I’ve held a quiet fear throughout the Bernie Sanders campaign. With every breathlessly excited conversation with friends who were feeling the Bern, the hope swelling in me was pulled back by that nagging fear. I was afraid of the growing hero worship of Bernie. I worried that when faced with disappointment, with loss and uncertainty and doubt, that a whole generation of young people would become disempowered, disillusioned, disheartened and disengaged. I was terrified that our generation would learn all the wrong lessons, learn that we were powerless in a dark and uncaring world. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. This generation is so powerful we’ve changed the political landscape in this country beyond what anyone could have imagined. But when we have so much love for our leaders, sometimes we come to forget that we are leaders too.
Bernie Sanders is Gandalf. He’s Obi Wan Kenobi. He’s Dumbledore. He’s an old man who’s seen some things, with the wisdom and integrity to guide a younger generation through a time of great moral crisis. He’s a grizzled sage with the courage to speak the truth to define right from wrong in the face of a rising darkness.
But in these stories, the wise old man isn’t the one who saves the world. Instead the world depends on the young heroes who only truly step into leadership once their mentor is lost.
Before then, they cling to the wise old man, hoping he can fight the war, hoping he can fix things. The elder knows this is not possible, and warns the heroes that he can’t do it for them. But they refuse to hear it. They’re afraid they don’t have what it takes, that the mounting forces of greed and hatred are too powerful. It’s only when the wise elder is gone (or at least seems to be) that the young heroes are faced with a choice. They can give up and accept the world as it will be without them, accept the world happening to them. Or they can happen to the world—they can alter the outcome of their own destiny and the destiny of everyone they love and the place they call home.
We know this story. We’ve grown up with it our entire lives. But somewhere along the way we forgot it. We forgot that we were always going to face this moment. The moment where the young feel lost, where their guide, their voice of wisdom who always seemed to know the right thing to say and do, is suddenly struck down, leaving us aimless and filled with doubt and fear.
Bernie Sanders was never going to be able to fight our battles for us. He told us this in every speech. He told us that the system we had to change was far more vast and complex than just who sits in the Oval Office of the White House. That he couldn’t change it alone, that it would take all of us.
The Bernie Sanders campaign has moved so many people, from those getting involved for the first time in their lives to lifelong activists who felt this time might be different. So many people are now experiencing a crushing wave of disillusionment wash over them, and it breaks my heart because we deserve better. We believe in a simple idea: that we deserve a political and economic system that actually works for the people, not the wealthy and powerful. And now we’re aware more than ever how far away that is.
But that day of disillusionment was always coming, sooner or later.
For many it came sooner, as we saw the Bernie campaign struggle to overcome the Clintons’ longer-established relationships built in communities of color, leading to steep losses among older Black Democrats in the South and older Latino Democrats in the Southwest, losing the national popular vote and leaving the campaign’s only hope of winning a half-cocked plan to overturn the vote of the people by somehow gaining the support of the superdelegates who had been stacked against Bernie from the beginning.
In another world, the disappointment might have come later. If Bernie won the presidency, like the dog that finally catches the car, we would likely have been left wondering what to do next. With no real groundwork laid or resources invested into electing allies to Congress, most of his agenda would have quickly ground to a halt.
Bernie knew all along that even if we elected him, he wouldn’t be able to solve everything through the sheer power of his words and integrity and justice. He told us over and over again that to end the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few it would take a revolutionary shift in our political landscape, the kind of tectonic shift that changes everything. That kind of change takes organizing people in the streets to create political pressure that can’t be ignored, getting the right people elected in every community across the country, and building grassroots organizations that can sustain that vision and hold them accountable.
If we are disillusioned now it’s because we were suffering from too many illusions to begin with. It was the inevitable result of this insane hero worship of Bernie that he never expected of us and never asked us for.
A movement is so much more than one person, one candidate. We often don’t realize that because we were taught bad history. We learned in school about social movements by reading about individual charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez, but that’s not how it actually happens. It happens because millions of everyday people like you and me do little things in every corner of the country, and together our actions swell into an unstoppable tide.
Bernie Sanders didn’t start this movement and his defeat (yes–we can say it–defeat) sure as hell won’t end it.
There are people in this world who are just out there being themselves and somehow one day they end up in the right place at the right time, when the world needs someone like them. That’s Bernie. He’s been fighting greed and bigotry his whole life from his corner of the world in Vermont, and decided to run a campaign for president if only just to show that there was an alternative, to push Hillary Clinton, to force a real debate on inequality. No one predicted, including him, that our generation would put that campaign in the history books.
The media barely covered it as a joke, DC insiders rolled their eyes. Yet suddenly thousands of young people were showing up to his rallies, he was raising money to rival the super PACs through countless small donors from every part of the country, word was spreading through social media and he was rapidly climbing in the polls, running neck and neck with Clinton.
