You notice it in the comments on some online article. A casual conversation with a neighbor. Your friend’s argument with their uncle on social media. You see the same words pop up again and again, the same stories: “Safe spaces” and “participation trophies” and “snowflakes”. The problem these days is everyone’s become so “coddled” and “entitled”.
In our world of filtered feeds, it’s getting harder to figure out what the other side is talking about– interpret their latest vocabularies and mythologies– talking points bouncing around an echo chamber you’re not quite part of.
Here’s what’s going on:
The political right sees the dangerous tide of the Millenial generation, the future of American culture, shifting unstoppably to the left. But they’ve got a playbook for times like these: Facing the whirlwind of social change led by young Baby Boomers in the 1960’s, Nixon’s strategists developed a counter-message that helped win a conservative era of government for decades. They spoke for the “Silent Majority”, the god-fearing, hard-working, patriotic, real Americans, isolating progressive youth culture as out of touch and dangerous, wild with drugs and sex and communism, an existential threat to American values.
Today the right is pushing a new set of talking points through their media echo chamber of AM talk radio, Fox News, and conservative sites like Breitbart, to build popular resentment and scorn towards young people.
Their message is this:
Brainwashed by college professors and celebrities and coddled by participation trophies, kids these days have become fragile little snowflakes whose feelings need to be constantly protected. To keep themselves safe from any ideas that might trigger them, they’ve tightened the clamps of political correctness on any free speech they find offensive. Thugs create carnage in the streets because police are afraid of being called racist, immigrants bleed us dry because we can’t say “illegal” anymore, men prey on little girls in the bathroom claiming they’re “transgender”, terrorists massacre innocent Americans because we’re too damn PC to say “radical Islam”. And then these whiny crybabies are so entitled they think the rest of us should pay for their sociology classes and birth control, because they don’t know what it’s like to put in a hard day’s work.
The right excels at making their political messages deeper, more subconscious, almost more cultural than explicitly political. You’ll hear lifelong Democrats repeating their buzzwords without realizing it, as if they organically thought them up on their own, perhaps even as observations about their own children, rather than echoes of talking points written by conservative communications strategists.
The 1960’s attacks on progressive youth culture described them as “radical”, “subversive”, “dangerous”, etc. But young people take pride in being called dangerous rebels. Calling their counter-culture radical pours fuel on their fire. Conservatives realized they had to reframe young activists as a threat to America due to their weakness rather than their strength. They’ve deliberately shifted towards labels like “coddled”, “entitled”, and “whiny”. Snowflakes: the young, diverse, and sensitive who think they’re all so special and unique. Fragile, handle with care! Don’t offend these kids or they’ll melt!
This also helps build a counter-counter-culture among young conservatives, who don’t have to feel like the dorky church camp kids anymore. Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer rebrand themselves as the bold, edgy, “alt-right” rebels, unwilling to conform to a youth culture that mindlessly celebrates diversity.
The “Snowflake” label even challenges diversity itself as an American value. Young people assert that they represent the future of America, in its beautiful mix of identities and experiences. But the new right messaging says that in the end, all those unique special snowflakes melt into the same grimy puddles, unable to withstand the slightest heat. Newsflash, kiddos: You’re not special. No one is.
Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces
The appropriation of “Trigger Warnings” and “Safe Spaces” is fascinating. These terms originated in lefty student culture, but were limited in use prior to the right-wing media assault against them. Try to remember: how many times have you actually seen a trigger warning or safe space in real life prior to the barrage of blogs and thinkpieces and TV commentators decrying them? Not only is the widespread use of trigger warnings and safe spaces a myth perpetuated by the right, but the use of these terms has been distorted from their original meanings.
“Triggered” comes from the field of trauma recovery. Trigger warnings might be given before showing a college class a video depicting rape. Since 1 in 4 college women experience sexual assault, more than a few in a lecture hall of hundreds could publicly relive their trauma in front of their peers. A warning lets them step outside or at least mentally prepare themselves. Trigger warnings are still rarely used even on college campuses, but have become central to right-wing mythology of why young people are coddled and unable to handle debate with opposing viewpoints. The term “triggered” has now evolved into a derisive sneer at people who show signs of being emotionally hurt or angered during debates around race or gender, topics rooted in traumatic life experiences to some, while only abstract intellectual play to others.
Similarly, “safe spaces” originally described rare places where queer people could feel safe from the ever-present danger of being harassed, assaulted, or even murdered for holding the wrong person’s hand or dressing the wrong way. It’s now become a buzzword meaning college campus bubbles where students avoid hearing right-wing perspectives, particularly ones perceived as racist, sexist, or homophobic.
These terms are now used far more often by conservatives to explain what’s wrong with kids these days than they ever were on college campuses to protect marginalized students or survivors of trauma. But the intended audience for these talking points was never college students themselves, so an accurate depiction of university life isn’t necessary. These myths have taken on a life of their own within a larger story.
Participation trophies are a critical piece of the new right narrative: they connect the right’s social message with its economic message. It’s the idea that Millenials grew up in the era where all kids in group activities like AYSO soccer leagues were given trophies, even the losers. So they’ve grown up unable to handle the harshness of the real world and entitled to being given rewards for no effort. Thus, not only are young people incapable of dealing with diverse opinions like “black people are thugs” or “Muslims are terrorists”, but they are also ill-equipped to face the realities of a free market economy where you have to work or die.
Somehow, this generation whose entire life has been in the rubble of a collapsed economy, left with only low-wage service jobs and saddled with exploding college tuition and crushing housing costs, are magically transformed into a generation of lazy entitled brats who had everything handed to them.
The right knows that young people who grew up in an era of horrific economic inequality simply don’t believe in the American Dream myth anymore. They fear a whole generation turning towards Bernie Sanders-style democratic socialism. The “participation trophy” story is a bullet aimed at the heart of the economic populism of American youth.
There is of course no real evidence that links accepting a participation trophy for being bad at sports when you’re 8 years old to future inability to succeed in a capitalist economy. Yet this narrative has become deeply embedded in the public’s conventional wisdom. That’s how effective messaging works.
Each of these buzzwords are attached to stories, narratives, mythologies that are evoked in the subconscious mind whenever they are uttered. Each repetition reinforces these myths as general truths about the way the world is, parroted over and over at dinner tables and break rooms, met with knowing grunts and sage nods.
Central to this new right message is the idea of progressive thought as “political correctness”, and political correctness as a violation of free speech. This allows the right to reframe maintaining white supremacy and misogyny as an issue of freedom.
The reactionary right can no longer say “all _____’s are lazy, stupid, violent, etc.” like in generations past. However, they can imply that maybe not all, but most or many are. Controversial, but not completely taboo. When those assertions are challenged, they respond that they are being oppressed by the denial of their free speech rights. Even worse, they say, not only is left-wing political correctness violating our freedoms and threatening American values, but it’s crippling us from tackling important problems like crime and terrorism because we are so wrapped up in not offending anybody! Thus the new right-wing talking points turn a defensive position, of being out of touch with an increasingly tolerant America, into an offensive one, where they are the champions of freedom and our very way of life.
This act of verbal jujitsu not only maintains overtly racist beliefs, but shuts down debate about them, by claiming disagreement is a violation of free speech.
Conservative: “Sure, of course not AALLLL Muslims are terrorists, but let’s be honest, whenever there’s a terrorist attack on TV it’s a Muslim. How come we can’t talk about that? We can’t even say who wants to kill us? What happened to free speech?”
Progressive: “But more Americans are killed every year in terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists than Muslim extremists. Groups like ISIS are to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. You can’t just slap that label on all Muslims. That’s racist!”
Conservative: “Now I’m a RACIST?? Oh I’m sorry did my opinion trigger you, snowflake? Do you need a safe space from all these offensive words? This PC crap is why ISIS is killing us.”
But the real intent of this message is to build popular resentment against the “woke” youth culture of the 21st century, with a few different audiences:
1) Provide talking points for older core conservatives. Shifting attention to the crazy kids these days allows men who grew up in the Jim Crow era to avoid the uncomfortable contradiction of their intolerant beliefs losing touch with an evolving society. They absorb these talking points and become their biggest promoters.
