In 2003, America entered a war of choice against a country that hadn't attacked us. It felt like a dystopian version of the nation I thought I'd lived in: one of laws, justice and reason. Anti-war voices were marginalized, mainstream papers joined the drumbeat of invasion, and no matter how many people turned out to protest, our Commander-in-Chief made clear that dissent was nothing more than a focus group to be ignored.
After shock-and-awe and the televised roll-out to the conflict, all of which had seemed impossible to me, the question was what to do next. We -- a group of liberal-minded New Yorkers in our mid-20s -- couldn't simply end America's folly in Iraq. So what could we accomplish?
We decided that if one election had led to this mess, maybe the next election would lead us out. We brought voter registration forms to our local bar. If the older generation had let this war happen, then we had to make sure our generation was voting next time around. We approached strangers who were enjoying their drinks, struck up a conversation, and offered to make sure we were registered.
"We're not here to talk about voting. We're here to have fun." That response, from a young woman I had met once or twice before, ended our registration drive - and it confounded and infuriated me. She wasn't saying she believed in the war, nor that she wouldn't vote the following year. She was asserting that political engagement needed to exist in its own compartment, separate from the more fulfilling, natural and "fun" parts of her life.
That attitude was part of the problem. An election had been stolen, the Patriot Act passed, an open-ended "War on Terror" launched and now a country invaded not because we all believed in these results, but because we were all engaged in our own lives, and didn't have time to be distracted. Politics was so off-putting to the average person, that many of us just checked out.
In late May of 2003, a friend and I kicked off one antidote: a weekly happy hour for people who wanted to talk about and organize around progressive politics. We believed there were people who wanted to engage more, but didn't want to sit through formal meetings or pay dues to and old-fashion political club.
We also believed that there were many other people who would never think of themselves as political -- but if they found a welcoming group having a lively conversation in a social scene, maybe they would join in. We chose the same bar where our voter registration effort had foundered.
Nearly a decade later, Drinking Liberally continues to meet weekly at Rudy's in Hell's Kitchen, and now in 250 other cities around the country, where liberal-minded folks get together to share their reactions to the news, learn from each other, hear from advocates, recruit one another to campaigns, and generally enjoy good conversation and good company. Especially in conservative areas, where we have some of our most dynamic chapters, Drinking Liberally helps local liberals know they are not alone.
It's not just about having a drink, but about connecting your political life with your social life. If you're not comfortable in a bar, you might end up at an Eating Liberally meal, a Screening Liberally film, a Reading Liberally book club, a Laughing Liberally comedy show, a Talking Liberally discussion group or any of the other events that now make up the Living Liberally organization.
At our inclusive, regular gatherings, political veterans recharge their batteries, newcomers find their footing, and friendships are formed over shared values. Of course, what we do is only one sliver of the organizing needed to engage more and more Americans in the political process. Countless efforts make sure Americans feel heard, that they are registered to vote, that they see an avenue to create change in their country. And countless more efforts are needed.
When fewer Americans participate, when fewer Americans feel they can make a difference, our country becomes less the America we want it to be. And there is plenty to make us feel that frustration. Bottomless treasuries of corporate money are flooding our democracy. Voter suppression efforts will scare away many voters, and discount the ballots of many others. The candidates on both sides often seem only superficially concerned about regular Americans, and more deeply concerned about the needs of lobbyists.
So my biggest issue now is the same as a decade ago: how do we combat this apathy? How do we engage more Americans -- and more new voters -- in the belief that their political participation will have an impact? Which candidate can run a campaign that invites us into the process as easily as if they were inviting us into our local bar for a drink?
It's easy, facing Super PAC billions, to give up. It can be harder to imagine how to make a difference. The best campaign is the one that will not only make that seem possible, but make it seem fun as well.