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.
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.