2) Make inroads with middle-aged and working-class moderates. They see themselves as tolerant people but sometimes clash with a youth culture that can be harsh towards those who don’t keep up with national conversations about race and gender playing out on social media and college campuses. Their frustration at feeling attacked for not knowing the right things to say can be manipulated to drive a wedge between them and progressive young people.
3) Tap into a new group of young people to replace their aging base. The alt-right targets disaffected young white males in online spaces like Reddit and 4chan to find new recruits who wouldn’t connect with older conservative messages like “family values”, but feel alienated by their peers, where progressive “wokeness” is social capital. Their resentment is ripe for recruitment and radicalization.
This message isn’t just spread through their old top-down channels like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, or even newer voices like Tomi Lahren aimed at young people. It’s also disseminated through viral marketing tactics– intentionally provoking controversy and protest to circulate a message faster and wider.
This is Milo Yiannopolous’ whole thing. He goes to a progressive college campus to say horrible shit knowing protests will inevitably erupt, maybe preventing him from speaking in-person to a small handful of conservative students, but meanwhile exposing his ideas to millions of non-students as news of the controversy spreads first to the local area on TV and then virally on social media to a far wider audience.
But it’s one thing to see your opponents’ strategy, it’s another to know what to do about it. So what now?
We can’t just ignore these rapidly spreading messages and hope they go away. Refusing to feed the troll lurking under the bridge isn’t a winning strategy once the troll has climbed up to stand directly in your path, dragging its club along the cobblestones.
We also can’t reinforce our opposition’s frame by trapping ourselves in defensive arguments against it. Our message has to be more than “Hey, we’re not snowflakes!”
We have to lead with our own message. We need to tell our own story about the problems in our society and our own vision for how to solve them. We need to define who we are, what we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for.
Above all, to contradict their message, we need to make our most visible battles about substance rather than language. We have to make undeniably visible the impacts of systemic inequality on the daily conditions of people’s lives.
This was never about being offended by words we disagree with. This is about the families torn apart by prison cells and deportations. This is about the poisoned air and water making children sick. This is about the grandmothers evicted from their homes. This is about the people toiling for poverty wages at dangerous jobs. It has always been about a system that puts corporate profits over the lives of human beings who are considered disposable because of who they are or where they’re from.
How could such savage inequality not offend us, not offend our very humanity? The real act of coddled entitlement is turning a blind eye to injustices that cause us discomfort. Instead, it is an act of radical bravery to dream of a better world and fight for it. It is nothing less than the most fundamental responsibility of every generation: to look with wide open eyes at the rights and wrongs of the world we inherited, and commit ourselves to building a better one for those who come after us.
After the election, mainstream Democratic Party leaders, progressive thinkers and writers, and organizers of the movement left entered a fierce debate, centered on the question of whether the American left needs to abandon “identity politics”.
One side says that in recent years the left has gone too far in focusing on the social interests of people of color, queer people, etc. while ignoring economic issues, which left blue-collar white voters feeling alienated. They point out the Trump backlash was particularly strong among working-class whites in the Rust Belt who have suffered serious economic pain and feel like the left has abandoned and forgotten about them. They say we’ve lost sight of standing for universal values and grown comfortable with a kind of corporate multiculturalism that fails to challenge Wall Street’s influence. They say the solution is returning to a message focused on economic inequality, a Bernie Sanders style populism that can appeal to a broader audience outside the diverse coastal urban bubbles.
Another side says that Trump won because of his blatant appeals to racial resentment among white voters, not any economic message he had that better appealed to the working-class. They say that we shouldn’t rush to defend and feel sympathy for a rising white supremacist movement because of “economic anxiety” of whites who are still better off economically than people of color. They argue we need to fight racism directly rather than ignoring it and hoping better economic conditions will make people not racist.
There’s truth within both arguments. We do need to finally toss out the shambling zombie of neoliberalism and make the left fight hard for working people again. We also cannot excuse or compromise an inch to white supremacy and misogyny. But in the end it’s a pointless question of whether we should abandon “identity politics”. All politics is identity politics. Politics aimed at better representing the interests of the rural white working-class is in fact the definition of identity politics.
The bigger issue is that right now we have two stories, two rising narratives about what the core problems in our society are, who is causing them, who our movement is, and what alternative vision we stand for.
Both stories are kind of weirdly coexisting. Different messages are resonating with different bases, building strong but divergent movements. We need a synthesis of these two stories, or the right’s more unified story will be more compelling to the American public than our divided one.
The Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story.
The Zucotti Story says our political and economic systems have become rigged, increasingly tilting in favor of the powerful and wealthy, leading to mass economic suffering and environmental destruction while big corporations and the richest 1% profit. We need to take back our democracy and return it to the hands of the people by getting big money out of politics, reigning in Wall Street, and directly fighting economic inequality. We the 99% can only beat the richest 1% and their lobbyists and Super PACs if we stand up now and start a political revolution using our people power as the majority.
The Zucotti Story explodes onto the scene with the 2011 Occupy Wall Street encampments at Zucotti Park in New York, runs through the 2014 People’s Climate March and erupts again in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. It was the protests against Keystone XL, the hate of Monsanto, the move to amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United. It resonates most strongly among young white progressives, and has become a central narrative in movements fighting economic inequality, climate change, money in politics, the corporate food system, and student tuition/debt. It has some intellectual roots in the anti-globalization and anti-corporate protests that emerged in the late 90’s. Its greatest public storytellers include people like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich, Bill McKibben, etc. It has a willingness to engage in electoral politics, because its theory of change sees the solution as using the people’s democratic majority power. However, it is highly critical of the way modern democracy is influenced by corporate money and is deeply suspicious of being co-opted and used by untrustworthy political actors.
The Ferguson Story says that we are slowly unraveling the legacies of white supremacy and patriarchy that have continued to curl around the roots of all of our institutions since our country’s origins of colonialism, genocide, and slavery. These deeply-rooted forms of oppression continue to live on because those with privilege are willing and able to ignore them. We need to reveal structural oppression in order to dismantle it, like exposing how our criminal justice system carries on the legacy of slavery by continuing to imprison and execute black people at a mass scale. People of color, women and queer people can only achieve real liberation, can only truly dismantle these systems of oppression by showing this country itself in the mirror and forcing it to reconcile with its injustices.
The Ferguson Story emerges out of the critical race and gender theory building for decades among left student activists and social justice organizers, particularly within queer, feminist, and racial justice circles, which only recently has become mainstreamed off college campuses and nonprofit offices and into popular culture and social media. Its most prominent face is the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded into public view in Ferguson, Missouri, but it also runs through the Dreamer/immigrants’ rights movement, the modern feminist movement including the raging battles around sexual consent and reproductive justice, and the queer and transgender rights movements. Although it has roots in the counterculture of the 1960’s, it is wary of the failings of that era’s movements. It avoids individual charismatic leaders (seeing organizations collapse after the assassinations of leaders like MLK and Malcolm X). It is opposed to colorblind universalism, because it holds that without acknowledging the legacies of historical oppression that leave behind huge power imbalances today, we will never achieve justice. It sees the path to victory as less tied to electoral politics or short-term incremental policy victories and more possible through social and cultural change, often engaging prominent figures to use their pop culture megaphone to command public attention, from Beyonce to Colin Kaepernick to Jesse Williams, and challenges individuals to build consciousness of white supremacy and patriarchy at a person-to-person level. From police killings to immigrant deportations to sexual assaults, it raises the stories of people whose suffering would be otherwise ignored to make the invisible visible, exposing the bleeding edge of oppressive systems.
I could fit nearly every post scrolling across my feed from my lefty activist friends into one of these two stories.
But the Ferguson Story and the Zucotti Story are on a collision course. They have different heroes and different villains. They even run through time in different directions.
If the key to dismantling systemic oppression really is to make it impossible for the privileged to ignore their own privilege and others’ oppression, then how can we simultaneously declare that we are all in the same 99 Percent? If the Wall Street financial elite really are the holders of power in this system, causing horrific destruction by putting corporate profits over people and the planet, how can we truly disrupt this system with cultural change that doesn’t directly challenge their power? These aren’t easy questions to reconcile.
