This month's election had bittersweet results for Tennessee's Democrats. You were happy that President Obama was reelected and happy that the U.S. Senate remained under Democratic control, but in our home state, we were left to deal with a different kettle of fish.
On the plus side, the state Democratic caucus has its choice of phone booths and closets in which to hold meetings. The bad news is that there would be room left over for the brooms and cleaning supplies. Despite national triumphs for Democrats, in Tennessee, the Republicans are ascendant, enjoying a level of legislative and executive authority that would make a monarch blush.
The real good news is that state Democrats, for the first time in a long time, are free to lead. As Janis Joplin famously sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Democrats are free from worries about holding onto majorities and leadership positions and free of worry about what redistricting will look like.
In many ways, we are free of decision-making of any kind. After all, the Democrats don't even have to show up for the Republicans to conduct the state's business. But in a world where nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you choose to do, and just because we don't have power doesn't mean we don't still have responsibility. This responsibility is far more than being the loyal opposition. We Democrats must do more than brandish partisan language and perpetuate the politics-as-team-sport analogy that is becoming a serious drag on our democracy.
The truth about our politics is that neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, patriotism, or decency. Yes, we live in a new world, where people retreat to their separate corners and use the internet and social media to build their own personal echo chamber, but every new world becomes old at some point.
Through our recent losses, Tennessee Democrats have won an opportunity to begin leading down the road away from the straw-men mythologies that we in both parties have built up around each other. If the 2012 election proved anything, it's that the mass of people who don't watch cable news channels and who don't immediately memorize the talking points of the various parties wants our leaders to work together. Being in a super-minority presents the opportunity to constantly offer compromise.
Now, I realize that the true believers will see this as appeasement talk, that the blogosphere and the media want the never-ending battle to continue, but it doesn't have to be that way, and that is not the path back to a more balanced legislature.
Democrats still have a valuable voice in the governance of our state, but it will be wholly wasted if we use it to shout at the Republicans. Honey catches more flies than vinegar. Internet hyperbole and cable talking heads do nothing to build a better Tennessee. Democrats are not going to win back seats by pointing out what Republicans do wrong and what we don't like about them.
Instead, the path back to power is by getting things done, and the only way to get things done is by working with the Republicans. Yes, there will still be those times when we will not see eye to eye, when a confrontation must be had, but just maybe we can lead the way to a time when disagreements over ideas will not mean demonization of those with whom we have disagreed.
Governor Haslam currently enjoys widespread bipartisan support across the state. We should reach out to the governor and any other Republican we can work with to find the areas where we agree — on the budget, on education reform. Republicans on a national level are forced into doing some soul searching; Democrats in this state must do the same.
No amount of money, no amount of organization, and no amount of internet chatter is going to change the balance if we aren't working to improve the state. And that requires cooperation, not conflict. It won't make for good headlines, it won't fire up a particular base for an individual candidate, but it will leave an opening. The media thrives on conflict. The Republican majority is so big now that the only way it can pick on someone its own size is by fighting itself. Democrats have other things to do than to get in the way of that coming conflict.
Shea Flinn, a Democrat, is a member of the Memphis City Council.