I’m on the late train but over the last couple weeks there’s been another round of soul-searching among conservative political strategists. All this “soul-searching” is getting exhausting. Republicans should just give it up. Finding the soul of the GOP is like finding your missing other sock behind the laundry machine. It’s just not there so you might as well stop looking.
It seems as though House Republicans have mostly decided to either completely sink immigration reform or gut it beyond all recognition (if they don’t like the incredibly compromised Senate bill, there’s pretty much nothing left to give). I think they’re being assholes, but if I was them I would probably do it too– in the long run, the truth is they’re screwed either way.
Why drop their initial interest in making a deal? They never wanted to do it in the first place. It seemed like a political necessity after Obama won over 70% of both the Latino and Asian vote in November.
But all of a sudden, they have a justification to go with their hearts. Recently conservative pundits have jumped on this guy named Sean Trende who came up with an idea called the “Missing White Voter” theory. Basically it goes like this: The real reason Republicans lost in 2012 is that a whole bunch of poor rural white people were like “Obama is a Muslim socialist but Romney is a Wall Street elitist. Fuck it, I’m not gonna vote.”
The solution being put forward is for the Republican Party to adopt “libertarian populism”, whatever the fuck that means– basically my understanding is it’s the same exact policies as Mitt Romney’s Wall Street elitism– cut taxes and government programs, deregulate businesses, but you call them “populism” because you talk about them in a folksy way while wearing a cowboy hat.
The major implication here is that congressional Republicans should NOT support citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, because they probably won’t gain much support among Latinos anyway and they’ll further alienate the white people they really need to motivate to vote.
I think the Missing White Voter Theory is pretty weak. Other analysts say the numbers don’t add up and the GOP can’t win in the long run solely by making more gains among white voters. But Republicans don’t like it because it’s smart, Republicans like it because it tells them what they want to hear. It’s like a new fad diet where you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. They get to make no fundamental changes or tough choices and still win because if the GOP goes even farther right wing, white people will be stoked about voting again, right?
I actually agree with part of what Trende and others are saying: They’re right that Latinos probably won’t support Republicans even if they back immigration reform. They won’t get much credit for it, and the truth is, immigration is secondary to issues like education and jobs for most Latino voters. The problem is not just that Republicans are anti-immigrant. The problem is that Republicans are fundamentally anti- poor people.
Where I disagree with the conservative pundits is that they think they can still survive with another strategy. The demographic demise of the GOP (as we know it) will happen whether immigration reform passes or not. The main growth in Latino voters is coming from American-born kids growing up, not from people becoming citizens. Most young people who grew up poor and brown in America wouldn’t vote for the Republican Party no matter how much “rebranding” they try to do. And the usual conservative ploy of trying to wedge communities of color away from white liberals using social issues like gay marriage and abortion is especially doomed to fail among young Latinos.
The spike of immigration from Latin America that reached its peak in the 1990’s is pretty much over now. Net migration across the southern border is approximately zero. But the boom of immigration from Asia is just ramping up, and despite higher average incomes, Asian Americans are very progressive. As Latino kids born in the 90’s come of voting age, Republicans are totally fucked. As Asian kids born in the 2010’s come of voting age, Republicans are going to be even more fucked.
The fundamental problem of the Republican Party is something that can’t be rebranded or restrategized. The Republican Party made the wrong bet, right around the late 1960’s. They doubled down on bigotry and intolerance and it really worked for a while. But sometimes when you gamble, you lose, and there’s no take-backs.
Sorry guys. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
So I leave you with this image I found on the internet of Thomas Jefferson singing “Apologize”:
A New York Times article today noted the rise in influence of Asian-Americans in philanthropy. It has some weird stuff about Asian cultures having a tradition of giving to charity, which as far as I know may be made up. But the point remains that any time you have a growing community of new money, it means new money to give away.
And in this case, the large numbers of highly-educated Asian immigrants (mostly from India, Korea and Taiwan) who have been brought to the US by high-tech employers might be the biggest new money community in American history. As you might expect, this is making some old money white folks freak out. Mostly about the prospects of their children getting squeezed out of Harvard by the kids of the engineers who designed their iPhones. (Some even say there is an “Asian quota” in the Ivy League, similar to those once faced by Jewish Americans, another new money group of highly-educated immigrants that threatened the halls of America’s elite institutions.)
