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California’s Bullshit Drought Response and the Politics of Climate Adaptation

We’re tinkering at the margins of disaster, putting 40 million people in jeopardy because we’re terrified of upsetting politically powerful corporate interests.

While the news has been buzzing with Governor Jerry Brown imposing California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions in response to the catastrophic drought, what often goes unspoken is that the new constraints leave untouched the state’s biggest water consumer by far: agribusiness.  Agriculture uses 80% of California’s water, yet the only thing Brown is requiring agricultural companies to do is provide more information about their water use.  Gov. Brown’s response to criticism?  “Some people have a right to more water than others.” 

This is a preview of the broader politics we’ll see unfold as America struggles to adapt to climate change.  On a global scale, climate change is primarily being caused by the unchecked consumption of the rich and the reckless path of the powerful.  Meanwhile, the people harmed most by drought and sea level rise here in California, and other negative impacts all over the world, will be the poor and powerless.  Much like during our recent economic disaster, as we face environmental disaster, lawmakers and other very serious people will tell us that we all need to tighten our belts and make sacrifices for the greater good in a harsh new world.  Yet at the end of the day, it always seems that the only sacrifices made are from everyday people whose contributions are metaphorically and literally a drop in the bucket.  Meanwhile, the wealthy interests that lie at the root cause of the problem sail along with their profits, subsidies, and guarantees intact.

The people of California didn’t cause this drought.  The people of California are not luxuriously long shower-taking germophobes who have crushed our environment beneath the weight of our excessively detail-oriented dishwashing.  This drought is the result of generations of poorly managed water policy driven by the political heavyweight of big agribusiness’s lobbyists who demand ultra-cheap water rates.  This drought is the result of a housing bubble driven by real estate developers and banks who financed endless expansions of suburban sprawl across the scorching heat of inland California for families who could no longer afford to live in increasingly expensive coastal cities.  This drought is the result of hopeless inaction on climate change, where overwhelming warnings from the scientific community are being screamed down by the political megaphone of the fossil fuel lobby.

A real drought response would focus on the root causes of our water consumption.  It cannot be emphasized enough that 80% of our water is used by agribusiness and much of the rest goes to golf courses and country clubs.  But even our residential water consumption is not equal:  The majority of residential water use (and the vast majority not directly used to keep people alive and healthy) is used for outdoor landscaping like lawns.  Single family homes have twice the outdoor water use of multifamily apartments, and rich neighborhoods use three times the water of poor neighborhoods.

Here’s what a real drought response might look like if we weren’t so afraid of powerful special interests:

1)  Build sustainable affordable housing in coastal cities

In the peak summer months, an average San Francisco resident uses 46 gallons of water a day.  Other coastal cities range around 50-100 gallons, while inland cities average around 200-500 gallons a day per person.  It takes massive amounts of water to keep lawns green in suburban subdivisions sprawling out from scorching hot inland cities.  We need housing growth policies that encourage dense, affordable, water/energy-efficient multi-family housing in cool coastal urban areas rather than McMansions in the hot inland parts of the state.   But right now our housing regulations do the exact opposite:  it’s easy for developers to build cheap new housing in Bakersfield, Palmdale or San Bernardino, not so much in San Francisco, Santa Cruz or Santa Barbara, where longtime wealthy homeowners are vehemently opposed to higher density apartments being built in their neighborhoods.

Although more people are migrating out of California than in, our population is still inevitably growing as more children are born here.  So unless we want some sort of draconian policy restricting childbirth, the question is not whether more people will live in California, but where they will live.  Unfortunately, because of the crushing unaffordability of California’s coastal and urban areas, the vast majority of population growth has been moving to inland areas like the Central Valley, High Desert and Inland Empire with cheaper housing, but much higher water needs.  Promoting dense infill development of affordable housing in coastal urban areas would help increase economic opportunity for working families while creating the serious systemic reform we need to manage California’s water resources long term.

2) Keep fracking from endangering our water supply

Land is rapidly being snatched up across the Central Valley and Central Coast to open new oil wells above the Monterey Shale.  Fracking uses significant amounts of water (70 million gallons in California last year), but the bigger problem is that it threatens to pollute our limited water supply with the undisclosed chemicals used in new drilling methods.  Fracking produces massive amounts of toxic wastewater, with the challenge of wastewater disposal becoming a ticking time bomb which could contaminate our dwindling clean water supplies.  Oil companies have shown a blatant disregard for California’s weak regulations, with hundreds of illegal wastewater pits being discovered right next to farmland and above groundwater supplies in rural California.  Yet along with agribusiness, the oil industry  was also given a free pass on Governor Brown’s new water restrictions.

But even worse, oil in the Monterey Shale is as dirty as the Canadian Tar Sands.  Fracking California’s shale creates the potential to put over 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, nearly as much as the Keystone XL pipeline, driving forward the climate change that is fueling this extreme drought.  The science is clear that climate change increases the frequency and severity of catastrophic drought in California.  There can no longer be any doubt for drought-stricken Californians that the climate is changing, and if we want to keep it from getting worse, we need to stop the relentless digging for more dirty energy.

3) Stop subsidizing water-guzzling agribusiness

While agribusiness uses 80% of California’s water, not all farms are created equal when it comes to water consumption.  Growers choose between planting different crops, some of which use many times more water than others.  Even within the same crop, different growers choose to use more and less efficient irrigation methods.  Like any business, California’s growers are making basic mathematical calculations of how to maximize their profits.  So when agribusiness is provided artificially cheap water by the government, typically at lower rates than you and I pay as residential consumers, growers pick profitable but thirsty crops, and cheap but wasteful irrigation methods.

Anyone who’s passed an intro economics class would tell you that when you have a shortage of something, the price is naturally supposed to go up.  But agribusiness, with its powerful lobbyists in Sacramento, has long been coddled by lawmakers and protected from actually paying fair market prices for water (big business is always all about the free market until they’re not).  By keeping agricultural water prices artificially low, the government is directly massively subsidizing drought-causing industries like almonds and cattle.  It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond and 10% of the state’s water goes to the almond industry alone.  A pound of beef takes 2500 gallons to produce, and one hamburger is about as much water as you use to shower for a month.

I’m sympathetic to the concern that raising the cost of water as an input to growing food will raise costs at the grocery store for struggling families.  It wouldn’t be hard to design a simple policy to keep overall food prices low while shifting growers to more drought resistant crops.  California could put an emergency drought surcharge on the sale of water to agribusiness, then take that revenue and use it to subsidize low-water-use fruits and vegetables at the point of sale to the consumer.  A grower then faces a different calculation to decide whether they should plant another crop instead of almonds, or whether they should invest in that new irrigation system.  This would shift the behavior of both food consumers and food producers towards more drought resistant foods, as prices of water-intensive foods go up while prices of water-efficient foods go down.  For example in Ventura County where I live (the 10th biggest agriculture producing county in the US), that could mean land shifting from water sucking strawberries, to other major local crops that are more drought resistant, like lemons and avocados.  A policy like this could even effectively make it easier for low-income California families to afford healthy foods, a major challenge facing poverty-stricken communities.

