I’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.
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.
Paid 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
A flood of articles and blogs rocked the internet recently declaring the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose politics are completely dominated by the economic elite. They cite a groundbreaking new Princeton study that found that the political opinions of average non-wealthy US citizens have essentially zero statistically significant impact on policy. Although this confirms what most people already knew about the growing influence of money in politics and economic inequality, the zero number is devastating.
I asked myself, is my life’s work organizing working-class people to build political power completely meaningless and futile?
But then I actually read the study itself, because I’m a nerd. When I finished, I realized it confirmed exactly why I need to do this work.
The authors of the oligarchy study never actually say that average middle and working-class people don’t matter in US politics. What they say is that unorganized average people don’t matter. But organized people do.
In fact, they conclude that a mass-based membership organization that stands up for everyday people can be equally matched head-to-head with a corporate lobbying group.
Here’s what the study actually says.
Gilens and Page use statistical data to test four competing political science theories about US politics:
- “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy”: The will of the majority of people is carried out by a functioning democracy with apple pie, bald eagles and shit.
- “Economic Elite Domination”: Politicians don’t give a damn about the opinions of average people unless they happen to align with the interests of the wealthy few, whose opinions are all that really matters.
- “Majoritarian Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices of different organized interest groups that generally ends up representing what the people as a whole want
- “Biased Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices, but you can hear a loud and distinct upper-class accent. Monocles and feather boas abound. Economic elites have more interest groups representing them, so policymaking tends to favor the wealthy.
They describe our political system as both #2 and #4. They measure this by comparing actual policy outcomes with the political preferences of middle-income citizens, the wealthiest 10% of citizens, interest groups representing businesses, and interest groups representing broad memberships of people.
The numbers don’t lie—the kind of democracy you learn about as a kid in school just doesn’t describe reality in the United States today. The support of a majority of average voters doesn’t make a policy more likely to be passed at all, but the support of wealthy elites does.
But then this begs the question: Why do food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, student aid, public housing, even public schools and libraries, still exist? Surely not out of the goodness of the hearts of America’s all-powerful millionaire oligarchs? Maybe these programs were created back when political power was distributed more evenly, when democracy still worked, and they remain only because economic elites have not yet been able to completely dismantle them. But then how do you explain the recent expansion of healthcare to millions of uninsured paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%?
The answer is interest groups, who have a strong impact on policymaking. According to the Gilens-Page study, literally the only way for working and middle-class people to influence American politics is by organizing ourselves into groups that can match the political clout of economic elites.
Groups of people without political power, from exploited immigrant farmworkers in California to disenfranchised black communities in the Jim Crow South, have long known that the only thing they could do to change the oppressive political and economic systems they lived in was to organize themselves. In fact, the most celebrated leaders of America’s great social movements, from Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, have worked to bring together unorganized people who thought they were powerless to build strong organizations in which the powerless became the powerful.
As a whole, the study finds that the political preferences of interest groups don’t reflect overall public opinion. In fact, their data shows that the most powerful lobbying groups representing industries and corporations negatively correlate with the average citizen’s wishes—they stand against the majority of people on most political issues. But mass-based interest groups that represent millions of real people who make up their membership, such as labor unions or the American Association of Retired People (AARP), have a high correlation between what they push for on Capitol Hill and what average citizens want.
The problem is that among interest groups, the former is nearly twice as influential as the latter. The study notes that “the composition of the U.S. interest group universe is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.” However, the authors stress that it is not because public interest organizations are inherently weaker than corporate lobbyists, but simply that they are outnumbered. They calculate that “the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential”, but there are roughly twice as many powerful corporate interest groups as there are powerful public interest groups.
And unfortunately, as Gilens and Page point out, the mass-based public interest groups with major influence in Washington are mostly labor unions, whose memberships have been declining for decades. With the shrinking of organized labor, fewer low and middle-income people are organized into political groups today than ever before.
Note that the very rich don’t need to organize. The data shows their policy preferences, reducing regulations on businesses, taxes on high earners, and barriers to international trade, have a major impact on policymakers even before interest groups are taken into account. Although the wealthy have less need to organize, they are in fact more organized, with many more lobbying groups representing their interests.
But the harsh reality is that in a political system like the one we live in, poor, working-class and middle-class people have no power without organizations. None. Period.
There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from oligarchy. Organize. Organize like someone who’s realized that nobody in power gives a shit about what you think. Organize like someone who’s realized that individualism only serves powerful individuals. Rebuild the organizations we’ve lost, grow the organizations we have and start the organizations of our dreams. Organize bigger, organize smarter, organize people who have never been organized before. Organize the hell out of everything. We can’t afford not to. Because without organizing, there is literally no such thing as democracy.
This weekend I took a group of high school students out to clean a beach next to a toxic slag heap Superfund site that will hopefully be cleaned up by the EPA in about a decade. It’s one of the last remaining natural wetlands in California, home to endangered species, and in the process of being restored by the Nature Conservancy. The beach is largely cut off from pedestrian access by decaying industrial sites and marked by the towering smoke stacks of a power plant. I rarely meet youth from the surrounding low-income immigrant neighborhood who have ever been there prior to volunteering to clean it up. Hopefully someday it will be restored for public access, but for now the city government seems intent on developing more crap on top of it.
For me and my organization, bringing students out to this site for cleanups is more about engaging them in the broader environmental battles in the community. But we do the cleanups because that’s what the students tell us they want to do. Young people in America have a deeply ingrained idea of what community service is and what it isn’t. Teenagers are endlessly told to go clean the beach and give soup to the homeless and help children with their homework. They’re told it’s the alternative activity to gangs and drugs and they need to do it to get into college.
The commonly accepted form of community service is about being helpful and doing what an adult tells you to do. It’s not about generating controversy or engaging in power struggles or advocating for deeper change. In fact, youth are explicitly discouraged from doing those things by both their educational institutions and their parents. Community service, as it’s practiced, is about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it’s created, not about challenging the conditions of that society and how it could be different.
Why are we telling youth to clean up natural habitats we allow corporations to pollute? What kind of a country makes children sell magazines to shore up the cost of the schools we’re unwilling to pay more taxes to fund? If we really believe all human beings deserve enough food to survive, how do we justify cutting food stamps while asking students to volunteer at food pantries?
Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that as a country we’re taking the people most capable of questioning our assumptions and re-imagining our world and keeping them busy cleaning up the shit we’re creating. Maybe it comes from our condescending assumption that young people can’t make up their minds for themselves about anything contentious, that youth wanting to participate in anything that looks “political” must be the product of manipulation and brainwashing.
I want a world where high school student groups like National Honor Society and Key Club speak at school board meetings and march in rallies and write letters to the editor and get out the vote. I want a world where guidance counselors tell students to serve on a city commission to build their college application and city councilmembers actually appoint them. I want a world where parents suggest helping at a soup kitchen on Christmas and campaigning for a higher minimum wage on Election Day.
I’m not calling for an end to community service. I’m calling for a radical opening of our understanding of what it means to serve our communities. I’m calling for a broadening of the role we expect youth to have in our communities. We should be asking young people to take the role of leadership in the public sphere, producing new ideas and participating in decision-making. That’s the kind of service we admire in business leaders and elder statesmen and public intellectuals but feel uncomfortable with youth engaging in.
More and more schools are requiring community service for graduation because in a world where students are bombarded with messages about competition and achievement and test scores it’s worth teaching there’s more to life than earning good grades to get a high-paying job.
But educators, nonprofits, and parents should be teaching young people that the community doesn’t just need your menial labor, but also needs your ideas. And your courage to raise your voice and challenge us to build a better world is by far the most valuable service you can give to your community.
It’s that wonderful time of the year when young adults prepare to have public judgment of their life and career decisions become a major topic of conversation among a large group of people they barely know (i.e. their extended family).
So, if you’re a budding medical doctor, congratulations! You have a commonly known, widely socially accepted and financially lucrative career path and can stop reading now.
On the other hand, if you make less money than some of your friends in food service, working at an organization no one has ever heard of, for a cause that’s too political to be seen as polite dinner conversation in the first place, here’s a helpful guide to help you navigate the awkward conversation.
1. “This will look great on my grad school application!”
Many of the olds are under the impression that getting a graduate degree is a smart economic choice. Whether you’re really planning on it or not, allow your family members to believe you’re going to grad school. This will keep a glimmer of hope alive in their mind that whatever it is you’re doing now is only a temporary transitional phase. If there’s anything we learned as teenagers, it’s that the only reason any sane person would actually care about helping their community is to accumulate feel-good credentials to use on their college applications.
2. The bait and switch
Sure, some of your college friends working in the private sector may be making 2-5 times as much money as you, but you’ve got a solid job and that’s more than a lot of people can say. This tactic taps into the fundamental emotion behind your family’s scrutiny: Fear. Here’s how it works. First, when asked about your life, explain how you’re living in a tent in Zuccotti Park or are taking a brief holiday break from chaining yourself to ancient redwoods. After the horrified backlash, tell them actually you have a job with a nonprofit organization. In comparison, it’ll sound like investment banking.
3. Start a political argument
Say you’ve got conservative family members who even if they could understand the mechanics of what you do at this “job” of yours, would be deeply morally opposed to it. Now I know nobody likes to argue politics with their family. But if you distract them with some sweeping abstract debate about immigration, LGBT rights, Obamacare, etc. you can totally avoid having a specific conversation about yourself and your job.
4. The Obama
On the other hand, say you’ve got a progressive family who is down with the overall idea of someone out there saving the world, they just would prefer you to be doing something a little more… professional. Most people know Barack Obama did some fluffy nonprofit thing in his youth. And being the president of the United States is about as professional as you get. This one works kind of like the grad school tactic, but instead of advanced education, you tell them how your current job is preparing you to run for public office. Your grandma will get at least a few years of bragging to her friends before she catches on to your bullshit.
5. The straight up lie
Many of the family members you see during the holidays are people you only see once or twice a year anyway. Would it really be so bad if they were under the not-exactly-true impression you were working for Google? Prepare by watching The Internship so you have some (possibly exaggerated) details to casually mention in conversation about what it’s like to work for Google. Important: If there are closer family members that actually know what you do, make sure they’re in on the lie so they don’t blow your cover.
6. Get them to understand how miserable being a doctor or lawyer is
This one requires some advance planning. In the months leading up to the holidays, talk to all your friends in med school or law school or in their first couple years of work in one of those highly respected professions. Slowly gather horror stories of cutthroat classmates, rampant adderall abuse, 80+ hour workweeks. To top it off, bring a practice LSAT test and get your family to take it together instead of playing Apples to Apples after dinner. Works like a charm.
7. “When the revolution comes, no one will be poor!”
Sure, maybe your working-class family is upset that they went deep into debt to allow you to be the first generation to go to college and by being too idealistic you threw away your one shot to provide financial security for you and your family. Assure them that the imminent Marxist revolution, which you’re a key player in, will eliminate the class structure. Once the means of production are seized from the bourgeoisie, no one will be poor, including you! They’ll totally understand where you’re coming from.
8. Crocodile tears
During the holidays, people get pretty emotional and generally give a shit about other people more than they otherwise would. So when your family pops the question about your work, stare deep into the distance, fake a sniffle or two, and say, “You know, during Christmas I just think about how many children out there don’t have much to be happy about right now…” After trailing off, give a serene gaze around the table straight into their eyes and say with finality: “And then I remember why I do the work I do.” Okay, so say your nonprofit isn’t anything about children or poverty. This can easily be adapted to just about anything. Work in environmental sustainability? “You know, during Christmas I just think about how many white Christmases we really have left before Santa’s workshop will be submerged under the melting icecaps…”
- The long way
Alright, so maybe you actually care if your loved ones understand the work that you pour your heart and soul into and want them to support and appreciate what you’re doing with your life. In that case, it might be a little harder. Most regular folks don’t have any experience with organizations like the one you work for. Many of our families have education, language, or cultural barriers that make it difficult for them to grasp terminology like “I do development and strategic communications for a social justice organization”. Our loved ones are often in the midst of a difficult process of developing their consciousness about complex issues like poverty or sexuality or race, and hold conflicting worldviews that they’re trying to reconcile with one another.
First off, no matter what, your family cares about you, and their concern is ultimately motivated by wanting you to be happy, even if they have a poor understanding of what really brings you happiness. Before explaining anything complicated or technical, tell them how much you love the work you do, how happy it makes you and how meaningful it is to you.