But Bernie didn’t start this. He wasn’t just some overnight success. Bernie tapped into something that had been bubbling for years since the financial crash. Perhaps we first glimpsed it in 2011, when tens of thousands of students and teachers and workers occupied the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin to protest Governor Walker, the first glimmer that the anti-austerity protests sweeping Europe in the aftermath of the financial meltdown might also have life here in the United States. Later that year it exploded into the Occupy Wall Street protests that rocked nearly every major city in the nation and completely shifted the political debate. Although the Occupy encampments dissolved, the huge shift in U.S. politics on the issue of economic inequality translated into real policy gains, most notably the dazzling string of victories raising the minimum wage in cities and states, at a scale that would have been unthinkable if not laughable just a couple years ago. Bill de Blasio being elected mayor of New York, Elizabeth Warren elected Senator from Massachusetts, these were waves in the same political tide.
So although no one inside the DC beltway thought it was possible, Bernie Fucking Sanders actually gave Hillary Fucking Clinton a run for her money she’ll never forget. Yeah, Bernie Sanders, that Jewish democratic socialist congressman from the middle of nowhere. And Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy seemed so completely inevitable that no serious candidate wanted to run against her. If you told any DC insider two years ago that Bernie Sanders would win half the states in the country over Clinton, they would have laughed in your face. And they’ll continue to laugh when we tell them that this movement is still burning, that it’s only going to continue to grow, that the young and restless are coming for them. But based on the accuracy of all their predictions lately, the political analysts on TV don’t know shit.
The vast majority of voters under the age of 40, in every demographic, in every region of the country, chose Sanders. Sanders won young people by an even more astronomical margin than Obama did in 2008. The ideas and values of social democracy won our generation, not some young charismatic candidate or some rebellion against the disaster of the Bush years. The ideas of universal healthcare and higher education, of reigning in Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry, of guaranteeing a living wage, of making the wealthy pay their fair share, of getting corporate money out of politics. Regardless of who wins in 2016, the future of American politics, of American history, is our generation.
The change we need won’t come on Election Day. It was never going to. It will only happen if we organize, at a much deeper level than a campaign for one presidential candidate.
The change we need will happen when we build organizations with lasting power, from the ground up, in communities across the country. We need to build grassroots organizations that have the capacity to mass mobilize voters like the Working Families Party in New York, or California Calls in California. We need a re-energized labor movement pushing bold initiatives like Fight for 15 or the Black Friday strikes at WalMart. We need Dreamers and Black Lives Matter activists marching in the streets. We need a better Democratic Party in every county, in every state, that’s accountable to us and not to corporate interests.
We need organizations willing to truly challenge corporate power and change the game. These organizations will look differently in different communities. Just as Bernie’s platform and message were honed to perfection over a lifetime of representing folks in rural New England, an organized force to address inequality in the Southwest must put the exploitation of immigrant workers front and center, in the South must confront the legacy of slavery and entrenched racial inequality, in the Midwest must work to rebuild communities devastated by globalization.
Here’s what the political revolution looks like for me: My community stretches up the Central Coast of California, where the agriculture and oil industries once dominated local politics, where developers are salivating over land to grab for cheap and sell for more, where demographic change from immigration has led to racial tension, but also the beginning of a progressive majority. Here, we’re fighting oil and gas companies to stop new drilling and power plants being built in our communities. We’re struggling with the agriculture industry to win better labor conditions for farmworkers and protections from toxic pesticides around our schools. We’re going head to head with real estate developers to keep our communities affordable for the working-class that’s lived here for generations.
So what can you do in your own community?
- Get involved in a local organization in your city, or start a new one, that will bring together regular working people to demand our local elected officials are accountable to us, not big corporations.
- Organize your coworkers to start a union and together have real bargaining power to demand better treatment, better wages and benefits, and a voice in the workplace.
- Organize the tenants in your apartment building to stop rent increases and evictions and force your landlord to repair the rundown building.
- Join other progressives to take charge of your county’s Democratic central committee and make sure your local party pushes for candidates willing to take on corporate interests to stand up for our people and our planet.
- Run for your city council or support a candidate who will fight landlords and developers for affordable housing and tenants’ rights, raise the minimum wage and pass laws raising standards for local workers, stop companies from building polluting projects or extracting fossil fuels in your community, shift the city’s budget from police to community services promoting health and education, and cap donations to local political campaigns to keep out big corporate money.
The political revolution in my community won’t look the same as the political revolution in yours. But wherever you are, whatever you do, bring people together into something that will last, challenge the people holding all the money who think they hold all the power, and win real victories that matter to real people.
You won’t have to do it alone. There are countless people just like you who believe in a better world. You just have to find them. Luckily, you might already know a few.
I first started working for nonprofit organizations, elected officials and labor unions when I was a teenager, continued to do social justice work throughout college, and have been working as a community organizer for a few years now since finishing school. I’ve worked for local and national organizations, for a small town city council member and a White House federal agency, done grassroots organizing in the ‘hood and research surrounded by economists in suits, knocked on countless doors, recruited and developed unforgettable leaders, been on national TV, gotten arrested, won some campaigns, lost some campaigns and some I’m still not sure if I won or lost. I’ve been given more opportunities than most people, more than I knew what to do with, and had incredible mentors who shared their wisdom and experience by teaching me lessons that I mostly ignored and learned the hard way later or still haven’t figured out yet.
