The Left in Identity Crisis: Getting our Story Straight

After the election, mainstream Democratic Party leaders, progressive thinkers and writers, and organizers of the movement left entered a fierce debate, centered on the question of whether the American left needs to abandon “identity politics”

One side says that in recent years the left has gone too far in focusing on the social interests of people of color, queer people, etc. while ignoring economic issues, which left blue-collar white voters feeling alienated.  They point out the Trump backlash was particularly strong among working-class whites in the Rust Belt who have suffered serious economic pain and feel like the left has abandoned and forgotten about them.  They say we’ve lost sight of standing for universal values and grown comfortable with a kind of corporate multiculturalism that fails to challenge Wall Street’s influence.  They say the solution is returning to a message focused on economic inequality, a Bernie Sanders style populism that can appeal to a broader audience outside the diverse coastal urban bubbles.

Another side says that Trump won because of his blatant appeals to racial resentment among white voters, not any economic message he had that better appealed to the working-class.  They say that we shouldn’t rush to defend and feel sympathy for a rising white supremacist movement because of “economic anxiety” of whites who are still better off economically than people of color.  They argue we need to fight racism directly rather than ignoring it and hoping better economic conditions will make people not racist.

There’s truth within both arguments.  We do need to finally toss out the shambling zombie of neoliberalism and make the left fight hard for working people again.  We also cannot excuse or compromise an inch to white supremacy and misogyny.  But in the end it’s a pointless question of whether we should abandon “identity politics”.  All politics is identity politics.  Politics aimed at better representing the interests of the rural white working-class is in fact the definition of identity politics.

The bigger issue is that right now we have two stories, two rising narratives about what the core problems in our society are, who is causing them, who our movement is, and what alternative vision we stand for.

Both stories are kind of weirdly coexisting.  Different messages are resonating with different bases, building strong but divergent movements. We need a synthesis of these two stories, or the right’s more unified story will be more compelling to the American public than our divided one.

 

The Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story.

The Zucotti Story says our political and economic systems have become rigged, increasingly tilting in favor of the powerful and wealthy, leading to mass economic suffering and environmental destruction while big corporations and the richest 1% profit.  We need to take back our democracy and return it to the hands of the people by getting big money out of politics, reigning in Wall Street, and directly fighting economic inequality.  We the 99% can only beat the richest 1% and their lobbyists and Super PACs if we stand up now and start a political revolution using our people power as the majority.

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The Zucotti Story explodes onto the scene with the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampments at Zucotti Park in New York, runs through the 2014 People’s Climate March and erupts again in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.  It was the protests against Keystone XL, the hate of Monsanto, the move to amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United.  It resonates most strongly among young white progressives, and has become a central narrative in movements fighting economic inequality, climate change, money in politics, the corporate food system, and student tuition/debt.  It has some intellectual roots in the anti-globalization and anti-corporate protests that emerged in the late 90’s.  Its greatest public storytellers include people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich, Bill McKibben, etc.  It has a willingness to engage in electoral politics, because its theory of change sees the solution as using the people’s democratic majority power.  However, it is highly critical of the way modern democracy is influenced by corporate money and is deeply suspicious of being co-opted and used by untrustworthy political actors.

The Ferguson Story says that we are slowly unraveling the legacies of white supremacy and patriarchy that have continued to curl around the roots of all of our institutions since our country’s origins of colonialism, genocide, and slavery.  These deeply-rooted forms of oppression continue to live on because those with privilege are willing and able to ignore them.  We need to reveal structural oppression in order to dismantle it, like exposing how our criminal justice system carries on the legacy of slavery by continuing to imprison and execute black people at a mass scale.  People of color, women and queer people can only achieve real liberation, can only truly dismantle these systems of oppression by showing this country itself in the mirror and forcing it to reconcile with its injustices.

The Ferguson Story emerges out of the critical race and gender theory building for decades among left student activists and social justice organizers, particularly within queer, feminist, and racial justice circles, which only recently has become mainstreamed off college campuses and nonprofit offices and into popular culture and social media.  Its most prominent face is the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded into public view in Ferguson, Missouri, but it also runs through the Dreamer/immigrants’ rights movement, the modern feminist movement including the raging battles around sexual consent and reproductive justice, and the queer and transgender rights movements.  Although it has roots in the counterculture of the 1960’s, it is wary of the failings of that era’s movements.  It avoids individual charismatic leaders (seeing organizations collapse after the assassinations of leaders like MLK and Malcolm X).  It is opposed to colorblind universalism, because it holds that without acknowledging the legacies of historical oppression that leave behind huge power imbalances today, we will never achieve justice.  It sees the path to victory as less tied to electoral politics or short-term incremental policy victories and more possible through social and cultural change, often engaging prominent figures to use their pop culture megaphone to command public attention, from Beyonce to Colin Kaepernick to Jesse Williams, and challenges individuals to build consciousness of white supremacy and patriarchy at a person-to-person level.  From police killings to immigrant deportations to sexual assaults, it raises the stories of people whose suffering would be otherwise ignored to make the invisible visible, exposing the bleeding edge of oppressive systems.

I could fit nearly every post scrolling across my feed from my lefty activist friends into one of these two stories.

But the Ferguson Story and the Zucotti Story are on a collision course.  They have different heroes and different villains.  They even run through time in different directions.

If the key to dismantling systemic oppression is to make it impossible for the privileged to ignore their own privilege and others’ oppression, then how can we simultaneously declare that we are all in the same 99 Percent?  If the financial elite are the real holders of power in this system, causing horrific destruction by putting corporate profits over people and the planet, how can we truly disrupt this system by calling out microaggressions?  These aren’t easy questions to reconcile.

In my opinion, the Zucotti Story identifies a better villain.  The financial and corporate elite is a more politically strategic opponent than millions of privileged straight white males.  But it’s also a truer villain in reality.  Who really drives systemic inequalities and oppressions, who really profits from this system?  Sure, the white guy on a factory assembly line in Michigan may be better off than a Latina woman cleaning hotel rooms in Nevada.  But if someone’s getting truly rich off this system, it’s definitely not the factory worker.  And whoever holds the real power to build and maintain that system isn’t him either.  The racism and sexism he grew up around makes it easy for corporate billionaires to convince him that the Latina housekeeper doesn’t deserve higher wages for her work and shouldn’t have access to healthcare or food or housing or education assistance for her family.  And tragically, that same garbage they’ve convinced him of also keeps his own wife working for $2.13 an hour at the diner and keeps his own kids from getting scholarship grants to go to college.  But he’s at worst a storm trooper in this story, not Darth Vader, and certainly not the Emperor.

On the other hand, I think the Ferguson Story lays out a better narrative arc.  The problem with “take back our democracy” is the same as “Make America Great Again”.  It begs the question: back to what?  For the millions of people of color, women and queer people in America, there was no golden age that we would ever want to return to.  Most tellers of the Zucotti story, from Robert Reich to Bernie Sanders, remember the New Deal era as that better time, making small print footnotes and caveats that there was unfortunately too much discrimination back then.  But the hard truth is that the broadly egalitarian prosperity of that time for white people was actually built on the backs of people of color, like the government massively subsidizing the creation of the suburbs and helping white families buy homes there, which was inextricably linked to redlining and white flight devastating urban communities of color.  Our story should not weave a mythical past because it keeps us from confronting the harsh realities of that past and understanding the much harder task of building a better future through deeper systemic change.

Perhaps the hardest question is who are the heroes of our story?  Are we the coalition of the oppressed or are we the 99%?  The 99% concept, while seemingly unifying at a surface level, is troubling.  If we are unable to distinguish between the challenges facing a black formerly incarcerated unemployed father in Atlanta and a young white tech worker in San Francisco, this will inevitably lead to huge failures in addressing injustices in our society.  Instead there is greater truth, but also something more deeply powerful, in seeing our heroes as a motley crew of underdog misfit rebels.  In the oppression frame, we can acknowledge our differences, but embrace each other.

But the problem with the oppressed as the heroes is that our country has always refused to accept the existence of economic class oppression.  That’s the missing piece that keeps our two stories from converging.  

From Rust Belt guys laid off from disappearing jobs in the factories and mines to Millenials at shit jobs in retail and food service struggling with exploding debt and housing costs, white Americans rarely see themselves as part of an oppressed working class.

Throughout the history of this country, the existence of whiteness has been deliberately constructed, while the existence of class has been utterly denied.  The white working-class has been told over and over for centuries that they’re not the poor, they’re the default people, the average, real Americans, the noble middle-class.  They’re not down there along with the wretched of the earth, the dark huddled masses.

This is why many white folks need to hear a story about the 99% in order to fight for economic justice.  If we’re all in the 99%, no one has to admit we’re broke, we’re just not as rich as those Wall Street guys.

The United States has historically lacked the consciousness about class issues seen in most other countries because our country’s most dominant narrative, our core defining ethos, is being the land of opportunity, away from Old Europe, the exceptional place where everyone can make it.  The American Dream.  It’s the story we’re told over and over again in so many ways, even though time and time again it’s been proven statistically untrue.

This is the big lie that creates a huge barrier to a synthesis between the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story.  The biggest lies are always the hardest to expose.  In the end, the left will probably never win in this country unless we can get past this deep mental block that prevents millions of people from seeing how our economic system is screwing them.

As John Steinbeck once said, Americans don’t see themselves as poor, they see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.  In America, where supposedly anyone can make it if they’re smart and work hard, being broke means you must be lazy and stupid.  If you’re poor and white, there is no consciousness of your oppression to shield you from the shame of being poor in America.  Acknowledging your social class is in fact deeply painful, to see your place at the bottom of your own nation’s social myth.  You may go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to assert your status as higher than some other group of people, which makes you vulnerable to demagogues who cast the blame on scapegoats.  This is how old plantation owners convinced the vast majority of whites who didn’t own slaves that they should support maintaining the slavery system because it kept poor white people one rung higher on the ladder than poor black people.

Shame is a powerful, paralyzing emotion.  It makes us avoid and hide.  In politics just as in our personal lives, if we can’t move past shame we can never move forward.

When people of color, women, queer people, talk about their status in society they often feel some internalized shame, but they are also able to express pride, a sense of resilience and rebelliousness built into a collective history.  Working-class white people in America don’t feel that same way when they talk about class.  You see it a little bit in the “redneck” pride in country music, blue collar comedy, etc.  But it’s often more expressing rural white cultural pride than pride in being working-class itself.

Even people in the labor movement in this country are afraid to talk about class.  Half the time they can’t even say the words “working class”, and say unions represent the voice of the “middle class” instead.  This is a legacy of Cold War Era McCarthyism and red-baiting, where in order to survive, organized labor had to avoid anything that might slap the dangerous communist label on them.

But the Cold War is over.  And we need to start talking about class with white people.  If we don’t, all working-class white people hear from the left is that they had this great privileged life and somehow ended up on the bottom anyway.  That’s the kind of thing that makes people go “Hey fuck you man, you don’t know anything about me or how hard I’ve had it, nobody cares or tries to help out people like me, I had to do everything on my own, unlike those people getting affirmative action and living off welfare and cheating the immigration system.”  Talking about race without talking about class actually creates a huge mental block keeping working-class white people from acknowledging racism.

The left doesn’t need to stop talking about identity politics.  The left needs to understand that class is one of the most important parts of people’s identity.

As far as we still have to go, we’ve made undeniable social progress on race and gender in just the last 10 years.  But where is our progress on class?  Our movements have failed to deliver meaningful change for working-class white people.  We have buried them.  And in 2016 they refused to be buried.

To fail to talk about class is to avoid a problem because it seems too hard and too scary.  It is to try to ignore the estranged old friend who we stopped talking to after a bitter argument, because we feel ashamed and don’t know how to restart the conversation.

This political identity of the white working-class, the largest in the country, will ultimately need to find a place to belong, either among the left or the right.  If we cannot create a place for them to belong in our movement, they will continue to be turned into our enemy’s greatest weapon against us.  If we don’t lay out a genuinely transformative progressive economic agenda they will become the political base for white nationalism.