But what America’s elites should really fear is the inevitable result of trying to close the doors on others: political backlash.
Asian and Pacific Islander voters went even harder for Obama last year than Latinos did. That’s more than double the 31% of Asian-Americans who supported Clinton 20 years ago.
Political analysts are dumbfounded– shouldn’t any group with high average incomes vote Republican out of basic self-interest? In the aftermath of the election they scrambled to come up with all kinds of stupid explanations– Asian culture is collectivist not individualist, Asians like science and the GOP is anti-science, Asians mostly live in liberal coastal cities like SF and NY– none of which makes sense, since it doesn’t explain the shift over the last 20 years from Asian-Americans being conservative voters in the 1990’s.
My theory is that this trend is being driven by younger second-generation API folks who have grown up within the context of America’s racial politics. Most countries have some kind of left/right political divide, but America’s left vs. right is deeply rooted in race in a way that isn’t as intuitive to new immigrants. You also see this among Latino immigrant communities, where US-born Latinos are more likely to self-identify as “liberal” than their parents.
Even if you might have been a conservative in another country, for a person of color in America it takes about 10 minutes of watching Glenn Beck foam at the mouth about Obama’s plans to destroy white America to realize you’re not welcome at this particular tea party. The more familiar you are with American political culture the more likely you are to notice that American conservatism has a racist, exclusionary undertone in a way South Korean or Taiwanese conservatism probably does not.
According to the National Asian American Survey, taken in late September, young (under 35) Asian-Americans were nearly twice as likely to support Obama as their parents’ generation, and also less than half as likely to be undecided on who to vote for.
I predict eventually Asian-Americans will occupy a strange political space similar to Jewish-Americans. (Jewish voters have overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates as far back as data is available). Asian-Americans will also become a group who, despite high average incomes that might otherwise predict conservative leanings, consistently vote Democratic and are heavily represented among prominent progressive activists, academics, politicians and donors.
Money brings political clout. And you can bet that growing philanthropy mentioned above is not just funding universities and soup kitchens, but candidates and advocacy organizations too. And because many API advocacy groups are not ethnic-specific but work on behalf of API Americans as a whole, they often take strong social justice stances because of the many smaller API ethnic groups and older immigrants who are low-income and politically disenfranchised. Like Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans will likely have an influence on politics larger than simple numbers as voters.
But the numbers will be important too. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are now the fastest growing racial group in America. Jewish people make up only 2% of the U.S. population, much less even than the current API population. But Asian-Americans are expected to grow to 9% of all Americans by midcentury. That’s nearly the size of the current black population.
In fact, Asian-Americans will be the fastest-growing, wealthiest, and most rapidly leftward shifting group in America, all at the same time.
And that’s bad news bears for the right wing.
And now for your moment of Zen, Bill O’Reilly being confused by the existence of liberal Asians:
Let me start off by saying that elections get way more emphasis than they should, and that most of the real work of social change happens in the aftermath, pressuring elected officials to do the right thing.
But that being said, elections really do matter, and this one was truly beautiful.
To me this election confirmed my belief that we are at the beginning of a movement time, one of those eras when waves of progress seem to come all at once. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. But it’s a lot more messy and uncertain when you’re experiencing it live than when we look back in the history books. Here’s my case for why I think progressives are going to win huge victories in the coming years.
But here’s my 7 Reasons Why Last Night Was The Best Night Ever:
1. Barack Obama is our president and we never have to hear about Mitt Romney again. In terms of policy change, I’m not that excited about this– honestly the next four years will look like the last two years– Republican Congress, total gridlock, not much getting done. Basically they just gave a black man the worst job in the world for another four years.
What was significant about the presidential race was that in the age of Citizens United, Wall St. wasn’t able to buy this election. Finance normally hedges their bets by giving to both parties or the expected winner. But after the major financial reforms enacted by the Obama administration, they went all in for Romney. And lost. When was the last time Wall St. lost anything except your money? Now I hope Obama has the cojones to give them some ice cold retribution. I’m also happy that in the darkest hour of the campaign, right after the first debate, I still called the election for Obama. Saying I told you so is the best.