They may never understand the details of most of your day-to-day work, but they will understand stories. Share with them an anecdote about a person whose life has been touched by your organization and how they’ve changed as a result. Give them an example of an issue you work on—the problem and its root cause, the long-term vision of the solution, and the small things you’re doing right now to get there. Tell them the story of your favorite day at work and why it deepened your conviction to do what you do.
Get them to see that this isn’t just a short-term phase by talking about supervisors and mentors you have at work who are a few years further along in their career than you are and the ways you want to develop your skills to reach their level.
Assure them that you’re still growing and being intellectually challenged by bringing up some of the big things you’ve learned through your work. Give an example of how you’ve applied on the ground the knowledge you gained during the education that they supported you through.
Then when you feel like they’re beginning to get it, turn the conversation to their work. Ask them how their job is going, what their career goals and dreams are. Show them the same genuine empathy and respect that you expect from them. Love them for how different they are from you on the surface and maybe recognize that at a deeper level your values are more similar than you think.
Happy holidays and keep doing what you do.
I originally wrote a completely different post that was my typical whining about why more young people don’t go into grassroots organizing. I decided to scrap it and start over. I often accuse my generation of wanting the immediate feel-good of direct service and charity, the socially-accepted professionalism of law and government, the comfortable removed intellectualism of academia and think tanks. But after reflecting on it for a bit, I decided to set down my glass of haterade and re-examine the barriers within the nonprofit sector that actively keep young people from working as community organizers. I think that’s a more constructive conversation to have.
I wanted to write about this because I’m becoming painfully aware of how much my employer struggles to fill organizing staff positions. Yet at the same time I know so many unemployed and underemployed young people. What’s the problem? Wasn’t Obama supposed to inspire a whole generation of kids to become community organizers when they grew up or something? Maybe it’s time for me to stop blaming my generation and start talking about the root of the problem and real solutions.
What’s the problem?
We’re reaching a dangerous time in America’s social movements. The veterans who run many of our organizations cut their teeth as young people in the 60’s and 70’s at the height of progressive activism. Today many of them are on the verge of retiring or already doing so. To keep alive the organizations built by the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us, we’re all going to have to step up. Yet as we reach an era with perhaps more potential for progressive change than any other since the 60’s, opportunities for the next generation of movement leaders are limited.
More than anything, there’s a need for organizers on the ground. No social movement has ever succeeded without organizing people. You can have brilliantly crafted policy and flawless legal arguments but without heat in the streets, there is no movement. Power responds only to power. And without money power, people power is all we have.
So what would I do if I was a young person looking to get into this type of work? Obviously go to Idealist.org, like any other do-gooder who doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. So I did that. I searched for “organizer” and filtered by “Entry-level position” anywhere in the US. I only came across 72 hits and after reading through them, almost none of them were what I would classify as organizing. Most involved providing charitable services or doing administrative work.
Generally the vast majority of community organizer job postings I see require 2-3 years of experience. But where we’re supposed to get those 2-3 years of experience I have no idea.
Why are so few organizer jobs entry-level?
Most community organizing nonprofits, like mine, are relatively small local groups in a particular city or region. They don’t really have the capacity to train people who don’t already know what they’re doing. There’s no Human Resources department, no instruction manual, no large cohort of new employees fresh out of school you can train all at once every year. And in a tough field like grassroots organizing where people often work for a year or two before realizing they can’t make the cut, nobody wants to take risks on people. Even worse, when an organizer leaves the job, it severs many of the relationships they built in the community, and some members/leaders leave with them.
Unlike for-profit corporations, nonprofits can’t raise money by selling stock to investors who want to take a risk with the promise of future gains. It’s hard for nonprofits to take the long view and investing in young talent just isn’t worth it in the short-run. And as much as we like to think we operate as broader social movements, we really operate as individual organizations out for ourselves. Why pay to train someone who’s probably going to be working for some other organization five years from now?
What’s out there for a young aspiring organizer?
Opportunities for people who want to start organizing usually lie with large national groups that have the scale necessary to train lots of new staff. For example larger unions like SEIU and AFSCME, faith-based community organizing networks like PICO and DART, or the PIRGs and their broader Public Interest Network. At one point ACORN was probably the biggest trainer of new organizers, but they’re gone now. And unfortunately, labor unions, faith-based community organizing groups, and the PIRGs are all shrinking. Some important training programs like the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) have also shrunk significantly from their former reach.
The other option that fills job postings for people looking to enter social movement work is as a canvasser doing grassroots fundraising. Of course they’re willing to take a risk on us when our job description includes raising our own salary. What is there to lose? Although canvass offices provide a point of entry for countless young people into activist work, they have high turnover since many people find the work somewhat unpleasant. Canvassing also teaches a limited skill set: canvassers get great at making initial contact with other people and getting them involved at a basic level, but never learn how to build relationships, develop leaders and deepen their commitment.
Of course the biggest advocacy groups in the country really do have the money to invest in young people if they wanted to. (Think the Sierra Club, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, etc.). But they typically don’t do much grassroots organizing or hire significant amounts of organizing staff. They prefer to contract with canvass offices to build their membership.
Don’t my endless hours of activism in college count for anything?
Often when young activists finish school, we find the social justice organizations we want to work for don’t take our student activism seriously as real work experience. It’s devastating to those of us who poured our hearts into this work, while struggling to balance our activism with paid jobs and studying. But it might be justified. Most campuses have little to no opportunities to work with well-organized groups that have experienced organizing staff who can serve as mentors. Many of the best and brightest young activists are sucked into the black hole of student government. Student activists often graduate with lots of experience planning workshops and movie nights and speaker panels but few of the tangible skills required to win a real issue campaign.
At best, many organizations that claim to do campus organizing will have one staff person assigned to tons of campuses across a whole region, so they spend little time on the ground building relationships, developing leaders, and investing in their skills. Movement organizations aren’t willing to seriously invest in students while they’re in school, so young people don’t gain the skills they want. Then young people don’t have the skills they want, so they’re not willing to take the risk to hire them.
So after graduation, many student activists end up unemployed or underemployed. Maybe we do Peace Corps or Teach for America because even though those organizations are deeply flawed, at least they want us, and kind of stalk us a little bit, which is nice I guess. Or we end up working in government or charity nonprofits or going back to grad school. Or slaving away at some dead-end low-wage job just like the people who write all those obnoxious articles scoffing at humanities majors said we would. Or with a sigh we acknowledge that our parents were right all along and that our pipe dreams of fighting for justice and equality were unrealistic, and we should just settle down and work as a desk-monkey at some faceless corporation and one day buy a house with a white picket fence and a golden retriever. Either way, a critical opportunity to become an organizer has been missed.