And if the movement left fails to open up the conversation about class, the establishment liberals will make their play to win the next election—they will try to win over upper-class white voters by diving deeper into neoliberalism, showing economically conservative but socially liberal voters that if they’re embarrassed by Trump’s crude antics, they can find a home for their politics in the Democratic Party.

To beat the two-headed monster of hate and greed, we can’t turn our backs to one to fight another.  

And we will need a compelling, powerful, unifying story to defeat the one we’re up against.

The Make America Great Again story spread like wildfire and was ultimately the most successful message in 2016 because it aligned so easily atop the old right narrative, but changed a few key details to adapt to the new viral era, the new altered political state.

The Old Right story, the Atlas Shrugged story, said that liberal elites who really just want more big government power and ultimately socialism/communism are conspiring through an ever-growing web of government taxes and programs and regulations to take wealth away from hardworking, mainly white, “makers” like small business owners, and give it to lazy, mainly black and brown, “takers” like welfare recipients, eroding our hardworking American values and lulling people into a cultural trap of dependence, growing ever weaker and more sheeplike.  The heroes who can stop them are the business elite who forsake their supposed “social obligations” to others to reveal the truth of how much the world needs them as successful individuals.


The New Right story, the Make America Great Again story,
says that liberal elites who want big globalist governments are conspiring to advance an ever-growing web of politically correct multiculturalism that erodes our tough American values, keeping us from confronting our enemies and standing up for the physical safety and economic security of (white) “real Americans” who are under threat from Mexican illegal immigrants and Chinese factory slaves, Muslim terrorists and Black rioters, who we can’t even call our enemies because we’ve been so brainwashed by the liberal media.  The heroes who can stop them are the Regular Joe’s who have the courage to cut the PC crap and say what’s really happening and stand up for ourselves as a country.

Both stories have roughly the same villains, the liberal elite with their dangerous ideas and the ignorant dark masses who follow them.  They have roughly the same narrative arcs, of things falling apart over time as they break down our culture into weakness, ultimately leading to the fall of America.  They have the same solution, of telling the hard truth that no one wants to hear.  The New Right mainly just switched the heroes from the successful business-class elite to the struggling plain-spoken regular working guy.  Trump’s narrative resonated less with the traditional gatekeepers like elected officials, media commentators, donors etc. who candidates once needed to win.  But it resonated more with the actual base of ordinary people who virally spread his message at the grassroots level and on social media.

The right-wing narrative just gave itself a little tune up for a viral era and immediately found massive success.  Meanwhile, the left wing has lacked any kind of cohesive narrative for decades.  That left story is finally beginning to emerge into the public consciousness, but in two distinct parts that are struggling to be reconciled with one another.

Divided, they are defeating us, by caricaturing us as Social Justice Warriors and Bernie Bros, minorities obsessed with meaningless microaggressions, and privileged white guys who only care about free college and weed, and making us resent each other.

But there is one place where I think we’re beginning to see a synthesis of our two stories.  It’s the Standing Rock Story.  Over the past few months, we’ve seen followers of both the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story turn their eyes to North Dakota, to perhaps the most deeply oppressed people since the beginning of this country, indigenous people who are courageously fighting the most powerful wealthy corporate interests, the oil industry and their Wall Street financiers, and somehow seem to be winning.

This is the first story I’ve seen that has really moved people in both of our left camps.  It’s the story that says that reckless corporations driven by Wall Street greed are putting their profits before the lives of people and the planet we all depend on.  And that it will be the places like Standing Rock and Flint that are hit first and worst, as the corporate machine takes away our humanity.  It will be the people who have been neglected by America, the people whose lives and humanity have been valued the least.  It will be these places that first see their water, air and soil poisoned, or their people struggling to survive without jobs or economic opportunities, or their democratic voice and human rights crushed for the sake of profit.  But in the end, we have a shared fate, and people from all walks of life will need to join that struggle in powerful stunning acts of solidarity to defend our common humanity.

What the Hell is Going on: Politics in the Viral Era

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It’s a time of drought, when the brush blows dry in the wind, and where wildfire is just a spark away.  We all feel it.  Somehow everything is different now.

So many of us put our trust in the old experts.  Yet the pundits and political consultants and party leaders and pollsters got everything wrong, every step of the way, when it counted the most.  Their models and theories and assumptions are broken now.  They failed us, and if we continue to let them lead us we will fail millions of people who have everything at stake.

But why were they so wrong?  And what or who should we put our faith in now?

It’s clear now that we have entered an altered political state.  We have to stop denying it and start diagnosing it. If we pretend nothing is different and act in the same way we always have, we will be crushed by those who understand the new rules of the game.

Our grandchildren will probably be taught in school that there were several factors that contributed to the political upheaval of the 2010’s, including:

  1. Prolonged economic hardship after the financial crash
  2. Rapidly-changing social norms regarding race and gender
  3. The explosion of social media allowing political ideas to spread virally

We’ve finally started to grapple with the effect of years and years of chronic economic suffering interacting in a toxic combination with the backlash against a major push forward of racial and gender progress.  Human history shows us that in times of economic crisis, people choose between one of two basic responses—redistribution or exclusion.  Once we recognize our system is failing, we either reshape it to make it work for more people, or demagogues stir up hatred and resentment towards scapegoats.

What I don’t think we fully understand yet is how much social media has fundamentally altered the political landscape of the world, accelerating the rise of these movements.

In our lifetimes, we’ve seen far more dramatic changes in communications technology than in sectors like transportation and energy where we’re still largely using Industrial Revolution era technology like the personal automobile and fossil fuels.  Think about communication in a mid-2010’s society where a majority of the population owns a mobile smartphone connected to billions across the world, compared with communication in the 1990’s before social media, compared with the 1980’s before mass internet access.  We haven’t fully processed how much political change this has already created, let alone understood its potential to fundamentally reshape society as we know it.  These are changes in communications technology at least on the level of the radio, which fueled the rapid global spread of both communism and fascism in the aftermath of economic crisis in the early-mid 20th century.  Social media tears down the old gatekeepers of publishing companies, radio, and TV stations and allows essentially any random person to put forward ideas that, if compelling enough to others, can spread across the globe like an epidemic.  From radio to the printing press, revolutionary change in communication technology has never failed to create revolutionary political change around the world.  Our lives are no exception.

The rapid change in communication technology has hardened our politics of group affinity, as we are easily able to connect with networks and communities of likeminded people, from our own cultural groups and fans of our favorite TV shows to conspiracy theorists and white supremacists.  Social media has warped and stretched our sense of reality, as information spreads faster than fact-checking, and it becomes harder and harder to discern the real world from our filtered feeds and echo chambers.  It has fueled the fires of our outrage, as we can watch live video of infuriating injustices happening in communities thousands of miles away and engage in heated debate about it with our entire network of social connections in real-time.

The 2016 election wasn’t won by a flood of advertisements paid for by campaign cash, by endorsements from respected and trusted figures, or even by a better-organized campaign on the ground.  Every single traditional measure of a winning campaign pointed towards a Hillary Clinton victory.  Donald Trump won the election on social media (or at least that’s where Hillary Clinton lost it).

We live in the viral era, where the things people hear, see, and believe are driven by what their social networks share with them.  Top-down forms of communication like advertising, no matter how well-crafted, are reaching a fraction of the voters that organic people-to-people conversations online are reaching.  The direct communications from candidates on TV, print, and radio pales in comparison to the amount of time people spend reading what their friends share on social media about an election.  And more and more, the stories that get airtime on the mainstream news are driven by what is already trending online or what media companies anticipate will be shared online.

But more important than sheer volume, people-to-people communication is also far more trusted than top-down communication, especially in an age of rapidly collapsing trust in institutions, from political leaders to economic experts to mainstream media.  What else can explain why so many people believe fake news posted on Facebook by their uncle more than real news read to them by a CNN anchor?  In a cynical world, people believe everyone has an agenda, but they are more likely to trust the agenda of their friends and family.

The corporate sector is already realizing this, and using it in how they promote their brands.  They know consumer’s shopping decisions are now driven much more by peer-reviews and crowdsourced recommendations than by direct advertisements.  They are desperately trying to figure out how to get people to organically promote their products to their friends on social media.  They are largely doing it unsuccessfully (with a few noteworthy exceptions like Dove’s infamous “Real Beauty” campaign).  It’s extremely difficult to pull off in a way that feels authentic– people can spot a corporate advertisement disguised as a meme from a mile away and will ridicule it into the dust.  But they’re getting smarter and smarter.

Meanwhile, political communication has largely failed to even realize this shift and study what political messages work in the viral era.  Campaign professionals shy away from a heavy reliance on social media because it’s so hard to quantify its impact.  Asking your volunteers to spend time tweeting about the election just doesn’t feel like a very effective way to win a campaign.  Yet the problem is not that political campaigns aren’t spending enough of their staff time creating memes.  The problem is that they aren’t creating campaigns that are meme-worthy.  The whole point in social media is that it’s not top down.  Trying to directly fire off posts into the abyss of the internet in the hope that they will go viral doesn’t work, because it doesn’t feel authentic to the people reading them, and nobody feels moved to share something that seems like a canned advertisement or stale promotion.  The greatest viral movements of our time like Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and Standing Rock haven’t become social media sensations that swept the country because they distributed really well-written tweets and really beautiful graphics from some centralized social media account.  They worked because their ideas and their actions in the real world were powerful and moving to millions of Americans who posted about them constantly on social media.  What works is actually doing and saying things in real life that regular people are excited about and inspired by and want to share with the people they care about.  The memes will create themselves.

Political campaign veterans who have spent time in grassroots field organizing intuitively understand the new viral era reality far better than those who specialize in top-down glossy mailers and slick TV ads.  Field campaign people know that no matter how perfectly crafted and meticulously written your script is, the moment your volunteers actually nervously knock on their first door, the script will immediately vaporize from their mind, and with hands fumbling on their clipboards and eyes darting around for help, they will start telling whatever story they have actually absorbed about the campaign.  And yet somehow, if that story is halfway decent, the fact that this is a real person from the voter’s own community speaking sincerely about why they care and others should too, is far more persuasive than any advertisement on TV.  When a political movement tells a story that truly resonates with its core of supporters at a deeper level, they can re-tell that story to the people around them who trust them and listen to them.  What is happening on social media is the exact same thing that happens in field organizing, but at a bigger and faster scale.

We don’t know everything about what creates virality, but social media has been around long enough and studied enough that we do know some things:

A) Virality thrives off a clear sense of identity.  Buzzfeed was the first to realize this, and started writing listicles like “23 things only Asian dentists from Southern California will understand”.  The founder of Buzzfeed did his graduate school research on how modern consumer culture caused people to lose their sense of identity, leaving them grasping for new identities that spoke to them.   He understood that people share things with others to show the world who they are.  Similarly, political communications in the viral age need to answer the question “What does participating in this say about what kind of person I am?”.  Who is the “we” I’m part of?  This could mean we are the people’s movement of the 99% taking power back from the 1% and corporations.  We are the people of color, queer people, etc. fighting back against oppression.  Or we are the silent and struggling “real Americans”, standing up for ourselves to make America great again.  People are far more driven by declaring a political identity than declaring policy platforms they agree with. That’s always been true, but it’s more true now than ever.

B) Research also shows that the most viral emotion is outrage.  Of all the feelings that move us to share information, “Wow this is so cute and heartwarming” has nothing on “I can’t believe this happened, this is so fucked up.”  In this altered political state, our messages need to plainly say the status quo is fucked up because it is.  Economic inequality is spiraling out of control, our planet is hurtling towards destruction, and race and gender oppression are still deeply rooted in every facet of our society.  And we need to not just acknowledge that shit is fucked up, we need to say why it’s fucked up, who benefits from the status quo that harms so many people, who prevents the change that we need.  Are things fucked up because the financial elite have accumulated so much political and economic power that they’ve screwed the rest of us to make profits for themselves?  Are things fucked up because people with privilege allow white supremacy and patriarchy to continue their centuries-long stranglehold around all of our society’s institutions?  Or are things fucked up because America’s dark outsider enemies are taking advantage of our soft multiculturalism that’s made us too politically correct to stand up for our own people?