We need to step up and take real responsibility for a serious long-term water management plan if we want to sustain life for 40 million people in California and growing.  There is simply no way to protect our water supply for future generations without meaningful systemic reforms addressing agricultural water use, oil drilling, and housing development.  Yes, they would raise howls of protest from some of the state’s wealthiest and most powerful political interests: agribusiness, oil companies, and real estate developers.  But allowing money and corporate interests to control our politics is what’s got us stuck in this climate change mess in the first place.  At some point, we have to stop fucking around with our planet, put on our big kid pants, and do the right thing.

Is Feminism’s Resurgence the Key to Fighting Economic Inequality?

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From an outburst in open feminism in media and popular culture, to the growing strength of grassroots activism around issues like sexual assault, reproductive rights and equal pay, in recent years the fight for gender equality has undergone a revival among the American mainstream public.  This could have huge implications for the raging debate on economic inequality.

The knife of American poverty cuts deep, but it has always cut deepest against women and people of color.  Politically marginalized groups have long been on the front lines of right-wing attacks on the working-class and poor.  This is the only way conservative politicians can be accountable to an elite agenda that prioritizes corporate profits, while still saving face with their voter base of white working-class men.

This is why so many basic labor protection laws exclude jobs like farm work and domestic work historically performed by people of color and women.  And although most Americans on welfare are white working-class people, this is why the movement to dismantle welfare in the 1980’s-1990’s was largely driven by rhetoric targeting urban black welfare recipients, ultimately wreaking devastating harm to poor women and children across racial lines.

Yet while the racial skew of poverty and economic inequality is highly visible in American political debates, the gender skew is often invisible and unspoken.  Conservatives have a good reason not to talk about it: the danger of 150 million women finding their economic interests to be more closely aligned with the left.  But why have progressives failed to talk about women and economic inequality?  Perhaps because in the past four decades where inequality soared, the feminist movement (like many other progressive social movements) was struggling, a shadow of its former political strength.

If mass feminism had been more well-organized and politically powerful in the 80’s and 90’s, and more accountable to the concerns of low-income women, could the left have stopped what was perhaps the most devastating attack on single mothers ever enacted in United States history?  It’s hard to know.  But what is important is the question before us now:  If feminism is truly making a resurgence among the American general population, will it be the force that allows us to break through on economic inequality?

For decades, we’ve seen the same battle lines in political struggles around support programs for the poor and the rights and wages of workers.  Corporate interests push lower wages, taxes, and regulations to grow their profits, while labor unions and organizations representing people of color fight for the opposite.  As you might imagine, the corporate interests usually win.  While women’s organizations and other groups on the left have often weighed in on the debate, it has traditionally been in a backseat role.  (The labor movement’s history of sexism plays no small role in this dynamic.)  So the core political coalition for fighting poverty in the US has traditionally been made up essentially of people of color and union members.  The former has grown over the last few decades while the latter has shrunk, consistently leaving the political base against inequality a mathematically outnumbered minority for an entire generation.

But although it is rarely framed this way, poverty is overwhelmingly a women’s issue.  Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, and seven in ten Americans living in poverty are women and children (mostly kids in female-headed households).  An economy that increasingly puts profits before families through lack of paid parental and sick leave, unaffordable childcare and preschool, and workers’ lack of control over hours and scheduling, is forcing many American women to leave the labor force.  The ongoing attacks against teachers and other unionized public service workers fall heavily on women, as the public sector provides a huge share of female employment and much less gender wage inequality than the private sector.  There are even unseen gender dynamics at play in debates like whether tipped workers should be excluded from the minimum wage (most tipped workers have historically been women, who face rampant sexual harassment in service professions, especially when tips at the whim of the customer make up virtually their entire incomes.)

As feminism picks up steam again with the American public, the sheer number of female voters makes it a political force to be reckoned with.  This is also not your grandmother’s feminism: the modern feminist movement is much more inclusive of working-class women and women of color.  Modern feminists are not simply content to lean in to climb their way up the corporate ladder, but are instead organizing collectively to fight for economic equality for women as a whole through systemic policy change.

The Democratic Party is already starting to seize the opportunity.  In the 2014 midterm elections, one of the party’s strongest messages focused on how the Affordable Care Act banned a common practice of insurance companies charging women higher premiums and improved the affordability of reproductive healthcare.  Another powerful campaign message hammered Republicans for voting against legislation to address unequal pay between men and women in the workplace.  Meanwhile, it seems that Hillary Clinton’s policy team is preparing an economic agenda for 2016 that pushes back against economic inequality with an emphasis on women and families.

It’s a smart move for Democrats.  There’s a reason the party’s pivot towards a firmer stance on economic inequality has been politically successful.  What could be a better issue than one that energizes Democrats’ core base voters of people of color, young people and non-married women, while simultaneously driving a wedge between white working-class men and the corporate elite that dominate the Republican Party?  More importantly, what could be a better issue than one that actually fundamentally, tangibly and immediately improves the lives of people of color, young people, women, and white working-class men while hurting the pocketbooks of the corporate elite?

But to truly grasp the significance of this possibility, we have to view it in historical context.  From the 1930’s to the 1960’s the New Deal Coalition, made up of the white industrial working-class, the white rural poor, and most racial and religious minority groups, was the most powerful force in American history working to end poverty, and built the largest middle-class the world had ever seen.  But when Nixon’s Republican Party used racial fears as a wedge to separate rural whites, particularly in the South, away from the rest of the American working-class, the coalition fell apart.  Since then, America has lived without a strong political majority organized against economic inequality, and watched as the rungs on the economic ladder grew farther and farther apart.  If a rising feminist movement is willing to take on economic inequality, we may finally have a chance to rebuild that majority and provide real economic security and opportunity for millions.

Times Like These

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There are moments in history when time seems to move faster, turbulent eras when humanity lurches forward together.   Like the shifting of tectonic plates beneath the ground we walk, change doesn’t happen smoothly, but rather builds pressure slowly until it abruptly ruptures in a sudden release of energy.  The ancient mountains and calm valleys we see and take for granted as eternal fixtures of the landscape were products of devastating seismic events that moved continents.

The political, economic and cultural realities of the United States today are products of these social earthquakes, these movement times.  Times when people marched and chanted in the streets, when powerful organizations were born, when leaders threatened and negotiated and hammered out deals that changed laws and institutions forever.  In this country, waves of social change seem to break every three or four decades, with the years in between spent defending the victories won in those historic moments, while the next wave slowly swells beneath the surface.

Although the exact start and end date is unclear, it’s widely acknowledged that the last such time in the US was roughly from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s.  The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the Chicano Movement, the Second Wave of Feminism, the Anti-War Movement, the Environmental Movement and more, all brought sweeping changes to the country during this era.  In the decades since, America retrenched, with bitter struggles to protect the laws and programs built under the pressure of those social movements.