In my opinion, the Zucotti Story identifies a better villain. The financial and corporate elite is a more politically strategic opponent than millions of privileged straight white males. But it’s also a truer villain in reality. Who really drives systemic inequalities and oppressions, who really profits from this system? Sure, the white guy on a factory assembly line in Michigan may be better off than a Latina woman cleaning hotel rooms in Nevada. But if someone’s getting truly rich off this system, it’s definitely not the factory worker. And whoever holds the real power to build and maintain that system isn’t him either. The racism and sexism he grew up around makes it easy for corporate billionaires to convince him that the Latina housekeeper doesn’t deserve higher wages for her work and shouldn’t have access to healthcare or food or housing or education assistance for her family. And tragically, that same garbage they’ve convinced him of also keeps his own wife working for $2.13 an hour at the diner and keeps his own kids from getting scholarship grants to go to college. But he’s at worst a storm trooper in this story, not Darth Vader, and certainly not the Emperor.
On the other hand, I think the Ferguson Story lays out a better narrative arc. The problem with “take back our democracy” is the same as “Make America Great Again”. It begs the question: back to what? For the millions of people of color, women and queer people in America, there was no golden age that we would ever want to return to. Most tellers of the Zucotti story, from Robert Reich to Bernie Sanders, remember the New Deal era as that better time, making small print footnotes and caveats that there was unfortunately too much discrimination back then. But the hard truth is that the broadly egalitarian prosperity of that time for white people was actually built on the backs of people of color, like the government massively subsidizing the creation of the suburbs and helping white families buy homes there, which was inextricably linked to redlining and white flight devastating urban communities of color. Our story should not weave a mythical past because it keeps us from confronting the harsh realities of that past and understanding the much harder task of building a better future through deeper systemic change.
Perhaps the hardest question is who are the heroes of our story? Are we the coalition of the oppressed or are we the 99%? The 99% concept, while seemingly unifying at a surface level, is troubling. If we are unable to distinguish between the challenges facing a black formerly incarcerated unemployed father in Atlanta and a young white tech worker in San Francisco, this will inevitably lead to huge failures in addressing injustices in our society. Instead there is greater truth, but also something more deeply powerful, in seeing our heroes as a motley crew of underdog misfit rebels. In the oppression frame, we can acknowledge our differences, but embrace each other.
But the problem with the oppressed as the heroes is that our country has always refused to accept the existence of economic class oppression. That’s the missing piece that keeps our two stories from converging.
From Rust Belt guys laid off from disappearing jobs in the factories and mines to Millenials at shit jobs in retail and food service struggling with exploding debt and housing costs, white Americans rarely see themselves as part of an oppressed working class.
Throughout the history of this country, the existence of whiteness has been deliberately constructed, while the existence of class has been utterly denied. The white working-class has been told over and over for centuries that they’re not the poor, they’re the default people, the average, real Americans, the noble middle-class. They’re not down there along with the wretched of the earth, the dark huddled masses.
This is why many white folks need to hear a story about the 99% in order to fight for economic justice. If we’re all in the 99%, no one has to admit we’re broke, we’re just not as rich as those Wall Street guys.
The United States has historically lacked the consciousness about class issues seen in most other countries because our country’s most dominant narrative, our core defining ethos, is being the land of opportunity, away from Old Europe, the exceptional place where everyone can make it. The American Dream. It’s the story we’re told over and over again in so many ways, even though time and time again it’s been proven statistically untrue.
This is the big lie that creates a huge barrier to a synthesis between the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story. The biggest lies are always the hardest to expose. In the end, the left will probably never win in this country unless we can get past this deep mental block that prevents millions of people from seeing how our economic system is screwing them.
As John Steinbeck once said, Americans don’t see themselves as poor, they see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. In America, where supposedly anyone can make it if they’re smart and work hard, being broke means you must be lazy and stupid. If you’re poor and white, there is no consciousness of your oppression to shield you from the shame of being poor in America. Acknowledging your social class is in fact deeply painful, to see your place at the bottom of your own nation’s social myth. You may go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to assert your status as higher than some other group of people, which makes you vulnerable to demagogues who cast the blame on scapegoats. This is how old plantation owners convinced the vast majority of whites who didn’t own slaves that they should support maintaining the slavery system because it kept poor white people one rung higher on the ladder than poor black people.
Shame is a powerful, paralyzing emotion. It makes us avoid and hide. In politics just as in our personal lives, if we can’t move past shame we can never move forward.
When people of color, women, queer people, talk about their status in society they often feel some internalized shame, but they are also able to express pride, a sense of resilience and rebelliousness built into a collective history. Working-class white people in America don’t feel that same way when they talk about class. You see it a little bit in the “redneck” pride in country music, blue collar comedy, etc. But it’s often more expressing rural white cultural pride than pride in being working-class itself.
Even people in the labor movement in this country are afraid to talk about class. Half the time they can’t even say the words “working class”, and say unions represent the voice of the “middle class” instead. This is a legacy of Cold War Era McCarthyism and red-baiting, where in order to survive, organized labor had to avoid anything that might slap the dangerous communist label on them.
But the Cold War is over. And we need to start talking about class with white people. If we don’t, all working-class white people hear from the left is that they had this great privileged life and somehow ended up on the bottom anyway. That’s the kind of thing that makes people go “Hey fuck you man, you don’t know anything about me or how hard I’ve had it, nobody cares or tries to help out people like me, I had to do everything on my own, unlike those people getting affirmative action and living off welfare and cheating the immigration system.” Talking about race without talking about class actually creates a huge mental block keeping working-class white people from acknowledging racism.
The left doesn’t need to stop talking about identity politics. The left needs to understand that class is one of the most important parts of people’s identity.
As far as we still have to go, we’ve made undeniable social progress on race and gender in just the last 10 years. But where is our progress on class? Our movements have failed to deliver meaningful change for working-class white people. We have buried them. And in 2016 they refused to be buried.
To fail to talk about class is to avoid a problem because it seems too hard and too scary. It is to try to ignore the estranged old friend who we stopped talking to after a bitter argument, because we feel ashamed and don’t know how to restart the conversation.
This political identity of the white working-class, the largest in the country, will ultimately need to find a place to belong, either among the left or the right. If we cannot create a place for them to belong in our movement, they will continue to be turned into our enemy’s greatest weapon against us. If we don’t lay out a genuinely transformative progressive economic agenda they will become the political base for white nationalism.
And if the movement left fails to open up the conversation about class, the establishment liberals will make their play to win the next election—they will try to win over upper-class white voters by diving deeper into neoliberalism, showing economically conservative but socially liberal voters that if they’re embarrassed by Trump’s crude antics, they can find a home for their politics in the Democratic Party.
To beat the two-headed monster of hate and greed, we can’t turn our backs to one to fight another.
And we will need a compelling, powerful, unifying story to defeat the one we’re up against.
The Make America Great Again story spread like wildfire and was ultimately the most successful message in 2016 because it aligned so easily atop the old right narrative, but changed a few key details to adapt to the new viral era, the new altered political state.
The Old Right story, the Atlas Shrugged story, said that liberal elites who really just want more big government power and ultimately socialism/communism are conspiring through an ever-growing web of government taxes and programs and regulations to take wealth away from hardworking, mainly white, “makers” like small business owners, and give it to lazy, mainly black and brown, “takers” like welfare recipients, eroding our hardworking American values and lulling people into a cultural trap of dependence, growing ever weaker and more sheeplike. The heroes who can stop them are the business elite who forsake their supposed “social obligations” to others to reveal the truth of how much the world needs them as successful individuals.
The New Right story, the Make America Great Again story, says that liberal elites who want big globalist governments are conspiring to advance an ever-growing web of politically correct multiculturalism that erodes our tough American values, keeping us from confronting our enemies and standing up for the physical safety and economic security of (white) “real Americans” who are under threat from Mexican illegal immigrants and Chinese factory slaves, Muslim terrorists and Black rioters, who we can’t even call our enemies because we’ve been so brainwashed by the liberal media. The heroes who can stop them are the Regular Joe’s who have the courage to cut the PC crap and say what’s really happening and stand up for ourselves as a country.