C) And of course, the most obvious lesson is that bold, unexpected things go viral.  The conventional wisdom in politics for a very long time has been that it is strategic to be mild and careful, to avoid controversy or gaffes that come from saying the wrong thing, to be meticulous and scripted and on-message.  In the viral era, we need to make bold statements about our core beliefs and policy platforms.  Here’s an exercise: Picture in your mind the most frequently talked-about Hillary Clinton platform.  I can barely think of any.  In fact, the first thing that popped into my mind was the free college for families making under $100k a year and that’s only because she copied Bernie Sanders’ thing and watered it down.  All the expensive 30-second TV spots and half-page mailers in the world reach, engage, and persuade a fraction of the people you can reach by simply doing or saying something that millions of regular people start talking about on the internet.  Most totally regular people could easily name 3-5 Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders platforms off the top of their heads and it wasn’t because they heard about them from an ad on TV.

Trump: Border Wall, mass deportations, Muslim registry, Ban/extreme vetting of refugees, renegotiate NAFTA and other trade deals, huge infrastructure plan, “drain the swamp” of political corruption

Sanders: Single payer healthcare, free college tuition, $15 minimum wage, raise taxes on 1%, overturn Citizens United, ban fracking, legalize marijuana, end for-profit prisons

Hillary Clinton had an immense wealth of thoroughly researched and developed policy proposals. And sincere or not, she arguably had a more progressive policy platform than any previous Democratic Party presidential nominee.  But they were still safe, old ideas, articulated in uninspiring ways.  Like a tree falling in an empty forest, your stances on issues don’t matter if nobody hears about them.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both massively underestimated by the political establishment again and again because their unorthodox platforms completely defied the commonly accepted wisdom.  They were not platforms that would have passed the old test: focus groups and polling to determine which policy stances would be supported by the largest amount of likely voters.  But they were genius because they weren’t targeted to be the message that would perform best among moderate voters.  They were viral platforms.  They were platforms whose greatest strength was motivating millions of everyday people to share that message with everyone they knew.  

These platforms are ones that say something about who we are for supporting them.  To be part of the Donald Trump movement meant you were a brave honest person unafraid to speak the truth against political correctness.  To be part of the Bernie Sanders movement meant being the voice of real people not influenced by corporate interests and lobbyists.

These aren’t just platforms, they’re stories.  They explain why things are fucked up now, point to the villains on the other side, and offer a path we can choose to challenge those villains directly and defeat them.  Along the way, we learn who we are, why we’re part of this, and the better world we seek to create.

The lesson here is in the viral era, instead of picking the message that gets the highest initial approval rating from the elusive “swing voter”, political leaders and movements will succeed by choosing a message that resonates most deeply among a base of supporters who will spread that message to the broader public.   When we develop a message, we often forget about the real-life implementation of delivering the message.  We assume it will be perfectly delivered to everyone, top-down by TV spots and glossy mailers and highly disciplined political operatives.  But in the real world, people don’t really trust these messengers, increasingly less so in a society unraveling, where people have a growing skepticism of institutions.  People trust people they know as messengers, people like them, people in their own communities.  Political movements need to create messages that ordinary people can and will effectively communicate to others when it comes to those conversations around the family dinner table or in the break room at work or in a bar with friends and yes, the macro-version of all of this, what they post on social media for hundreds of friends and relatives to see.

You could see Bernie Sanders’ message sweep like wildfire among young Americans.  He had deeply enthusiastic supporters among so many ordinary grassroots young people who, without any formal training or official talking points, could still articulate his campaign’s story.  Trump had this too.  Clinton did not.  A truly powerful message is one where a nervous volunteer on their first day can forget the talking points and still end up saying exactly what they need to say, because they actually understand and believe the core fundamental message of the movement at a deeper level.

Imagine if you asked the world’s top social media experts to find the demographic of people who make up the hardcore base of each party.  Then you told them “Forget the conventional political wisdom, instead develop a presidential campaign platform uniquely targeted just to appeal to this base group that will make them so inspired that they’ll want to share that message with their social networks”.  

They would quickly identify working-class rural white guys as the core Republican voter base and would probably develop something almost exactly like the Trump campaign to appeal to them: fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-outsourcing with huge promises on jobs, a populist anger towards political elites and political correctness, and a reduced emphasis on the trickle-down economics pushed by rich Republican donors.  Above all, the story told to the people who have seen declines in their social and economic status would be that this tough successful guy, this ultimate winner, was going to bring back the old America where times were better for blue-collar rural white guys.

The team would then look at the Democratic Party and come across a problem.  There are really two core voter bases: young people and people of color.  If they chose young people, who came of age during and after the financial crash, continue to struggle with debt and underemployment, and have had their fundamental faith in the political and economic system shaken, they would likely develop something very close to the Bernie platform.

More than any other factor, this is ultimately why Sanders came so close but failed to win the primary.  Bernie’s viral message was brilliantly-tailored to young white people, performed fairly well among young people of color, and was actually surprisingly strong among rural blue-collar white people.  But the Bernie Sanders story failed to resonate with older people of color, leading him to huge losses in the Deep South where black voters make up most of the Democratic base and the Southwest where Democrats are heavily Latino.  While Bernie won the majority of white voters, and a crushing majority of young people, he ultimately lost among Democrats overall.

But even though he lost, his campaign was still an unbelievable success that not only defied but destroyed the odds, powered by his immensely viral message.  Think about Bernie Sanders for a minute:  When he announces, no one in the establishment thinks he can even be taken seriously as a candidate, and even he doesn’t seem to think he has much chance of winning.  Pundits, analysts, and experts laugh at the idea.  He declares he will run without any corporate or PAC money, which he wouldn’t have gotten anyway.  And then something happens.  His social media is going nuts.  It’s kind of weird but it’s so unpolished, it’s so real, it sounds like him and looks like him and it is him, straight up what he really believes, not some fake TV-ready persona with heavily crafted talking points.  In a world of fake we crave realness.  Suddenly Bernie starts attracting huge crowds and massive amounts of small grassroots donations and an army of young volunteers.  Get this, the guy is literally openly running on taking down the corrupt elite not just in the financial system, but in the political system too, and he’s somehow getting away with it, people fucking love it, it’s a massive movement sweeping the country!  He’s nearly running neck and neck with the supposedly pre-determined heir to the throne Hillary Clinton, despite nearly every single elected official and Democratic party leader and major donor and media pundit lined up against him.  The people are speaking!  What the fuck, could this actually happen guys??

Now that’s a story I would follow constant updates on, wouldn’t you?  If I could share that story with pre-2016 me, with the headline “STUNNING UPSET: Unknown Socialist Senator inches from beating Hillary Clinton. Wall Street is PISSED.” you better believe pre-2016 me would click and share the shit out of that story.

Maybe Sanders and Trump aren’t the first social media candidates.  In some ways Obama came first.  But his campaign was like an earlier, cruder, 2008 version of social media virality: “Black Guy becomes president after Bush screws everything up.  You’ll never believe what happens NEXT!”  I mean, yeah sure I’d click on it too, but I’d know going in that it would be total clickbait.

Clinton’s campaign operated on a poorly imitated version of the Obama story and it just never really stuck.  “Woman who has been considered Most Likely Democratic Candidate for President for a decade continues running for president.  What happens next will be historic, but also roughly similar to what happened for the last 8 years.”  Not a story I’d be excited to tell my friends about.  And in fact, unfortunately I wasn’t, and neither was virtually anyone in my generation.

And Donald Trump?  Literally everything he does or says goes viral and he knows it.  Every tweet, every new ridiculous pronouncement, every outlandish move.  He is the undisputed king of social media.   Everything he says and does seems so real and unscripted and raw and unpredictable, you just can’t stop watching.  Even post-election that’s how he governs, making people come up into Trump tower to try to win cabinet appointments like some reality TV show, conducting international diplomacy with a tough guy “bring it on” attitude that threatens to send the world teetering on the brink of nuclear war, swooping in to “save” factory workers from outsourcing with some “deal” he crafted as a master negotiator.  America fucking loves watching billionaires do outrageous things with their money, show a total disregard for all the people we hate just because they can, say all the things you’re not supposed to be able to say, and win anyway.  With all his mountains of money he didn’t even need it to promote his campaign because TV just ran his speeches and tweets as news.  But they had to– they were just responding to a phenomenon already spreading through social media.  More and more, mainstream news stories are picked up from something social media starts paying attention to first.  That was the case with Trump and Bernie’s campaigns.  But it’s also the case of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock.  These movements realized they didn’t need the media establishment to take them seriously, as long as they were massively compelling and viral on social media, they could eventually force the mainstream media to cover it.

We need clear, consistent, and compelling narratives– we need stories– with heroes and villains and conflicts and arcs.  Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to define her own story and instead the story that stuck was the story told about her.  She became Claire Underwood from House of Cards: the calculating, ruthless, manipulative, cold woman operating in the shadows with an unquenchable thirst for power, using her vast web of connections among the elite to serve herself, standing for nothing but her own ambition.  This story has been told about her since I was a kid, too young to know who she was.  But as the 2016 campaign moved on and she never crafted a compelling alternative, the story stuck deeper and deeper in the minds of the public, until this character became woven in seamlessly into the Bernie and Trump stories as the perfect villain in both.

cf3411d8ebc8a567331c34d7b3fad559697382d340b705d3648a780f23f2172e_1Hillary Clinton’s story could have been “Grizzled Iron Lady stands against the rise of fascism”.  This is probably closest to what she tried to pull off, but in such a lackluster way it never really took off.  Clinton’s speech drawing attention to the growing white supremacist “alt-right” movement will probably be remembered as the most compelling and meaningful moment in her presidential run.  But the main story of her campaign never quite reached “Donald Trump is a slippery slope to real authoritarianism”.  It was more like “Donald Trump is rude and our kids shouldn’t hear that kind of language”.  She didn’t run ads showing the real life impact of parents being torn away from their children by mass deportation or comparing Trump’s Muslim registry to the dark realities of Japanese internment.  She ran ads showing him talk like your asshole drunk uncle.  And in the end, millions of Americans chose the asshole drunk uncle they wanted on their side in the bar fight the world feels like these days.  Clinton’s campaign actually helped tell Trump’s story, that he was a brutally honest tough guy who wouldn’t be held back by political correctness from doing whatever he needed to stand up for “real Americans” in this time of crisis.

I would have preferred the headline “Clinton recants 90’s politics, says Democratic Party needs to change for a new progressive era, and her presidency will mark a total departure from Bill’s.”  I would have been an evangelist for that message because that would have told a truly compelling story about how social movements sweeping the country are bringing change that our political leaders can’t ignore any longer.  Near the beginning of her campaign there was a real opportunity for this story to unfold.  Her first policy speech of the campaign– that she thought her husband’s 1990’s crime bill was a mistake and she now wants to undo mass incarceration– was actually a pretty big deal and generated lots of positive media coverage.  It told a story of her as someone with humanity and humility, who was here to fight the new battles, not just represent the old status quo, and her own woman independent of her husband’s legacy.  That and the free-ish college platform were probably the most decent attention she got from the media throughout the whole campaign, some of the only times the news cycle actually focused on her ideas or vision or policies instead of the latest development in her bizarre saga of stupid scandals.

So how did the political experts not see this coming?  How could they not see that we had entered this altered political state?  Part of the problem is we’re measuring support with traditional polls, which are becoming increasingly unreliable at predicting how people actually vote (see: Brexit).  Even our great mathmagician hero Nate Silver failed, although he suspected the rest of the polling world was being overconfident for Clinton and got a lot of flack for it from other pollsters.  What’s happening here?  With the rise of mobile phones with caller IDs, and with the declining number of people who even use a phone as a phone (young people like me basically only make actual phone calls in emergencies), most people don’t even pick up for unfamiliar numbers anymore, let alone choose to spend 20 minutes answering poll questions from a strange caller.  The small share of people who do pick up and answer polls are a skewed sample, the kind of people who tend to be more open and trusting, for example.  If there is a growth of angry cynical anti-establishment voters, they will be undercounted in poll after poll.