When I first started doing this work, like so many others, I spent too much time contemplating the changes I thought were needed and how to advance myself into a position where I could be a decisionmaker and not enough time listening to what others in my community wanted and how they saw my role in a broader struggle. I spent too much time lost in my own head envisioning the policies and programs in my version of the perfect world, and not enough time figuring out the groundwork it takes to actually grind out victories inch by inch. I spent too much time concerned with winning the campaigns in front of me at all costs within the constraints of current political conditions, and not enough time thinking about how to build organizations and movements to shift the balance of power itself.
As I write this, another crop of student activists are graduating from school, with many trying to find their place outside the college bubble, working within movements for social change, and hopefully figuring out a way to get paid to do so. So I’m taking the opportunity right now to reflect on my own experience with social justice work, the lessons I was taught, and those I wish I had learned faster. For me, it boils down to three things: Think long. No fluff. Remember who you work for.
Everything– and I mean everything– we do should be seen through the lens of how it contributes to shifting the fundamental imbalances of power that are at the root of everything we fight against. No campaign is more important than building an organization that can carry out and win more campaigns. No organization is more important than building a movement that can birth and grow more organizations. No movement is more important than building power among everyday people who can launch and sustain more movements.
It is a hollow victory when we win a policy change solely through the advocacy of a few highly educated policy or legal experts, and fail to build the power, skill, confidence and capacity of the directly affected community to determine their own destiny. It is a hollow victory when we win an electoral campaign by following nothing more than the conventional wisdom of what a viable candidate looks like, what a reliable voter looks like, or what a safe message looks like, and never shift the realm of possibility of who can be elected and how. It is a hollow victory when we build public support around our issues by echoing our opposition’s worldview, winning an opinion poll on today’s incremental step forward by marketing it as more reasonable than the alternative of more fundamental change, failing to make a sincere case for real social transformation according to our values. Any victory is inadequate if it doesn’t grow our strength to win future victories.
As young activists, we often want the immediate win, getting a candidate elected or a piece of legislation passed. These short-term victories are critical to delivering meaningful change in people’s lives and building momentum for long-term movements. But long-term power building means spending much of our time and energy on things that feel less rewarding. Things like writing grants and raising the money to sustain our organizations, like coaching a nervous fumbling community member to speak instead of speaking for them, like building coalitions that can be frustrating and unreliable, or hashing out improvements to staff structure and wrestling with your budget.
It doesn’t come naturally to us to think first and foremost about how to build the organizations we work for. We often think of organizations as vehicles we are steering towards whatever it is we want to accomplish—we use them to go where we want and maintain them only when they break down. But organizations are the infrastructure of social movements, the pipes and roads and rails and cables upon which everything else functions. We are accomplishing nothing in the long run if we are not constantly working to build effective, sustainable, accountable organizations of regular people empowered to change the conditions of their lives.
Because the harsh reality is that right now we are playing a game that is stacked against us. Unless we are slowly, steadily changing the game itself, our paltry scattered victories will never be enough. The even harsher reality is that someday we are all going to die. Every powerful politician, every brilliant intellectual, every visionary founder of an organization, has an expiration date. And too many leaders leave us having failed to sustain something larger than themselves, their life’s work fading when they do. But when we build a tool that can outlast its creator, that’s when our work really matters in the long run. To think long means not just asking the question “What can I win today?”, but asking the question “What can I build forever?”
It is not enough to spend our days organizing educational workshops about oppression attended by a handful of the same people, 90% of whom are already involved in social justice organizations. It is not enough to spend the majority of our mental and emotional capacity deep in critical theory, posting long open letters to everyone and everything we have grievances towards. It is not enough to spend our days attending conference after conference in an endless parade of events, living on a diet of catered food and speaker panels, in a world invisible and inaccessible to ordinary people. It is not enough to live in isolated self-sustaining cooperatives and remove ourselves from systems of power to keep our hands and consciences clean. Because choosing not to participate as individuals in systems of power that make us feel uncomfortable does nothing to change the fact that these systems of power continue to determine the day-to-day conditions of 99% of the population’s lives. We owe it to the people we work for to make tangible impact on a scale that is greater than that. We have more than just a responsibility to feel righteous and pure, we have a responsibility to win. We are here to be relevant to our people by delivering results that matter to them. We have an obligation to strip the vanity from our work, to be about more than our appearances as intellectually innovative and brilliantly radical. We need to deepen our understanding of power, and be deliberate, methodical, strategic and intentional about building real meaningful power among those who have been robbed of it.