I wasn’t alive then, and I’m no PhD historian.  I don’t know whether most people in the early 1960’s truly understood the times they were living in, but I think we may be in the early stages of another one of those movement times.  We’re due for the kind of social turning point that led to the Populist and Progressive Movements of the turn of the century, or the labor movement that brought the New Deal in the 1930’s, or the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s.  We’re undeniably seeing an escalation in street demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience, as well as a leftward tilt in popular culture, at the same time as the institutional tide of public policy seems to be decisively turning, with major progressive victories emerging from all corners of the country.  From prison and police reform, to climate change, to gender and sexuality, to immigration, to economic inequality, things are moving fast.

At a time when there are more black men in prison in America than were slaves in 1850, a new generation of civil rights activists is opening the nation’s eyes to the sickening injustice of our criminal justice system.  Just as slavery was replaced by the slightly more subtle but equally sinister Jim Crow laws backed by vicious voter suppression and public lynchings, the Jim Crow era was replaced by the explosion of the prison industrial complex and often-deadly “broken windows” policing in communities of color.  A wave of reforms is forming, rolling back the mass incarceration and heavy-handed policing that has torn apart black and brown and poor families and made the US the prison capitol of the worldWe can now clearly see that we’ve hit a turning point where our prison population is falling for the first time since it skyrocketed in the late 1970’s as a result of the War on Drugs and the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  The pace of sentencing reforms is picking up.  Here in California, home of the nation’s most notorious “Three Strikes” mandatory life sentencing law, voters overwhelmingly approved prison reforms with Prop 47 last year and Prop 36 two years before.  Nationwide momentum for marijuana legalization is growing almost too rapidly to follow and the Obama administration has taken firm action against the racist disparity in sentences between crack vs. powder cocaine. But it’s the powerful #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked in Ferguson, Missouri, that poured across every major city in America, that are turning the nation’s eyes directly on the racism deeply embedded within the criminal justice system.  They’ve put thousands in the streets, in die-ins, in public disruptions of day-to-day life from Black Friday shopping to Sunday brunches to demand attention to the almost daily killing of black community members by police and vigilantes and lack of accountability from the courts.

A few years ago, after the collapse of legislation in Congress to curb carbon emissions and the BP oil spill being met with “Drill, baby drill!” instead of curbs on offshore oil production, the environmental movement was filled with grim faces and weary sighs.  After years of slogging through the critical but uninspiring legislative sausage-making process, many realized that the environmental movement simply didn’t have the life force to take on the juggernaut fossil fuel industry lobby, which wielded more power than ever in an era of free-flowing money in politics.  They recognized that movements were built in the streets, not inside the Beltway, and shifted from composed policy wonkery to vibrant and turbulent grassroots organizing.  Greens turned their energies to rallying the public around directly obstructing the tangible machinery of fossil fuel disaster, holding off the massive Keystone XL pipeline, launching an onslaught of local campaigns against fracking in communities sitting on profitable shale, and blocking rail lines used to transport crude oil.  New York’s historic People’s Climate March kept the pressure on for broader transformation towards clean energy, but also marked a deeper shift within the environmental movement, an expansion beyond its traditional comfort zone of the white middle-upper class.  This November, President Obama announced a historic deal with China, the first time the world’s two biggest polluters have agreed on a plan to reduce emissions.  And as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama’s administration has ramped up his executive actions to curb emissions, securing his legacy of taking the largest steps against climate change of any president in history.

In recent years, we’ve seen an astonishing transformation in the national conversation around gender and sexuality.  I don’t know if the time we’re in could be called a Fourth Wave of feminism, or simply a mainstreaming of Third Wave feminism, but something is happening.  The question asked is not whether feminism has suddenly become cool again, but how much this undeniable fact can be personally credited to Beyonce.  Feminism’s resurgent strength has sparked a growing backlash, like the rise of “Men’s Rights Activists”, or Time Magazine’s inclusion of “feminist” in their “Words that should be banned in 2015” poll alongside choices like “bae” and “yaaassss”.  The expansive type of feminism that emerged in the 90’s, holding positive views towards sexual expression, recognizing the complex interplay of gender with social forces like race and class, and seeing gender and sexuality as fluid social constructs, was largely consigned to university campuses, but with the help of social media kicked down the door of mainstream popular culture in the 21st century.  For example, despite a theoretical embrace of transgender people in left-wing circles, even major LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign traditionally had a very soft “T”—showing little willingness to fight for transgender people.  Yet this year, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to make the front page of Time Magazine, with the caption “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier”.  Meanwhile the limited agenda around inclusion into marriage and military service that had long dominated political struggles around LGBT issues suddenly seems almost old news, with marriage equality’s seemingly inevitable push across the country and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell relinquished to the history books.  This leaves an opening for a broader political agenda including issues like California’s groundbreaking law allowing transgender youth access to facilities and sports teams according to their gender identity, tackling LGBT teen homelessness, addressing transgender healthcare, extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples, and cracking down on employer discrimination against LGBT workers.  What greater testament to the rapid shift in the public’s attitudes around gender and sexuality than the sudden eagerness of corporations like Dove and JC Penney to jump on the bandwagon by running advertising campaigns trying to align themselves with this social change among their consumers?  All this momentum has given greater traction to core gender issues in American politics:  What started as a loosely organized network of college women determined to fight sexual assault on their campuses became a national debate drawing in everyone from Fox News to President Obama, and creating a flurry of legislation.  Discussions around economic policy have increasingly acknowledged that the gender-pay gap is alive and well, that women make up the vast majority of America’s low wage workers, that US law is stunningly medieval when it comes to paid family leave.  And while the wave of Republican state legislatures won in 2010 has been devastating to reproductive rights, it brought a national spotlight to red-state feminist leaders like Wendy Davis, and last year reproductive rights advocates won big at the ballot box in Colorado and North Dakota.  Mainstream understanding of reproductive justice is even beginning to expand beyond abortion, with California passing a landmark law banning the forced sterilization of women in prison.

Just as with prison reform, on immigration, American social movements have always had trouble fighting for the rights of those seen by society as criminals.  After immigration reform legislation floundered under the Bush administration, much of the energy was sucked out of the immigrants’ rights movement.  But two things happened.  When Tea Party Republicans swept statehouses in 2010, a series of draconian anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” SB1070 galvanized immigrant communities and their allies.  And a powerful undocumented youth movement emerged, proudly declaring themselves “DREAMers”, using attention-grabbing tactics, and breathing life into the national immigrants’ rights movement.  Most notably, as key DREAMer leaders were both undocumented and queer, inspired by the gay rights movement, they renewed and reimagined the concept of “coming out”, making countless previously unsympathetic US citizens realize that they had friends, neighbors and coworkers who were undocumented immigrants.  While comprehensive immigration reform was blocked by Republicans in Congress despite overwhelming public support and massive demonstrations across the country, the bold tactics of DREAMer activists forced the Obama administration to twice take executive action that it long claimed was impossible:  First, to provide deportation relief and work permits to DREAMers brought to the country as children, and then for millions of undocumented parents of US citizens.  Meanwhile, immigrant-friendly states like California allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and curbed the use of local police resources by federal immigration authorities.  Latino and Asian voters showed their power at the ballot box in 2012, as Republicans were stunned by an overwhelming defeat at the hands of immigrant communities.  With that memory fresh, it seems unlikely any Republican with their eyes on the presidency will overturn Obama’s executive order, cementing in place the DREAMers’ victory and creating an inevitable pressure for Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill.