Is there a solution?
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: We need more young people to become organizers. But a lack of young people wanting to be organizers isn’t the problem. (At least not the whole problem.) There are tons of young people already out there with the right personality type and natural talent who would be willing to give this work a shot and might become badass organizers if seriously given the opportunity. Here are my recommendations on how to provide those opportunities:
1. Invest in on-the-ground organizers who spend quality time at high schools, community colleges, and universities. Tap into the young activists who want to contribute to your work, help them develop tangible skills, and build relationships with the youth you’ll need to staff up your organization someday. Sure, not all organizations have interest or expertise in youth organizing. But then why not give some funding to a local organization that does directly work with youth to plug their members into your campaigns? (Side note: Someone should start a nonprofit that specializes in student organizing and contracts with all the big progressive advocacy groups in the country to organize student activists around their issues.)
2. If you have interns, give them real responsibilities that are the type of things you expect incoming junior staff to already know how to do. Think: if I hired this person in two years, what skills would I need them to have? Yes, sometimes you just need help databasing sign-in sheets from your events. And yes, sometimes it takes longer to train someone how to do something and clean up the mess when they fuck up than to just do it yourself. But if you view interns as long-term investments in future staff rather than short-term exploited labor who you’ll never see again, you might find that the benefits eventually outweigh the costs.
3. Link temporary training opportunities to permanent job opportunities. Develop organizer-in-training programs that allow you to both train and assess people, reducing the risk of hiring entry-level staff. But make sure those programs have the possibility of a real job at the end of them. This is probably the most difficult one to implement: Where’s the budget to pay these people? Who’s going to supervise them? In large cities, community organizations and unions could pool resources and hire someone to run an organizer-in-training program that plugs a cohort of students into local campaigns every summer and then pipelines them into whatever job openings are in the area when they graduate. In a less urbanized environment like where I work, there might not be enough organizations to do that, but on the flip side, if we train local organizers, we directly reap most of the benefits because they don’t have many other places to work except for us.
This might all seem like a lot of money to spend on a bunch of wayward millenials who might quickly change their minds and decide they don’t want to work for you after all. But that’s the nature of investing in the future. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s one way to make it more likely to pay off: If you’re spending all the time and money to grow your own staff, don’t be afraid to recruit them aggressively. Big corporations give out free Chipotle burritos at their info sessions at college campuses. Teach for America literally hires student interns whose job is to recruit other students. But if you’ve been intentionally working with young people, you don’t need any of that—you have direct relationships—take them out to lunch and say “Hey, what do you think about working for us when you graduate?” The reality is, most young people don’t know what the fuck we’re doing with our lives and could probably use the help thinking it through.
I’ll admit I understand the problem more than I understand the solution. What I do know is this: If our movements are going to survive, our organizations will need to take the long view and intentionally invest in a comprehensive pipeline that provides meaningful roles in our movements for young people.
If this week taught me anything, it’s that national politics is inherently disempowering. I felt that way during my brief time in DC in college, which is why I didn’t go back after graduation. Now I think I probably never will.
And once the national immigration reform effort is over, I don’t think I personally ever want to work on moving anything through Congress again. The bill released this week should have been disappointing: An arduous 13 year path to citizenship, with at minimum a decade in second-class status, paying taxes without any rights, with a trigger preventing anyone from becoming a citizen until billions of dollars of drones, fences, federal agents and electronic surveillance systems are sent to the border.
But I wasn’t really disappointed. It was mostly what I expected. (See above article on why nothing truly progressive can make it two steps past the starting line in Congress.) My reaction was basically “Sigh… It is what it is.”
I do politics because I believe my world is bursting at the seams with injustice and pain because of deep systemic imbalances of power. I do politics because it’s exhilarating to see the disempowered become empowered. Nothing sends a chill down my spine like that look of invincibility in someone’s eyes when they realize their potential to be an agent of change. But congressional politics is so completely disempowering for those who engage in it, that it defeats the purpose of my political involvement.
1. It takes forever.
The founding fathers did this on purpose. They were down with democracy, but afraid the poor people would vote to take all their shit and distribute it freely amongst the unbathed toothless masses. So they created checks and balances to make sure the will of the majority couldn’t happen too fast, if at all.
For example, every once in a while there’s a big high-profile gun massacre. Suddenly everyone realizes that gun violence kills people every day, and this briefly creates the political willpower to beat the gun lobby. The masses tweet about it, TV pundits rant about it, and politicians make somber speeches about rising above partisanship to address this national tragedy. But by the time legislation actually grinds its way through the sausage machine of Congress, media attention moves on to something else and the public loses the urgency to push. But lobbying interests like the NRA can hold out for the long fight.
And sometimes the fight is really long. I worked to pass a financial aid bill in college that student advocates fought over with banks for 15 years before it finally reached the president’s desk. I got the taste of victory. But how many students calling for reform for years before me left with the lesson that big banks always win and activism is useless?
2. It’s an inside game
Major pieces of legislation are complex. Bills are hundreds of pages long and nearly impossible for a non-lawyer to read. This is better than short, vague bills that are full of loopholes, oversimplify social issues, and ultimately have to be sorted out in lawsuits. But the consequence of complexity is that it shuts out regular people from the process.
Worse, it’s even inaccessible to many members of Congress. There are so many bills and amendments to constantly vote for. They just don’t have enough staff to follow and analyze all of it. So they rely on lobbyists. One of the secret weapons of lobbyists is that they usually know way more about the subject matter than the member of Congress and their staff does.
The big decisions don’t happen in the big floor vote when everyone is paying attention. They get made in bill markups when little amendments get added and key words get switched. Those are the kinds of decisions regular people can’t access. How is a farmworker supposed to track a subtle amendment in federal legislation that might exclude them from immigration reform or indefinitely delay their path to citizenship?
