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We live in strange and dark times. But in this darkness, there are glimmers of hope. Those of us who value democracy above any particular candidate or party, above nationalism, and above ideology are having a hard time with a lot of this. We all wish President-elect Donald Trump the best, not because we wish to normalize his behavior, but because his failure will soon be our failure. He’s not making it easy. While Trump has at least acknowledged a role for humans in climate change, and recently suggested that maybe we don’t need to torture people as a general safety precaution, his disregard for unprecedented conflicts of interest reflect a possible Trumpist kleptocracy, or possibly a kakistocracy—government by the worst—given Mr. Trump’s cabinet choices. It’s not clear what sort of government we are coming into nationally, and much depends on whether what is left of the Republican Party establishment can constrain and co-opt the new administration. At the same time, very different dynamics are at play locally.

The rise of political performance artist and force of nature Heidi Harmon as the new mayor of San Luis Obispo, by a mere 47 votes (don’t say you don’t count!), backed by a unified progressive City Council, is a remarkable upset. Harmon’s closest association with the Democratic Party was as a delegate for Bernie Sanders. In other words, she is no party creature. More broadly, the new city leadership reflects both a rejection of the corporate party structures that have disappointed Americans across the political spectrum, and the embrace of an inclusive, energetic pursuit of (small d) democratic ideals.

It couldn’t come at a better time. This election has left bare the reality of America’s real diversity: racists and bigots, even in our own community, who kick down at immigrants and minorities; the white working class who resents being called racists for not recognizing their privilege in world where black, Latino and Asian programmers wield impressive economic and cultural power; the progressive left and the left behind who want to kick up at the wealthiest and increasingly parasitic 1 percent; evangelical Christians who supported a pathological liar, racist, and sexual predator for president; evangelicals and everyone else who did not; and a regressive left that seeks to shut down free speech and engage a pseudo discourse in insulated safe spaces. These are just some of the multitudes that make up our
political community.

Our challenges in the Era of Trump will be fought here at home. We will bring diverse groups together, not by accentuating every unique social identity, but by advancing a set of common principles to meet our shared challenges. Consider the racist intimidations that have grown out of this election cycle. I used to tell my students that climate change was their generation’s Civil Rights Movement. But just as Marx (Karl, not Jan) was wrong about religion being the opiate of the masses (turns out, it is opiates), so too civil rights are the Civil Rights Movement of our generation. With the appointment of Jeff Sessions, a white conservative Southerner who was already denied a federal appointment because of his racism, who referred to the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive legislation,” soon to be in charge of enforcing civil rights in the U.S., we are all called upon to protect the right to vote. From intimidation to vote dilution and the way we finance campaigns, local communities must work together to protect expressive freedom and the integrity of our elections. That’s the type of social justice that everyone has a stake in upholding, because the quality of our democracy says something about us as individuals.

Similarly, threats to our environment need not pit different industries and actors against one another as a zero-sum game. With climate skeptic Myron Ebell to head the EPA transition, we must take greater action locally. Environmental conservation shouldn’t express alarmist fears about eventual catastrophes (which are probably too late to reverse anyway), but collaborative strategies that integrate conservationist principles into current challenges like energy, affordable workforce housing, water management, and sustainable farming practices. Local groups like SLO Clean Energy are working alongside construction unions, farmers, and traditional trades to direct investment into local clean energy installations, foster local economic development, and provide savings to urban and rural ratepayers. We all have a stake in providing housing that meets the needs of our local economy, in the success of our food systems and the small farmers who connect us directly to our food, and to long-term planning and management of our most sacred resource, water. 

These challenges transcend the racial, geographic, and cultural divisions that have divided us during the election. It’s time to get to work, with our diversity of backgrounds, talents, and experience.

Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at

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