The response rate to polls is dramatically falling, and with it, their accuracy.  Trump would often point to shitty online polls with terrible methodology saying he was winning, and we dismissed it as a stupid petty man’s ego-driven desperation to see himself on top.  And yet those polls ended up being more right than all the mainstream phone polls and the statistics wizard-god Nate Silver.

There is a world online that traditional campaigns are not living in.  We are essentially running blind to what’s going on there.  People are living most of their lives online, and contrary to popular opinion that it’s all cat videos, people are having most of their political conversations online now too.  Those interactions deeply shape voters’ understandings of who candidates are, what kind of people support them, and what they stand for.

So what should we do, assign professional campaign staff to lurk on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit comment threads and argue with trolls?  Moving into this type of tactic would be quickly self-defeating as people would see right through it (“she’s a paid operative!!”)

The only way to win political battles in the viral era is to have a compelling message that real regular people will carry on their own through what they share with hundreds of friends and family members.  That means much more than saying things in an inspiring way, it means actually doing things that are inspiring.  It means motivating millions of ordinary people to become at least some small part of a mass social movement in their time.  The era of platforms based on incrementalist policy reforms that won’t scare the corporate donor base is over.  The era of triangulation and talking points calculated to find the least controversial stance on every issue is over.  The era of campaigns aimed at winning over the endorsements of old establishment gatekeepers is over.  It’s a time of movements now.  If we try to fight a wildfire with a watering can, it will consume us.

When we face a huge and sudden loss, it’s important to understand why the other side won and learn from them, but also to look at the things our side is doing right and learn from ourselves.  We are navigating and exploring this altered political state, building our ship as we sail it.  But we know what it looks like to build a powerful political movement in this strange new world.  We see it in Trump, of course.  But we’ve also seen it from Ferguson, Missouri to Zucotti Park, New York, to Standing Rock, North Dakota.  We’re building unstoppable movements for social, economic and environmental justice in this viral era.  We need to understand what it is about them that’s working, and follow that path to victory.

A Halfway Decent Progressive Guide to CA Propositions 2016

A little bit about this guide:

  1. 14725763_10154474556706043_1264228824933015289_nI believe being a progressive means paying for the needs of our community, like education, healthcare and infrastructure.  I believe it means ending the vast racial inequality embedded deeply within systems like our prison system and education system.  And I believe it means siding with workers, the environment, and the health and safety of the public over corporate profits.
  2. I care about the backstory of initiatives: who created it and funded it and why?  Are they a trusted advocate for that issue in the past?  What are their motives and what are the motives of their opponents?  Who profits and who loses if this passes or fails?
  3. I always vote against propositions that are not what they seem or aim to deceive or manipulate voters.  I think the initiative system is too often abused: hiding one agenda behind the guise of something else, using a competing initiative to confuse voters from supporting another, or claiming to do something that its authors know it actually won’t.
  4. Full disclosure, I’ve been campaigning for Props 55, 56 and 57 as part of a coalition of social justice groups running the largest grassroots field campaign in California.
  5. There are no more pictures.  Sorry.

PROP 51 – YES

Builds and repairs schools

California schools are usually built and repaired through bonds—borrowing money and paying it back over time.  Often local school districts pay part and the state matches the rest.  Prop 51 is a bigass statewide school bond.  California could use a lot more money to fix our crumbling schools.  The sticky issue with school bonds is inequality.  More of the statewide money from Prop 51 may go to wealthier districts who can more easily match the state’s funding.  But that also shows why we need a statewide school bond like Prop 51 in the first place– for poorer districts who struggle to finance new schools by themselves yet often have the most need for new schools.

PROP 52 – YES

Keeps hospital funding for low-income healthcare

This is probably the wonkiest, most obscure thing on the ballot this year.  Hospitals in California pay a fee: part goes back to the state, part goes back to hospitals as grants for treating low-income patients.  During California’s budget crisis years ago, the state took more than its usual share to help close the state deficit, which hospitals hated.  Prop 52 continues this fee (which is set to expire soon) while protecting the chunk of money meant for low-income healthcare from being raided for other purposes.  The state hospital association is sponsoring this initiative, and there’s no real organized opposition, so why not?

PROP 53 – NO

Makes it harder to build infrastructure

Prop 53 is bankrolled by one Dean Cortopassi, some rich guy obsessed with stopping the state’s Delta water tunnels because they would go through his land.  (California water politics is kinda nuts.)  Prop 53 would require voter approval any time the state borrows money to build infrastructure.  Funny thing though: general bonds that we repay with our taxes already require voter approval (remember voting for that high speed rail in 2008?).  The only bonds that don’t already require voter approval are the ones taxpayers aren’t on the hook for (like bridges that are paid for by the tolls charged to drivers crossing them).  So Prop 53 claims to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.  Even more obnoxiously, Prop 53 requires a statewide 2/3rds supermajority vote for local projects.  If we need some infrastructure in a particular community– say, to deal with a catastrophic fucking drought—if just 34% of voters in California don’t know or care about it, they can vote down the project.

PROP 54 – NO

Puts delays on state lawmaking to serve Republican interests

Prop 54 is funded by Charles Munger Jr., one of the biggest Republican mega-donors in the state.  I remember him from the millions he spent against a proposition I campaigned for in 2012 that taxed the wealthy to end our years of budget cuts to education.  So I’m inclined to oppose anything he likes.  Prop 54 is often sold as the proposition to put state bills online (as one viral voter guide put it “because it’s 2016”).  But uhh, here’s the thing though.  State legislation is already online.  It’s fucking here.  What Prop 54 more specifically does, is require all amendments to bills to be posted online 3 days before being voted on.  Important legislation often comes down to the wire, with last-minute negotiations and compromises between different sides of an issue being hammered out just before a final vote as the clock ticks towards the deadline.  Democracy is messy like that.  Republicans created Prop 54 to slow down the regular functioning of the state government by making every amendment take 3 days.  They don’t want our Democratic-controlled legislature to be efficient and productive and like… do things. Especially things like funding healthcare and education and fighting climate change and protecting people from being ripped off by corporations.  In fact, as someone who worked on it, I can tell you if Prop 54 had been in place, we couldn’t have passed the historic bill to give farmworkers equal rights to overtime this year.  Prop 54 will probably pass because it sounds good, but I’m voting against it.

PROP 55 – YES

Extends tax on wealthy that stopped budget cuts to our schools

In the 1970’s, California schools were the envy of the nation, but now we rank near the bottom, alongside peers like Louisiana and Mississippi.  For much of my time in school, California was in constant budget crisis, laying off teachers, cutting programs like afterschool tutoring and art and music, and raising college tuition.  But in 2012, we passed a tax on the richest 2% of Californians to fund our schools.  The usual anti-tax boys who cry wolf howled that it would sink California’s economy, all the rich people would leave and we’d never get our budget on track.  But after Prop 30 passed, not only did we finally stop the years of cuts and balance our budget, California’s economy grew faster than the rest of the country.  If this temporary tax expires, our schools will go right back to taking billions in devastating budget cuts.  Prop 55 extends the current tax rates on the wealthiest people to keep our schools funded until the year 2030.   It’s been an incredible success, so let’s keep it going.

PROP 56 – YES

Raises cigarette tax to fund healthcare

Public health advocates have long been trying to raise California’s relatively low tobacco tax, which has been flat since 1998.  Tobacco is our number one preventable cause of death and creates massive healthcare costs treating lung disease and cancer.  Tobacco companies target youth in low-income communities to get addicted at an early age.  The U.S. Surgeon General says raising the tobacco tax is one of the most effective ways to keep young people from starting to smoke– they may not care about public health warnings, but they’re still broke teenagers.  But the big reason to support Prop 56 isn’t the tax, but where the money goes.  Over 80% goes to MediCal, the primary source of healthcare for low-income California families who can’t afford private health insurance.  MediCal is underfunded and many doctors won’t accept it.  When low-income families get sick, it’s hard to find a quality doctor nearby who will take them, and they face long wait times and limited treatment options.  Prop 56’s $2 tax on tobacco products raises billions to boost MediCal funding.  The remaining funds go to smoking prevention programs in schools and research to cure smoking-related diseases.  Prop 56 will literally save lives by reducing teen smoking and improving healthcare treatment.  Even if you’re a smoker, you should ask yourself: is $2 a pack worth saving lives to you?

PROP 57 – YES

Reforms our overcrowded prison system 

Prop 57 is a critical step to reform our broken prison system.  The United States, the supposed land of the free, has more people in prison than any other country in the world.  With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 22% of the world’s prisoners.  California’s prisons are so inhumanely overcrowded, the Supreme Court ordered us to reduce our prison population.  The explosive growth of our prisons over the last few decades costs an eye-popping $50k per prisoner per year, compared to less than $10k we invest in each student.  Our prison system is vastly unfair: Latinos in California are imprisoned at a rate double that of whites, and black Californians are imprisoned at ten times the rate.  But not only is the system unfair and expensive, it’s ineffective at actually turning people’s lives around to stop the root cause of crime.  Young people make dumb mistakes—the white kids get community service, the black kids get jail time.  Youth who get sent to prison come out with no education or job experience, and a criminal record that keeps them from getting a job or going back to school.  With no opportunities to move their lives forward, they end up in a revolving door in and out of the prison system for life.  Prop 57 lets people who participate in education, job training, or rehabilitation programs earn time off their sentences.  This helps people finally break the cycle of being in and out of jail and get their lives on the right track instead.

PROP 58 – YES

Ends the ban on bilingual education

This issue traces its roots to the 90’s, when California was swept by anti-immigrant backlash.  It was the peak of the immigration wave from Mexico and Trump-style immigration politics had swept the state.  Hard to believe now but in the 90’s, California was a red state, whose voters elected a hardline anti-immigrant governor and voted in a series of harsh initiatives to punish immigrants.  Back in 1998, California voters banned bilingual education– classes would have to be taught in English only.  If a kid comes to the U.S. from Mexico, and they’re great at math and science, but don’t really speak English, a teacher who speaks Spanish is banned from teaching them math or science in Spanish.  While they struggle to learn English, a process which takes years, they fall farther and farther behind in all their classes.  Personally I think our education system’s goal shouldn’t be to convert students from their first language to English, but for them to fluently speak, read and write both.  In a globalized economy, multilingual proficiency is a huge asset, and one that we should promote in all of our students, including those born in the US.  Prop 58 says let’s just do away with this ban and its outdated politics, and give local teachers and principals the choice of how to teach.

PROP 59 – YES

Symbolically supports overturning Citizens United

Remember Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that decided since corporations share the same legal rights as people, that they have the “free speech” right to spend unlimited amounts of money buying our elections?  Shitty, right?  People want to amend the constitution to change that, but it’s not that easy.  Founding Fathers thought they were so damn smart.  You need a 2/3rds vote in both the House and Senate, and then 3/4ths of all state legislatures.  Kinda difficult when most state and federal representatives depend on corporate cash to fuel their campaign ads and when the party that controls both houses of Congress and the vast majority of state legislatures (rhymes with Shmepublicans) will fight it to the death because they would lose more money than their opponents.  So California activists put a symbolic resolution on the ballot to be voted on by the people.  Prop 59 doesn’t change anything now, but it’s part of a long game to build momentum by sending a message that voters want corporate money out of politics.

PROP 60 – NO

Requires condoms in porn

This is the hardest one to get guidance on because so few trusted organizations have taken an official stance since the topic involves icky penises. I originally supported Prop 60, because I think all workers should have the protective safety equipment needed in their job to keep them from getting injured, sick or dead.  Construction workers need hardhats, people in labs handling chemicals need gloves and masks, sex workers need condoms.  And I don’t trust any industry to regulate itself for worker safety.  And beyond preventing porn actors from contracting HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, etc., I think there’s a broader value in promoting condom use since so many young people (especially in more conservative communities) receive much of their education about sex from porn.  But after getting pushback from sources I trust, what ultimately convinced me is that it really seems like most workers in the industry, including the Adult Performer Actors Guild and the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, are against Prop 60.  In the end, to me this is a labor issue, and I trust workers to know their own conditions better than the rest of us, including everything from concerns like “condom rash” from working long days of epic sex rubbing on latex, to the relative effectiveness of STD testing versus condoms, to the risk of greater dangers for porn actors if the industry goes underground in the wake of the heavy-handed enforcement mechanisms written into Prop 60.  I do still believe worker safety standards in porn and other forms of sex work need to be set, but they should be written in a way that values and raises up the voices of the workers, rather than imposing rules from above like Prop 60 does.