The strategy and tactics needed to win an inside game are bad for developing leaders. Strategy has to be coordinated nationally and relies on closed-door negotiations between power brokers. Grassroots community members can’t really be part of strategic discussions and instead wait for directions to be passed down by those coordinating the central effort in DC. They usually never meet the decision-makers or the opposition. The tactics needed are low-skill, low-engagement actions like call-in days that are bad for building organizations and their members. At the end, it’s easy for people involved to question whether their work really made a difference at all.
3. It’s all about money
I have a healthy mixture of respect and horror at anyone willing to run for Congress. It’s exhausting, miserable, and absurdly expensive. You spend most of your day kissing donors asses, all while working every waking second and hoping your sleep-deprived brain doesn’t say something stupid while under constant media scrutiny. The average winning candidate for Congress raised over $2,000 per day in 2012. It doesn’t end once you get elected. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recommends its sitting members spend 4 hours every day in “call time” (making fundraising calls).
I was once involved in a campaign where a student I trained lobbied a senior Democratic senator to support closing offshore tax havens and was explicitly told by her DC staff that the member couldn’t support the bill because some of her biggest corporate donors used those offshore tax havens. Brutal honesty. All governing bodies are swayed by powerful interests. But nothing compares to the U.S. Congress.
I used to think local politics was boring, tinkering at the margins, something weird old people with too much time on their hands did. Now I see the value of local politics as a place to develop authentic leadership among the disenfranchised, to directly confront power face to face, and to win victories that the community feels direct ownership over.
Community organizing is typically associated with large urban areas. Since the beginning of modern community organizing, the most disenfranchised low-income communities of color have been concentrated in urban America, so most social justice organizations grew within urban spaces.
However, today more black, Latino and Asian people live in the suburbs than in the urban core. For about two decades, young white urban professionals have been migrating back into inner cities to be closer to job opportunities and escape the long commutes of suburbia, finding them more appealing as planners and businesses have reinvested in downtowns and crime rates have fallen. The skyrocketing rents and evictions from urban gentrification have pushed low-income communities of color out to older suburbs, moves which were aided by subprime mortgages, the housing bubble and local openness to booming sprawl development. At the same time, new immigrants to the US are increasingly moving directly to suburbs and rural areas in search of jobs rather than entering in traditional gateway cities.
In this sense, California is a glimpse into the future of the rest of the country. The tech boom in the Bay Area drove working-class families out of San Francisco and Oakland and into Pittsburg, Antioch and Stockton. The housing bubble pulled black, Asian and Latino families from LA into cities on the outskirts like Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario in search of cheap housing and job opportunities. The vast agricultural regions of the Central Valley and the Central Coast have boomed in population with Latino immigrants. The result is that not only is California as a whole majority-minority, but every significantly populated region of the state is too.
I believe community organizers should be accountable to our people, wherever they live. The fact that the vast majority of social justice organizations are still in urban areas, while most low-income people of color are not, is a serious failure of the social justice movement as a whole. We need to build our capacity to organize in many of the places where our communities live and are suffering from regressive social policies, lack of public services, vicious attacks on immigrants, etc. due to the void of progressive political influence.
Half a year ago I made a conscious choice to move to a rural/suburban area to organize. Now as my organization goes through strategic planning, I’m thinking a lot about the challenges, but also the opportunities. I think that as more social justice organizations appear in rural and suburban America, we’ll learn to better adapt our organizing models to the unique conditions here.
I know it will take much smarter and more experienced people than me to figure all of this out, and I know I’m not the first person to delve into this subject. But here are some of my thoughts so far:
1. Scarcity of progressive organizations means groups can’t specialize. There are often only a handful of relatively small organizations willing to collaborate on campaigns, they are often more service or cultural oriented, and unions, churches and neighborhood associations are much more conservative than their urban counterparts. In urban areas like Oakland, SF or LA, there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations, all of whom have their own niches and strengths– this means some groups can focus on policy research while others focus on grassroots basebuilding while others focus on developing coalitions, messaging and strategy while others focus on electoral campaigns. Here an organization like mine has to spread itself between all of the above on multiple political issues.
2. Conservative elected officials. In most of these areas, city councils, commissions and school boards, the key decision-makers, do not yet reflect the recent demographic change. These towns have been run by “good ol’ boy” networks for a long time, and the elected officials are mostly old white men who are much more conservative than the people they now represent. They are skeptical of progressive policies and feel unaccountable to the majority of their constituents.
3. Low population density means organizing wide geographic regions. There is a pure logistical difficulty of having staff spread out over a wide rural area. My organization recently expanded to cover a region of over 100 miles. Since it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other, this means paying rent for multiple offices. Multiple offices also makes coordinating and supervising staff a huge challenge. And we have almost no ability to organize major actions where all of our neighborhood groups gather together for one rally, etc.
4. There are real Republicans here. And they’re angry. Although whites are now minorities in rural/suburban California due to younger migrants, the older generation that lives in many of these communities is especially conservative. Many openly express deep visceral anger about the demographic changes that have happened and still see the neighborhoods they live in as their homes that outsiders have invaded. Urban organizations are simply not used to encountering this type of opposition within their own base areas.
5. Local governments not prepared to provide services for low-income populations. The suburbanization of poverty has dumbfounded suburban governments who have never had significant numbers of poor residents who rely on buses to get to work, neighborhood parks for exercise, or community colleges for their children. Some services like public transit are simply more difficult to provide in suburban/rural communities, where low density makes it difficult to cost-efficiently run frequent bus routes.
1. Grabbing low-hanging policy fruit. Organizations in progressive coastal cities often try to develop new innovative policies to address issues like unemployment, environmental hazards, education achievement gaps, youth violence, etc. Many of the more basic victories have already been won years ago. In more conservative smaller cities, some of the best tried and true policies that make big impacts have never been passed. Rather than doing extensive research and convincing a local government to experiment with something new, organizations here can push for policies that have already been adopted in other areas and often have rigorous academic studies proving their success.
2. Filling electoral voids. As mentioned earlier, suburban and rural California is now majority people of color, but most local elected officials are still conservative old white men. Often these new diverse communities vote for the “good ol’ boy” candidates that don’t represent them because they’re the only ones on the ballot, or simply don’t vote for local offices at all due to a lack of worthwhile candidates. These elected officials aren’t used to competing hard for their seats and have yet to feel the heat of how the communities they represent have changed politically. Progressive, young, diverse candidates running for office fill a void and are relatively easy to elect.