2. The youth vote made an even larger impact than in 2008. I was so sick of all the bullshit narratives about apathetic young people who came out in 2008 for a fluke because they were brainwashed by Obama and won’t vote anymore because now they’re stupid and lazy blah blah blah. Oh what’s that? Young people made up 19% of the vote in 2012, EVEN MORE than in 2008? SUCK. ON. THAT. SHIT.
3. California passed Prop 30 and defeated Prop 32. This is near and dear to my heart because it’s what I’ve been working on this election. I think the incredible thing about Prop 30 is it’s a turning point. Since Prop 13 passed in the “tax revolt” of the late 70’s, California has been on the path of endless budget cuts to education. Yesterday we turned this around– the voters chose to invest in our youth and our future. In concrete terms, this resulted in a tuition freeze at the UC’s this year instead of a 20% fee hike. And Prop 32, which may have actually been more important than 30 for big picture strategic reasons, went down too. This all despite millions of dollars spent against us by billionaires and Super PACs who are now being investigated for money laundering. I worked with dozens of high school and community college students who spent countless hours volunteering to get out the vote because they knew their future depended on it. I’m so proud of them.
4. In California, Democrats will likely win 2/3rds supermajorities in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Some close races have ballots left to be counted, but newspapers are already calling it. This is a big fucking deal. Much of California’s budget craziness is due to the fact that you need a 2/3rds vote to raise taxes, or until recently, to approve the budget at all. The California Republican Party has become increasingly isolated and radical, viewing any compromise as a sign of weakness, making it nearly impossible to get the couple of extra votes needed to pass no-brainer bills like the Middle Class Scholarship Act. The bill would have closed a corporate tax loophole that benefits out-of-state corporations and used the money to slash college tuition by 60% for most students in California but failed this year. But this also opens up huge new opportunities. Some of these Dems are pretty conservative, and will be reluctant to vote for more revenue. But with a Democratic supermajority and some good organizing, you could potentially get single payer health care in California, or universal preschool, or dramatically reduce college tuition. As I said, big fucking deal.
5. The next Congress will have more women than any Congress in American history. Women candidates broke records in both the House and the Senate. One of these women, Tammy Baldwin, is the first openly-gay Senator ever.
6. Marriage equality made major strides. Maine and Maryland voted to legalize gay marriage, and Washington looks like it’s on its way. The tide is moving, it’s only a matter of time.
7. We can all stop talking about Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney!
Also, bonus points. For my Ventura Couny folks, we were in one of the closest congressional races in the entire country, and the Democrat, Julia Brownley squeaked out a victory over Tony Strickland, a politician I personally can’t stand. And Measure S in Berkeley, which would have criminalized the homeless for sitting on the sidewalks, was defeated.
The media’s been blathering on, with a nauseating amount of corny sports/war metaphors, about how Romney dominated Wednesday’s debate against President Obama. I agree that Romney did better. And it did move the polls a bit.
But I will still literally bet anyone cash money right here right now that Obama’s going to win.
Why? Check out the graph on the right.
That’s because swing states are where the real campaigning happens. If you live in California like me, you might forget what a presidential campaign actually looks like. Obama and Romney volunteers don’t knock on your door or call you at night, their fliers don’t come in your mailbox, and their ads rarely show up on your TV. But in places like Ohio, every four years this shit called a campaign goes down on your block.
Here’s what that graph on the right means: Obama’s campaign team is just plain smarter and harder than Romney’s. It doesn’t show up in most of the country. But in the swing states, it’s very obvious that the Obama team is killin it.
Which is why Nate Silver, whose statistical model is probably the best in the game right now, calculates Romney hasn’t had more than a 1-in-3 chance of winning since late August. He puts Obama at a 78.4% chance of winning right now, which is down a bit since the debate. But it’s not nearly enough to really turn things around for Romney.
That’s because debates just don’t matter that much. Most debate viewers are people who follow politics and have already made up their minds. Think about all the swing voters you know. How many of them actually watched the debate?
What does sway voters, in the crucial swing states, is a passionate 20-something-year-old volunteer knocking on their door on a Wednesday night after dinner, and maybe fumbling the script they’re supposed to read a little bit and fidgeting with their clipboard, but ultimately getting some main points across and more importantly making a personal connection.
That’s where the Obama team is kicking the ass of the Romney team right now. And that’s why Obama is going to win.
The point I’m ultimately getting at here is I think most political journalists should be shipped off to some forsaken island and forced all day to watch two ants race across the barren rocks for moldy leftovers and report about it to each other.
