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.

The Horrifying Inadequacy of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, like any internet phenomenon, has had its backlash and the inevitable backlash against the backlash.  But whether or not you like it, no one can deny that it’s one of the most effective fundraising campaigns in recent memory.

But at the end of the day, one horribly depressing fact makes it all seem like a heartwarming act of staggering futility:  The tens of millions of dollars raised by fundraising gimmicks like this are drops in the bucket (excuse the bad pun) compared to the tens of billions spent by the federal government on medical research.  By far the largest contributor to ALS research is normally the National Institutes of Health, a taxpayer-funded government agency which has lost 25% of its purchasing power over the last decade as an insatiable thirst for budget cuts has become the new normal on Capitol Hill.

As of this post, the ice bucket challenge has raised $70 million, which means that this year private ALS research funding will actually surpass public funding.  But the problem with internet phenomena is they die quickly.  Of course The ALS Association will probably receive some permanent bump from cultivating long-term donors, but no one expects this level of funding or even anything close to it to continue indefinitely.

Let’s say the ALS ice bucket challenge plateaus out after raising about $100 million.  Federal government funding for ALS research has declined from $59 million annually in 2010 to $40 million this year.  That would mean over five years, federal budget cuts completely wipe out the gains from all those ice buckets.  Unless the ALS Association can come up with an equally successful online fundraising campaign every five years, in the long run the future of ALS research looks pretty bleak.

Once you look not just at ALS, but the broader picture of countless deadly diseases the scientific community is simultaneously trying to combat, it becomes abundantly clear how impossible it is to adequately fund medical research through social media fundraising campaigns.  It’s difficult to imagine research on another disease having an equally popular viral marketing campaign at the same time—there’s simply limited space in our social media newsfeeds and our attention spans.  Even if every couple years, research on one particular disease saw a surge in a few tens of millions in funding from momentarily trending on social media, it will never be enough to make up for tens of billions in slashed federal funding for disease research as a whole.

The larger question we need to ask ourselves is:  How should we as a society be funding medical research?

As Republicans in Congress have forced billions in cuts to public medical research, far outstripping anything that can be raised from individual donors on the internet, one can only wonder:  What about the diseases who don’t have such a brilliant viral social media campaign?  Hell, what about ALS a year from now?  Are we moving towards a society where public priorities like curing diseases must rely on appealing to the whims of social media trends, competing for our short attention spans in the jungle of the internet by coming up with increasingly flashy ways to raise money?  Are we becoming a society where charities must devote enormous resources to trying to come up with the next viral video or trending hashtag to fill the gap of services the government should be providing?  A society where resources are distributed not based on scientific expertise, but based on which cause has the best marketing campaign?

Government is and always will be more effective at raising money to cure diseases than the internet is.  Tens of millions of dollars for ALS, which took a social media campaign of one-in-a-million success, could be financed by literally pennies added to an average American’s taxes.

But we don’t like this because taxes mean coercion and coercion means controversy.  If I personally don’t want to contribute a few cents every year in my taxes to research ALS, should I be forced to?

The answer is yes: this is what democracy is for.

As a society we can collectively decide some priorities are too important to leave charities scrambling to scrap together resources, and we can democratically choose to raise much larger sums of money through taxing ourselves to fund public goods like scientific research.  We can adjust the amount people are required to contribute based on their income, so CEOs give more than janitors.  We can have scientists, public health experts, and health economists make decisions about where to spend that money so that even if I have no idea what ALS is (I didn’t before the ice bucket challenge) some small portion of my income is still directed to finding a cure.

We can get serious about curing and preventing disease, ending poverty, improving education, caring for the elderly, keeping our air and water clean.  But only if we’re willing to do the hard thing.  If we’re willing to say to people: “I don’t care if you don’t know what ALS is.  I don’t care if even if you did know, you wouldn’t contribute 50 cents a year to cure it.  You can’t get out of this by dumping an ice bucket on your head.  Those of us who do care outvote you.”

The ALS Association is doing a great thing, but they are hopelessly outmatched by the callousness and political power of the budget-slashers in Washington.  We will never, ever, ever be able to give medical researchers the resources they deserve, no matter how many internet fundraising campaigns we have, unless we recognize the politics of this issue and take a stand against those who would gut medical research in order to pay less taxes, who place private profits over public good.  What we need is not fleeting interest from the American public to string together temporary private dollars for the latest cause.  What we need is a commitment to using democracy to achieve our goals.  Democracy means controversy, democracy means conflict, but democracy is the way to create true lasting systemic change.

