where it all comes together.
I may not agree that The Long Defeat is real, but I do agree that bad guys are real, that each of our time here is short, that the work is never done, and we can only do it together.
But that if we do — we can fucking win.
I agree that heroic journeys can not be undertaken alone — not successful ones, at least. I often empathize with the very rational feeling that one small person cannot change a huge world. The powers that be want you to feel that way. They are obsessed with you feeling impotent and trapped.
I didn’t fight in World War I, or any war, I have never had my voice or vote taken away. I am acutely aware of how grief changes us, and how it can feel inescapable. I have suffered grief on a personal level that I’m super not interested in revisiting, but I’m old enough and self-aware enough to have long-acknowledged that loss is all around us. It is inevitable.
Loss is what reminds of the stakes, of the ticking clock, it is what prods us to procreate and and galvanizes to fight for air and water and an education and the right to vote.
So for the six of you who are still here, what does literally any of this have to do with voter suppression?
Throughout most of the US, your vote should work like this:
Citizens vote for president and vice president as a single ticket (Mitchell/Kovic ’92!).
Voters in each state cast ballots for “electors” who are…pledged…to support that ticket. The candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes, determined by state population, wins the white supremacist Electoral College and becomes president.
Citizens also vote directly every six and two years respectively for senators and representatives in Congress, on the same day they vote for president. The candidate with the most votes in each contest wins the office.
Weirdly, the candidate who straight-up wins the popular vote — literally, who gets the most votes — doesn’t always win, which is really stupid.
State & local elections
Citizens vote directly for state-level offices like governor, state legislators, and other state and local positions like school boards and sometimes even judges.
Candidates winning the most votes in the state or in each district or region within the state take the seats that are up for grabs.
There is no Electoral College at the state level, thank christ, but there are still enormous efforts to deny your vote — even after the fact. State elections operate independently from federal elections. Pros and cons.
The reality though is they don’t actually want you to do any of that.
They DEFINITELY don’t want Black people to vote, or former prisoners.
Nor do they want to reform or do-away with the Electoral College or admit DC (or anywhere else) as a state. That’s the equivalent of tossing the ring into the fire. Game over.
They don’t do that. They are bad guys.
In “What It All Means”, I wrote:
Again, the receipts are in.
So, yeah, we’re gonna have to keep recruiting new candidates, keep campaigning for them, keep electing them, keep marching, and keep fighting for more people — for everyone — to be able to vote.
But while we do that, we can make elections themselves much, much better. Automatic voter registration, universal early voting, voting by mail, drop boxes everywhere — you get it.
Rep. Terri Sewell just this week re-introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, “which would modernize and restore the full protections of the VRA.“
We can choose to do this. To protect your vote. To make it easier to vote (like Pennsylvania did just this week). For decades, Congress actually did exactly that, over and over again.
But we can do even more.
Let’s take a moment to talk about what could be: ranked choice voting.
Here’s how ranked choice voting (RCV) works, where it’s in place.
Instead of picking just one candidate, voters simply…rank their choices.
Here’s where it gets less simple, but drastically more effective for democracy:
If no candidate initially has a majority of votes, the clear last place candidates are kicked off the island, and your votes are redistributed based on next preferences until one candidate finally gets over 50%.
It can take a while, but it’s much more appealing. Why?
With RCV, candidates theoretically aim to appeal to more voters instead of just their base. Implementing RCV throughout the US could make every vote matter and better reflect the will of the majority, making sure the eventual winner actually has broad support.
It could maybe make voters more thoughtful about the candidates, and the actual issues, and not be such dicks.
But — and there will be haters here — getting exclusively focused on ranked choice, despite a growing chorus of users and evangelists, is like my wet dreams about covering every parking lot and big box store in the US with solar panels.
Sure, the flood of Chinese panels and converters means we could cover all of that shit tomorrow, but because building new transmission is still a permitting nightmare, there’d be nothing to connect all the new panels to. Just ask the thousands of projects already in the queue.
None of the actions we promote here is a silver bullet. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Similarly, again, ranked choice is fucking rad, no doubt — but when there are huge power structures, the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow past still fighting every single day to take away your ability to vote at all, often by literally removing places where you can vote or drop your at-home ballot —
— well, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about ranked choice, a fist full of straws, or a sorting hat — your vote won’t count.
Because sometimes they suppress your vote in subtle ways, in others, not so much, we have to think more comprehensively, from the bottom up. We don’t do gatekeeping here. Just the opposite. We’ve gotta do it all.
I would be remiss if I concluded this part without a brief mention of the less tangible way they take away your voice, and I want to be clear that both American political parties are equally guilty here.
I’m talking about the “moderate”, “centrist”, gerontocracy machine that is terrified of losing their seats, but especially to people who don’t look like them.
That is, people who have held hourly jobs, student, and credit debt they’ve never had, who’ve suffered through air pollution and flooding and foreclosures they couldn’t dream of, who have failed to find or afford childcare, who worked in childcare, or elderly care, until they couldn’t afford to do the work anymore.
As my friend Amanda Litman of RFS said on Threads last week:
I love a good, productive, right-sized government. I love paying taxes.
But what the current occupants do is they fire up these machines, fueled by vast wealth and their incumbent power, to maintain the status quo, to support other incumbents, no matter how old or toothless, to marginalize young progressive candidates who intimately understand and live the issues and who give a shit, all in the name of you just not….turning out.
That’s right — the recipe is simply, successfully, demoralization.
On the other hand, good news: bad guys are real. David Brooks wrote this week:
As the last few elections have proved, having an honest-to-goodness bad guy on one ticket can definitely improve turnout.
So we’ve got that going for us.
Great news: You’re not alone.
No one’s asking you to be Frodo and carry the ring to Mordor alone, or even with your best bud Sam. Katniss didn’t do it alone, neither did Furiosa, Psyche, Atalanta, or Rey. They all had people, eventually, to an extent.
And we’ve got people. Millions before us, and so many — if we get this right — to come after us.
And there are a variety of amazing groups working right now to turn this ship around, census by census, district by district, candidate by candidate, vote by vote, election by election, and they need your help.
They want you to be able to vote. And then they want you to actually vote.
There are non-partisan voting rights groups, and there are “Get out the vote” groups. And they need your help.
There are groups like the Environmental Voter Project focused solely on getting out environmental voters, regardless of candidate or party.
There are groups like Run for Something who exclusively recruit and support local and state level progressive candidates under 40, and groups like HeadCount who register people to vote at concerts, which must be fun.
There are long-term organizations like the ACLU, League of Women Voters, Fair Fight, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Democracy Works, and more, and even more — groups with short-term PACS that support a dynamic slate of candidates, like Climate Cabinet, Swing Left, and many, many more.
You probably noticed some themes running through the groups above. So I want to conclude by quickly reiterating our mandate here:
We are biased, but not towards a particular party, person, or company.
Instead, we often and specifically call out both good actors and bad actors who are measurably working towards or preventing progress at every single level of power.
Your fears have always been well-placed: they don’t want you to vote. They certainly don’t want you to run. They do not want you to have power — with your vote, or with a gavel.
Because little wins add up over time into big wins, which builds long-term power. That’s Compound Action.
Understanding who, what money, and what policies are driving progress — or standing in the way — are key to actually bending the arc further and faster, for more people, and to avoid the Long Defeat, forever.
Last week’s most popular Action Step was donating to help flood survivors in Libya.
Donate to protecting voting rights and advocating for democracy with Fair Fight.
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