PROP 61 – YES

Curbs pharmaceutical prices

Also known as “the one Bernie Sanders is campaigning for”.  It uses the power of public healthcare programs to curb the abuses of the pharmaceutical industry:  Mylan bought Epipen and raised the price from $58 to $600.  Infamous “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli bought the AIDS drug Daraprim and raised it from $13.50 to $750.  These guys know they can charge whatever they want because people have almost unlimited demand for their product because it’s literally a matter of life or death. There’s no stable equilibrium– prices for life-saving medication just shoot up for seemingly no reason other than pleasing Wall Street shareholders.  But in many other countries, prescription drugs cost far less than in the U.S.  Their big public universal healthcare programs negotiate with drug companies on behalf of their citizens.  Like WalMart, the bigger you are, the more buying power you have, letting you demand low prices from your suppliers.  A pharmaceutical company might want to jack up its prices, but it can’t afford to lose the millions of people in Canada’s healthcare system.  So Canadians on average pay 23% less for prescription drugs than we do.  We actually do this in the US too– for veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs negotiates drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and pays over 20% less than other agencies.  Prop 61 would peg the prices that California healthcare programs pay for medication to whatever price the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs negotiates with drug companies.  Prop 61 uses a strategy proven to work across the world to generate huge savings that stay in our pockets instead of going into the pockets of Big Pharma.

PROP 62 – YES

Ends the death penalty

There are two reasons to end the death penalty:  money and morals.  It’s great that it would save us money, but for me it’s about the morals.  A criminal justice system as clearly biased as ours has no business killing people.  All justice systems make mistakes sometimes– innocent people are put behind bars and guilty people walk free.  But an execution is the ultimate and final injustice, a mistake that can never be undone. That’s why over the last few decades, nearly two thirds of countries across the world abolished it.  Human beings in the future will likely see the death penalty in the same way we now view locking someone up in the stocks or chaining them up in a dungeon.  But for now, the U.S. remains one of the few countries committed to the death penalty, with our government carrying out the fifth highest number of executions last year after China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  The truth is, Prop 62 isn’t really much kinder or gentler– it replaces death sentences with life in prison without possibility of parole, where you’re required to work and send 60% of those meager wages to the victim’s family until you die.  But at least as a society we can say we’re better than using murder to punish murder.

PROP 63 – YES

Regulates buying ammunition

Prop 63 is a slightly stronger version of a package of gun control measures the state legislature passed a few months ago.  Backstory: California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom really wants to be governor.  Lieutenant Governor sounds important, but doesn’t have much power to accomplish substantial things you can put your name on.  So Newsom sponsored a ballot proposition to reduce gun violence.  Some in the legislature who had been working on gun control for years, felt this was an annoying publicity tactic, and passed some bills that basically did the same thing.  This makes Prop 63 pretty anticlimactic– its biggest principles are already passed– requiring a background check to buy ammo and banning the high-capacity magazines used in mass shootings.  But Prop 63 goes farther in terms of enforcement– it creates a $50 permit to buy ammunition that sellers can easily check, while putting harsher penalties on underground ammo sales, gun theft and illegal gun ownership.  This isn’t just for show.  Tools like registration systems and serious penalties help turn a law on the books into something that’s actually followed in real life.  And there’s a pretty strong correlation between countries and states with stricter gun laws and places with fewer gun deaths.  The political games surrounding this proposition were childish, but Prop 63 will still probably save lives.

PROP 64- YES

Legalizes marijuana

Hey, it’s the weed one! It’s technically illegal in California, although you probably don’t know anybody who smokes pot who has a hard time getting it.  However, while we don’t send people to prison for smoking it here anymore, we’re still throwing plenty of black and brown kids behind bars for selling it (while white college kids get a slap on the wrist).  Prop 64 legalizes, regulates and taxes the use and sale of recreational marijuana. It keeps it illegal to sell or advertise to minors (under 21), drive under the influence, or use it in public (basically alcohol rules, and marijuana is much less harmful than alcohol).  Eventually, like alcohol, big corporations will probably take over the industry.  But for the first five years, large-scale cultivation will be banned, giving smaller growers a chance to establish themselves.  With a massive shift in public opinion in recent years, legal marijuana seems to be just a matter of time.  People are going to keep doing it, so Prop 64 ensures we have an open system where the production meets environmental and labor standards and where kids aren’t going to jail or being killed by cartel violence.

PROP 65 – NO

Deceptive initiative from plastics industry

Prop 65 seems good at first glance.  If California bans plastic grocery bags and puts a fee on paper, shouldn’t those fees go to environmental projects?  Hmmm… yet essentially every real environmental organization in the state opposes Prop 65.  That’s because it was put on the ballot by the plastic industry, who’s been fighting the plastic bag ban for years.  Their goal is to confuse voters and spread a cynical message– that the plastic bag ban isn’t really about protecting the environment, it’s actually some vast conspiracy by the all-powerful grocery stores to make huuuuge profits by charging you 10 cents for a paper bag if you forget your reusable cloth bag at home.  Oh thank goodness the noble plastic companies will stand up for the environment since no one else will!  No one should be rewarded for putting stupid shit like this on the ballot, especially self-serving corporate interests.  Trust California’s environmental organizations, not plastic companies, and vote no on 65.

PROP 66 – NO

Speeds Up the Death Penalty

Prop 66 is a competing initiative against Prop 62 that speeds up the death penalty instead of ending it.  Its real goal is to keep the death penalty by peeling off some of the voters who want to end it, not because of the morals, but because of the money.  Progressives see the death penalty as inhumane.  But some conservatives want to end our current system in California because it’s so costly and ineffective.  A death sentence actually costs 18 times more than a life sentence without parole, due to extra high security on death row (a bunch of people with nothing to lose), and a much more drawn out legal process (death row inmates often fight their decisions in court until the end).  With support for ending the death penalty at an all-time high, conservatives realized their most effective strategy was to put Prop 66 on the ballot and split the vote, denying Prop 62 the majority vote needed to pass.  But by speeding up the death penalty process to save money, you increase the likelihood of killing innocent people. The problem with the death penalty is both money and morals, and we shouldn’t save money by abandoning our morals.

PROP 67 – YES

Bans single-use plastic grocery bags

I worked a bit on this in my college days.  I still remember some of the facts, like the swirling mass of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas.  Our society’s insane use of single-use plastic products for literally everything is filling our oceans and rivers, our most beautiful open spaces, and our streets and neighborhoods, with plastic shit we use for five minutes and then toss away to blow around the world for thousands and thousands of years and end up in the bellies of dead wildlife.  This has been a long time coming, with countless cities and counties across California passing local bans, followed by a statewide ban passed by our legislature, which was suspended as the plastics industry funded an effort to try to kill it.  Now it’s on the ballot for you to have the final say.  I first worked on this in 2010 and it’s been held up since then by corporate fuckery.  It’s time to just get this over with already.  Just buy a few reusable cloth bags for like 99 cents each (or be a scavenger like me and look for free giveaways).  Save some damn sea turtles bro, it’s really not that difficult.

Bernie won’t win. But we will.

 

8tgfk4HI’ve held a quiet fear throughout the Bernie Sanders campaign.  With every breathlessly excited conversation with friends who were feeling the Bern, the hope swelling in me was pulled back by that nagging fear. I was afraid of the growing hero worship of Bernie.  I worried that when faced with disappointment, with loss and uncertainty and doubt, that a whole generation of young people would become disempowered, disillusioned, disheartened and disengaged.  I was terrified that our generation would learn all the wrong lessons, learn that we were powerless in a dark and uncaring world.  But that couldn’t be further from the truth.  This generation is so powerful we’ve changed the political landscape in this country beyond what anyone could have imagined.  But when we have so much love for our leaders, sometimes we come to forget that we are leaders too.

Bernie Sanders is Gandalf.  He’s Obi Wan Kenobi.  He’s Dumbledore.  He’s an old man who’s seen some things, with the wisdom and integrity to guide a younger generation through a time of great moral crisis.  He’s a grizzled sage with the courage to speak the truth to define right from wrong in the face of a rising darkness.

But in these stories, the wise old man isn’t the one who saves the world.  Instead the world depends on the young heroes who only truly step into leadership once their mentor is lost. 

Before then, they cling to the wise old man, hoping he can fight the war, hoping he can fix things.  The elder knows this is not possible, and warns the heroes that he can’t do it for them.  But they refuse to hear it.  They’re afraid they don’t have what it takes, that the mounting forces of greed and hatred are too powerful. It’s only when the wise elder is gone (or at least seems to be) that the young heroes are faced with a choice.  They can give up and accept the world as it will be without them, accept the world happening to them.  Or they can happen to the world—they can alter the outcome of their own destiny and the destiny of everyone they love and the place they call home.

We know this story.  We’ve grown up with it our entire lives.  But somewhere along the way we forgot it.  We forgot that we were always going to face this moment.  The moment where the young feel lost, where their guide, their voice of wisdom who always seemed to know the right thing to say and do, is suddenly struck down, leaving us aimless and filled with doubt and fear.

Bernie Sanders was never going to be able to fight our battles for us.  He told us this in every speech.  He told us that the system we had to change was far more vast and complex than just who sits in the Oval Office of the White House.  That he couldn’t change it alone, that it would take all of us.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has moved so many people, from those getting involved for the first time in their lives to lifelong activists who felt this time might be different.  So many people are now experiencing a crushing wave of disillusionment wash over them, and it breaks my heart because we deserve better.  We believe in a simple idea: that we deserve a political and economic system that actually works for the people, not the wealthy and powerful.  And now we’re aware more than ever how far away that is.

But that day of disillusionment was always coming, sooner or later. 

For many it came sooner, as we saw the Bernie campaign struggle to overcome the Clintons’ longer-established relationships built in communities of color, leading to steep losses among older Black Democrats in the South and older Latino Democrats in the Southwest, losing the national popular vote and leaving the campaign’s only hope of winning a half-cocked plan to overturn the vote of the people by somehow gaining the support of the superdelegates who had been stacked against Bernie from the beginning.

In another world, the disappointment might have come later.  If Bernie won the presidency, like the dog that finally catches the car, we would likely have been left wondering what to do next.  With no real groundwork laid or resources invested into electing allies to Congress, most of his agenda would have quickly ground to a halt.

Bernie knew all along that even if we elected him, he wouldn’t be able to solve everything through the sheer power of his words and integrity and justice.  He told us over and over again that to end the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few it would take a revolutionary shift in our political landscape, the kind of tectonic shift that changes everything.  That kind of change takes organizing people in the streets to create political pressure that can’t be ignored, getting the right people elected in every community across the country, and building grassroots organizations that can sustain that vision and hold them accountable.

If we are disillusioned now it’s because we were suffering from too many illusions to begin with.  It was the inevitable result of this insane hero worship of Bernie that he never expected of us and never asked us for.

A movement is so much more than one person, one candidate. We often don’t realize that because we were taught bad history.  We learned in school about social movements by reading about individual charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez, but that’s not how it actually happens.  It happens because millions of everyday people like you and me do little things in every corner of the country, and together our actions swell into an unstoppable tide.

Bernie Sanders didn’t start this movement and his defeat (yes–we can say it–defeat) sure as hell won’t end it. 

There are people in this world who are just out there being themselves and somehow one day they end up in the right place at the right time, when the world needs someone like them.  That’s Bernie.  He’s been fighting greed and bigotry his whole life from his corner of the world in Vermont, and decided to run a campaign for president if only just to show that there was an alternative, to push Hillary Clinton, to force a real debate on inequality.  No one predicted, including him, that our generation would put that campaign in the history books.