Theoretical purity is a luxury of the marginal and the irrelevant. The truly powerful forces of greed and intolerance that bring pain into the lives of the people we love, rarely see us as a credible threat, too often they laugh at us, if they are even aware of our existence at all. At the end of the day, feeling good is a poor substitute for being effective.
Our generation of activists has brought some great things to the movement: a strong commitment to self-care and personal sustainability, a sharper awareness of the racism, homophobia, patriarchy and other forms of oppression that can exist even within our own movements, and an honest acknowledgement of the limitations of the structure and funding of our nonprofit organizations. But young organizers also need to channel the ruthless pragmatism and fierce discipline of an older generation– we may not face the same degree of violent suppression directed towards labor organizers of the 1930’s or civil rights organizers of the 1960’s, but that’s no excuse to allow our work to become feel-good and fluffy, insular and masturbatory, or lofty and theoretical. We cannot yoga our way out of systemic oppression and inequality. Scale matters. Tangibility matters. Immediacy matters. Our generation of activists needs to grow up and abandon the fluff, because the stakes are too high for our bullshit.
Remember Who You Work For
As much as we’d all like to fantasize otherwise, no one wants you to work on your own agenda for social change. Whether you like it or not, your work is part of a broader agenda set by people other than yourself. And that’s actually a good thing: a million arrogant visionaries, each with their own detailed utopian plan for social progress, would ultimately produce nothing. Those of us in the business of changing the world don’t get far without being team players. But we can go far in the wrong direction if we’re not careful whose team we play for. The nuances aren’t always visible at first glance, but at the end of the day, we are all pulled by invisible lines of accountability: Who signs your paycheck? Who gets a vote on what you do? Who are the constituents, the members, the core base of supporters you couldn’t function without? Don’t think of these lines of accountability as shackles. If our lines of accountability are our ties to our communities, rather than feeling like burdens, they can be the only thing keeping us grounded, honest, and effective.
In the public sphere, the world of politics and policymaking, there are very few truly evil people, who sit in dark rooms cackling and smoking cigars, who are actually driven by a fundamental desire to exploit the poor, destroy the earth, and oppress the vulnerable. But there are many people whose invisible lines of accountability to those with power and privilege are tighter and firmer than their accountability to those without.
All of us, good and bad and everything in between, must operate in an all-encompassing environment, where the political debate is overwhelmed by the voices of the wealthy, and policy priorities are driven by the needs of the powerful. This is the water in which we all swim, which has a powerful current that consistently pulls us in one direction. Without actively struggling to swim against that current at every moment, we allow ourselves to be swept up in it, sometimes not realizing until we have drifted far from where we started. As we all flounder and try to keep our heads above the surface, those lines of accountability are what anchor us. And when tough decisions need to be made in times of crisis, our actions and our priorities will depend on if we are firmly tethered to the people in the fishing village on shore or to the oil tanker drifting slowly in the deep water.
People in communities struggling with poverty, violence and pollution, with lack of health, education, and political voice, have become accustomed to watching the regular ebb and flow of consultants, academics, nonprofit professionals and other people in suits who think they know how to solve the community’s problems. They parachute in, answer to committees of distinguished experts far away, write long reports that no one from the community can read, disappear when their grants end, and ultimately are nowhere to be found when shit hits the fan. Many young idealists eager to make positive change encounter skeptics in the communities they work in and wonder “Why can’t these people see that I’m here to help them?” These people were here long before you came and expect to be here long after you leave. The trust of a community isn’t earned easily, you have to work for it daily, to prove to people that when push comes to shove, your work is truly accountable to them. Accountability is about always remembering, from the all-or-nothing moments of heated political conflict to the day-to-day mundane decision-making of negotiation and compromise, who you really work for.
I live in Ventura County, California, the battlefield of one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country this year. Eastern Ventura County is heavily Republican, populated largely by upper-middle-class white families who have fled farther and farther from the suburbs of Los Angeles into the distant exurbs. Western Ventura County is heavily Democratic, blue-collar and majority Latino, too far from LA to commute, with an economy built instead on local agriculture, oil and the military. Two years ago, the first Democrat was elected to represent the area in 70 years, the result of rapid demographic change, an end to longstanding racial gerrymandering, and high Latino voter turnout. This year millions of dollars were spent to defend the freshman Democrat’s seat on Capitol Hill against a strong Republican challenger in a nail-biting race where she wasn’t declared the victor until long after Election Day.
I work for a social justice organization in western Ventura County, meaning I have one of the few year-round political jobs available to locals. Every election season we watch a massive influx of resources pour into the region for political campaigns. And then after Election Day– like magic– it all disappears. I call this the swing district’s “Resource Curse“—just like an impoverished country whose economy is completely dependent on oil drilling revenue, the volatile surges of money and lack of long-term human development or local control of those resources leads the region to be permanently impaired despite seeing unimaginable riches pass through its borders.