Both stories have roughly the same villains, the liberal elite with their dangerous ideas and the ignorant dark masses who follow them. They have roughly the same narrative arcs, of things falling apart over time as they break down our culture into weakness, ultimately leading to the fall of America. They have the same solution, of telling the hard truth that no one wants to hear. The New Right mainly just switched the heroes from the successful business-class elite to the struggling plain-spoken regular working guy. Trump’s narrative resonated less with the traditional gatekeepers like elected officials, media commentators, donors etc. who candidates once needed to win. But it resonated more with the actual base of ordinary people who virally spread his message at the grassroots level and on social media.
The right-wing narrative just gave itself a little tune up for a viral era and immediately found massive success. Meanwhile, the left wing has lacked any kind of cohesive narrative for decades. That left story is finally beginning to emerge into the public consciousness, but in two distinct parts that are struggling to be reconciled with one another.
Divided, they are defeating us, by caricaturing us as Social Justice Warriors and Bernie Bros, minorities obsessed with meaningless microaggressions, and privileged white guys who only care about free college and weed, and making us resent each other.
But there is one place where I think we’re beginning to see a synthesis of our two stories. It’s the Standing Rock Story. Over the past few months, we’ve seen followers of both the Zucotti Story and the Ferguson Story turn their eyes to North Dakota, to perhaps the most deeply oppressed people since the beginning of this country, indigenous people who are courageously fighting the most powerful wealthy corporate interests, the oil industry and their Wall Street financiers, and somehow seem to be winning.
This is the first story I’ve seen that has really moved people in both of our left camps. It’s the story that says that reckless corporations driven by Wall Street greed are putting their profits before the lives of people and the planet we all depend on. And that it will be the places like Standing Rock and Flint that are hit first and worst, as the corporate machine takes away our humanity. It will be the people who have been neglected by America, the people whose lives and humanity have been valued the least. It will be these places that first see their water, air and soil poisoned, or their people struggling to survive without jobs or economic opportunities, or their democratic voice and human rights crushed for the sake of profit. But in the end, we have a shared fate, and people from all walks of life will need to join that struggle in powerful stunning acts of solidarity to defend our common humanity.
It’s a time of drought, when the brush blows dry in the wind, and where wildfire is just a spark away. We all feel it. Somehow everything is different now.
So many of us put our trust in the old experts. Yet the pundits and political consultants and party leaders and pollsters got everything wrong, every step of the way, when it counted the most. Their models and theories and assumptions are broken now. They failed us, and if we continue to let them lead us we will fail millions of people who have everything at stake.
But why were they so wrong? And what or who should we put our faith in now?
It’s clear now that we have entered an altered political state. We have to stop denying it and start diagnosing it. If we pretend nothing is different and act in the same way we always have, we will be crushed by those who understand the new rules of the game.
Our grandchildren will probably be taught in school that there were several factors that contributed to the political upheaval of the 2010’s, including:
- Prolonged economic hardship after the financial crash
- Rapidly-changing social norms regarding race and gender
- The explosion of social media allowing political ideas to spread virally
We’ve finally started to grapple with the effect of years and years of chronic economic suffering interacting in a toxic combination with the backlash against a major push forward of racial and gender progress. Human history shows us that in times of economic crisis, people choose between one of two basic responses—redistribution or exclusion. Once we recognize our system is failing, we either reshape it to make it work for more people, or demagogues stir up hatred and resentment towards scapegoats.
What I don’t think we fully understand yet is how much social media has fundamentally altered the political landscape of the world, accelerating the rise of these movements.
In our lifetimes, we’ve seen far more dramatic changes in communications technology than in sectors like transportation and energy where we’re still largely using Industrial Revolution era technology like the personal automobile and fossil fuels. Think about communication in a mid-2010’s society where a majority of the population owns a mobile smartphone connected to billions across the world, compared with communication in the 1990’s before social media, compared with the 1980’s before mass internet access. We haven’t fully processed how much political change this has already created, let alone understood its potential to fundamentally reshape society as we know it. These are changes in communications technology at least on the level of the radio, which fueled the rapid global spread of both communism and fascism in the aftermath of economic crisis in the early-mid 20th century. Social media tears down the old gatekeepers of publishing companies, radio, and TV stations and allows essentially any random person to put forward ideas that, if compelling enough to others, can spread across the globe like an epidemic. From radio to the printing press, revolutionary change in communication technology has never failed to create revolutionary political change around the world. Our lives are no exception.
The rapid change in communication technology has hardened our politics of group affinity, as we are easily able to connect with networks and communities of likeminded people, from our own cultural groups and fans of our favorite TV shows to conspiracy theorists and white supremacists. Social media has warped and stretched our sense of reality, as information spreads faster than fact-checking, and it becomes harder and harder to discern the real world from our filtered feeds and echo chambers. It has fueled the fires of our outrage, as we can watch live video of infuriating injustices happening in communities thousands of miles away and engage in heated debate about it with our entire network of social connections in real-time.
The 2016 election wasn’t won by a flood of advertisements paid for by campaign cash, by endorsements from respected and trusted figures, or even by a better-organized campaign on the ground. Every single traditional measure of a winning campaign pointed towards a Hillary Clinton victory. Donald Trump won the election on social media (or at least that’s where Hillary Clinton lost it).
We live in the viral era, where the things people hear, see, and believe are driven by what their social networks share with them. Top-down forms of communication like advertising, no matter how well-crafted, are reaching a fraction of the voters that organic people-to-people conversations online are reaching. The direct communications from candidates on TV, print, and radio pales in comparison to the amount of time people spend reading what their friends share on social media about an election. And more and more, the stories that get airtime on the mainstream news are driven by what is already trending online or what media companies anticipate will be shared online.
But more important than sheer volume, people-to-people communication is also far more trusted than top-down communication, especially in an age of rapidly collapsing trust in institutions, from political leaders to economic experts to mainstream media. What else can explain why so many people believe fake news posted on Facebook by their uncle more than real news read to them by a CNN anchor? In a cynical world, people believe everyone has an agenda, but they are more likely to trust the agenda of their friends and family.
The corporate sector is already realizing this, and using it in how they promote their brands. They know consumer’s shopping decisions are now driven much more by peer-reviews and crowdsourced recommendations than by direct advertisements. They are desperately trying to figure out how to get people to organically promote their products to their friends on social media. They are largely doing it unsuccessfully (with a few noteworthy exceptions like Dove’s infamous “Real Beauty” campaign). It’s extremely difficult to pull off in a way that feels authentic– people can spot a corporate advertisement disguised as a meme from a mile away and will ridicule it into the dust. But they’re getting smarter and smarter.
Meanwhile, political communication has largely failed to even realize this shift and study what political messages work in the viral era. Campaign professionals shy away from a heavy reliance on social media because it’s so hard to quantify its impact. Asking your volunteers to spend time tweeting about the election just doesn’t feel like a very effective way to win a campaign. Yet the problem is not that political campaigns aren’t spending enough of their staff time creating memes. The problem is that they aren’t creating campaigns that are meme-worthy. The whole point in social media is that it’s not top down. Trying to directly fire off posts into the abyss of the internet in the hope that they will go viral doesn’t work, because it doesn’t feel authentic to the people reading them, and nobody feels moved to share something that seems like a canned advertisement or stale promotion. The greatest viral movements of our time like Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and Standing Rock haven’t become social media sensations that swept the country because they distributed really well-written tweets and really beautiful graphics from some centralized social media account. They worked because their ideas and their actions in the real world were powerful and moving to millions of Americans who posted about them constantly on social media. What works is actually doing and saying things in real life that regular people are excited about and inspired by and want to share with the people they care about. The memes will create themselves.