 

Schools in Poor Communities are Buying Every Student an iPad. Here’s Why it Won’t Close the Digital Divide.

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The hottest trend in education right now seems to be buying an iPad for every student, especially in high poverty schools.  By providing tablets to students who may not have computer access at home, the theory goes, we can ensure all children in America have the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.

But the sudden popularity of iPads among school administrators despite opposition from many teachers and parents should raise questions:  Are iPads actually the most effective tool to bridge the digital divide?  If our education system is preparing low-income children for the 21st century, what role are they being trained to play: producers of digital content or consumers of it?

Working at a community group engaging the public in major decisions on spending new funding in several California school districts, I’ve encountered mostly negative reactions to the iPad trend.  Teachers bemoan distracted students (LA schools recalled their iPads after students figured out within a week how to unblock access to sites like Facebook and YouTube).  Parents worry that children will get jumped walking home in rough neighborhoods with iPads in their backpacks.  Most students are happy to get a free iPad, but often say they think it’s a waste of money when compared with other more urgent school needs.

With such thin community support, why are they being adopted at such a ferocious pace?  Part of the answer is Common Core, new education standards where testing is now done on computers.  Another part is strong marketing from Apple, who reaps major profits by controlling a staggering 94% of the market for school tablets.  (While building long-term brand loyalty from a huge future customer base.)  Finally, superintendents face an incentive to spend funds on things like iPads for everyone, which are highly visible and often generate positive media attention, rather than something like restoring furlough days cut from the school calendar, which is barely noticed by the public.

None of this is to argue against school districts investing in technology.  I believe in integrating technology in schools and I’ve personally benefitted from these efforts.  My elementary school in the 90’s was stocked with donated Apple computers, which I remember exploring with awe.  I attended a technology magnet high school that had classes from video editing to web design to computer repair, as well as a mandatory tech literacy curriculum, which included learning to use Excel, Powerpoint, Publisher, Photoshop and even create basic Flash animation.  I rolled my eyes at being forced to learn these programs then, but now use most of them on a regular basis at work.

Schools should be making targeted efforts to close the digital divide.  More and more, college classes and middle-class jobs assume a basic level of computer skills.  A lack of familiarity with Microsoft Excel or Powerpoint can cripple the career success of people from low-income families.

Digital differences   Pew Research Center s Internet   American Life ProjectBut the digital divide is more complicated than it appears.  Surprisingly enough, smartphone ownership in the US is actually higher among blacks and Latinos than whites.  We live in a society that’s difficult to participate in without the internet and many low-income families who can’t afford home computers or wi-fi use smartphones as their primary source of internet access.

The real digital divide isn’t about unequal access to mobile technology like smartphones and tablets.  It’s about unequal access to real computers.

Here’s the difference: computers are producer tools, tablets are consumer tools.

If you teach a kid from a poor family how to use a tablet to surf the web, he/she has learned how to be a consumer of online content.  But if you want him/her to learn how to make a webpage, rather than just look at one, they’ll probably need to learn on a computer, not an iPad.

But this isn’t just about teaching children to be web designers and software engineers.  A major barrier that shuts low-income people out of white collar jobs in general is lack of more basic computer skills like being able to make a slideshow presentation for a meeting, design a simple publication about a topic, analyze and manipulate a spreadsheet of data, or even type quickly on a keyboard.  None of these are skills you learn on an iPad.

It’s hard to predict the advances of technology, and maybe in twenty years I’ll look back and think this was naïve of me to say.  But at a fundamental level, the whole point of a tablet is simplicity and mobility—it’s a product intentionally kept simple to allow it to be small, slick and mobile—which means it’s meant to supplement computers, not replace them.  A tablet’s main purpose is to easily access content that’s actually created on a computer.

Let’s ask ourselves what we’re really trying to do here:  What’s the deeper shift we’re trying to create through these school tech initiatives?  Are we trying to widen the consumer base for the tech industry by making it possible for more people to watch videos and read articles online?  Or are we trying to create a world that opens access to low-income communities of color as not just consumers, but producers of digital content as well?

It’s not only more cost effective, but more useful to invest in shared computer labs at school sites where students can learn to actually make things:  Whether it’s writing code, editing videos, doing graphic design, turning data into charts and graphs, or making powerpoints and posters, these are 21st century skills that empower rather than commodify students.

If we’re about real meaningful access to the 21st century economy—about kids having a fair shot at living wage jobs and getting out of poverty—iPads for everyone is not the answer.