3. Getting coverage in easy media markets. Although these areas have experienced rapid population growth, local news outlets have a small town mentality. They receive a fraction of the press releases, op-eds, or letters to the editor they would in urban areas and often have a sleepy civic life so actions organized by social justice organizations are shocking and newsworthy. Easy access to front page articles or the opinion page opens great opportunities to re-frame debates on local political issues.
4. Access to swing state and federal representatives. California’s most closely divided seats in Congress and the state legislature are in rural or suburban areas with changing demographics like the Central Valley, Central Coast and Inland Empire. Elected officials from either party have to compete hard for their jobs (now thanks to redistricting) and are often politically moderate, making them important targets on state or federal legislation. In comparison, organizations in urban areas with staunch progressive representatives have little ability to help pass state or national laws.
5. The community has a hunger for it. Places like West Oakland are a bit saturated with organizing. People are used to “the community man” from one organization or another coming and knocking on their door talking to them about some campaign, and are sometimes skeptical or have been burnt out by their previous involvement in a different organization. Not that any place can ever have too much organizing. But in rural and suburban communities, there’s a lack of engagement and action and people have a hunger for it.
So the bottom line: I don’t know what the ideal model for organizing outside the urban core is. But it needs to be done and an increasing number of organizations are doing it. I think there’s obviously a need for a stronger emphasis on electoral work. To some extent organizations may have to become jacks of all trades and not specialize in particular issues or strategies. Besides that I don’t know. Have any thoughts? Leave them in the comments.
For most people, the end of elections means listening to empty threats of moving to Canada, trying to fit lawn signs in trash cans, and finally returning to Pandora radio now that campaign ads are gone.
But for many political workers it means unemployment.
That’s one reason I didn’t work on a candidate’s campaign, but more importantly it reflects the fundamentally different approach that electoral campaigns take towards social change compared to community organizing.
Campaign people operate with what I call the Campaign Brain. On Election Day, there can only be two outcomes: total victory or ultimate defeat. The sheer overwhelming number of voters that need to be contacted to win an election means an election worker’s interactions with each person must be short, efficient and transactional. They can essentially only be engaged in three ways– voting for candidate X, volunteering to tell other people about candidate X, or donating to the campaign. Most people working on the campaign are parachuted in a few months before and sent off quickly after the vote is won or lost.
Even the Obama campaign, which put unprecedented resources into grassroots outreach, operated within the confines of the Campaign Brain. Despite using the language of community organizing during the election and building one of the largest organizations in the world, Organizing for America was for the most part abandoned. The void left by the Obama team’s weak engagement of its supporters after the election helped spawn the Tea Party’s rise to power. While the Obama administration folded OFA into a piece of the Democratic National Committee, the right-wing read Saul Alinsky and began community organizing.
I want to note that I don’t think electoral politics is bad– it’s a crucial element of successful social movements. And innovative groups like California Calls and Virginia New Majority are integrating electoral politics with community organizing in visionary, strategic ways. I don’t even think the Campaign Brain is bad– it’s not bad or good, it’s just how you win an election.
However, I think some people miss out on what working on campaigns won’t teach you:
1. Developing leaders for the long-term.
Organizers try to move people along a leadership ladder. As they work to transform society, they also work to transform individuals, so that over years of political involvement, a housekeeper or a farmworker becomes an important community leader. Cesar Chavez tells how he was recruited by an organizer named Fred Ross, who knocked on his door over and over and was met with refusal, until ultimately his persistence led him to the breakthrough conversation where Chavez changed his mind and began his involvement in activism. The Campaign Brain doesn’t allow for this kind of investment in people. Even with volunteers, the goal of the campaign is to increase their involvement in terms of work-hours, not develop them after the campaign is over as leaders of their own. They are given little decision-making power, training, or ownership, simply because campaigns can’t function that way– the clock is ticking and they have to win.
2. Building relationships to organize communities.
Campaigns’ relationships with community members start a couple months before Election Day and end immediately after. Campaigns know very little about their supporters because their conversations with them tend to be under five minutes. At most afterwards they get email updates about what the candidate is working on in the Capitol. Organizers know that to get people to overcome their fear and be interviewed by a reporter or speak at a city council meeting, the organizer has to build a close personal relationship with them and understand their deeper motivations. This involves a lot of sitting down and talking with them about their life that the Campaign Brain has no time for.
3. An analysis of power and its transformation.
Campaigns don’t really talk about power. The candidate would probably seem creepy. But ultimately all attempts at social change are about the distribution of power. Period. You build an organization with a hundred thousand members because it creates power that didn’t exist before to accomplish change for the lives of those people. Social movements seek to transform systems of power– like creating a union so workers can negotiate with their boss rather than passively accepting working conditions. Campaigns seek to win within the existing systems of power– if suburban white professionals are more likely to vote, resources and messages will be mostly targeted at convincing them. This is just practical. But it means that campaign workers don’t spend much time analyzing what creates power in their community, growing organizations and bringing together coalitions.
My point here is not to dismiss electoral work. It’s just to say that if you’re like me and want to learn a diversity of skills needed to create social change, there’s no substitute for spending some time as an organizer.
American progressives act like a teenager who’s gotten so used to being rejected for prom and picked last in dodgeball that we just keep our heads down and try to make it through another day without getting our asses kicked. The message I want to send to the American political left is similar to what I want to tell all disaffected and awkward teenagers. I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and say “Chill the fuck out! You got this!”
It’s fair for progressives to feel like losers. After all, we’ve mostly been fighting defensive, losing battles for a solid forty years, leaving us with a nation of gaping income inequality, a tattered social safety net, and immense corporate influence over elections and lawmaking. We’ve been beat not only in the arena of laws and government, but in the arena of ideas: The commonly accepted worldview in America every day seems to bear a closer and closer resemblance to the Hunger Games, with ruthless competition and inequality accepted as the necessary conditions for the prosperity of life’s winners.
So when the Supreme Court upheld health care reform, setting the stage for the rollout of arguably the most historic victory for the left in a generation, many of us were stunned. Not because we thought Obamacare was actually unconstitutional, but because we’ve seen the right wing consistently dominate nearly every major American institution, including the Supreme Court, and expected a losing vote along ideological lines.
But progressives, get your boots on, because we’re entering a new era of ass-kicking. And no, the asses being kicked won’t be ours. I believe we’re going to win this round of history and here are my three reasons why.