After the election, the young people who worked on campaigns scramble for a few permanent staffer jobs in legislative offices, are forced to find work outside politics, or move to a more urban area. Since swing districts are rarely in major metropolitan centers, they almost never hold large headquarters of advocacy groups, unions, government agencies or other potential employers of people wanting to go into public service. And by nature of being a swing district, someone with progressive values might only be willing to work as a staff member for about half of the local elected officials without wanting to vomit on a daily basis.
Then when election season rolls around again, campaigns struggle to find locals to hire with political savvy and campaign experience, and end up importing many campaign workers from across the country who have more difficulty connecting with voters because they lack Spanish fluency or knowledge of local communities. To some extent they can rely on hiring people trained by community organizations like mine, but the kind of scale we have pales in comparison—our election budgets number in the tens of thousands rather than the millions thrown around in heavily targeted partisan races. Moreover, pulling canvassers and phonebankers from local organizations or labor unions who would be working on the election anyway is a bit of a zero sum game.
Nationally centralizing political resources rather than developing local political infrastructure also hurts local politics in “purple” communities. While enormous resources were spent on our congressional and state assembly races in Ventura County, city councils and school boards, which have more impact on the day-to-day lives of locals, were mostly ignored. In the largest city in the district, republicans came 10 votes away from picking up a seat on the council of an overwhelmingly democratic city after outspending a democratic incumbent 3 to 1. If a fraction of the resources that had gone into the higher level races had been spent down-ballot, this race would have been an easy win. Today’s city council and school board are tomorrow’s state legislature and congress, and it’s not unusual for congressional candidates in swing districts to be imported from outside the district because of a shallow local democratic bench.
But more importantly, this boom and bust cycle permanently stunts the career development of young progressive activists from the politically shifting areas where we need them most.
It’s not hard to imagine a solution. Could the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have predicted two years ago that California’s 26th congressional district would be a close election again in 2014? Obviously. The day after the 2012 election, could they have chosen to hire a couple of local former campaign staff to stick around long-term? Easily. Could the work those staff do year-round potentially be more impactful than overwhelmed voters seeing yet another TV ad or mailer in the last few weeks of campaign season? Political consultants way above my pay grade might tell you no, but I’d argue yes.
A stable, long-term investment in the development of progressive politics in swing districts or states could look like this:
- Staff to register graduating high school seniors every spring and new community college students every fall in low-income neighborhoods with low voter registration and turnout rates. They could also run vote-by-mail-conversion drives and citizenship drives of green card holders who haven’t applied for citizenship.
- Staff to recruit and train a strong base of local progressive activists who can be engaged in issue-advocacy year-round and pivot to elections during election season after having already been trained on phonebanking, canvassing, and volunteer management.
- Staff to run petition drives that can push progressive policies on both national and local issues while developing the skills of local activists and building targeted lists of progressive voters and potential volunteers. Canvassing on issue campaigns in low-income neighborhoods year-round also helps build voter engagement that shows itself in higher turnout during elections.
- Staff to amplify progressive frames and messages in local media on both national and local issues through press conferences, op-eds, letters to the editor, etc., shaping local voters’ views on national and state-level political battles long before the election.
- Staff to encourage and advise progressive community leaders to run for local office, building the long-term bench of candidates for state or federal office, especially in shifting regions where local offices may be dominated by conservatives.
One year-round full-time staff member in a congressional district could do all of this without much difficulty. For an organization like the DCCC, this would take virtually no resources. According to Nate Silver, there are only about 35 congressional districts that could reasonably be considered swing in the entire country. I estimate at less than 5% of the $60+ million they spend every two-year election cycle, the DCCC could hire a local as a year-round field organizer in every one of them. If these field organizers were asked to develop the local donor base as part of their job, even that cost would be significantly less.
This concept is similar to Organizing for Action, the attempt by Obama campaign folks to adopt community organizing strategies post-election. But Organizing for Action never had much success, in my opinion because they failed to adequately staff up with organizers on the ground.
To some extent, this is also the type of work done by community organizing groups like the one I work for. But most community organizing groups work in big cities far away from swing districts and most are 501c3 nonprofit organizations that are banned by the tax code from engaging in candidate races. And national partisan donors often don’t see their interests as aligned with local social justice organizations—my organization’s political arm was primarily focused on ballot initiatives for prison sentencing reform and banning fracking rather than the congresswoman’s reelection.
These are also the functions that should be carried out by effective county democratic parties, but the way we spend campaign money now keeps local parties in swing districts perpetually weak, while resources and decision-making power are concentrated at the state or national level and only surge into these districts during elections. Instead, the places that have powerful local party organizations are usually overwhelmingly democratic urban areas.
This is an outsider’s unsolicited advice—I don’t work for the Democratic Party and never have. But I care about my community and the people in it, I see how the boom and bust of national political money holds us back, and I hope it’s not naïve for me to think we can do better.
A flood of articles and blogs rocked the internet recently declaring the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose politics are completely dominated by the economic elite. They cite a groundbreaking new Princeton study that found that the political opinions of average non-wealthy US citizens have essentially zero statistically significant impact on policy. Although this confirms what most people already knew about the growing influence of money in politics and economic inequality, the zero number is devastating.