They spend all their time on gaffes and speeches, but rarely cover the grueling behind-the-scenes work that actually wins or loses political battles, which really hurts the feelings of people who do that grueling behind-the-scenes political work.
But it’s not just my personal beef. This article from the NY Times sums up perfectly how political reporters just can’t keep up with how modern campaigns work:
Journalists tend to mistake the part of the campaign that is exposed to their view — the candidate’s travel and speeches, television ads, public pronouncements of spokesmen and surrogates — for the entirety of the enterprise. They treat elections almost exclusively as an epic strategic battle to win hearts and minds whose primary tools are image-making and storytelling.
But particularly in a polarized race like this one, where fewer than one-tenth of voters are moving between candidates, the most advanced thinking inside a campaign is just as likely to focus on fine-tuning statistical models to refine vote counts and improve techniques for efficiently identifying and mobilizing existing supporters.
The bumbling incompetence of political reporters doesn’t just misinform the public. It implies that most of the work done by campaigns doesn’t matter. Which is funny because if they didn’t, candidates would just make speeches all day instead of spending so much money hiring field organizers all over the country.
So I just want to counter the bullshit by telling all the 22-year-olds with clipboards out there that you’re winning this thing, even if Barack Obama is a shitty debater. The proof is in the numbers.
For a person of color running for office, a hint of the radical left is the kiss of death. We live far from a “post-racial society”, but most voters do seem to be willing to give a candidate with a funny name who looks different from them the benefit of the doubt as long as they’re squeaky clean all-American on the inside. However, that trust can evaporate quickly if the candidate evokes memories among white voters of the more confrontational racial politics of an older generation.
The speculation of San Antonio Mayor and DNC keynote speaker Julian Castro being the first Latino president someday makes sense with almost mathematical precision. A charismatic Latino governor of Texas who carried the massive state for the Democratic Party in 2024ish when changing demographics have made it possible would lock down the electoral map.
However, the right wing is great at playing the guilt by association game. And Julian Castro, like many young politicians of color who awkwardly bear the label of being “post-racial”, also holds the liability of being tied to the radical left on the national stage.
Castro’s mother, Rosie Castro, was an activist in the Chicano Movement of the 1970’s who helped found a political party called La Raza Unida and unsuccessfully ran for San Antonio city council. Julian grew up an activist baby, marching in rallies with her as a kid and working on campaigns as a teenager. He credits his mother for his political consciousness.
For a delightful preview of how this story will be told as he runs for higher office, check out this profile on conservative blog Breitbart.com:
Indeed, he, along with his twin, Joaquin, currently running for Congress, learned their politics on their mother’s knee and in the streets of San Antonio. Their mother, Rosie helped found a radical, anti-white, socialist Chicano party called La Raza Unida (literally “The Race United”) that sought to create a separate country—Aztlan—in the Southwest.
Today she helps manage her sons’ political careers, after a storied career of her own as a community activist and a stint as San Antonio Housing Authority ombudsman.
Far from denouncing his mother’s controversial politics, Castro sees them as his inspiration. As a student at Stanford Castro penned an essay for Writing for Change: A Community Reader (1994) in which he praised his mother’s accomplishments and cited them as an inspiration for his own future political involvement.
If the story seems all too familiar, it’s because it feels exactly like the attacks on Barack Obama’s associations with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Van Jones, Bill Ayers, and his own mother and father.
A perfect example of how these attacks easily tap into a latent fear of The Other lying in the heart of voters is the new movie just released called 2016: Obama’s America. Never heard of it? Well it’s grossed over $20 million in the last week and a half, making it the fifth highest grossing political documentary in American history. It’s probably because you’re an urban coastal college-educated liberal and all your friends are too. Go outside sometime.
Written by Dinesh D’Souza, it closely mirrors a book written by the same man, called The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which essentially claims that Obama, in his desire to bring himself closer to his estranged father, adopted the elder Obama’s Kenyan anti-colonialist anger and secretly hates America, blah blah blah. You can find a good synopsis here.
I suspect as more and more “The Next _____ Obama” candidates start to pop up, these young progressive people of color will be increasingly witch hunted with ties to the radical left dug up among family, friends, professors, spiritual leaders, and coworkers.