1. Their Coalition is Falling Apart, Our Coalition is Coming Together
The right’s coalition is essentially made of three parts: working-class rural evangelicals, wealthy pro-business social moderates, and national security war hawks. All three loved Ronald Reagan, a unity that lasted through much of the Bush years, but ultimately ended in fracture best seen in the 2008 GOP presidential frontrunners: Mike Huckabee (working-class evangelicals), Mitt Romney (Wall St. types), and John McCain (war hawks).
Like any coalition, it was built over time. In the late 1960’s, the Republican Party created the “Southern Strategy”, a plan to wedge working-class Southern whites away from the Democratic New Deal Coalition that had held dominance since the time of FDR. Nixon and his strategists used racial issues and the Democratic Party’s passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s to make white Southerners place their political allegiances with the side that served their racial interests, not the side that served their economic interests. The emergence of the Christian Right in the late 1970’s pulled working-class rural whites further into the coalition. The religious establishment embarked on a campaign to politicize their base and move into partisan politics and media, starting organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority. Through much of American history, war has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. But neoconservative war hawks gathered under the banner of the right in opposition to the peace movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. They argued that a powerful American military presence was necessary to secure global freedom in the face of communism, and later Islam. Thus national security interests became aligned with the religious and economic interests of the right wing, as protecting the Christian American tradition and free market capitalism became the main motive for use of US military force around the world. And Wall St. pro-business types? Well, they’ve been with the right since the days of Herbert Hoover. By 1980, the modern conservative coalition was solid enough to usher in decades of social change according to their demands: deregulation of industry and finance, slashing the social safety net, and dramatically lowering the top tax rate.
However, in the aftermath of the Bush years, the mess of the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008, and finally the crushing loss to Barack Obama, this coalition began to unravel. With politics focused on the economy, the main fissure came at the seam between rural evangelicals and the pro-business establishment. Many conservatives, suspicious of Wall St.’s ties to government, believed the Mitt Romneys of the world had sold out their small-government conservative principles for corporate welfare and might even secretly not quite believe in their social values, only embracing them at arms length in order to get the votes of rural evangelicals. (Now why would they think that?) Grassroots conservative activists saw this as part of some larger morality play, where the reason the right had lost in 2008 was a lack of faithfulness to its right-wing principles. This tension finally erupted into the Tea Party, a movement of raw anger not just directed at Obama, but also the Republican Party establishment. The schizophrenic GOP primary of 2012 made clear that a large portion of conservatives could barely stomach Mitt Romney and everything his part of the right wing coalition represented. The coalition may remain intact as long as they are united by a common enemy (Obama), but it seems to be inevitably on the verge of collapse.
Meanwhile, a modern progressive coalition is uniting closer than ever before. Throughout world history, the left has mostly been a ragtag team of disenfranchised groups who through some miracle (and a lot of hard organizing) managed to band together under some general values like equality, community, compassion etc. Yet this coalition is often fraught with arguments over who is more oppressed and whose progress should be the priority, like a pissed off hydra whose multiple heads can’t decide which enemy to bite and often just bite each other. Environmentalists sometimes find themselves at odds with organized labor, who sometimes take positions against immigrants, who sometimes vote in opposition to LGBT people, who sometimes help gentrify black neighborhoods. But I think we’ve recently seen a historic consolidation of our progressive coalition. Just this year, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza both endorsed marriage equality for gays and lesbians for the first time. In 2009, the two federations of labor unions in the US for the first time came to an agreement supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalist groups teamed up with unions in 2006 to create the Blue Green Alliance advocating for green jobs. Meanwhile, mainstream environmentalist groups have begun to adopt the principles of environmental justice. Urban community organizations have been doing groundbreaking coalition work between blacks and Latinos, fighting the narrative that pits American born low-wage workers against immigrants.
Like the right wing coalition that was built over a decade from the late 60’s to the late 70’s, this modern progressive coalition will take some time to reach its true strength. But the signs are clear: there is more unity on the left, and less unity on the right, than any time in recent history.
2. Modern Communication Technology is Eroding the Right’s Advantage in Messaging
Over the last few decades, conservatives have won the war of ideas. The basis of right wing ideology (individualism is the natural way of things, government is always bad, racism doesn’t exist anymore, etc) has become the basis of American political thought in general. For a long time, the right has simply had stronger, more cohesive messaging. I’ll acknowledge some of it is just that their communications people are smarter and more strategic than ours. But I think much of it comes from political psychology, and the different ways that conservatives and liberals approach political communication. Studies have shown that people who identify as conservative have stronger impulses to respect authority and more group discipline. They also think more in the language of abstract values and principles than policy analysis and comparing outcomes. Thus the right has a natural advantage in top-down, highly cohesive, simplistic messaging. In other words, they’re bred for the age of talk radio and cable news. Thus, as talk radio and cable news eclipsed print newspapers and as people began to prefer TV commentators shouting at each other over the old boring evening news anchors, the effectiveness of conservative messaging grew. Right wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch learned how to use the media effectively as a political tool and built an empire of news outlets that reached millions of Americans. The TV commentators of the left were no match for the titans of conservative cable TV (think Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O’Reilly). Republican Party political figures coordinated their messages with conservative activists and media pundits much more closely than the Democratic Party did with left-wing activists. It all relied on the willingness of conservatives to all roughly stick to the same set of messages and talking points distributed from the top down.
On the left, cohesive messaging has never been our strong point. Most of us hear a simple, powerful political argument and say something like: “Well what you didn’t mention is how this group is affected, and the potential unintended consequences of that policy. Here’s a series of statistics and a great Noam Chomsky book to explain what I mean.” We’re a less homogenous group, so we tend to craft messages in ways that help mobilize our own communities. The way we talk to a middle-class white college student about health care reform is different from how we talk to a middle-aged black mother or an uninsured immigrant service worker, and the different parts of our coalition have a hard time sitting down at the table to come up with some talking points that work for everyone. If the Democratic Party tried to hand down talking points to progressive journalists, nonprofits, and professors they would get smacked upside their collective heads. When we try to communicate our message to political moderates, it ends up being full of wonky facts to contradict the dominant conservative worldview (“GDP growth has no correlation with marginal tax rates!”) or fringe-sounding arguments that use unfamiliar academic language (like “reproductive justice” and “intersectionality”). What we don’t do is collectively articulate our own values in words people understand and clearly frame our vision of a different world. Without strong, unified messaging, we quickly lose ground in major policy debates. For example, when you poll Americans on individual parts of the Affordable Care Act, virtually all of them get solid public support, including majority support among Republican voters for many major provisions of health care reform. However, when you ask Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the law overall, it remains widely unpopular. We managed to take something the American public liked and wanted, and let the right convince them that they hated it.