But perhaps the largest unfinished business of the social movements of the last century was tackling America’s deeply entrenched economic inequality.  The Populist Movement floundered after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan, and was absorbed into the more moderate aims of the Democratic Party.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the year before his death, proposed a Second Bill of Rights expanding on the New Deal and declaring access to housing, education, healthcare, living wage employment and secure retirement as a human right.  But as the turbulent union movement of the 1930’s settled into the stable labor bureaucracy of the postwar era, the social pressure for deeper economic changes dissolved.  Lyndon Johnson, who sought to leave his mark on the nation through the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs and civil rights laws instead found himself drawn deeper into the black hole of the Vietnam War, eventually declaring “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved”.  On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the Civil Rights Movement was gearing up to launch a massive “Poor People’s Campaign”, to tackle what its leaders saw as the next big obstacle to equality and justice: poverty.  But left in disarray after Dr. King’s assassination, facing internal strife and external hostility, the Poor People’s Campaign disintegrated quickly.

After the 2008 economic crash, it seemed that the next great opportunity to take on economic inequality had been lost, as the stunning rise of the Tea Party dominated the American political landscape.  But it was perhaps the Tea Party’s overreach, attempting to strip union rights in the old labor stronghold of the post-industrial Midwest that awakened the American labor movement.  A 2011 uprising of workers and students in Wisconsin inspired the tactics and paved the way for the Occupy Wall Street protests that exploded organically across the country later that year, later drawing union support.  And while many (myself included) proclaimed that Occupy would quickly dissolve because of its adamant insistence against institutionalizing itself for fear of being co-opted, the movement dramatically shifted the frame of public opinion and flipped the political landscape.  Occupy forced institutions to pay attention to income inequality, from the Obama administration to the International Monetary Fund, and despite Occupy’s “death”, it’s no coincidence that we’ve since levied the highest tax rate on the richest 1% since before Ronald Reagan.  And although the left is full of Obama disillusionment, we should not understate that he’s overseen the widest expansion of the social safety net since the movement time of the 1960’s and the strictest financial regulations since the movement time of the 1930’s.  This reflects a major shift in the political direction of the country, after decades of slashing programs for the poor and loosening rules for Wall St., carried out gleefully by both Republican and Democratic administrations.  But no economic transformation happens in the US without unions,

long the most powerful force on the left.  A true movement era will require a rejuvenation of the ailing labor movement, just as the 1930’s industrial union movement grew out of the ashes of craft unionism, when political commentators proclaimed unions to be dying just as they do now.  Just as innovative 1930’s labor leaders like John Lewis built much of the American middle class by organizing factory and mine workers, thought at the time to be unskilled and therefore un-organizable, the labor movement today is aggressively organizing service workers who are striking at companies like WalMart and fast food chains long thought to be beyond labor’s reach.  Sure enough, change is bubbling beneath the surface of the labor movement, in experimentations with alt-labor organizations like worker’s centers, and raising wages and benefits through laws and ordinances rather than collective bargaining.  Last year, voters approved every single minimum wage on the ballot, including in four solid red states.  The “Fight for 15”, ridiculed in the media just a year ago when fast food workers first went on strike demanding $15 an hour wages, has now become reality in two of America’s biggest cities, with San Francisco and Seattle passing $15 minimum wage ordinances.  It’s not just wages that are being raised, but ordinances securing paid sick leave, cracking down on wage theft, providing retail workers with reliable schedules and full-time opportunities, and extending labor protections to long-excluded workers like domestic workers.  The National Labor Relations Board is now beginning to redefine employment itself, holding mega-corporations like McDonald’s accountable for labor abuses by their franchise owners and subcontractors.  It’s increasingly clear that the fight over income and wealth inequality did not fizzle out with Occupy, but in fact is just starting to heat up.

These might all seem like unrelated and disorganized political battles in a hyper-partisan era.  Many of the elders who remember the last movement time in America will dismiss the activism of today as incompetent clicktivism.  Their children, raised in the eras of Nixon and Reagan, may be too cynical to believe in progressive change.  And our millennial generation, with no memory of major social movements except the sanitized versions we watched on PBS specials, may assume that our messy activism could never compare to some fictional time when everyone marched united under the banner of Martin Luther King for justice and equality forever.

But dear fellow young activists, we have to understand that back then shit was messy too.  That we were divided between countless different organizations with competing agendas.  That we faced right-wing backlash and sometimes it seemed like we would lose everything.  That we sometimes broke windows then too, and people called us thugs.  That our elected officials seemed to always disappoint us, to begrudgingly tolerate our movements rather than stand alongside them.  That often it seemed like we were pouring endless resources into something so small and incremental, like desegregating one little public transit agency in Montgomery, Alabama.

But the worst thing we can do right now is allow ourselves to be so filled with self-doubt that we hesitate and fail to seize this opportunity.  It’s useless to cling to the moderate center, because that center is not in the same place it was five years ago, and that center will not be here five years from now.  We have no choice but to stand by our values.  Especially those of us who have embedded ourselves in longstanding organizations and institutions, who do menial work in the halls of power, who are surrounded by those who will tell us, with the paralyzing wisdom of experience, that now is not the time.  Because we will never have a better opportunity than right now.  We may spend the next 30-40 years of our lives defending the gains that we manage to win in the next 5-10 years.

We should listen to our elders, let them teach us the lessons they learned.  We may be in a time when social media allows us to plan massive demonstrations without singular charismatic leaders like Dr. King.  But we do need to practice discipline, we do need to create institutions that will last, and if we do it right, those institutions will be more democratic, more inclusive, more true to our values, than those of our grandparents’ generation.

The nation is stirring, and if you listen, you can hear it rumbling.  We live in turbulent times, and there are many roles to play in these times that shape history.  But as Dr King said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”

How I Learned to Love Ventucky

If you drive up the 101 from Los Angeles, radio tuned to 105.9, there’s a place where the music begins to crackle back and forth between hip-hop from LA and country from the Central Coast. It’s a little known stretch of coastline between Malibu and Santa Barbara mostly untouched by tourist development, that holds what might be the last blue-collar beach towns in Southern California. When you see the Boot Barn, you’ve reached the Ventura city limits. Some call it Bakersfield-by-the-Sea, I prefer Ventucky.