I asked myself, is my life’s work organizing working-class people to build political power completely meaningless and futile?
But then I actually read the study itself, because I’m a nerd. When I finished, I realized it confirmed exactly why I need to do this work.
The authors of the oligarchy study never actually say that average middle and working-class people don’t matter in US politics. What they say is that unorganized average people don’t matter. But organized people do.
In fact, they conclude that a mass-based membership organization that stands up for everyday people can be equally matched head-to-head with a corporate lobbying group.
Here’s what the study actually says.
Gilens and Page use statistical data to test four competing political science theories about US politics:
- “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy”: The will of the majority of people is carried out by a functioning democracy with apple pie, bald eagles and shit.
- “Economic Elite Domination”: Politicians don’t give a damn about the opinions of average people unless they happen to align with the interests of the wealthy few, whose opinions are all that really matters.
- “Majoritarian Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices of different organized interest groups that generally ends up representing what the people as a whole want
- “Biased Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices, but you can hear a loud and distinct upper-class accent. Monocles and feather boas abound. Economic elites have more interest groups representing them, so policymaking tends to favor the wealthy.
They describe our political system as both #2 and #4. They measure this by comparing actual policy outcomes with the political preferences of middle-income citizens, the wealthiest 10% of citizens, interest groups representing businesses, and interest groups representing broad memberships of people.
The numbers don’t lie—the kind of democracy you learn about as a kid in school just doesn’t describe reality in the United States today. The support of a majority of average voters doesn’t make a policy more likely to be passed at all, but the support of wealthy elites does.
But then this begs the question: Why do food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, student aid, public housing, even public schools and libraries, still exist? Surely not out of the goodness of the hearts of America’s all-powerful millionaire oligarchs? Maybe these programs were created back when political power was distributed more evenly, when democracy still worked, and they remain only because economic elites have not yet been able to completely dismantle them. But then how do you explain the recent expansion of healthcare to millions of uninsured paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%?
The answer is interest groups, who have a strong impact on policymaking. According to the Gilens-Page study, literally the only way for working and middle-class people to influence American politics is by organizing ourselves into groups that can match the political clout of economic elites.
Groups of people without political power, from exploited immigrant farmworkers in California to disenfranchised black communities in the Jim Crow South, have long known that the only thing they could do to change the oppressive political and economic systems they lived in was to organize themselves. In fact, the most celebrated leaders of America’s great social movements, from Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, have worked to bring together unorganized people who thought they were powerless to build strong organizations in which the powerless became the powerful.
As a whole, the study finds that the political preferences of interest groups don’t reflect overall public opinion. In fact, their data shows that the most powerful lobbying groups representing industries and corporations negatively correlate with the average citizen’s wishes—they stand against the majority of people on most political issues. But mass-based interest groups that represent millions of real people who make up their membership, such as labor unions or the American Association of Retired People (AARP), have a high correlation between what they push for on Capitol Hill and what average citizens want.
The problem is that among interest groups, the former is nearly twice as influential as the latter. The study notes that “the composition of the U.S. interest group universe is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.” However, the authors stress that it is not because public interest organizations are inherently weaker than corporate lobbyists, but simply that they are outnumbered. They calculate that “the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential”, but there are roughly twice as many powerful corporate interest groups as there are powerful public interest groups.
And unfortunately, as Gilens and Page point out, the mass-based public interest groups with major influence in Washington are mostly labor unions, whose memberships have been declining for decades. With the shrinking of organized labor, fewer low and middle-income people are organized into political groups today than ever before.
Note that the very rich don’t need to organize. The data shows their policy preferences, reducing regulations on businesses, taxes on high earners, and barriers to international trade, have a major impact on policymakers even before interest groups are taken into account. Although the wealthy have less need to organize, they are in fact more organized, with many more lobbying groups representing their interests.
But the harsh reality is that in a political system like the one we live in, poor, working-class and middle-class people have no power without organizations. None. Period.
There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from oligarchy. Organize. Organize like someone who’s realized that nobody in power gives a shit about what you think. Organize like someone who’s realized that individualism only serves powerful individuals. Rebuild the organizations we’ve lost, grow the organizations we have and start the organizations of our dreams. Organize bigger, organize smarter, organize people who have never been organized before. Organize the hell out of everything. We can’t afford not to. Because without organizing, there is literally no such thing as democracy.
This weekend I took a group of high school students out to clean a beach next to a toxic slag heap Superfund site that will hopefully be cleaned up by the EPA in about a decade. It’s one of the last remaining natural wetlands in California, home to endangered species, and in the process of being restored by the Nature Conservancy. The beach is largely cut off from pedestrian access by decaying industrial sites and marked by the towering smoke stacks of a power plant. I rarely meet youth from the surrounding low-income immigrant neighborhood who have ever been there prior to volunteering to clean it up. Hopefully someday it will be restored for public access, but for now the city government seems intent on developing more crap on top of it.