How Anti-Feminism is Killing Men

If you haven’t heard of “Men’s Rights Activists”, they’re a disturbing bunch:  A loosely organized network of men primarily concerned with the injustices of being stuck in the “friend zone” and women accusing them of rape, whose activities of choice seem to be writing angry and threatening things about feminists in the dark corners of the internet.

But although the conversation has mostly been dominated by fundamentally bad people, there is an undeniable need for an open conversation between men about gender in our society.

Deeply ingrained gender roles and expectations touch every aspect of our families, our jobs, our health, in ways that are incredibly harmful not just to women, but also to men.  We grew up within the constraints of a warped vision of manhood, one that says masculinity is not just about strength, but about violent aggression, not just about protective care but about possession, not just about resilience, but about never being vulnerable.  This twisted caricature of manhood is reflected in the ways we treat each other every day, our laws and institutions, our economy and popular culture.  A real men’s rights activism would appreciate the good in masculinity while pushing back against the ways in which our society’s distorted understanding of manhood hurts us.

The problem starts with the idea that men are invincible.  That we are the ones born with the strength to fight wars and build economies.  But it ends with the idea that men are disposable.  That our bodies can be thrown down coal mines and into battlefields and prisons, often in the name of “protecting” women, who we view as too weak to work long or dangerous hours and endure such harsh violence and punishment.  A real men’s rights activism would stand up for the rights of workers, fight our relentlessly expanding prison system, and demand an end to war.

dangerous-jobs-ny-girderWomen continue to bear the brunt of poverty in America, with low-wage jobs justified by the assumption that women don’t need to be paid equally.  But gender is also used as a tool to exploit male workers through long hours and dangerous conditions.  The most under-regulated sectors of the economy, where worker injuries and deaths are commonplace, overwhelmingly employ men.  Attempts to improve worker safety standards in constructing buildings, extracting minerals, managing waste, and operating heavy machinery are crushed by deep-pocketed corporate lobbying that manipulates powerful social norms viewing men as indestructible work machines.  While other countries have shortened the work-week, mandated paid vacation time, supported earlier retirement, and even provided paternity leave for men to take care of newborn children, the American man is supposed to be tough and hard-working.  He is not supposed to mind late nights at the office away from his family or missing most of his child’s first months of life.  American males work more hours in their lifetimes than anyone else in the industrialized world.  As more and more women have entered the workplace in recent decades, men are not working less hours as some might have predicted, if anything they are working more, particularly white-collar college-educated men.  Where is the outrage from so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”?  Who stands up for men’s rights to be more than cogs in the machine of economic production, to be safe at work and spend time with their families?

The explosion of America’s prison population in recent decades overwhelmingly affects men.  The US holds more prisoners than any other nation in the world.  With 5% of the population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners, due to harsh laws mandating unusually long prison sentences, heavy imprisonment of nonviolent drug users, low investment in prevention and rehabilitation, and a parole system that throws people back in prison as a response to minor violations like missing meetings.  While prison policy is often labeled a black or Latino issue, it would more accurately be described as a men’s issue, with men representing over nine in ten inmates.  Our ever-expanding prison industrial complex is made possible by our society’s perceptions of men—young men, low-income men, men of color—but ultimately men.  We stubbornly reject proven cost-efficient and effective reforms like preventing crime by investing in programs for at-risk boys or helping formerly incarcerated men adjust back into society with education and job opportunities.  Those are “hug-a-thug” women’s solutions.  Real men understand that other men are violent and irreversibly dangerous—they cannot be helped by compassion but instead must be separated for decades from their families and communities.  The show “Orange is the New Black” is largely successful because it depicts a women’s prison—we are capable of being horrified by the shocking conditions only once we can imagine women having to endure them.  But we will never reform our prison system until we can recognize the humanity of other men.

There is no greater testament to our society’s willingness to treat men as disposable than war.  Who fills the caskets that return home draped in flags?  Who are the faces of the homeless veterans who line freeway exits and downtown sidewalks?  Who are the survivors of war facing job discrimination and social isolation from disabilities and post-traumatic stress?  When women and children are victims of war we are disgusted, horrified, inconsolable, outraged—why can’t we muster the same compassion for fellow men?  We have swallowed the lie that we are so strong that our lives aren’t worth saving.  If “Men’s Rights Activists” truly cared about fundamentally improving the lives of men they would be marching in the streets for peace, not grumbling about feminists on Reddit.  It is not women who are sending us to die overseas, but powerful men who place such little value on the lives of other men.