Ventura sits along the Santa Clara River, the largest river in Southern California that flows freely rather than encased in concrete. The Santa Clara seeps down from its valley and into the broad Oxnard plain, which boasts some of the most fertile soil on Earth and some of California’s last remaining coastal wetlands. In the late 20th century, as sprawl swept outward from Los Angeles, the wave of parking lots, strip malls and cookie-cutter housing tracts fell just short of paving over the farmland and open space of Western Ventura County. Perhaps it was the enduring political coalition of environmentalists who didn’t want to see their community turn into Orange County and rural folks who didn’t want to see their community turn into LA. But as other coastal Southern California cities embraced tourism and booming real estate, the Ventura County coast built its economy instead on oil, farming, and the military.

When I first moved to Ventura as a teenager, it felt like a foreign place, having spent most of my childhood in Oakland, a diverse port city the New York Times once dubbed the last refuge of the radical left in America. At first it felt strange to live under a giant cross at the top of the hillside (a popular makeout spot for teens), hear racial slurs dropped casually in conversation, or realize the ancient Spanish mission was not just an artifact of colonial mistreatment of Native Americans but a bustling church where immigrant families gathered to worship. But as I came of age in my adopted community, it began to feel like home.

Eastern Ventura County is made up of the farthest reaches of suburban white flight from the urban core of LA, and is one of the wealthiest places in the country. But Western Ventura County is working-class, rural (a relative term in densely populated California), and majority Latino. The city of Ventura itself, at the western edge of the county, is mostly blue-collar white families, in part due to a history of displacing other ethnic neighborhoods, with only murals to commemorate long forgotten communities with names like China Alley and Tortilla Flats.

Ventura is an odd cultural mix of hippies, rednecks and Mexicans, united by mutual interests like Sublime and backyard chicken raising. People are drawn to its historic downtown on the weekends from a 25 mile radius to drink, and a 100 mile radius to go thrift store shopping.  You can ride a trolley bought secondhand from Santa Barbara. The county fair is kind of a big deal. It’s a place that produces great fish tacos, potent marijuana, and lots of bros who wear flannel shirts, tattoos, trucker hats, and long black Dickie’s shorts with high socks. Lifted trucks with “SoCal” written in Old English lettering across the back window are the preferred method of transportation.

When I left to go back to the Bay Area for college, like most other university-bound young people, I assumed I would never return to Ventura. Working towards a career in politics and public policy, at the time I saw my hometown as part of California’s conservative backwater, a place with few opportunities for someone like me. If I wanted to do cutting edge work surrounded by inspiring people and innovative projects, my future would lie in New York, the Bay Area, or Washington DC. But a brief stint in DC left me feeling empty– disconnected from the real people affected by the policies I researched and wrote about all day, surrounded by ambitious talented young people in suits searching for the next happy hour to network with other ambitious talented young people in suits.

As I finished my education, I started to see places like Ventura County as the frontier: a onetime conservative stronghold with rapidly shifting demographics that promised immense political transformation. Over the last few years, Ventura County had become both majority people of color and majority Democratic voter registration, with old political leadership that failed to reflect the new reality of the diverse younger generation. The very community I had left was the one where I had the most power to create change. It was here where I understood the day to day issues affecting people I knew and cared deeply about. It was here where I knew the dynamics of power and what needed to be done to alter them. It was here that I was not just another political hack interloping in a community that was not my own with big ideas about how to solve someone else’s problems. I decided to move back home and started doing policy research, communications, and community organizing for a local social justice organization. I produced analysis on voting rights and economic inequality, recruited and trained youth activists to work on campaigns to improve schools and protect the environment, and developed messaging to persuade the public on affordable housing and immigrants’ rights.

When I talked to many of my peers, mentors, and loved ones, they expressed concern about me living in Ventura. Sometimes people talked about it as if I had agreed to a death sentence. Settling for obscurity and isolation, the ultimate punishment for the capital crimes of insufficient ambition and wasted talent. “So how long do you think you’re going to stay there?” was the inevitable question.

The fact that so few people made that choice was the very reason I felt I needed to do it. People come from all over the country to the Bay Area to do social justice work– in places like Ventura County it’s just the opposite– a steady, relentless brain-drain of locally-grown activists who leave to go someplace else. After a couple years, I couldn’t have asked for a better job– meaningful, intellectually engaging, creative, a critical role in a growing organization. But it was lonely work. I met few other young people who shared a similar place in their lives and careers. I felt isolated and restless. At the beginning of 2014, I told myself that if I still felt this way at the end of the year, I would start looking into possibilities elsewhere.

But over the course of the year, I realized that Ventucky wasn’t the only place I felt disoriented and out of place. I began to feel a growing distance between myself and my peers from college, who now lived lives so dramatically different from mine. They spent their days surrounded by well-educated young professionals who Uber-ed through America’s great metropolises, toasting every night to the thrill of ultimate geographic and economic mobility. Their social circles were people whose relationships to the communities around them were relationships of consumption. Places like my childhood home of Oakland and my birthplace of Brooklyn were being packaged, marketed and consumed by the millenial bourgeoisie, with the insatiable hunger of hipsterdom that feeds off authenticity even as it devours it beyond recognition.

And at the same time, I was coming to a deeper understanding of my own choices. It wasn’t about settling, it was about learning to love something not for what you want it to be, but for what it is. It was about finding value in things that others didn’t. I appreciated Ventura’s unpretentious natural beauty and laid back pace of life, an utterly sincere lack of trendiness that sort of smiled and shrugged at the outside world, drank another beer, ate another taco, and curled its toes deeper into the warm timeless sand.

IFile:Ventura County Fair.jpg realized that if I didn’t quite fit in here, it was not because there was something wrong with this place. I had never fit in anywhere in my entire life. I was a new guy in school, a mixed-race kid, a boy raised by women. That experience had made me stronger, confident in my identity, able to fluidly navigate through different worlds and speak in different dialects. I don’t know what it feels like to be in a place where most people are like me, but it’s not something I need to be happy. I can still love this community in all its differences from me.

When I first moved to Ventura as an angsty teenager, I hated the smell of manure that would blow over the city from the fields on late windy nights. Maybe they changed the fertilizer, but now I don’t notice it anymore. I love driving through the strawberry fields, lemon groves and avocado orchards, bordered by breathtaking mountains on one side and sweeping coastline on the other. I love living in a hundred-year-old apartment in a walkable downtown that always seems to have streets closed down for some sort of festival involving Johnny Cash, motorcycles, surfing, beer or classic cars. I love walking down to the empty beach at night, surrounded by total silence except the slow rhythm of the waves, with the dark ocean melting into the horizon marked only by the lights of oil rigs glowing dimly between the islands like invading warships.