For me and my organization, bringing students out to this site for cleanups is more about engaging them in the broader environmental battles in the community. But we do the cleanups because that’s what the students tell us they want to do. Young people in America have a deeply ingrained idea of what community service is and what it isn’t. Teenagers are endlessly told to go clean the beach and give soup to the homeless and help children with their homework. They’re told it’s the alternative activity to gangs and drugs and they need to do it to get into college.
The commonly accepted form of community service is about being helpful and doing what an adult tells you to do. It’s not about generating controversy or engaging in power struggles or advocating for deeper change. In fact, youth are explicitly discouraged from doing those things by both their educational institutions and their parents. Community service, as it’s practiced, is about accepting the society you live in and trying to ameliorate the problems it’s created, not about challenging the conditions of that society and how it could be different.
Why are we telling youth to clean up natural habitats we allow corporations to pollute? What kind of a country makes children sell magazines to shore up the cost of the schools we’re unwilling to pay more taxes to fund? If we really believe all human beings deserve enough food to survive, how do we justify cutting food stamps while asking students to volunteer at food pantries?
Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling that as a country we’re taking the people most capable of questioning our assumptions and re-imagining our world and keeping them busy cleaning up the shit we’re creating. Maybe it comes from our condescending assumption that young people can’t make up their minds for themselves about anything contentious, that youth wanting to participate in anything that looks “political” must be the product of manipulation and brainwashing.
I want a world where high school student groups like National Honor Society and Key Club speak at school board meetings and march in rallies and write letters to the editor and get out the vote. I want a world where guidance counselors tell students to serve on a city commission to build their college application and city councilmembers actually appoint them. I want a world where parents suggest helping at a soup kitchen on Christmas and campaigning for a higher minimum wage on Election Day.
I’m not calling for an end to community service. I’m calling for a radical opening of our understanding of what it means to serve our communities. I’m calling for a broadening of the role we expect youth to have in our communities. We should be asking young people to take the role of leadership in the public sphere, producing new ideas and participating in decision-making. That’s the kind of service we admire in business leaders and elder statesmen and public intellectuals but feel uncomfortable with youth engaging in.
More and more schools are requiring community service for graduation because in a world where students are bombarded with messages about competition and achievement and test scores it’s worth teaching there’s more to life than earning good grades to get a high-paying job.
But educators, nonprofits, and parents should be teaching young people that the community doesn’t just need your menial labor, but also needs your ideas. And your courage to raise your voice and challenge us to build a better world is by far the most valuable service you can give to your community.
This week I read two of the most interesting articles I’ve seen in a while. The first is an interview with the founder of Health Care for America Now (HCAN), the alliance of major organizations created to pass healthcare reform, easily the biggest public policy change in a generation, which closed its doors at the end of 2013. The second is a profile of the Working Families Party (WFP), which many credit with the surprise victory of Bill de Blasio, the populist mayor-elect of New York, who ran on a message of fighting economic inequality and is seen as a symbol of a new era in America’s largest city. You should really read them both yourself, it’s hard for me to do them justice. But both pieces made me reflect on the idea of “the inside game” and “the outside game” in politics
Some activists believe only in the inside game (lobbying, legislative analysis, running for office), while some believe only in the outside game (organizing, protesting, moving the public through mass communications). Like many others, I believe social change is only possible with a combination of both.
But more importantly, I believe that it must be the same people, the same organizations, at the same time, that play both the inside game and the outside game. We cannot be content to have some people within our movements doing electoral politics and others doing grassroots organizing. The inside players will become out of touch and unaccountable to the grassroots, while the outside players will become marginalized, ineffective and powerless. We have to build organizations that can play the inside game as outsiders. Organizations that engage with the Democratic Party and have the weight to sway elections, but that maintain independence and don’t take marching orders from Democratic elected officials.
“Like many who came out of the 1960s left, Cantor came to realize that community organizing and movement building were both indispensable and insufficient to win lasting change. He still identifies with those movements, but his distinctive aptitude has been to find ways in which the electoral process can advance progressive goals. “I feel we’re in a long line of people going back to the abolitionists: the populists, the suffragists, the labor activists, the civil-rights workers,” he says. “These were all extra-parliamentary movements. We strive to be like them, and we recognize we have to contest for these values through the state, through elections. That’s what most people think politics is. That’s our role.”
But of course elections don’t lead movements, movements precede elections. HCAN began building the momentum for healthcare reform in 2007, while the presidential election was over a year away. They managed to bring all the Democratic candidates together around roughly the same healthcare plan. Edwards’, Clinton’s, and Obama’s policy proposals on healthcare were surprisingly similar, and this was no accident. Even the differences between candidates disappeared once it came to actually passing the law (Obama opposed the individual mandate as a candidate, but ended up adopting it and fighting for it as president).