These problems fall most heavily on working-class and poor men who fill our prisons, our most deadly jobs, and the ranks of our military.  This puts men under an unrelenting pressure to succeed in today’s brutally competitive economy to escape the fleeting life expectancy of low-income men in America.  It’s easy to think that only young men or only black men or only poor men end up behind bars or dying in Afghanistan or working in a steel mill, but middle-class college-educated men should remember that this system thrives on that mentality.  Men are constantly running an economic rat race because somewhere inside we recognize that we are only one slip away from the fate we condemn other men to because we think they should be tough enough to handle it.

If we want to make life better for men, we must stop blaming women.  We must remember that the gender roles that reduce women to silent property and sexual objects are the same that reduce men to emotionless machines made for fighting and hard labor.  Feminists are not enemies of men, but allies in a common struggle to reclaim our humanity.  When we refuse to believe women who survive rape and blame victims for “asking for it”, we feed a society that views us as uncontrollable sexual monsters who must not be provoked, that makes women afraid to see us on the street and parents afraid to trust us with their children.  When we try to justify the pay gap by saying men work harder or negotiate better or deserve to make more because we financially support women, we feed a society that judges men’s worth by our ability to make lots of money and be cutthroat competitors who live for work alone and never see our families.  When we defend the domination of all levels of government by “strong, tough” men and not “irrational, weak” women, we feed a society that continues to send millions of our fellow men to die in battle and rot in prison because that’s what strong, masculine leadership supposedly stands for.

So-called “Men’s Rights Activists” have only succeeded in carving out a little online world that provides an outlet for validating a few men’s deep-seated bitterness towards some particular women in their personal lives.  But we deserve better than that.  We deserve a world that doesn’t treat men as disposable machines, one where we live longer, freer, happier lives.  We can’t get there by hating women.  We can only get there by loving ourselves.

How to Live in an Oligarchy

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A flood of articles and blogs rocked the internet recently declaring the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose politics are completely dominated by the economic elite.  They cite a groundbreaking new Princeton study that found that the political opinions of average non-wealthy US citizens have essentially zero statistically significant impact on policy.  Although this confirms what most people already knew about the growing influence of money in politics and economic inequality, the zero number is devastating.

I asked myself, is my life’s work organizing working-class people to build political power completely meaningless and futile?

But then I actually read the study itself, because I’m a nerd.  When I finished, I realized it confirmed exactly why I need to do this work.

The authors of the oligarchy study never actually say that average middle and working-class people don’t matter in US politics.  What they say is that unorganized average people don’t matter.  But organized people do.

In fact, they conclude that a mass-based membership organization that stands up for everyday people can be equally matched head-to-head with a corporate lobbying group.

Here’s what the study actually says.

Gilens and Page use statistical data to test four competing political science theories about US politics:

  1. “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy”:  The will of the majority of people is carried out by a functioning democracy with apple pie, bald eagles and shit.
  2. “Economic Elite Domination”:  Politicians don’t give a damn about the opinions of average people unless they happen to align with the interests of the wealthy few, whose opinions are all that really matters.
  3. “Majoritarian Pluralism”:  There is a chorus of voices of different organized interest groups that generally ends up representing what the people as a whole want
  4. “Biased Pluralism”:  There is a chorus of voices, but you can hear a loud and distinct upper-class accent.  Monocles and feather boas abound.  Economic elites have more interest groups representing them, so policymaking tends to favor the wealthy.

They describe our political system as both #2 and #4.   They measure this by comparing actual policy outcomes with the political preferences of middle-income citizens, the wealthiest 10% of citizens, interest groups representing businesses, and interest groups representing broad memberships of people.

The numbers don’t lie—the kind of democracy you learn about as a kid in school just doesn’t describe reality in the United States today.  The support of a majority of average voters doesn’t make a policy more likely to be passed at all, but the support of wealthy elites does.

But then this begs the question:  Why do food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, student aid, public housing, even public schools and libraries, still exist?  Surely not out of the goodness of the hearts of America’s all-powerful millionaire oligarchs?  Maybe these programs were created back when political power was distributed more evenly, when democracy still worked, and they remain only because economic elites have not yet been able to completely dismantle them.  But then how do you explain the recent expansion of healthcare to millions of uninsured paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%?

The answer is interest groups, who have a strong impact on policymaking.  According to the Gilens-Page study, literally the only way for working and middle-class people to influence American politics is by organizing ourselves into groups that can match the political clout of economic elites.