But the light at the end of the tunnel is here! We are entering an age of new media. Having conservative TV pundits, radio show personalities, Republican politicians, right wing advocacy groups and think tanks all arguing from the same set of talking points is becoming less and less advantageous. The era of Rush Limbaugh is over! All hail the era of the viral infographic! And we’re great at viral infographics! Anyone can create their own content that would appeal to their own social network, and thus micro-target our messages to the narrowest of socioeconomic, demographic or regional categories. Policy wonks and political junkies can share news and data in a way that is visually appealing and accessible, and have it spread virally out to the grassroots. Here, the top-down approach of strict adherence to a set of talking points will fail. People don’t click on a link to the same dogmatic argument they’ve heard for years. People don’t obediently share memes made by the Republican National Committee.
Of course we’re still at the beginning stages of this change. Most people get their news from the traditional sources still, and although the Bill O’Reillys and Glenn Becks of the world are on the decline, they remain powerful. However, we know where things are headed and it can only be good for us on the left. What social media is allowing us to do is crowdsource our messaging. In fact, it’s what we progressives have been doing all along, it just wasn’t working before.
3. Our Base is Growing, Their Base is Shrinking
We are a demographic bomb that’s going to explode in Rush Limbaugh’s face. The best part is, he knows it. Even between the 2008 election and the 2012 election, the voting bloc of young people, single women and people of color identified by liberal strategists as the “Rising American Electorate” will have grown by millions. In fact, the RAE accounted for 81% of the population growth in the country between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census. Progressive-leaning demographic groups are steadily rising as a share of the voting population, and conservative-leaning groups are declining. No one believes this trend is going to turn around any time soon. Soon enough, America will look like California and California will look like LA. And astonishingly, the GOP and the right as a whole are proving themselves either a) laughably incompetent at appealing to anyone other than straight white males or b) actually crazy enough to be willing to shrivel up and die rather than give up racism, sexism and homophobia. Maybe it’s just that people are smart enough not to trust an ideology that’s been trying to screw them over for all of human history just because they get a Cuban senator who offers up a watered down version of the DREAM Act. Either way I think it’s safe to say that everyone saw this coming and in 30 years what’s left of the Republican Party will be wondering why they actively chose to dig their own grave generations ago.
Rather than moderate their views on issues like immigration or women’s rights, conservatives are making last ditch attempts to ensure this demographic change does not lead to political change. They know if all those immigrants’ kids whose parents they tried to deport, all those young single women whose ability to sue for equal pay they filibustered, and all those young people whose college tuition they raised, actually register to vote, turn out at the polls, and get politically organized, they’re totally fucked. It might explain many Republican members of Congress’s reversal on the (formerly) bipartisan DREAM Act, or any other proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens and vote. Today’s slew of voter suppression laws and voter registration purges spreading across the country, supposedly designed to address some nonexistent wave of rampant voter fraud, are a transparent attack on young people, immigrants, and low-income communities. UFO sightings are more common than voter fraud in the US, but somehow conservatives around the country have decided this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with, preferably before November 6, 2012. The right has also developed an obsession with taking down organizations that enhance the political power of those progressive-leaning groups: ACORN, Planned Parenthood, unions, etc. Perhaps the scariest is the Tea Party vigilante “True the Vote” groups that are traveling all over the country to intimidate voters at the polls, again under the strange assumption that there’s some epidemic of illegal college student voters trying to ruin America.
These kind of tactics might work for a while. They succeeded in the post-slavery South for a few generations between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. But in the end, they’re a desperate short-term strategy that will fail. Eventually the right will have to concede that they ignored the writing on the wall and have spent most of history trying to limit who was defined as part of the “real America”, as Sarah Palin would say. But as their idea of “real Americans” becomes a smaller minority of the population, they will either have to acknowledge the humanity of others or shrivel away into the margins of the history books.
However, demographic change does not automatically produce political power. If California is a predictor of what the national population will look like soon, it is also a warning that conservatives can have an influence far disproportionate to their share of the population if they remain more politically organized. Voter education, registration and turnout efforts will help win political battles. But this must be combined with stronger stances to make real progress on issues like college affordability or immigration reform (I’m looking at you, Democratic Party establishment). A voter taken for granted is a voter who has better things to do on election night. However, with some tough organizers and some accountable elected officials, we can change the electoral map in the United States, and thus the realm of political possibility, forever.
The Roadmap to Victory
From the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s, conservatives built a powerful movement that fundamentally altered the course of the nation’s history. They stood upon a bedrock foundation of America’s strongest institutions: big business, the church and the military. Unified, clear, and values-based right-wing messages echoed through millions of homes in the era of talk radio and cable news commentators. Elections still mostly hinged on who could win the votes of older white males, and conservatives rallied monolithic support from this base.
But at the beginning of the 21st century, this movement has begun to stumble. A rift has appeared between the grassroots conservatives of America’s heartland and the business elites that dominated the Republican Party. The media megaphones of the right, Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, are beginning to fade from prominence. And their single-minded focus on older white voters is backfiring, as a more diverse and progressive generation comes of age.
I believe that the history books will one day read that starting in the late 2000’s, the progressive movement began to shift the balance of power. The books will say that starting around this time, a series of stunning alliances formed between groups with historical tensions. Unions, immigrants, civil rights groups, LGBT activists, environmentalists and more began to stick together under a banner of solidarity based on the basic values of fairness, community and dignity. They ultimately failed to come up with anything resembling a cohesive message, but in the age of social media it didn’t matter. Their ideas spread like wildfire across social networks, with millions of grassroots activists and everyday supporters writing blogs, sharing news, creating graphics that communicated the values of their movement. And starting in 2008, something changed: the presidential election didn’t depend on who won the votes of older white males, but on black and young voters turning out to the polls like never before. From then on, the tide began to shift, and a new growing majority looked at the politicians who had dismissed them in favor of the “real America”, and this new majority declared: “We are the real America.”