The media barely covered it as a joke, DC insiders rolled their eyes.  Yet suddenly thousands of young people were showing up to his rallies, he was raising money to rival the super PACs through countless small donors from every part of the country, word was spreading through social media and he was rapidly climbing in the polls, running neck and neck with Clinton.

But Bernie didn’t start this.  He wasn’t just some overnight success.  Bernie tapped into something that had been bubbling for years since the financial crash.  Perhaps we first glimpsed it in 2011, when tens of thousands of students and teachers and workers occupied the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin to protest Governor Walker, the first glimmer that the anti-austerity protests sweeping Europe in the aftermath of the financial meltdown might also have life here in the United States.  Later that year it exploded into the Occupy Wall Street protests that rocked nearly every major city in the nation and completely shifted the political debate.  Although the Occupy encampments dissolved, the huge shift in U.S. politics on the issue of economic inequality translated into real policy gains, most notably the dazzling string of victories raising the minimum wage in cities and states, at a scale that would have been unthinkable if not laughable just a couple years ago.  Bill de Blasio being elected mayor of New York, Elizabeth Warren elected Senator from Massachusetts, these were waves in the same political tide.

So although no one inside the DC beltway thought it was possible, Bernie Fucking Sanders actually gave Hillary Fucking Clinton a run for her money she’ll never forget.  Yeah, Bernie Sanders, that Jewish democratic socialist congressman from the middle of nowhere.  And Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy seemed so completely inevitable that no serious candidate wanted to run against her.  If you told any DC insider two years ago that Bernie Sanders would win half the states in the country over Clinton, they would have laughed in your face.  And they’ll continue to laugh when we tell them that this movement is still burning, that it’s only going to continue to grow, that the young and restless are coming for them.  But based on the accuracy of all their predictions lately, the political analysts on TV don’t know shit.

The vast majority of voters under the age of 40, in every demographic, in every region of the country, chose Sanders.  Sanders won young people by an even more astronomical margin than Obama did in 2008.  The ideas and values of social democracy won our generation, not some young charismatic candidate or some rebellion against the disaster of the Bush years.  The ideas of universal healthcare and higher education, of reigning in Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry, of guaranteeing a living wage, of making the wealthy pay their fair share, of getting corporate money out of politics.  Regardless of who wins in 2016, the future of American politics, of American history, is our generation.

The change we need won’t come on Election Day.  It was never going to.  It will only happen if we organize, at a much deeper level than a campaign for one presidential candidate. 

The change we need will happen when we build organizations with lasting power, from the ground up, in communities across the country.  We need to build grassroots organizations that have the capacity to mass mobilize voters like the Working Families Party in New York, or California Calls in California.  We need a re-energized labor movement pushing bold initiatives like Fight for 15 or the Black Friday strikes at WalMart.  We need Dreamers and Black Lives Matter activists marching in the streets.  We need a better Democratic Party in every county, in every state, that’s accountable to us and not to corporate interests.

We need organizations willing to truly challenge corporate power and change the game.  These organizations will look differently in different communities. Just as Bernie’s platform and message were honed to perfection over a lifetime of representing folks in rural New England, an organized force to address inequality in the Southwest must put the exploitation of immigrant workers front and center, in the South must confront the legacy of slavery and entrenched racial inequality, in the Midwest must work to rebuild communities devastated by globalization.

Here’s what the political revolution looks like for me:  My community stretches up the Central Coast of California, where the agriculture and oil industries once dominated local politics, where developers are salivating over land to grab for cheap and sell for more, where demographic change from immigration has led to racial tension, but also the beginning of a progressive majority.  Here, we’re fighting oil and gas companies to stop new drilling and power plants being built in our communities.  We’re struggling with the agriculture industry to win better labor conditions for farmworkers and protections from toxic pesticides around our schools.  We’re going head to head with real estate developers to keep our communities affordable for the working-class that’s lived here for generations.

So what can you do in your own community?

  • Get involved in a local organization in your city, or start a new one, that will bring together regular working people to demand our local elected officials are accountable to us, not big corporations.
  • Organize your coworkers to start a union and together have real bargaining power to demand better treatment, better wages and benefits, and a voice in the workplace.
  • Organize the tenants in your apartment building to stop rent increases and evictions and force your landlord to repair the rundown building.
  • Join other progressives to take charge of your county’s Democratic central committee and make sure your local party pushes for candidates willing to take on corporate interests to stand up for our people and our planet.
  • Run for your city council or support a candidate who will fight landlords and developers for affordable housing and tenants’ rights, raise the minimum wage and pass laws raising standards for local workers, stop companies from building polluting projects or extracting fossil fuels in your community, shift the city’s budget from police to community services promoting health and education, and cap donations to local political campaigns to keep out big corporate money.

The political revolution in my community won’t look the same as the political revolution in yours.  But wherever you are, whatever you do, bring people together into something that will last, challenge the people holding all the money who think they hold all the power, and win real victories that matter to real people.

You won’t have to do it alone.  There are countless people just like you who believe in a better world.  You just have to find them.  Luckily, you might already know a few.

The Discriminatory Roots of Odd-Year Elections

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Nationwide the 2015 election had the lowest voter turnout the country has seen in 72 years, 36%.  Countless state, county, city, and school races across the US went scarcely noticed by voters.  San Francisco held a hugely controversial election that many commentators said was a battle for the city’s soul, with millions of dollars spent on ballot initiatives aimed at the city’s spiraling housing costs and rapid gentrification.  Yet only 41% of registered voters cast ballots.  Closer to my home, the city of Santa Barbara held a historic election, its first since switching to city council districts, which promised the potential to shake up City Hall, yet voter turnout was 38%.

Why Odd-Year Elections Keep People From Voting

Local governments that choose to hold their elections in odd-numbered years typically see far lower voter turnout, often dropping by half, and the voters that cast ballots are overwhelmingly whiter, older, and wealthier than those who participate in general elections.

Imagine a working immigrant mother who recently became a US citizen.  She’s excited to vote, but has never done it before.  After working long hours cleaning houses, picking her kids up from childcare, cooking them dinner and washing the dishes, she realizes it’s election day and the polls close in an hour.  The local city council elections haven’t really been covered on TV, which focuses mostly on national news, and are rarely mentioned in the weekly local Spanish newspaper.  The candidates don’t bother knocking on doors in her apartment complex, where few residents are eligible or registered to vote, and even fewer turn out during odd-year elections.  She doesn’t know who is running for city council, what they stand for, or what issues are being debated.  With time running out before the polling booths close, she decides she’ll wait to vote next year, when she can cast her ballot for the president.

The gap between voter turnout in national elections and odd-year local elections has widened over the years, with a few potential causes:

  • Demographic change means there are more voters like the woman mentioned above, young people or immigrants who are new to voting and have less access to information about local politics.
  • Americans are working longer hours, which means they feel more and more strained for time to follow local politics, research issues, and vote.
  • As campaigns have become longer and more expensive, people living in cities or states where an election takes place every year feel overwhelmed and fatigued by trying to research and sort through information in seemingly endless election seasons.
  • Local newspapers and TV stations have declined, gone bankrupt, and laid off investigative journalists, while national cable news like Fox News and national online news sites like the Huffington Post have boomed, leaving voters with scarce access to information about local issues.

The problem with odd-year elections made national headlines after the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where off-cycle elections are one of the primary reasons why the city government so starkly lacked representation from the majority black community.

The Anti-Irish History of Odd-Year Elections

But why do these off-cycle elections even exist?  What reason does a city have to hold an election separate from the state and national elections?  Why spend extra taxpayer dollars to run a separate election when it clearly leads to lower voter turnout?

The answer lies in history.  Off-cycle elections are mostly credited to Progressive Era reformers in the late 1800’s who saw them as a way to fight corruption in big cities.  But they were also a favorite policy of anti-immigrant political groups who blamed rapidly growing populations of Irish and other immigrants for using urban political machines to get jobs and services for their communities.

Sarah Anzia is probably the leading academic scholar studying odd-year elections.  While much of the attention on her work has focused on her suggestion that public employee unions are one of the major factors keeping municipal elections in odd years, I think something much more interesting is buried in her earlier examination of the history of odd-year elections.  Their original intent was primarily to break the backs of Irish political organizations in big cities.

Anzia found that by the 1890’s, when Progressive Era reformers took up the cause of off-cycle elections for cities, there had already been a long history of politicians changing the dates of city elections to manipulate outcomes.  There is no thorough national record of this history, but it can be dug up in case studies of individual cities.  Off-cycle elections emerged during the mid-1800’s through what Anzia refers to as “partisan power plays”, political parties jockeying to change the rules of the game to help them win.  Specifically in cities like New York and San Francisco, it was a result of an alliance between anti-corruption reform parties and nativist anti-immigrant parties who found a common enemy in the Democratic Party, which in many big cities had become dominated by a well-organized urban Irish voter turnout machine.

An Alliance Between Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Corruption Activists

For many reformers in the 1800’s, Irish and corruption were synonymous.  The era was the height of a wave of immigration to the rapidly industrializing US from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe.  Immigrants lived in extreme poverty, worked under highly exploitative conditions, and received little assistance or rights from the government.  More than any other group, the Irish built political power in the US’s biggest cities in response to the intense racism Irish immigrants met when they arrived.  Tammany Hall and other Irish-dominated political organizations ensured immigrant communities access to basic services, jobs and emergency assistance, built infrastructure and charities, and were rewarded by a loyal bloc of voters.  Yet they also became a symbol of corruption, rewarding their supporters with government jobs and giving bribes to get what they wanted, especially under New York’s notorious Boss Tweed.

Of course history is written by the victors, and the late 1800’s political battles between middle-class Protestant whites of English descent and the working poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants are simplistically depicted as the good reformers versus the corrupt mobsters.  There was corruption in the urban immigrant political machines no doubt.  But poor people and immigrants voted for them because they provided basic infrastructure and human services in their neighborhoods and defended their rights, as opposed to the intensely racist treatment they got from parties like the Whigs or the Know Nothings.  As we make policy today, we should examine this history with a critical eye to separate real anti-corruption efforts like civil service reform from shameless attempts to break Irish political power like odd-year elections.

The reform movements of the late 1800’s certainly had their discriminatory undertones, walking the fine line between hating corrupt Irish political machines and hating Irish people.  Legendary reformer cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose work is shown in this post, is credited in history textbooks with taking down notorious Boss Tweed but often depicted Irish people as drunken violent monkey-like creatures who had taken over the country.  The movement’s belief in rational scientific progress flirted at times with eugenics, the idea that keeping the poor and uneducated from breeding would further the human race.  And the push for alcohol prohibition was often tied to the idea that Irish, Russians and other urban immigrant groups were drunks who were ruining the moral fiber of American society.

San Francisco and New York

But in the case of off-cycle elections, the switch was often won through a direct alliance between anti-corruption reformers and anti-immigrant bigots.  In 1850’s New York, the racist nativist Know Nothing party allied with the Whigs (precursors to Republicans) in the state legislature to separate New York’s city election away from the state and national elections.  Voter turnout for city elections plunged, especially for Democrats, who depended on working-class immigrant voters who failed to turn out in off-cycle elections.

Irish who came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush brought Tammany Hall-style political organization to the West Coast in the 1850’s.  The People’s Party, a local San Francisco party that drew its support from both the financial elite and anti-Irish nativists, was born in response.  During their decade of control of San Francisco, the People’s Party led a successful push to switch San Francisco to off-cycle elections by allying with Republicans in the state legislature to change the city’s charter.

These cities set the precedent for a trend that swept the country decades later.  Today, our cities are facing low voter turnout and unequal representation because of a policy rooted in anti-Irish racism.  There is no evidence now that cities with even-year elections have any more corruption than those with odd-years.  But the much greater threat facing our democracy, the power of unlimited corporate money, is made much more powerful in low turnout off-years, when voters are disengaged and tuned out, and it’s easy to buy an election.

Today’s defenders of odd-year elections say that if local elections are moved to even-years that local issues will be drowned out by national politics.  They say that the small turnouts for odd-year elections are actually a good thing—that a small group of citizens who are well-informed and pay attention to local issues are the ones who should make the decisions.