Groups of people without political power, from exploited immigrant farmworkers in California to disenfranchised black communities in the Jim Crow South, have long known that the only thing they could do to change the oppressive political and economic systems they lived in was to organize themselves.  In fact, the most celebrated leaders of America’s great social movements, from Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, have worked to bring together unorganized people who thought they were powerless to build strong organizations in which the powerless became the powerful.

As a whole, the study finds that the political preferences of interest groups don’t reflect overall public opinion.  In fact, their data shows that the most powerful lobbying groups representing industries and corporations negatively correlate with the average citizen’s wishes—they stand against the majority of people on most political issues.  But mass-based interest groups that represent millions of real people who make up their membership, such as labor unions or the American Association of Retired People (AARP), have a high correlation between what they push for on Capitol Hill and what average citizens want.

The problem is that among interest groups, the former is nearly twice as influential as the latter.  The study notes that “the composition of the U.S. interest group universe is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.”  However, the authors stress that it is not because public interest organizations are inherently weaker than corporate lobbyists, but simply that they are outnumbered.  They calculate that “the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential”, but there are roughly twice as many powerful corporate interest groups as there are powerful public interest groups.

And unfortunately, as Gilens and Page point out, the mass-based public interest groups with major influence in Washington are mostly labor unions, whose memberships have been declining for decades.  With the shrinking of organized labor, fewer low and middle-income people are organized into political groups today than ever before.

Note that the very rich don’t need to organize.  The data shows their policy preferences, reducing regulations on businesses, taxes on high earners, and barriers to international trade, have a major impact on policymakers even before interest groups are taken into account.  Although the wealthy have less need to organize, they are in fact more organized, with many more lobbying groups representing their interests.

But the harsh reality is that in a political system like the one we live in, poor, working-class and middle-class people have no power without organizations.  None.  Period.

There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from oligarchy.  Organize.  Organize like someone who’s realized that nobody in power gives a shit about what you think.  Organize like someone who’s realized that individualism only serves powerful individuals.  Rebuild the organizations we’ve lost, grow the organizations we have and start the organizations of our dreams.  Organize bigger, organize smarter, organize people who have never been organized before.  Organize the hell out of everything.  We can’t afford not to.  Because without organizing, there is literally no such thing as democracy.

 

The Problem with Community Service

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This weekend I took a group of high school students out to clean a beach next to a toxic slag heap Superfund site that will hopefully be cleaned up by the EPA in about a decade.  It’s one of the last remaining natural wetlands in California, home to endangered species, and in the process of being restored by the Nature Conservancy.  The beach is largely cut off from pedestrian access by decaying industrial sites and marked by the towering smoke stacks of a power plant.  I rarely meet youth from the surrounding low-income immigrant neighborhood who have ever been there prior to volunteering to clean it up.  Hopefully someday it will be restored for public access, but for now the city government seems intent on developing more crap on top of it.

For me and my organization, bringing students out to this site for cleanups is more about engaging them in the broader environmental battles in the community.  But we do the cleanups because that’s what the students tell us they want to do.  Young people in America have a deeply ingrained idea of what community service is and what it isn’t.  Teenagers are endlessly told to go clean the beach and give soup to the homeless and help children with their homework.  They’re told it’s the alternative activity to gangs and drugs and they need to do it to get into college.

The commonly accepted form of community service is about being helpful and doing what an adult tells you to do.  It’s not about generating controversy or engaging in power struggles or advocating for deeper change.  In fact, youth are explicitly discouraged from doing those things by both their educational institutions and their parents.  Community service, as it’s practiced, is about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it’s created, not about challenging the conditions of that society and how it could be different.

Why are we telling youth to clean up natural habitats we allow corporations to pollute?  What kind of a country makes children sell magazines to shore up the cost of the schools we’re unwilling to pay more taxes to fund?  If we really believe all human beings deserve enough food to survive, how do we justify cutting food stamps while asking students to volunteer at food pantries?

Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that as a country we’re taking the people most capable of questioning our assumptions and re-imagining our world and keeping them busy cleaning up the shit we’re creating.  Maybe it comes from our condescending assumption that young people can’t make up their minds for themselves about anything contentious, that youth wanting to participate in anything that looks “political” must be the product of manipulation and brainwashing.

I want a world where high school student groups like National Honor Society and Key Club speak at school board meetings and march in rallies and write letters to the editor and get out the vote.  I want a world where guidance counselors tell students to serve on a city commission to build their college application and city councilmembers actually appoint them.  I want a world where parents suggest helping at a soup kitchen on Christmas and campaigning for a higher minimum wage on Election Day.