Because there are a lot of politically radical older people of color out there and young people of color know them. They might be close family. But even for those without politically active parents, most people who enter the world of politics, especially those breaking boundaries, usually do so with the guidance of older mentors and advisers.
Maybe Barack Obama’s father did have anti-colonial anger. Maybe it’s because the British committed atrocities in their colonization of Kenya and much of the suffering in Africa today is connected to the aftermath of colonialism. And I can imagine that Rosie Castro’s life growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Texas in the 1950’s might make her support the radical edge of the Chicano Movement.
The truth is, people of color have faced a lot of really fucked up shit in history. And some people are, not surprisingly, going to be mad about it. And although young people of color who run for office haven’t personally experienced Jim Crow or the Japanese Internment, and many of their feelings toward racial politics might hold more hope than anger, they will probably know at least one person in their community who is angry about American history.
All of this is not to say that Julian Castro shouldn’t run for president. It’s meant as a warning to people like me, young people of color who have contemplated running for office and have family members who would end up on one of Glenn Beck’s chalkboards if we ever did. It’s to say that America is not post-racial, there are deep wounds waiting to be peeled open, and anyone who wants to run for office should be prepared for their opponents to deliberately pick at those racial wounds until they bleed.
That being said, Castro 2024!
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.”
Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left. Those trying to predict the movement’s impact should stop wondering whether the protesters will adopt “clear demands” and look instead at strategy and structure. Pundits speculate the movement might sweep into power in Congress, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But for many of the protesters, winning the upcoming elections or passing bills is not the goal of the movement. They have a deeper discontent, struggling against the very structure of modern American society.
The Tea Party knew what it wanted immediately and took it. Far from a motley crew, the Tea Party is actually a highly regimented election machine run by some of the sharpest conservative political operatives in the country, which has harnessed the power of corporate money and grassroots organizing to relentlessly push a single legislative goal: cut everything. Occupy Wall Street’s greatest strength, its democratic spontaneity, is also a natural disadvantage that will keep it from ever becoming the Tea Party. But it could rival it by forming membership organizations to sustain networks of supporters, using an electoral strategy run by experienced progressive strategists, and rallying around spokespeople who can powerfully convey the vision of the movement.
Politicians are driven by fear and opportunity. Members of Congress will not take action unless they fear Occupy Wall Street as they did the Tea Party. If OWS rejects a legislative/electoral strategy, its absence in November 2012 will not be the fault of the protesters, but the fault of establishment progressive politicians, donors, and strategists for sitting on the sidelines.
The difference is not in type of strategy, but in the existence of a centralized strategy itself. Beneath the surface the Tea Party is run by veteran Republican Party political operatives, such as Dick Armey, who runs FreedomWorks. It is funded with a deep war chest from long-time Republican campaign donors like the Koch brothers. These strategists were the architects of the monumental grassroots pressure during the summer of 2009 that put healthcare reform on life support. They crafted the talking points that shouted down Democratic members of Congress in town hall meetings across America and jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill. By November 2010, they had built powerful voter mobilization networks of canvassers and phonebankers, and recruited, trained, and funded candidates that swept Congress, knocking out Democrats and traditional Republicans alike.
Veteran Republican politicians like John McCain dropped their moderate leanings and moved to the right, fearing more conservative primary challengers. Democrats in swing districts feared the power of the Tea Party’s electoral machine even more. Even the Republican congressional leadership feared the threat of rebellion from the Tea Party Caucus at any hint of moderation. The Tea Party pushed their demands relentlessly, through ruthless brinksmanship over default on the national debt, government shutdown, unemployment insurance, even hurricane disaster relief. And they won big again and again, forcing trillions of dollars in cuts.
Congress does not fear Occupy Wall Street the way they feared the Tea Party. The feeble lip service of Democrats and the scornful shrugs of Republicans show they feel no urgency to meet their demands. This is not an underestimation of their strength, but a calculation of their strategy. OWS is built on disillusionment with Washington that may extend all the way to the ballot box. No one can be sure how many of the protestors will even vote in November, let alone build something like the Tea Party’s campaign juggernaut.