But is it possible that the “uninformed” voter has something meaningful to contribute to their community?  That a young person or low-wage worker who rides the bus every day might actually have a better perspective on the city’s public transit system than a member of the Chamber of Commerce who has seen a presentation by a city official on the subject?  That an undocumented immigrant or young black person may not go to the same dinner parties as city councilmembers and school board trustees, but they’ve experienced harassment at the hands of city police that the members of the Rotary Club have no idea about?  That while some people’s definition of local issues are limited to parking and potholes, the family who just got evicted because they can’t afford rent might consider raising the city’s minimum wage to be an important local issue?

Odd-year elections are driven by a fear of the people that tears against the fabric of our democracy.  It’s a fear that the people are too stupid to govern themselves.  Although it might be couched in more polite language today, it’s the same fear of the ignorant Irish masses, mindlessly mobilized by political machines.  Today’s defenders of odd-year elections should know the history of what they’re defending because they carry on its legacy today.

 

Is Paid Family Leave the Next Fight for 15?

Maybe it’s the #FightFor16 – the 16 weeks of paid time off from work to care for a newborn child that DC’s city council is considering offering to its residents.

While mandatory paid maternity (and often paternity) leave is nearly universal across the globe and broadly popular with policy experts and the public, it’s had difficulty gaining traction in Congress. But by learning from the lessons of the Fight For 15 movement that has increased the minimum wage in cities across the US, advocates could soon find this policy sweeping the country like wildfire, with DC as the first spark.

Why a Popular Policy Goes Nowhere in Congress

Much like paid family leave, the public overwhelmingly supports raising the minimum wage, which has absolutely no effect on whether a congressional bill will be signed into law. Momentum for a higher minimum wage is being fueld by the combination of a political landscape dominated by a national debate over economic inequality and an economic landscape where a wageless economic “recovery” has failed to raise average workers’ incomes. Support for raising the wage is shared broadly across race, age, income, gender and even political party divides because for most people it’s a simple moral issue: no one who works full-time should live in poverty. Yet while few people support a low minimum wage, lobbying powers like the Chamber of Commerce and National Restaurant Association have managed to grind the issue to a halt in Congress. Corporate interests with deep pockets are able to hold Republican lawmakers tightly in line with the business agenda while also maintaining a firm grip on Democrats in swing districts seeking big money donors for tough reelection battles. In the gridlocked era where virtually zero meaningful legislation has been signed into law since the Tea Party wave of 2010, something like the minimum wage is dead on arrival, no matter how much popularity it has with the public.

Source: Council of Economic AdvisersPaid family leave has similar broad support, including a majority of Republicans—who would be against parents being allowed to spend time with their newborn children? Its growing popularity is tied to rising concerns about American work-life balance as the average workweek reaches 47 hours and American women’s presence in the workplace has stalled while continuing to rise in other countries. Major companies like Netflix have gained recent national attention and praise for adopting paid family leave for their workers (although they exclude their low-wage workers who need it most, showing why we can’t rely on the benevolence of our corporation-people-friends).  It’s become a major campaign issue in the 2016 presidential election, playing a prominent role in the first Democratic debate and even getting lip service from Marco Rubio. Yet despite being one of the most popular kids at the public policy party, family leave faces the same impossible odds in Congress as the minimum wage.

Why the Fight for 15 Movement is Working Anyway

Despite a congress made dysfunctional by GOP obstruction and corporate money, the national movement to raise the minimum wage went in two years from impossible to unstoppable. When fast food workers first began striking in 2013, demanding $15/hour wages, serious journalists and political pundits inside the beltway dismissed the cause as laughable. But the labor and social justice organizers working to lay the groundwork of the FightFor15 movement knew what they were doing. The strategy had been tested already with a push for a modest $10 minimum wage ballot initiative in San Jose delivering a win in 2012. The first $15/hour minimum wage victory came in 2013 with a massive and expensive battle in the tiny town of Seatac, WA, whose economy is anchored by the Seattle-Tacoma international airport. Seatac was the perfect place to prove that 15 was possible. Meanwhile nearby, the $15 minimum wage debate had landed in the center of the Seattle mayoral race and after the election the city council negotiated an agreement with business interests to pass an increase, bringing national attention as the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage. Wage increases continued to sweep the left-leaning West Coast, especially the many cities of the San Francisco Bay Area. Moderate minimum wage hikes were put on the ballot across the country in the 2014 election, passing in four rural red states. When the Los Angeles City Council reached an agreement this year to pass a $15 wage in the second largest city in the US, raising up a low-wage workforce many times the size of Seattle or San Francisco, there was no denying that $15 had gone from pipe dream to national benchmark.

The strategy was a tectonic shift for the labor movement. Traditionally unions have invested massive resources into electing Democrats to Washington, DC and trying to push them to take a pro-labor stance on federal legislation, a strategy which has had little success on key issues like opposing trade agreements and removing barriers to workers unionizing. Yet over the past few years, organized labor has experimented with investing heavily in local grassroots organizing, including fast food and retail workers who face long odds of forming unions under current laws. They’ve pushed full steam ahead with minimum wage campaigns, often using ballot initiatives to bypass elected officials influenced by corporate donors and ride strong support among regular people to victory.

Fight for 15’s strategic brilliance is based on a few key concepts perfectly tailored to the political environment of the 2010’s:

  1. Going Hard: Winning these battles requires maximizing the one asset we have– people power. By staking out a position like $15/hour strong enough to actually excite and mobilize regular people (even if the conventional wisdom of political elites said it was impossible) Fight for 15 built an unstoppable movement from the ground up.
  2. Going Local: The farther away from regular people the decisionmaking process gets, the less power everyday working people have and the more power corporate lobbyists have. Pushing for citywide or sometimes statewide minimum wage hikes built grassroots momentum and kept the movement from being bogged down in Washington DC.
  3. Going Simple: Of the many policy ideas to address economic inequality, the minimum wage is one of the simplest, which paints the choice for voters in clear moral terms. The more this battle is fought out in broad daylight rather than in backroom negotiations over the wonky details of obscure policy, the more it draws a clear divide between corporate lobbyists and regular people.

Why Paid Family Leave is Next

The DC proposal for paid family leave picks up on all of these strategic elements. It’s the first time paid family leave has ever been done at a city level. It’s also far bolder of a proposal than any state has adopted, with no state offering more than 8 weeks or coming close to fully paying workers’ normal income during that time. (Here in California you can get up to 6 weeks at 55% of your normal wages by tapping into your state disability benefits). The DC plan is 16 weeks fully paid leave for workers who earn up to $52k a year, with half pay above that, and includes adoption and LGBT families. And while it’s a little more complex than a minimum wage increase, the overall concept is a simple one that makes obvious sense to the average voter.

While a majority of American workers earn above $15 an hour, only 11% of Americans have paid family leave.  Paid family leave makes the biggest difference in the lives of working-class women, but it also helps bring in the solidarity of professional-class women who know how precarious their own economic status can be and how awful family care policy is in the US. And it taps into a growing number of men, especially young men who came of age in a time of shifting gender roles, and genuinely want to be present in their children’s lives but are being held back by Stone Age workplace policies and cultures that don’t accommodate paternal leave. In fact, men doubled their share of taking family leave after California adopted paid family leave in 2004.

A good campaign can be led by the people who are most directly affected, brings in new people to the movement and energizes those who are already part of it, makes tangible lasting change in people’s lives, exposes the bad guys for how shitty they truly are, and ultimately shifts the balance of power. That’s what Fight for 15 has done and that’s what paid family leave has the potential to do too.

It’s part of something bigger

What’s happening right now is not just a series of campaigns to raise the minimum wage. It’s the revival of a labor movement that engages the vast majority of Americans who aren’t union members. It’s collective bargaining at a mass scale of not just one company’s employees, but the population of entire regional economies like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. It’s not just minimum wage increases that are being won by this strategy. Many of the ballot initiatives and ordinances have also included paid sick days and wage theft enforcement. San Francisco has even begun to lay out the right to a predictable, sane, work schedule.

In the 21st century, grassroots local movements are not just going to lead the way on increasing the minimum wage. They’re going to push cities and counties and states to pass stronger enforcement of existing wage laws, enact paid sick days, paid family leave, reasonable hours and scheduling, health and safety standards, and perhaps even equality for the most disenfranchised workers excluded from many labor laws like domestic workers and farmworkers.

Movements like Fight for 15 that raise standards for all workers from the bottom up are reminding us why we ever had a labor movement in the first place. They’re reminding us why fighting for the dignity of working people matters. They’re reminding us that when it comes to the national debate on economic inequality, workers outnumber and outvote bosses. They’re reminding us that when we organize, we win.

Your First Week of Econ 1 Won’t Solve the Housing Crisis

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San Francisco has become a flashpoint in the national political battle over eye-popping rent increases in America’s cities.

San Francisco real estate developer Michael Cohen, who used to run the city’s economic development department, says “The single most important land use debate that goes on in San Francisco is whether you believe that the laws of supply and demand exist.”

This explanation hasn’t many satisfied longtime residents, whose swelling anger against gentrification and displacement has broken out into mass protests against new luxury developments in historically working-class neighborhoods and a ballot measure this fall to halt all new luxury development in the city’s Mission District.

Cohen, the growing SF Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF) and others, say more of these new developments are the only way to bring down rents citywide, because they will relieve the city’s chronic shortage of housing.  They say protests against new development are actually the reason for rising rents, as the city’s constrained housing supply is lagging far behind the demand of young professionals flocking to San Francisco and other urban centers to work in booming well-paid tech industries in recent years.  Others, largely led by community organizations like Causa Justa/Just Cause made up of longtime residents, predominantly working-class families and people of color, call this “trickle down housing” and say it doesn’t work.

So why are these Bay Area native folks so skeptical of basic economic theory?  Well maybe it’s because your basic economic theory is hella basic, bruh.  Economic models are about simplification of the real world—we need models to teach theories, but sometimes those simplifications become a problem when we apply them to real life.

The people who lived and worked and raised their families in low-income urban neighborhoods long before the hipsters thought it was cool, in the decades when the middle-class fled to white suburbia, have a lifetime of experience with the economic reality of urban housing markets, not the basic economic theory.

Here’s what they see:  The same neighborhoods that are seeing the biggest rent increases are those seeing the most new housing developments.  They see the East/West divide of the city of San Francisco: The densely populated eastern neighborhoods like the Mission and SoMa are booming with new development while facing eye-popping rent increases and overwhelming numbers of evictions.  Meanwhile, the western side of the city, with its many low-density middle-class enclaves that are hotbeds of NIMBYism, sees relatively little change.  They’ve seen a boom and bust cycle of interest in San Francisco by developers and yuppies:  the long flight of white middle-class families and employers from the city for decades, followed by a tech bubble in the 90’s that led to a development rush before popping spectacularly, and then a resurgence of the tech industry in the last few years leading to another cycle of development, gentrification and rising rents.  It’s hard to shake the gut feeling that development isn’t for them, that in fact it hurts their community.  They’ve been tossed around by this boom and bust cycle, families losing their homes, friends losing their stores, feeling like strangers in their own neighborhoods, in a story that just doesn’t align with that supply and demand graph.

Where new housing development is being built in SF

Median rents in SF

Housing cost increases in SF

Population density in SF

New housing developments being proposed in SF

For longtime residents, the basic supply and demand theory just doesn’t pass the bullshit smell test.  Maybe it’s not because they’re stupid and don’t understand economics.  Maybe it’s because thanks to their actual lived experience, they understand how urban housing markets work in practice better than the Patiently Explaining Gentrifiers understand them in theory.  So my dear Patiently Explaining Gentrifiers, the next time you roll your fixie past the black family in your apartment and they look at you sideways, please refer to this helpful guide to break down the economics that they understand and you don’t.

  1. Luxury housing doesn’t really substitute for low-income housing

Housing marketed at young urban professionals is not a perfect substitute for housing built for blue-collar families.  That means they have different markets setting their price, which are driven by different levels of supply and demand.  (Not to mention these two segments of the housing market diverge farther and farther apart the more economic inequality grows.)