I’m not calling for an end to community service.  I’m calling for a radical opening of our understanding of what it means to serve our communities.  I’m calling for a broadening of the role we expect youth to have in our communities.  We should be asking young people to take the role of leadership in the public sphere, producing new ideas and participating in decision-making.  That’s the kind of service we admire in business leaders and elder statesmen and public intellectuals but feel uncomfortable with youth engaging in.

More and more schools are requiring community service for graduation because in a world where students are bombarded with messages about competition and achievement and test scores it’s worth teaching there’s more to life than earning good grades to get a high-paying job.

But educators, nonprofits, and parents should be teaching young people that the community doesn’t just need your menial labor, but also needs your ideas.  And your courage to raise your voice and challenge us to build a better world is by far the most valuable service you can give to your community.

In Defense of Optimism: How I Became Disillusioned with Disillusionment

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-x1This blog gets its name from a famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote:  “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Today I’m thinking about the hope and faith held by Dr. King and the importance of optimism.

I read a great story about King today:

Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, ‘My Song,’ about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died…  Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: ‘What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’  When Belafonte asks what that means they should do, an exhausted King tells him:   ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.’

This is the kind of optimism that looks with wide open eyes at the reality of the world and decides not to dismiss it and withdraw from it, but to engage it and reshape it.  King realizes he is fighting to be part of an America plagued by poverty and war.  But he not only believes that marginalized people can be included in this society, but puts them in the role of heroes: those who through their liberation and inclusion can lead the movements needed to heal it.

Many activists are cynical people.  It’s hard not to be, organizing reluctant people to fight uphill battles against a powerful status quo.  Anger is an important motivator.  But people are never truly called to action without that seemingly-impossible combination of anger and hope: An understanding of the world as it is, and a deep belief in a vision of the world as it should be.

In fact, optimism itself is fundamentally necessary to the spread of a worldview that supports progressive change.

Conservatism is deeply dependent on pessimism.  The foundation of the right-wing narrative is pessimism: basically those promiscuous gay birth-control-using kids these days and all those dangerous criminal brown and black people are taking over America, crumbling its moral foundation and taking all our tax money to spend on drugs.  Therefore, beef up the prisons and the military, dig your heels in on traditional practices, and slash the social safety net.  The fact that most people believe teen birth rates, drug use, and violent crime are rising right now when they’re actually all plummeting in the US is a testament to the power of conservative fear messaging.  Every time you spread the idea that this country is going to shit, a Republican gets elected somewhere.

I was raised with pretty cynical politics.  For most of my life I believed that America was irredeemably racist, materialistic and violent.  My political consciousness developed largely through 3 national moments: The dismantling of civil liberties in the early 2000’s and horrifying start of the Iraq War, the failed push for immigration reform in 2006 when I started watching cable news and was stunned by the swell of public hatred towards immigrant families, and the financial crash in 2008 and following years of heartless austerity as I worked to get a public education in a system that was crumbling around me.  Disillusionment came easy.

It took me actually doing work to make me disillusioned with disillusionment.  I worked on campaigns that beat bank lobbyists to pass legislation raising tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid and defeated big oil at the ballot box in California.  I stood behind Nancy Pelosi at her press conference in San Francisco to announce the passage of historic health care reform.  I helped organize Oakland residents to force big developers to guarantee thousands of living-wage local-hire jobs targeted at those who needed them most.  I turned out the vote to raise enough revenue to finally balance California’s budget so the youth I work with today are dealing with how to restore budget cuts in their schools, not how to make them.

And sure, I was a very small part of each of these victories and I know they each would have happened without me.  But not without a lot of people like me.  The real transformation was not the impact I had on this work, but the impact this work had on me.  It made me see myself not as someone passively affected by the conditions of the world around me, but as an agent of change.  It made me believe in the power of people like me, young people and people of color, to be neither the villains nor the victims in the story of my country, but the heroes.  I began to believe in a different story, one that ended happy.

I deeply believe that the forces of peace and equality and enlightenment throughout history tend to win in the end.  I’ll admit I’m going on faith and a loose grasp of history given to me by what’s left of California’s public education system.  But I believe victory in the battles we fight today will one day feel just as inevitable as the battles fought by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

Practicing optimism is not just about motivating yourself or feeling happy.  It’s about changing the dominant narrative about our world.  It’s about telling stories of hope where we are the good guys and we win.

So the next time you see some corny Upworthy link that says “This 3 minute video will restore your faith in humanity” maybe you should watch it.  We could all use our faith in humanity restored sometimes.