Political campaign veterans who have spent time in grassroots field organizing intuitively understand the new viral era reality far better than those who specialize in top-down glossy mailers and slick TV ads. Field campaign people know that no matter how perfectly crafted and meticulously written your script is, the moment your volunteers actually nervously knock on their first door, the script will immediately vaporize from their mind, and with hands fumbling on their clipboards and eyes darting around for help, they will start telling whatever story they have actually absorbed about the campaign. And yet somehow, if that story is halfway decent, the fact that this is a real person from the voter’s own community speaking sincerely about why they care and others should too, is far more persuasive than any advertisement on TV. When a political movement tells a story that truly resonates with its core of supporters at a deeper level, they can re-tell that story to the people around them who trust them and listen to them. What is happening on social media is the exact same thing that happens in field organizing, but at a bigger and faster scale.
We don’t know everything about what creates virality, but social media has been around long enough and studied enough that we do know some things:
A) Virality thrives off a clear sense of identity. Buzzfeed was the first to realize this, and started writing listicles like “23 things only Asian dentists from Southern California will understand”. The founder of Buzzfeed did his graduate school research on how modern consumer culture caused people to lose their sense of identity, leaving them grasping for new identities that spoke to them. He understood that people share things with others to show the world who they are. Similarly, political communications in the viral age need to answer the question “What does participating in this say about what kind of person I am?”. Who is the “we” I’m part of? This could mean we are the people’s movement of the 99% taking power back from the 1% and corporations. We are the people of color, queer people, etc. fighting back against oppression. Or we are the silent and struggling “real Americans”, standing up for ourselves to make America great again. People are far more driven by declaring a political identity than declaring policy platforms they agree with. That’s always been true, but it’s more true now than ever.
B) Research also shows that the most viral emotion is outrage. Of all the feelings that move us to share information, “Wow this is so cute and heartwarming” has nothing on “I can’t believe this happened, this is so fucked up.” In this altered political state, our messages need to plainly say the status quo is fucked up because it is. Economic inequality is spiraling out of control, our planet is hurtling towards destruction, and race and gender oppression are still deeply rooted in every facet of our society. And we need to not just acknowledge that shit is fucked up, we need to say why it’s fucked up, who benefits from the status quo that harms so many people, who prevents the change that we need. Are things fucked up because the financial elite have accumulated so much political and economic power that they’ve screwed the rest of us to make profits for themselves? Are things fucked up because people with privilege allow white supremacy and patriarchy to continue their centuries-long stranglehold around all of our society’s institutions? Or are things fucked up because America’s dark outsider enemies are taking advantage of our soft multiculturalism that’s made us too politically correct to stand up for our own people?
C) And of course, the most obvious lesson is that bold, unexpected things go viral. The conventional wisdom in politics for a very long time has been that it is strategic to be mild and careful, to avoid controversy or gaffes that come from saying the wrong thing, to be meticulous and scripted and on-message. In the viral era, we need to make bold statements about our core beliefs and policy platforms. Here’s an exercise: Picture in your mind the most frequently talked-about Hillary Clinton platform. I can barely think of any. In fact, the first thing that popped into my mind was the free college for families making under $100k a year and that’s only because she copied Bernie Sanders’ thing and watered it down. All the expensive 30-second TV spots and half-page mailers in the world reach, engage, and persuade a fraction of the people you can reach by simply doing or saying something that millions of regular people start talking about on the internet. Most totally regular people could easily name 3-5 Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders platforms off the top of their heads and it wasn’t because they heard about them from an ad on TV.
Trump: Border Wall, mass deportations, Muslim registry, Ban/extreme vetting of refugees, renegotiate NAFTA and other trade deals, huge infrastructure plan, “drain the swamp” of political corruption
Sanders: Single payer healthcare, free college tuition, $15 minimum wage, raise taxes on 1%, overturn Citizens United, ban fracking, legalize marijuana, end for-profit prisons
Hillary Clinton had an immense wealth of thoroughly researched and developed policy proposals. And sincere or not, she arguably had a more progressive policy platform than any previous Democratic Party presidential nominee. But they were still safe, old ideas, articulated in uninspiring ways. Like a tree falling in an empty forest, your stances on issues don’t matter if nobody hears about them.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both massively underestimated by the political establishment again and again because their unorthodox platforms completely defied the commonly accepted wisdom. They were not platforms that would have passed the old test: focus groups and polling to determine which policy stances would be supported by the largest amount of likely voters. But they were genius because they weren’t targeted to be the message that would perform best among moderate voters. They were viral platforms. They were platforms whose greatest strength was motivating millions of everyday people to share that message with everyone they knew.
These platforms are ones that say something about who we are for supporting them. To be part of the Donald Trump movement meant you were a brave honest person unafraid to speak the truth against political correctness. To be part of the Bernie Sanders movement meant being the voice of real people not influenced by corporate interests and lobbyists.
These aren’t just platforms, they’re stories. They explain why things are fucked up now, point to the villains on the other side, and offer a path we can choose to challenge those villains directly and defeat them. Along the way, we learn who we are, why we’re part of this, and the better world we seek to create.
The lesson here is in the viral era, instead of picking the message that gets the highest initial approval rating from the elusive “swing voter”, political leaders and movements will succeed by choosing a message that resonates most deeply among a base of supporters who will spread that message to the broader public. When we develop a message, we often forget about the real-life implementation of delivering the message. We assume it will be perfectly delivered to everyone, top-down by TV spots and glossy mailers and highly disciplined political operatives. But in the real world, people don’t really trust these messengers, increasingly less so in a society unraveling, where people have a growing skepticism of institutions. People trust people they know as messengers, people like them, people in their own communities. Political movements need to create messages that ordinary people can and will effectively communicate to others when it comes to those conversations around the family dinner table or in the break room at work or in a bar with friends and yes, the macro-version of all of this, what they post on social media for hundreds of friends and relatives to see.
You could see Bernie Sanders’ message sweep like wildfire among young Americans. He had deeply enthusiastic supporters among so many ordinary grassroots young people who, without any formal training or official talking points, could still articulate his campaign’s story. Trump had this too. Clinton did not. A truly powerful message is one where a nervous volunteer on their first day can forget the talking points and still end up saying exactly what they need to say, because they actually understand and believe the core fundamental message of the movement at a deeper level.
Imagine if you asked the world’s top social media experts to find the demographic of people who make up the hardcore base of each party. Then you told them “Forget the conventional political wisdom, instead develop a presidential campaign platform uniquely targeted just to appeal to this base group that will make them so inspired that they’ll want to share that message with their social networks”.
They would quickly identify working-class rural white guys as the core Republican voter base and would probably develop something almost exactly like the Trump campaign to appeal to them: fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-outsourcing with huge promises on jobs, a populist anger towards political elites and political correctness, and a reduced emphasis on the trickle-down economics pushed by rich Republican donors. Above all, the story told to the people who have seen declines in their social and economic status would be that this tough successful guy, this ultimate winner, was going to bring back the old America where times were better for blue-collar rural white guys.
The team would then look at the Democratic Party and come across a problem. There are really two core voter bases: young people and people of color. If they chose young people, who came of age during and after the financial crash, continue to struggle with debt and underemployment, and have had their fundamental faith in the political and economic system shaken, they would likely develop something very close to the Bernie platform.
More than any other factor, this is ultimately why Sanders came so close but failed to win the primary. Bernie’s viral message was brilliantly-tailored to young white people, performed fairly well among young people of color, and was actually surprisingly strong among rural blue-collar white people. But the Bernie Sanders story failed to resonate with older people of color, leading him to huge losses in the Deep South where black voters make up most of the Democratic base and the Southwest where Democrats are heavily Latino. While Bernie won the majority of white voters, and a crushing majority of young people, he ultimately lost among Democrats overall.