It’s only now that I’ve come to appreciate how Ventura has shaped me and my work. I learned here not just to drop the obnoxious front of cosmopolitan smugness I walked in with as a teenager, but to try to bury the underlying impulse of always trying to find ways to superficially set myself apart from other people, a vanity that made me ineffective. It was living in Ventura that taught me that the true challenge is not the ability to speak the exclusive vocabulary of left-wing academic one-upmanship, but rather being able to sincerely convey my values to others in everyday language. It was here I stopped being in such a hurry to get where I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do, and came to understand that deep change is often the art of quietly playing the long game. Here I learned the critical distinction between the appearance of importance, in titles and awards and institutions and halls of power, and actual meaningful impact, which often lives in obscure corners of the world.

The poet Khalil Gibran wrote “Work is love made visible”. If that’s true, then I want the nature of my work to reflect the nature of my love for the people around me. I want my work to be rooted and grounded, tangible and accountable to the people in my community. Here issues like fracking, drought, and pesticides are not abstract ideas on an environmental organization’s online petition, but daily realities that are both inextricably linked to people’s livelihoods and slowly poisoning our communities at the same time. When I speak or write about the rights of low-wage migrant workers and opportunities for their children, I’m not talking about census data, but about families I know. Political divisions are wide here, and the stakes are high, and at the end of the day when we win or lose, the consequences are felt by people I call friends in the place I call home.

A year ago, I was filled with discontent about the choice I had made. I gave myself a year to think and came to the conclusion that contentment is not what I’m looking for at this moment in my life. That I’m at my best in a place that challenges me. And perhaps what is most challenging to me is not what’s unknown and unexplored, but rather what’s deeply familiar, something that I’m part of and that’s part of me whether I like it or not, forcing me to reconcile its contradictions and embrace its imperfections. It’s easy to chase someone else’s life, what’s hard is learning to love yours.

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How We Spend Campaign Money Screws Young Activists in the Places We Need Them Most

Local community activists in Oxnard who worked to elect Jacqui Irwin to state assembly

Local community activists in Oxnard who worked to elect Jacqui Irwin to state assembly

I live in Ventura County, California, the battlefield of one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country this year.  Eastern Ventura County is heavily Republican, populated largely by upper-middle-class white families who have fled farther and farther from the suburbs of Los Angeles into the distant exurbs.  Western Ventura County is heavily Democratic, blue-collar and majority Latino, too far from LA to commute, with an economy built instead on local agriculture, oil and the military.  Two years ago, the first Democrat was elected to represent the area in 70 years, the result of rapid demographic change, an end to longstanding racial gerrymandering, and high Latino voter turnout.  This year millions of dollars were spent to defend the freshman Democrat’s seat on Capitol Hill against a strong Republican challenger in a nail-biting race where she wasn’t declared the victor until long after Election Day.

I work for a social justice organization in western Ventura County, meaning I have one of the few year-round political jobs available to locals.  Every election season we watch a massive influx of resources pour into the region for political campaigns.  And then after Election Day– like magic– it all disappears.  I call this the swing district’s “Resource Curse“—just like an impoverished country whose economy is completely dependent on oil drilling revenue, the volatile surges of money and lack of long-term human development or local control of those resources leads the region to be permanently impaired despite seeing unimaginable riches pass through its borders.

After the election, the young people who worked on campaigns scramble for a few permanent staffer jobs in legislative offices, are forced to find work outside politics, or move to a more urban area.  Since swing districts are rarely in major metropolitan centers, they almost never hold large headquarters of advocacy groups, unions, government agencies or other potential employers of people wanting to go into public service.  And by nature of being a swing district, someone with progressive values might only be willing to work as a staff member for about half of the local elected officials without wanting to vomit on a daily basis.

Then when election season rolls around again, campaigns struggle to find locals to hire with political savvy and campaign experience, and end up importing many campaign workers from across the country who have more difficulty connecting with voters because they lack Spanish fluency or knowledge of local communities.  To some extent they can rely on hiring people trained by community organizations like mine, but the kind of scale we have pales in comparison—our election budgets number in the tens of thousands rather than the millions thrown around in heavily targeted partisan races.  Moreover, pulling canvassers and phonebankers from local organizations or labor unions who would be working on the election anyway is a bit of a zero sum game.

Nationally centralizing political resources rather than developing local political infrastructure also hurts local politics in “purple” communities.  While enormous resources were spent on our congressional and state assembly races in Ventura County, city councils and school boards, which have more impact on the day-to-day lives of locals, were mostly ignored.  In the largest city in the district, republicans came 10 votes away from picking up a seat on the council of an overwhelmingly democratic city after outspending a democratic incumbent 3 to 1.  If a fraction of the resources that had gone into the higher level races had been spent down-ballot, this race would have been an easy win.  Today’s city council and school board are tomorrow’s state legislature and congress, and it’s not unusual for congressional candidates in swing districts to be imported from outside the district because of a shallow local democratic bench.

But more importantly, this boom and bust cycle permanently stunts the career development of young progressive activists from the politically shifting areas where we need them most.

It’s not hard to imagine a solution.  Could the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have predicted two years ago that California’s 26th congressional district would be a close election again in 2014?  Obviously.  The day after the 2012 election, could they have chosen to hire a couple of local former campaign staff to stick around long-term?  Easily.  Could the work those staff do year-round potentially be more impactful than overwhelmed voters seeing yet another TV ad or mailer in the last few weeks of campaign season?  Political consultants way above my pay grade might tell you no, but I’d argue yes.

A stable, long-term investment in the development of progressive politics in swing districts or states could look like this:

  • Staff to register graduating high school seniors every spring and new community college students every fall in low-income neighborhoods with low voter registration and turnout rates.  They could also run vote-by-mail-conversion drives and citizenship drives of green card holders who haven’t applied for citizenship.
  • Staff to recruit and train a strong base of local progressive activists who can be engaged in issue-advocacy year-round and pivot to elections during election season after having already been trained on phonebanking, canvassing, and volunteer management.
  • Staff to run petition drives that can push progressive policies on both national and local issues while developing the skills of local activists and building targeted lists of progressive voters and potential volunteers.  Canvassing on issue campaigns in low-income neighborhoods year-round also helps build voter engagement that shows itself in higher turnout during elections.
  • Staff to amplify progressive frames and messages in local media on both national and local issues through press conferences, op-eds, letters to the editor, etc., shaping local voters’ views on national and state-level political battles long before the election.
  • Staff to encourage and advise progressive community leaders to run for local office, building the long-term bench of candidates for state or federal office, especially in shifting regions where local offices may be dominated by conservatives.

One year-round full-time staff member in a congressional district could do all of this without much difficulty.  For an organization like the DCCC, this would take virtually no resources.  According to Nate Silver, there are only about 35 congressional districts that could reasonably be considered swing in the entire country.  I estimate at less than 5% of the $60+ million they spend every two-year election cycle, the DCCC could hire a local as a year-round field organizer in every one of them.  If these field organizers were asked to develop the local donor base as part of their job, even that cost would be significantly less.

This concept is similar to Organizing for Action, the attempt by Obama campaign folks to adopt community organizing strategies post-election.  But Organizing for Action never had much success, in my opinion because they failed to adequately staff up with organizers on the ground.