Imagine a world where you could only buy two cars:  Cadillacs and Honda Civics.  Most people who own Cadillacs wouldn’t be caught dead driving a Honda Civic and most people who push a Civic can barely dream of owning a Cadillac.   So if GM decided to build a lot more Cadillacs next year, you’d expect to see the price of Cadillacs go down, but it probably wouldn’t have much effect on the price of Civics.

But that doesn’t mean the two prices are totally unrelated.  A bargain item can be a substitute for a luxury item, it’s just not a very good one.  Say for example, there’s a sudden rush of rich people wanting brand new Caddies.  They start buying up all the Cadillacs on the car lots, but the people who already own Cadillacs insist that to retain the “Cadillac brand” (and maybe improve the selling value of their car), GM must not produce more than a limited amount per year.  The resulting shortage sends Caddie prices sky high as the dealerships are swarmed with people trying to outbid each other.  But those who can’t get their hands on a Cadillac still need a car.  So the second-class yuppies (you know, the ones who work at Ask.com instead of Google) start buying Honda Civics and tricking them out, adding heated seats and TV screens.  Seeing Civics have gained a new customer base with more money to spend, the Honda dealerships start raising their prices too.

Replace cars with housing and dealerships with landlords, and this is part of what we’re seeing with the housing market in cities like San Francisco, and it’s the basic argument of the folks at SFBARF.

So the natural solution is of course to build more Cadillacs (aka high-end housing developments) to address this problem at its root?

Yes, that’s true to some extent.  Solving the housing crisis will require building more luxury housing somewhere.  But there’s more.

 

2. Neighborhood speculation raises land values

We can’t just replace cars with housing and dealerships with landlords in a simple model of the world.  Because cars aren’t like housing.  If you park your Caddie in the spot next to my Civic, it doesn’t cause my monthly car note to get more expensive.  But with housing, only part of what you’re paying for is the physical structure, most of what you’re paying for is the location, the land, the neighborhood.

When you build expensive new condos next to low-income apartments, it has an external effect:  it raises the value of all the land in the neighborhood surrounding it.  (The same way if you put a toxic waste dump in a neighborhood it lowers the surrounding land values.)  Land is a speculative asset: unlike the buildings on top of the land, you can’t build more of it.  There’s a limited supply and the best way to make money from it is to buy up as much as you can get your hands on now if you think the price is going to go up in the future.  Developers start rushing to get in first on this hot new neighborhood, bidding up land values (“Did you see the New York Times wrote an article about this totally up-and-coming neighborhood??”)

Once the new residents move in, they create demand for someone to open up an artisanal kale wrap deli and kombucha bar next door and a barbershop on the corner that will trim your fixed gear bicycle’s decorative moustache.  Those new amenities create even more demand from yuppies and hipsters to live in that neighborhood.  The cycle of rising land values continues to spiral out of control.

So what the hell happened?  Why isn’t increasing the housing supply bringing down rents?

 

  1. Rising land values reduce the supply of low-income housing

Now if I’m a landlord who currently owns a fairly cheap apartment building and rents primarily to working-class immigrant families, when neighborhood land values rise, suddenly I own an asset that I’m not using to its full potential.  I’m better off completely shifting my business model of what kind of housing I’m providing on the land.  I’m basically burning free money unless I either sell the land to a developer or fix the place up myself and charge higher rents to new customers willing and able to pay more.  This will likely involve evicting my low-income tenants from their homes.  If my city has strong renter protection and/or rent control laws, I’ll have to do whatever I can to harass my tenants, threaten to call the police or immigration on them, refuse to make repairs, or otherwise make their life a living hell until they move out.  I might even convert my rental apartments into condos for sale using what’s called an “Ellis Act eviction” to evade tenant protection laws.  I’m reducing the supply of low-rent housing by converting it to a different type of housing.

Here’s a similar example: Say I grow wheat in North Dakota.  If shale oil is discovered in my region and everyone around me is fracking for oil, I’m sure as hell not going to keep farming my land for wheat.  But if I take my land out of wheat production and sell it into oil production, guess what that does to the supply of wheat?

And if I’m a developer looking to build cheap, low-cost housing marketed at working-class families, I’m sure as hell not going to do it anymore now that the first step is buying some premium priced land, which now covers every single neighborhood in cities like SF and NY.  New development of housing for working-class families basically grinds to a halt, because it’s not profitable to buy expensive land and then rent it for cheap.  Supply of low-income rentals is strangled, despite the fact that the booming growth of tech is also creating tons of low-paid jobs for janitors, landscapers, cooks, childcare workers, and security guards who are fueling rising demand for this type of housing.

Say I want to open a cheap sandwich shop.  I’m trying to decide between selling Mexican tortas for $5 or Vietnamese banh mi for $4.  Suddenly the price of wheat spikes, and bread now costs $3 a loaf.  My old business ideas would no longer turn a profit once you factor in the other costs, so I either don’t open my shop or I change my business plan and open up an Artisan Torta/Banh-Mi Fusion Deli and charge $15 a sandwich.  The higher price of an input, wheat, has restricted the supply of cheap sandwiches, just as a higher price of land restricted the supply of low-income rental housing.

That’s why between 2007-2014, San Francisco built over twice the amount of high-income housing than it was projected to need by California’s housing department, but only built half of what it needed for low-income families and a third of what it needed for middle-income households.

So as speculation raises land values in a neighborhood, landlords shift their buildings away from the low-income market and orient towards the high-income housing market.  And developers are unable to build new housing affordable to low-income families because land values are so high.  Both trends result in a massive sucking away from the neighborhood’s housing supply for working-class families.

 

  1. Yuppies gobble up more housing space per person

But it gets worse. This assumes a 1:1 ratio of replacement as developers and landlords shift from supplying low-income housing to high-income housing.  But blue-collar households tend to have more people in the same space than white-collar households.  Apartments that once held a working-class immigrant family of five are now being converted to become home to a young tech worker, his bandana-wearing pug, and his girlfriend who stays over sometimes to watch Netflix and chill.  That means landlords and developers are responding to speculation by taking low-rent housing supply off the market even faster than they’re putting high-rent housing supply into the market.

Every new high-rent development in a low-income neighborhood contributes to the cycle of speculation raising land values around it, bringing new low rent-development to a halt and converting the existing nearby supply of low-rent housing at an alarming rate into high-rent housing for people who demand much more square footage per person.  Thus a development that helps relieve the shortage of high rent housing can actually create a much worse shortage of low-rent housing.

That’s why residents of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District are protesting new luxury developments.  When you’ve lived through this kind of speculative development, you don’t need an economics degree to know the math.

 

But it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

We can increase the supply of expensive housing while also increasing the supply of affordable housing.  But we need to remove the factor of neighborhood speculation from the equation.

Before I go further, let me make abundantly clear that I agree that we absolutely need to build more housing suitable for young professionals in central cities.  In fact, we need a lot more of it.  Too often, social justice activists struggling every day to defend our communities’ right to live in their own homes forget that white flight to the suburbs in the late 20th century was one of the worst things that ever happened to low-income communities of color in the US.  It devastated funding for urban schools and social services as public resources were shifted out to suburban bedroom communities.  Rising economic and racial segregation widened income inequality, and reduced economic mobility, as the rich and poor lived in two separate worlds.  And the massive environmental toll of millions of commuters driving out to far-flung quiet neighborhoods every day manifested itself in the air pollution and climate change whose burden falls most heavily on low-income communities of color.  We need to ask ourselves:  What’s our endgame?  Maintaining the pre-boom segregated status quo?  Because that’s an awful future.

We know that the reversal of last century’s white flight is a good thing.  But not if it simply leads to displacement of the urban working-class and communities of color.  When the last affordable neighborhood in San Francisco and New York disappears, and the displaced families of the working class are all forced to leave cities and grow a ring of high poverty suburbs, both the economic isolation and environmental devastation will remain the same as it was before.

 

We need shared cities free of land speculation.

We can do this by building high-end housing in urban neighborhoods that are already historically middle and upper class, where it won’t lead to speculation that a neighborhood is “up and coming”.  Every city has these neighborhoods.  They’re on the west sides of Los Angeles and San Francisco and the north side of Seattle (I’m a die hard West Coaster).  They’re the neighborhoods in your city with the oldest median age, the lowest population density, the highest home ownership rate, the whitest residents and the highest incomes.  They’re the places seeing virtually no new housing being built right now.  Often strict zoning codes limit new building in these neighborhoods to two stories or single family homes, and the residents are fiercely opposed to denser apartments near them, using their abundance of free time to rail against the parking problems, crime and noise they will bring (often code for younger, poorer, or browner people).  The residents of these neighborhoods tend to be more well-resourced, well-organized and well-connected than those in low-income neighborhoods, who often face language and educational barriers and are too busy working long hours for low wages to attend planning commission meetings.  Developers quake in fear of their wrath and major new housing projects are rarely proposed, let alone make it to the review phase to be fought over.  These are the real NIMBYhoods and they need to be upzoned.  Simply changing zoning codes in the lowest density parts of cities to allow taller, denser buildings could lead to a housing development surge without raising rents in low-income neighborhoods.

It won’t be easy.  The mayor of Seattle managed to negotiate out an agreement with business interests to pass the first $15 minimum wage in any major American city, but when he backed ending neighborhood bans on apartment buildings by eliminating single-family-only zoning citywide, he met staunch opposition and withdrew the proposal.

As well as political opposition, there’s also a logistical problem.  These neighborhoods tend to have limited public transit service, (part of their exclusion of young people, poor people, and people of color) which makes it hard to add more apartment-dwellers, especially those dependent on public transit.  We’ll need to build out more transit between the NIMBYhoods and downtown areas where young professionals work.

But building high-end housing in already high-end neighborhoods is the only way to increase supply without triggering the spiral of speculation that raises land values and pushes poor people out.

Meanwhile, we need to ensure we’re also increasing the supply of housing for the working-class, which is bound to erode away if yuppies keep coming faster than our cities can build housing for them.

Longstanding tools that cities use to nudge developers to pay for affordable housing, like inclusionary housing ordinances and density bonuses, definitely help, especially as private development booms.  But alone they’re not enough to maintain the balance of different types of housing needed in growing cities where both software programmers and their janitors need a place to live.  With the sharp decline in affordable housing funds from the state and federal governments, this will require new sources of revenue.

A land value tax could finance public transit expansions into high-end neighborhoods while also creating a new affordable housing fund.  This fund could buy empty plots of land or buildings that go up for sale in low-income neighborhoods and add them into a Community Land Trust—publicly-owned land made permanently affordable to low-income families, where the benefits of increases in land values are captured by the public instead of landlords.  This kind of tax would fall mainly on landlords who are riding the wave of speculation, sitting on their land and extracting bigger and bigger profits by charging higher and higher rents to tenants.  It wouldn’t tax building more housing on top of your land.  And it could protect a large chunk of urban neighborhoods from the wild swings of speculation—or at least make sure that longtime residents actually reap their share of the benefits.

I won’t pretend to know all the answers and I’m not an actual economist (to be fair, neither is Matt Yglesias, the intellectual father of the movement to increase housing supply, whose book The Rent is Too Damn High is the only e-book I’ve ever bought).  I’m a guy who lived in Oakland as a kid and knows my rent would be double what I’m paying right now if I moved back there.  And I’d hate to be one of the kids in Oakland right now looking around and thinking maybe my city doesn’t have a place for me anymore.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A shared city is possible.  A city where people from a diverse set of racial backgrounds and economic classes cross paths in public spaces, learn from each other, and create things together.  A city where we all contribute to and benefit from the same school districts, transportation networks, libraries, parks and city services.  A city that allows more people to live lifestyles that are walkable and transit accessible, energy and water efficient, allowing us to sustain our planet.  A city where children can grow up, become adults and get good jobs and support their own families, and one day retire in peace.  But unleashing the animal spirits of unchecked speculation, much like the gold rush that once built San Francisco upon the violent displacement of its native inhabitants, will carry us down a much different path.