But even though he lost, his campaign was still an unbelievable success that not only defied but destroyed the odds, powered by his immensely viral message. Think about Bernie Sanders for a minute: When he announces, no one in the establishment thinks he can even be taken seriously as a candidate, and even he doesn’t seem to think he has much chance of winning. Pundits, analysts, and experts laugh at the idea. He declares he will run without any corporate or PAC money, which he wouldn’t have gotten anyway. And then something happens. His social media is going nuts. It’s kind of weird but it’s so unpolished, it’s so real, it sounds like him and looks like him and it is him, straight up what he really believes, not some fake TV-ready persona with heavily crafted talking points. In a world of fake we crave realness. Suddenly Bernie starts attracting huge crowds and massive amounts of small grassroots donations and an army of young volunteers. Get this, the guy is literally openly running on taking down the corrupt elite not just in the financial system, but in the political system too, and he’s somehow getting away with it, people fucking love it, it’s a massive movement sweeping the country! He’s nearly running neck and neck with the supposedly pre-determined heir to the throne Hillary Clinton, despite nearly every single elected official and Democratic party leader and major donor and media pundit lined up against him. The people are speaking! What the fuck, could this actually happen guys??
Now that’s a story I would follow constant updates on, wouldn’t you? If I could share that story with pre-2016 me, with the headline “STUNNING UPSET: Unknown Socialist Senator inches from beating Hillary Clinton. Wall Street is PISSED.” you better believe pre-2016 me would click and share the shit out of that story.
Maybe Sanders and Trump aren’t the first social media candidates. In some ways Obama came first. But his campaign was like an earlier, cruder, 2008 version of social media virality: “Black Guy becomes president after Bush screws everything up. You’ll never believe what happens NEXT!” I mean, yeah sure I’d click on it too, but I’d know going in that it would be total clickbait.
Clinton’s campaign operated on a poorly imitated version of the Obama story and it just never really stuck. “Woman who has been considered Most Likely Democratic Candidate for President for a decade continues running for president. What happens next will be historic, but also roughly similar to what happened for the last 8 years.” Not a story I’d be excited to tell my friends about. And in fact, unfortunately I wasn’t, and neither was virtually anyone in my generation.
And Donald Trump? Literally everything he does or says goes viral and he knows it. Every tweet, every new ridiculous pronouncement, every outlandish move. He is the undisputed king of social media. Everything he says and does seems so real and unscripted and raw and unpredictable, you just can’t stop watching. Even post-election that’s how he governs, making people come up into Trump tower to try to win cabinet appointments like some reality TV show, conducting international diplomacy with a tough guy “bring it on” attitude that threatens to send the world teetering on the brink of nuclear war, swooping in to “save” factory workers from outsourcing with some “deal” he crafted as a master negotiator. America fucking loves watching billionaires do outrageous things with their money, show a total disregard for all the people we hate just because they can, say all the things you’re not supposed to be able to say, and win anyway. With all his mountains of money he didn’t even need it to promote his campaign because TV just ran his speeches and tweets as news. But they had to– they were just responding to a phenomenon already spreading through social media. More and more, mainstream news stories are picked up from something social media starts paying attention to first. That was the case with Trump and Bernie’s campaigns. But it’s also the case of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock. These movements realized they didn’t need the media establishment to take them seriously, as long as they were massively compelling and viral on social media, they could eventually force the mainstream media to cover it.
We need clear, consistent, and compelling narratives– we need stories– with heroes and villains and conflicts and arcs. Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to define her own story and instead the story that stuck was the story told about her. She became Claire Underwood from House of Cards: the calculating, ruthless, manipulative, cold woman operating in the shadows with an unquenchable thirst for power, using her vast web of connections among the elite to serve herself, standing for nothing but her own ambition. This story has been told about her since I was a kid, too young to know who she was. But as the 2016 campaign moved on and she never crafted a compelling alternative, the story stuck deeper and deeper in the minds of the public, until this character became woven in seamlessly into the Bernie and Trump stories as the perfect villain in both.
Hillary Clinton’s story could have been “Grizzled Iron Lady stands against the rise of fascism”. This is probably closest to what she tried to pull off, but in such a lackluster way it never really took off. Clinton’s speech drawing attention to the growing white supremacist “alt-right” movement will probably be remembered as the most compelling and meaningful moment in her presidential run. But the main story of her campaign never quite reached “Donald Trump is a slippery slope to real authoritarianism”. It was more like “Donald Trump is rude and our kids shouldn’t hear that kind of language”. She didn’t run ads showing the real life impact of parents being torn away from their children by mass deportation or comparing Trump’s Muslim registry to the dark realities of Japanese internment. She ran ads showing him talk like your asshole drunk uncle. And in the end, millions of Americans chose the asshole drunk uncle they wanted on their side in the bar fight the world feels like these days. Clinton’s campaign actually helped tell Trump’s story, that he was a brutally honest tough guy who wouldn’t be held back by political correctness from doing whatever he needed to stand up for “real Americans” in this time of crisis.
I would have preferred the headline “Clinton recants 90’s politics, says Democratic Party needs to change for a new progressive era, and her presidency will mark a total departure from Bill’s.” I would have been an evangelist for that message because that would have told a truly compelling story about how social movements sweeping the country are bringing change that our political leaders can’t ignore any longer. Near the beginning of her campaign there was a real opportunity for this story to unfold. Her first policy speech of the campaign– that she thought her husband’s 1990’s crime bill was a mistake and she now wants to undo mass incarceration– was actually a pretty big deal and generated lots of positive media coverage. It told a story of her as someone with humanity and humility, who was here to fight the new battles, not just represent the old status quo, and her own woman independent of her husband’s legacy. That and the free-ish college platform were probably the most decent attention she got from the media throughout the whole campaign, some of the only times the news cycle actually focused on her ideas or vision or policies instead of the latest development in her bizarre saga of stupid scandals.
So how did the political experts not see this coming? How could they not see that we had entered this altered political state? Part of the problem is we’re measuring support with traditional polls, which are becoming increasingly unreliable at predicting how people actually vote (see: Brexit). Even our great mathmagician hero Nate Silver failed, although he suspected the rest of the polling world was being overconfident for Clinton and got a lot of flack for it from other pollsters. What’s happening here? With the rise of mobile phones with caller IDs, and with the declining number of people who even use a phone as a phone (young people like me basically only make actual phone calls in emergencies), most people don’t even pick up for unfamiliar numbers anymore, let alone choose to spend 20 minutes answering poll questions from a strange caller. The small share of people who do pick up and answer polls are a skewed sample, the kind of people who tend to be more open and trusting, for example. If there is a growth of angry cynical anti-establishment voters, they will be undercounted in poll after poll.
The response rate to polls is dramatically falling, and with it, their accuracy. Trump would often point to shitty online polls with terrible methodology saying he was winning, and we dismissed it as a stupid petty man’s ego-driven desperation to see himself on top. And yet those polls ended up being more right than all the mainstream phone polls and the statistics wizard-god Nate Silver.
There is a world online that traditional campaigns are not living in. We are essentially running blind to what’s going on there. People are living most of their lives online, and contrary to popular opinion that it’s all cat videos, people are having most of their political conversations online now too. Those interactions deeply shape voters’ understandings of who candidates are, what kind of people support them, and what they stand for.
So what should we do, assign professional campaign staff to lurk on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit comment threads and argue with trolls? Moving into this type of tactic would be quickly self-defeating as people would see right through it (“she’s a paid operative!!”)
The only way to win political battles in the viral era is to have a compelling message that real regular people will carry on their own through what they share with hundreds of friends and family members. That means much more than saying things in an inspiring way, it means actually doing things that are inspiring. It means motivating millions of ordinary people to become at least some small part of a mass social movement in their time. The era of platforms based on incrementalist policy reforms that won’t scare the corporate donor base is over. The era of triangulation and talking points calculated to find the least controversial stance on every issue is over. The era of campaigns aimed at winning over the endorsements of old establishment gatekeepers is over. It’s a time of movements now. If we try to fight a wildfire with a watering can, it will consume us.
When we face a huge and sudden loss, it’s important to understand why the other side won and learn from them, but also to look at the things our side is doing right and learn from ourselves. We are navigating and exploring this altered political state, building our ship as we sail it. But we know what it looks like to build a powerful political movement in this strange new world. We see it in Trump, of course. But we’ve also seen it from Ferguson, Missouri to Zucotti Park, New York, to Standing Rock, North Dakota. We’re building unstoppable movements for social, economic and environmental justice in this viral era. We need to understand what it is about them that’s working, and follow that path to victory.