It’s impossible to foresee what impact the movement will have on the next election, but without a significant change of direction, it may be almost none. If this happens, don’t blame the occupying protesters. They aren’t the cause of a lack of faith in government, they are a symptom. We should blame the James Carvilles for not building electoral campaigns around this movement, and blame the George Soros’s for not funding its operations. Michelle Bachmann formed the Tea Party Caucus four months before the elections that swept the Tea Party into power. A charismatic young progressive member of Congress should be forming the “99% Caucus” in Congress right now.
The Tea Party gained influence even before the election because members knew that it would soon be at their doorstep. They were already feeling the mounting pressure of citizens who packed their events and flooded their offices with calls. This gave Tea Party organizers short-term victories, such as the watering down of health care reform and the abandonment of capping carbon emissions.
Short-term victories keep up the momentum in social movements, energizing participants who can easily lose focus or faith in their own efforts. People participating in the political process for the first time can be inspired by a new movement they identify with, but easily let down when it runs up against the wall of political inertia.
We’ll see if the Occupy Wall Street movement can win any short-term victories. It will need a clear immediate battle to focus on. This is much more important than whether or not they choose to develop a laundry list platform of demands. If they choose not to take up a legislative agenda, they could use direct action tactics like recruiting millions to switch from banks to credit unions.
If they do want to take up battles over specific legislation, like the Tea Party did with health care reform, it will require them to be feared and respected in Congress. They will need to create a situation where Democrats are genuinely afraid that if they don’t stand behind a dramatic increase in taxes on the richest 1% of Americans, they will be thrown out by a popular primary challenger from the left. Republicans in swing districts will need to be afraid that if they don’t vote against their party, a grassroots opponent will mobilize volunteers and energize donors to take their seat.
This is unlikely to happen with OWS without a significant shift in direction. They would need one short-term issue focus, a few Congressional champions to write legislation for them, a strategy for pressuring members of Congress to vote their way, and the electoral muscle to back up their threats if they don’t.
The Tea Party has a key advantage over Occupy Wall Street: easy messaging. The Tea Party has a message of destruction. Get rid of government. Take it out with a chainsaw, not with a scalpel. They don’t care how, they just want it big and they want it now. $200 billion is better than $100 billion in budget cuts. $300 billion is better than $200 billion. They don’t need a ten-point platform. They have a one-point platform.
What does OWS want? Do they want higher taxes on the top 1% for deficit reduction, job creation, social services, or lower taxes on the rest of us? The weakening of corporate influence in Washington? Stronger financial reform to prevent another meltdown? Or do they want a society that simply gets rid of big financial institutions? Do they envision the ultimate overthrow of modern multinational corporate capitalism and a return to simple regional economies, expansive social safety nets, or some sort of cooperative system?
The truth is, “they” don’t want anything. Individual people within the movement want different things—they are each disparate pixels in a picture that has yet to emerge in clarity. Whether or not to draft up specific demands is one of the main contentions between rival camps within the movement.
Of course the minute details of financial regulation or campaign finance reform should be worked out by legislators and policy experts. They can analyze the Volcker Rule and leverage ratios and disclosure requirements for independent expenditure-only committees. Those who say the people in Zuccotti Park need to work them out are ignoring the history of social movements. But unfortunately, the problems of political and economic inequality this movement seeks to solve will require extremely complex solutions, unlike the perceived problem the Tea Party seeks to solve, which only requires budget cutting.
Eventually, as the Wisconsin protesters coalesced around “Kill the Bill” and the Egyptian protesters demanded the resignation of Mubarak, successful protests will need a clear short-term demand that can be met by their targets. This gives them the first decisive victory they need to grow.
If OWS develops an immediate goal, their next challenge will be selling it to the public. The movement started with a much steeper uphill climb in getting media recognition than the Tea Party. It took hundreds arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge to be taken seriously by the press. The Tea Party had national spokespeople, such as Glenn Beck, who could articulate and broadcast their goals to millions from the mountaintop of the most widely viewed news network in America. This gave them message control, in addition to the natural message control that comes with wanting something so simplistic.
Think of any major social movement in American history. The first thing that comes to mind is often its spokespeople. Why? Not because Martin Luther King Jr. himself singlehandedly delivered civil rights to America. But because he was the spokesperson that articulated the movement’s vision to the average American. He provided a coherent “dream”, an idea of a more just world that people could picture in their minds, an imagined world that seemed better than the existing reality.