To some extent, this is also the type of work done by community organizing groups like the one I work for.  But most community organizing groups work in big cities far away from swing districts and most are 501c3 nonprofit organizations that are banned by the tax code from engaging in candidate races.  And national partisan donors often don’t see their interests as aligned with local social justice organizations—my organization’s political arm was primarily focused on ballot initiatives for prison sentencing reform and banning fracking rather than the congresswoman’s reelection.

These are also the functions that should be carried out by effective county democratic parties, but the way we spend campaign money now keeps local parties in swing districts perpetually weak, while resources and decision-making power are concentrated at the state or national level and only surge into these districts during elections.  Instead, the places that have powerful local party organizations are usually overwhelmingly democratic urban areas.

This is an outsider’s unsolicited advice—I don’t work for the Democratic Party and never have.  But I care about my community and the people in it, I see how the boom and bust of national political money holds us back, and I hope it’s not naïve for me to think we can do better.

2014 California Voter Guide by Lucas Zucker

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Even for people who closely follow the news, in states like California where every election brings a slew of propositions and an endless war of advertising full of scare tactics and misinformation, it can be tough to figure out who’s behind each initiative and what its real purpose is.   I generally find the best approach is to just completely tune out every ad and mailer you see and go to longstanding organizations or people whose missions and values you trust and who have a closer inside view of who’s behind each initiative and why.  Assuming there are people out there who trust my opinion, I put together this voter guide of my thoughts on each:

 

PROP 1:  YES
Prop 1 is a multibillion dollar bond to address California’s devastating drought, mainly to build infrastructure to store, transport and purify water across the state but also to provide emergency relief to the hardest hit communities.  There’s been a split among environmental groups on the issue, with organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Nature Conservancy supporting Prop 1 while groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and Food and Water Watch are opposed.  Some environmentalists have valid concerns that this doesn’t address the root of the problem (overconsumption of water by big agribusiness) and that some water infrastructure like dams can be environmentally harmful.  But when you have people in rural communities with no access to clean drinking water, something needs to be done right now.  Prop 1 invests in clean water with a focus on disadvantaged communities like Central Valley farmworkers towns and although we need much deeper reforms to California’s water policies this is an action we need to take now.

 

PROP 2:  NO
Prop 2 doubles the amount of money California would be required to put into reserves for budget emergencies.  All the big establishment players on the right and the center-left in Sacramento are behind Prop 2, while it’s being opposed mainly by grassroots progressive groups.  The problem with this fixation on a “Rainy Day Fund” is that for most average Californians, it’s still raining.  While California’s budget freefall has ended thanks to Prop 30’s taxes on the wealthy and a growing economy, we still remain far far below the funding levels we had for education, healthcare services, and assistance for struggling families before the recession.  The out-of-touch austerity politics put forward by the official Very Serious People of California demand that now is the time to start putting money into reserves.  The unspoken assumption behind this is that we should never return to the levels of funding we had for education, health and safety net services we had prior to the recession because they were unsustainable.  But it wasn’t too much money for schools that caused California’s budget crisis– it was financial speculation, predatory lending, tax cuts for corporations and the excesses of Wall Street.  Yes, we should eventually start saving for the next rainy day– but we should restore the billions in devastating budget cuts impacting our communities first.

 

PROP 45:  HELL YES
Prop 45 gives the elected insurance commissioner of California the ability to review and regulate when health insurance companies want to raise their rates.  Most states in the country do this already and in California the insurance commissioner already reviews proposed rate hikes for auto and home insurance.  The only reason this proposition is controversial is because insurance companies have spent huge sums of money running ads attacking it.  The astronomical explosion of healthcare costs is one of the biggest challenges facing the US today and voters should do whatever we can to put pressure on healthcare providers to keep costs from rising.

 

PROP 46:  NO
Prop 46 is the epic doctors vs. lawyers battle of 2014.  Lawyers want to be able to sue doctors for larger amounts of money in medical malpractice cases, doctors don’t want to be sued for medical malpractice.  Both are spending literally insane amounts of money to try to influence your vote, each loudly proclaiming that only they speak the truth in standing up for patients, but both largely have their own financial self-interest in mind.  You can agree with either side about the appropriate amount of money that should be sued for in a medical malpractice claim.  But this battle dominating the airwaves is a great symbol of everything wrong with California’s initiative system.  The part that put it over the edge as a “No” for me is that the funders of Prop 46 tacked on mandatory drug testing of doctors to the proposition— a totally unrelated issue but one that they’re using to pull in support from people who otherwise wouldn’t have voted for it.  Not only is this cynical ploy questionably legal, it’s stupid– if Prop 46 passes, there are many good doctors out there whose lives may be ruined because of what they do in their own personal lives outside of work.

 

PROP 47:  HELL YES
Prop 47 is a much-needed reform of California’s overcrowded and inhumane prison system.  The US has traveled down a decades-long path of extremely harsh prison sentences, especially for drug use, that has made us the prison capitol of the world (less than 5% of world population, 25% of world prisoners).  As California’s prison population ballooned, it squeezed out funding for schools and universities in our budget, and as mental health services in the state were gutted, prisons essentially became a substitute for mental hospitals.  Too many young people mainly from low-income communities of color are being locked up in long prison sentences for minor nonviolent crimes, and even when released have a felony conviction on their public record, making it extremely difficult to apply for jobs, find housing, or get financial aid to go back to school, leaving them with few options other than ending up back in the prison system.  Prop 47 changes the lowest-level nonviolent crimes– mainly drug possession and petty theft– to misdemeanors.  This will save hundreds of millions a year in prison spending which will go to schools, mental health services, and drug rehabilitation– programs that actually make our communities healthier and safer.

 

PROP 48:  YES
Prop 48 is a referendum on an agreement between the state of California and the Mono and Wiyot tribes to build two new casinos.  I hate gambling more than almost anyone you know. But I think when independent sovereign nations sign a contract with the State of California we should honor that contract, not vote it down because we think what they want to do is unpleasant or immoral behavior.  Or, in this case, because nearby existing casinos are funding a political campaign to keep out new competition.

 

Tom Torlakson for Superintendent of Public Instruction
Statewide offices like governor etc. are up for election too, but the only one that’s actually going to be close is superintendent of public instruction– the chief policymaker for California’s schools.  It’s also the only one where you can’t just vote based on party because it’s technically a “nonpartisan” race– but of course everything in politics has sides and the two clearly represent competing agendas from the left and right, with the outcome of this race potentially rippling across the country.  The easiest way to see is by following the money– Torlakson’s backing mainly comes from teachers, while Marshall Tuck is funded largely by a small crowd of extremely wealthy individuals.  Personally I’m tired of the much-trumpeted but mostly-failed education agenda that Tuck represents– at its core, it blames teachers for most of the problems in education and pushes high-stakes testing for students followed by closing down low-performing schools and converting schools into charters.  Despite the countless millions poured into these experiments by Wall Street types who think they know a lot about schools, the results have been mixed and mediocre while sparking huge backlash from parents, teachers and students in places like Chicago, Newark and Philadelphia.  Meanwhile, under Torlakson’s watch, California’s graduation rate just hit a record high.  Torlakson’s done a good job with the limited resources he’s had to work with and deserves our vote.