From an outburst in open feminism in media and popular culture, to the growing strength of grassroots activism around issues like sexual assault, reproductive rights and equal pay, in recent years the fight for gender equality has undergone a revival among the American mainstream public. This could have huge implications for the raging debate on economic inequality.
The knife of American poverty cuts deep, but it has always cut deepest against women and people of color. Politically marginalized groups have long been on the front lines of right-wing attacks on the working-class and poor. This is the only way conservative politicians can be accountable to an elite agenda that prioritizes corporate profits, while still saving face with their voter base of white working-class men.
This is why so many basic labor protection laws exclude jobs like farm work and domestic work historically performed by people of color and women. And although most Americans on welfare are white working-class people, this is why the movement to dismantle welfare in the 1980’s-1990’s was largely driven by rhetoric targeting urban black welfare recipients, ultimately wreaking devastating harm to poor women and children across racial lines.
Yet while the racial skew of poverty and economic inequality is highly visible in American political debates, the gender skew is often invisible and unspoken. Conservatives have a good reason not to talk about it: the danger of 150 million women finding their economic interests to be more closely aligned with the left. But why have progressives failed to talk about women and economic inequality? Perhaps because in the past four decades where inequality soared, the feminist movement (like many other progressive social movements) was struggling, a shadow of its former political strength.
If mass feminism had been more well-organized and politically powerful in the 80’s and 90’s, and more accountable to the concerns of low-income women, could the left have stopped what was perhaps the most devastating attack on single mothers ever enacted in United States history? It’s hard to know. But what is important is the question before us now: If feminism is truly making a resurgence among the American general population, will it be the force that allows us to break through on economic inequality?
For decades, we’ve seen the same battle lines in political struggles around support programs for the poor and the rights and wages of workers. Corporate interests push lower wages, taxes, and regulations to grow their profits, while labor unions and organizations representing people of color fight for the opposite. As you might imagine, the corporate interests usually win. While women’s organizations and other groups on the left have often weighed in on the debate, it has traditionally been in a backseat role. (The labor movement’s history of sexism plays no small role in this dynamic.) So the core political coalition for fighting poverty in the US has traditionally been made up essentially of people of color and union members. The former has grown over the last few decades while the latter has shrunk, consistently leaving the political base against inequality a mathematically outnumbered minority for an entire generation.
But although it is rarely framed this way, poverty is overwhelmingly a women’s issue. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, and seven in ten Americans living in poverty are women and children (mostly kids in female-headed households). An economy that increasingly puts profits before families through lack of paid parental and sick leave, unaffordable childcare and preschool, and workers’ lack of control over hours and scheduling, is forcing many American women to leave the labor force. The ongoing attacks against teachers and other unionized public service workers fall heavily on women, as the public sector provides a huge share of female employment and much less gender wage inequality than the private sector. There are even unseen gender dynamics at play in debates like whether tipped workers should be excluded from the minimum wage (most tipped workers have historically been women, who face rampant sexual harassment in service professions, especially when tips at the whim of the customer make up virtually their entire incomes.)
As feminism picks up steam again with the American public, the sheer number of female voters makes it a political force to be reckoned with. This is also not your grandmother’s feminism: the modern feminist movement is much more inclusive of working-class women and women of color. Modern feminists are not simply content to lean in to climb their way up the corporate ladder, but are instead organizing collectively to fight for economic equality for women as a whole through systemic policy change.
The Democratic Party is already starting to seize the opportunity. In the 2014 midterm elections, one of the party’s strongest messages focused on how the Affordable Care Act banned a common practice of insurance companies charging women higher premiums and improved the affordability of reproductive healthcare. Another powerful campaign message hammered Republicans for voting against legislation to address unequal pay between men and women in the workplace. Meanwhile, it seems that Hillary Clinton’s policy team is preparing an economic agenda for 2016 that pushes back against economic inequality with an emphasis on women and families.
It’s a smart move for Democrats. There’s a reason the party’s pivot towards a firmer stance on economic inequality has been politically successful. What could be a better issue than one that energizes Democrats’ core base voters of people of color, young people and non-married women, while simultaneously driving a wedge between white working-class men and the corporate elite that dominate the Republican Party? More importantly, what could be a better issue than one that actually fundamentally, tangibly and immediately improves the lives of people of color, young people, women, and white working-class men while hurting the pocketbooks of the corporate elite?
But to truly grasp the significance of this possibility, we have to view it in historical context. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s the New Deal Coalition, made up of the white industrial working-class, the white rural poor, and most racial and religious minority groups, was the most powerful force in American history working to end poverty, and built the largest middle-class the world had ever seen. But when Nixon’s Republican Party used racial fears as a wedge to separate rural whites, particularly in the South, away from the rest of the American working-class, the coalition fell apart. Since then, America has lived without a strong political majority organized against economic inequality, and watched as the rungs on the economic ladder grew farther and farther apart. If a rising feminist movement is willing to take on economic inequality, we may finally have a chance to rebuild that majority and provide real economic security and opportunity for millions.
Today I’m thinking about the hope and faith held by Dr. King and the importance of optimism.
Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, ‘My Song,’ about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died… Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: ‘What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’ When Belafonte asks what that means they should do, an exhausted King tells him: ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.’
This is the kind of optimism that looks with wide open eyes at the reality of the world and decides not to dismiss it and withdraw from it, but to engage it and reshape it. King realizes he is fighting to be part of an America plagued by poverty and war. But he not only believes that marginalized people can be included in this society, but puts them in the role of heroes: those who through their liberation and inclusion can lead the movements needed to heal it.
Many activists are cynical people. It’s hard not to be, organizing reluctant people to fight uphill battles against a powerful status quo. Anger is an important motivator. But people are never truly called to action without that seemingly-impossible combination of anger and hope: An understanding of the world as it is, and a deep belief in a vision of the world as it should be.
In fact, optimism itself is fundamentally necessary to the spread of a worldview that supports progressive change.
Conservatism is deeply dependent on pessimism. The foundation of the right-wing narrative is pessimism: basically those promiscuous gay birth-control-using kids these days and all those dangerous criminal brown and black people are taking over America, crumbling its moral foundation and taking all our tax money to spend on drugs. Therefore, beef up the prisons and the military, dig your heels in on traditional practices, and slash the social safety net. The fact that most people believe teen birth rates, drug use, and violent crime are rising right now when they’re actually all plummeting in the US is a testament to the power of conservative fear messaging. Every time you spread the idea that this country is going to shit, a Republican gets elected somewhere.
I was raised with pretty cynical politics. For most of my life I believed that America was irredeemably racist, materialistic and violent. My political consciousness developed largely through 3 national moments: The dismantling of civil liberties in the early 2000’s and horrifying start of the Iraq War, the failed push for immigration reform in 2006 when I started watching cable news and was stunned by the swell of public hatred towards immigrant families, and the financial crash in 2008 and following years of heartless austerity as I worked to get a public education in a system that was crumbling around me. Disillusionment came easy.
It took me actually doing work to make me disillusioned with disillusionment. I worked on campaigns that beat bank lobbyists to pass legislation raising tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid and defeated big oil at the ballot box in California. I stood behind Nancy Pelosi at her press conference in San Francisco to announce the passage of historic health care reform. I helped organize Oakland residents to force big developers to guarantee thousands of living-wage local-hire jobs targeted at those who needed them most. I turned out the vote to raise enough revenue to finally balance California’s budget so the youth I work with today are dealing with how to restore budget cuts in their schools, not how to make them.
And sure, I was a very small part of each of these victories and I know they each would have happened without me. But not without a lot of people like me. The real transformation was not the impact I had on this work, but the impact this work had on me. It made me see myself not as someone passively affected by the conditions of the world around me, but as an agent of change. It made me believe in the power of people like me, young people and people of color, to be neither the villains nor the victims in the story of my country, but the heroes. I began to believe in a different story, one that ended happy.