A spokesperson can make a radical idea make sense to everyday people. Without spokespeople, reporters delight in interviewing the most ignorant person they can find in a crowd and portraying an entire movement as insane. When reporters know the leader they need a quote from for every new political development, they interview them. Malcolm X was a communications genius, explaining the tenets of Black Nationalism with remarkable clarity and denying the media the ability to portray his followers as disorganized and confused.
This kind of message discipline requires spokespeople, and will be hard to enforce on a movement that is so democratic it resists using microphones. This highlights the real difference between OWS and the Tea Party: OWS is actually grassroots, while the Tea Party is artificial. Most Tea Party members are not regular struggling Americans who suddenly turned against Obama’s economic policies; the vast majority of Tea Party members are longtime registered Republicans who were excited about hating Obama. Their movement briefly captured the imagination of the country, but lost popularity as Americans recognized it as a cheap reproduction of old ideas. However, many OWS protesters are disillusioned people who are participating in political action for the first time in their lives, who didn’t even vote in the last election. They emotionally connect to new recruits in a way the Tea Party simply can’t, using the language of those who feel voiceless and helpless in the new American Gilded Age.
They are fiercely against hierarchy and wary of leaders of the Democratic Party who might proclaim themselves spokespeople. But movements tend to gravitate to charismatic leaders, and sooner or later, one will likely emerge. Elizabeth Warren seems like an ideal pick. If she risked her Senate bid to step into the front of this movement, she might become much more powerful than a regular US Senator. Whether someone like her can organize OWS to have focused message control will determine much of the movement’s success.
In retrospect we imagine nebulous movements, but they are built on institutions. No one joined the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t come to a Civil Rights Movement meeting or take a Civil Rights Movement flier. They came to a SNCC meeting or an SCLC meeting or a CORE meeting. Those organizations created long-term strategies around specific issues, built networks of members on personal relationships, and executed actions around which they could mobilize people and pressure decision-makers to act.
Movements are sparked before institutions. Oddly enough, the Tea Party was ignited by an on-air rant from a stock trader turned financial reporter. OWS was launched by Canadian activist magazine Adbusters.
But sooner or later, without institutions to actively organize members, the rallies start to get smaller and smaller, while elected officials dismiss yet another has-been movement which lost its glamour. Some activists are professional rally-starters who know only one tactic: mobilizing, which they confuse with organizing. The difference between mobilizing and organizing is the ability to drive something long-term through relationship building and continuous leadership development. It takes little more than putting up posters or making a Facebook event to start a huge rally the day the government announces an unpopular decision. The question is: can you bring out a few thousand people again when lobbyists try to silently kill your bill in committee? Do you even know the names of the people you mobilized?
If I Google “Tea Party,” on the first page of results I find the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party.org and the Patriot Action Network. I can sign up to volunteer, donate and find events in my area on the first page of each of their websites.
This may happen with Occupy Wall Street, but it hasn’t yet. To win long-term goals like abolishing corporate personhood, requiring a constitutional amendment, OWS needs a sustainable movement. It will need to create organizations, which may not be able to function on general assembly consensus-only decision-making. A movement should never have one central organization. But OWS could, like the Tea Party, end up with several core organizations.
The Tea Party is an unusual movement with its ranks of millions ready to hit the pavement, but the checkbook of a movement whose goals coincide perfectly with corporate America. I don’t think this advantage is unbeatable. A “99% PAC” could raise Obama-esque money online from small donors and potentially go head to head against big oil, banks, and insurance companies. With the movement behind them, a fiery populist candidate could run for senate raising money online from individuals, not corporations.
This movement may build institutions as it matures. But it also may reject institutions as undemocratic and stifling. Many people, probably a few of my friends, would read this essay and complain that I’m attempting to introduce hierarchy, bureaucratize the movement or let it be co-opted by unions or the Democratic Party to win elections. But if this movement is still standing strong two years from now, it will have built long-lasting institutions to carry on the fight.
This country needs a new powerful and enduring grassroots movement with fresh ideas and passionate energy. It has not been political parties, but movements like these that have changed history. But for every successful movement, there have been ten revolutions that suffered quiet deaths of irrelevance, movements which have flashed and disappeared, slipping into the footnotes of history. If America has any chance of reversing our rampant political and economic inequality, it will need a movement like this to be strategic, to move us, to last, and to make us feel like we own our country again.