Dear Young Politicos: Stop Going to DC

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Every year there is a mass migration of idealistic and ambitious young people from across the United States to Washington, DC, the political power center of the nation and arguably the world.  It’s hard to say whether this is the best career move for people aspiring to make a name for themselves in politics— there are more opportunities for long-term advancement and networking in DC, but in most other parts of the country one can rise through the ranks faster with less menial work “paying your dues”.  But for those of us not just calculating the best career move, but genuinely wondering how to make the biggest impact through public policy affecting real people’s lives, right now moving to DC is one of the worst decisions you can make.

With the unceasing noise and constant sense of urgency in Beltway politics, it’s easy to feel like there’s a lot going on, like you’re a soldier in an epic battle between good and evil where the stakes are dangerously high and immediately felt.  But in the end, how much has actually happened in DC since Republicans took the House in 2010?

Almost no legislation of real significance, good or bad, has made it through Congress in the last four years.  One might say that this paralysis will pass, that it’s a temporary reflection of the bitterness of tough economic times, the racist resistance to Barack Obama’s presidency, or the death spasms of the Tea Party.

But what if the historic level of gridlock in Washington right now is structural—deeply rooted in long-term demographic and political trends that are not turning around any time soon?

Democrats have built up huge voter majorities in the nation’s largest cities, in part due to the racialized battle lines of American politics and diversity of our cities, and in part due to “The Big Sort” as analysts call it, where more Americans are moving to places where our neighbors share our political/cultural views.  As an increasingly urbanized nation, the overwhelming Democratic majorities in big cities carry the swing states, making it harder and harder for Republicans to win the presidency through the Electoral College.

Why Democrats Can’t Win the House   NYTimes.com

But because Democratic voters are packed into dense urban districts that are not even close to being competitive, with a little help from Republican state legislatures who drew congressional district lines to favor Republicans, it has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to take the House of Representatives.  Although in 2012, more Americans actually voted for a Democrat for Congress, Republicans still won a solid majority of congressional races, because such a large portion of those Democratic voters lived in big cities, far from the real battlegrounds for control of Congress.  It wouldn’t be the first time one party in Congress enjoyed a deep and lasting structural advantage—after all, Democrats controlled the House for an uninterrupted 40 years, from the mid-50’s to the mid-90’s.  It’s very possible that 1994 was the start of a long-term Republican control of the House that was only briefly interrupted for four years in a reaction against the utter disaster of the Bush presidency.

Today’s political geography is built for divided government, with an entrenched Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled presidency.  With the trend towards hard partisanship among American elected officials, national politics may continue to be stalled and irrelevant for the foreseeable future.

It’s easy to imagine the next few years in Washington, DC.  Republicans retain control of the House in 2014, 2016 and 2018, unless there’s some freak miracle like the Republican presidential candidate being exposed as an actual robot controlled by Goldman Sachs.  Republicans briefly take a slim majority in the Senate this year, but lose it again in 2016.  A series of truly awful people try to outdo each other in the Republican presidential primary and Hillary Clinton wins the White House in 2016.  Republicans in Congress maintain the same bitter, unwavering, near-apocalyptic opposition to the political agenda of Clinton as they did to Obama.  Much sound, much fury, no progress.

Of course nothing in politics is permanent.  Eventually, something will have to give.  Maybe the Republican Party will moderate its positions on social issues like immigration, reproductive rights, or LGBT equality and win some votes from constituencies like middle-class Latinos and Asians, suburban white women, or business-oriented yuppies.  Maybe as gentrification pushes more and more low-income people of color out of urban centers into smaller working-class cities, suburban congressional districts will become more competitive, as is already happening in California, where a disproportionate share of the tightest congressional races took place in the last election.  Maybe party leaders and elected officials will simply grow weary of gridlock and begrudgingly accept compromise in order to pass legislation—not necessarily embracing moderation, but embracing pragmatism—two sides can still fundamentally disagree but each prefer to win half a victory for their constituents by negotiating a deal.

But these are the kinds of changes measured in decades, not years.  The average Millennial right now stays at their job for 2.3 years.  Over that time horizon, you can safely expect Washington’s paralyzed irrelevance to continue.

So young progressives, the question to ask yourself is:  Am I okay with the likelihood that if I move to DC for a job in the current environment, I will spend the next couple years looking hella fly in a suit but accomplishing very little that makes a real difference in the lives of people in my community?

If the purpose of your public service is to make people’s lives better, your time and energy is better spent at the state or local level.

In the last few years that politics have been hopelessly gridlocked at the national level, here in my home state of California, progressive activists have had some stunning victories.  We’ve raised taxes on the wealthiest 2% to finally balance California’s budget, increase education funding and end the era of devastating cuts to schools and other services that have defined most of my conscious life.  We directed additional funding to schools in high poverty communities where students need an extra boost.  We’ve given almost all workers three paid sick days, raised the minimum wage, and passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, extending normal labor protections to workers who have long been excluded due to racial and gender discrimination.  We’ve passed the TRUST Act which significantly reduced deportations of immigrants, and allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.  We banned single use plastic bags and passed policies to promote cleaner cars.  We expanded rights for transgender students in schools.  We reformed the “three strikes” law that was unnecessarily putting people who had committed nonviolent offenses in prison for life.  We’ve made a huge expansion of financial aid for middle-class college students.  We’ve had one of the most successful rollouts in the country of the Affordable Care Act, providing healthcare to over a million uninsured.  I’d challenge anyone who’s been working in Washington, DC over the last four years to try to top that.

But this isn’t just about places that are more progressive than the rest of the country.  Some of the most crucial political battles of our time are taking place in conservative states where activists are pushing back against draconian anti-immigrant laws, discriminatory voter suppression laws, and laws restricting women’s reproductive rights.  In red states, progressive organizers are fighting off attempts to cut aid to struggling families, to eliminate rights of workers to organize unions and go on strike, and to deny millions of poor families health coverage by obstructing Obamacare.  If you think the action is in DC, you’re watching tennis during the Superbowl.

And where you can truly make the biggest impact rarely makes the news.  By working in your own neighborhood or city, you can expand public transportation, build affordable housing, add parks and green space, increase access to healthy food, improve local schools, shift towards alternative energy, reduce poverty, maybe even stop the next Ferguson.

If we really believe we’re the next generation of leadership, let’s take our responsibilities seriously and be intentional about where we invest our efforts.  Let’s remember the work we do isn’t just a hobby or a career ladder, but something that actually matters to real people.  Let’s be accountable to our communities, to the places we know best, the places we know how to change for the better.  And after laying the groundwork and building our social movements from the bottom up in all corners of the country, when the time comes we’ll be ready to make Washington work.