I deeply believe that the forces of peace and equality and enlightenment throughout history tend to win in the end. I’ll admit I’m going on faith and a loose grasp of history given to me by what’s left of California’s public education system. But I believe victory in the battles we fight today will one day feel just as inevitable as the battles fought by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
Practicing optimism is not just about motivating yourself or feeling happy. It’s about changing the dominant narrative about our world. It’s about telling stories of hope where we are the good guys and we win.
So the next time you see some corny Upworthy link that says “This 3 minute video will restore your faith in humanity” maybe you should watch it. We could all use our faith in humanity restored sometimes.
Conservative politicians use the word “responsibility” a lot, especially to sell policies that punish people—for being poor, for being immigrants, for being sexually active women, etc. If you’re poor, it’s your individual responsibility to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and get more money, it’s not our social responsibility to give you food stamps so you don’t like… die and whatnot.
Effective political messaging taps into the universal values we hold like freedom, fairness, compassion, etc. that go deeper than our political affiliations. That’s how you move people who might otherwise disagree with you.
Responsibility messaging resonates strongly with me. Responsibility was the single most important value I was raised with. If I could magically create a wordcloud of everything that came out of my mother’s mouth when I was a child (after removing some heavy cussing) “responsibility” would probably be the most commonly uttered word in my formative years.
But I was taught a different kind of responsibility than the right wing likes to talk about. I had a single mom who was working, going to school, and raising children all at the same time. I admired her individual grit and determination, but also the responsibility of her circle of friends who all pitched in to collectively help raise me and my little brother because my mother gave birth earlier than they did. Now my mom owns her own home and has an empty nest, and it seems like every month she’s letting a new friend crash at her house until they get back on their feet. My understanding of the word responsibility comes from the incredible women I was raised by. It means stepping up to care for our communities in times of need.
The kind of responsibility I learned growing up was not my responsibility to myself, but my responsibility to others, to my family, to my community. In elementary school I was packing my own lunch, doing my own laundry. These are things you can reasonably expect a 9 year old to do, the basic tasks of taking care of oneself to not be a burden on others. But by the time I was a teenager, greater responsibilities were expected of me. I was cooking dinner every night for the family, making sure bills were paid on time every month. I stepped up because my family needed me.
I think the right-wing is stuck in what I would call Elementary School Responsibility. It’s a worldview where responsibility is not about community, but about the individual. Or as my mom would say, “How to wipe your own ass”. In their worldview, responsibility is about taking care of yourself alone. It’s making sure you personally go to a good college, get a job where you make a lot of money, own things like houses, and don’t end up in jail. Apparently if you get any help doing any of these things, you’ll never learn the true meaning of responsibility.
Unfortunately, this definition of the word “Responsibility” has become the dominant one in America. But it wasn’t always this way. On a hunch I looked up historical trends in the usage of the phrases “Your responsibility” and “Our responsibility” in American texts using Google NGram.
“Our responsibility” was the more common usage through most of our history. The phrase suggests collective action to care for the needs of a larger community. It grew gradually over time, with spikes during national crises like WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. “Your responsibility”, meaning taking care of yourself, takes off suddenly in the early 1970’s and becomes the dominant usage at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution.
What’s fascinating about this graph is that it mirrors historical trends in income inequality, union membership, the real value of the minimum wage, and other economic data that shows that sometime in the early 1970’s there was a change of direction in America. Something snapped, where average working families’ incomes no longer grew along with the nation’s economic productivity, as they had throughout American history until that point. For the last 40 years we’ve been moving rapidly away from a “We’re in this together” economy and towards a “You’re on your own” economy.
Those terms were coined by economist Jared Bernstein, but we could just as easily call it an “Our Responsibility” economy and a “Your Responsibility” economy.
This didn’t happen naturally. Somebody jacked the word “responsibility”. Or more accurately, a whole generation of right-wing politicians, academics, lobbyists and media commentators did, intentionally and effectively, as part of a comprehensive effort to slash the social safety net, gut regulations, cut taxes on the wealthy and lower wages. Words matter. As a people, we’ve allowed our language to be corrupted, and have abandoned “our responsibility” in favor of “your responsibility”.
Now I think making sure over 30 million people can see a doctor when they get sick even if they can’t afford it is the definition of responsibility. I also think the Republican idea of responsibility these days looks like this:
But we can take back the meaning of responsibility, just as we can correct our course after four decades driving down the path of widening inequality and cold individualism. We can provide education for our children, take care of our loved ones when they’re sick, and allow our elders to rest. We can, and in fact, we must. It’s our responsibility.
A recent study that compiled thousands of scientific papers on climate change showed that 97% of them agreed that global warming is happening and humans are the cause.
Does it matter? Probably not even a little bit.
This exposes the inherent limitations of being a policy wonk. The major barriers to tackling climate change are not that the science doesn’t prove it’s real, or that we haven’t developed effective policy mechanisms for dealing with it. It’s that the fossil fuel lobby is richer than God and down to get dirty.
I think it’s important for all of us doing political work to have a strong grasp of policy. It not only helps us make persuasive arguments, it keeps us from wasting our time fighting for stupid shit. Understanding all the wonky things allows us to identify our goals for social change, for example equal opportunity in education, and pick good ideas to fight for, like universal preschool, rather than bad ideas, like forgiving all student debt.
Now I spend a lot of time nerding out and getting my Wonkblog on. But there’s a certain arrogance within the world of policy that drives me crazy.
Policy expertise without the political muscle to back it up is a body-less brain floating in a jar of self-satisfied goo. We could call it… I don’t know… a think tank?
Among the things I dislike about DC is that everybody wants to be a policy analyst. People naturally like the clean ivory tower where they can all pat each other on the back for being a smartypants and go to conferences and speak on panels and whatnot.
If wonks had their way we would eliminate agriculture subsidies, replace taxes on good things like income with taxes on bad things like carbon emissions, and shift almost all aid programs to the poor (food stamps, rental subsidies, etc.) to direct cash assistance that they could use to buy whatever they want.
Why don’t any of the above policies happen even though probably 90% of PhD economists would agree with them? Ask anyone who works on Capitol Hill and they’ll tell you they’re not “politically feasible”. What does that mean? What defines the realm of political feasibility?
Power. It doesn’t matter if all the smart people agree on something. Smart people are not the same as powerful people.
Knowledge is not power. Only power is power.
From knowledge, emerges ideas. Ideas inspire organizers who draw together people and resources. Those people and resources build organizations that drive forward movements. And that creates the power to make social change.
But often we forget all the steps in the middle.
Power comes from doing all the things we don’t like. We don’t like squeezing our refined ideas into everyday language to appeal to the hearts and minds of the uneducated masses. We don’t like ruthlessly cutting down our intellectual explorations into short soundbites for the media so they can reach a broader audience. We don’t like the exhausting and disheartening cycle of outreach and rejection necessary to recruit new members from outside our narrow intellectual circles. We don’t like the slow, frustrating task of developing the skills and confidence of doe-eyed young activists and who have some tiny possibility of becoming leaders one day. We don’t like asking for the money we need to run every single day-to-day operation of an organization. We don’t like the give and take of building alliances with groups whose interests don’t perfectly align with ours. We don’t like the secrecy and bitterness and messiness of backing imperfect candidates running for office or the tedious foot-work of getting out the vote.
We all want to work at a goddamn think tank.
My message to the wonks out there is not to give up your wonkery. It’s to get out from behind your desk every once in a while and dive into the more messy, uncertain work of politics, the stuff that your parents think is less respectable.
Engage directly with the everyday people impacted by the policies you think about. Bring together people who are suspicious of each other at first. Take risks. Get rejected. Get a door slammed in your face. Learn something every day from someone who hasn’t gone to college. Chant till you lose your voice. Look stupid sometimes. Smile when an elected official gives you and your crowd that frustrated look. Work on an issue you think isn’t that important but that a majority of your group voted on. Give up a TV interview to someone else whose leadership you’re developing, even if you know they’re going to fuck it up.
Maybe you’ll end up feeling like I do, that alternating back and forth between wonky research and mass communications and grassroots organizing is the most fulfilling work you can do.
Or maybe not, but at least you’ll prove me wrong when I call you a nerd.