However, when movements and elections are timed well, they provide a point of access for millions who would never otherwise participate in movement-building activities like attending rallies. An electoral win becomes a symbolic moment, a turning point that gives people the feeling of an inevitable tide turning. Bill de Blasio’s stunning election in New York City may have been the first time average people felt like the momentum created by the Occupy movement had led to a real victory. After 15 years of building the infrastructure to win progressive victories at the ballot box outside of the Democratic Party establishment, the WFP was perfectly positioned as public outrage over economic inequality had finally begun to take hold.
The hard part is that movements depend on perfect timing. Movements must be sustained by organizations, but it’s immensely difficult to start a new organization in time to capture a movement’s moment of opportunity (at least an organization of the size necessary to have real power). So perhaps the most effective large-scale movement-building organizations are those like HCAN and the WFP, which emerge by bringing together coalitions of existing community groups and labor unions in order to scale up rapidly. These organizations had membership bases, relationships with key local players, experienced staff, and a fundraising machine before they even launched.
Yet simply getting all the key players in the same room is not nearly enough. Some of the biggest failings in the campaign for health care reform (loss of the public option, inadequate subsidies to make insurance plans affordable) came from the Obama administration dismissing the value of the outside game. Despite Obama’s community organizing background and his team’s talking the talk about everyday citizens getting involved, in practice the administration has taken a very insular, inside game approach to governing. With HCAN taking a subdued approach and all the outside game action coming from the Tea Party, there was virtually no pressure on the left to hold firm to the principles of healthcare reform.
“This was a huge misunderstanding by the Obama folks about power and political dynamics, just a fundamental miscalculation and blindness that was really destructive. The president’s personality is to be conciliatory. Until the summer of 2011 and the grand bargain collapsed, he always wanted to be conciliatory. He also had people like Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina in the White House who wanted to totally control everything and did not want any on the left pushing them. But power works differently. They would have been in a much stronger position if they could say, “We’re being pushed really, really, really hard from the left, and so this is the best we can do.” And then cut final deals when they had to.”
Without the outside game holding a hard line, those playing the inside game are impossibly weak in negotiations. But being an ideologically pure and independent outsider is not enough either. Frederick Douglass famously said “power concedes nothing without a demand”. Yet too often our lists of demands are empty noise shouted from outside the building, barely heard by smirking suits inside the halls of power. Demands are only demands when they come with credible threats to their targets. One of the most credible threats is an electoral machine that actually has the capacity to end the career of a politician that crosses it. That was the source of the Tea Party’s power, and is similarly the source of the WFP’s power.
Maybe the biggest lesson from these two stories is that our work is never done. A few weeks ago, Health Care for America Now closed its doors, declaring its mission accomplished. Of course it’s difficult to keep a coalition together after the campaign that created it is won. But even with the Affordable Care Act, the US healthcare system will likely continue to lag behind most industrialized nations in affordability, access and quality. If the Working Families Party had gone home satisfied after their signature victory of ending New York’s harsh drug sentencing laws in 2004, they would have never made it to their golden opportunity last year in the aftermath of Occupy. But this speaks to the fundamental difference between the WFP and HCAN: The WFP grew from a vision of an organization, not a vision of a campaign. An organization that can play the inside game and win a seat at the table of power while maintaining its independence and values through an authentic grassroots base on the outside.
We don’t need more inside game organizations or more outside game organizations. What we need are organizations that can do both, that can stand on power and on principle.
I originally wrote a completely different post that was my typical whining about why more young people don’t go into grassroots organizing. I decided to scrap it and start over. I often accuse my generation of wanting the immediate feel-good of direct service and charity, the socially-accepted professionalism of law and government, the comfortable removed intellectualism of academia and think tanks. But after reflecting on it for a bit, I decided to set down my glass of haterade and re-examine the barriers within the nonprofit sector that actively keep young people from working as community organizers. I think that’s a more constructive conversation to have.
I wanted to write about this because I’m becoming painfully aware of how much my employer struggles to fill organizing staff positions. Yet at the same time I know so many unemployed and underemployed young people. What’s the problem? Wasn’t Obama supposed to inspire a whole generation of kids to become community organizers when they grew up or something? Maybe it’s time for me to stop blaming my generation and start talking about the root of the problem and real solutions.
What’s the problem?
We’re reaching a dangerous time in America’s social movements. The veterans who run many of our organizations cut their teeth as young people in the 60’s and 70’s at the height of progressive activism. Today many of them are on the verge of retiring or already doing so. To keep alive the organizations built by the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us, we’re all going to have to step up. Yet as we reach an era with perhaps more potential for progressive change than any other since the 60’s, opportunities for the next generation of movement leaders are limited.
More than anything, there’s a need for organizers on the ground. No social movement has ever succeeded without organizing people. You can have brilliantly crafted policy and flawless legal arguments but without heat in the streets, there is no movement. Power responds only to power. And without money power, people power is all we have.
So what would I do if I was a young person looking to get into this type of work? Obviously go to Idealist.org, like any other do-gooder who doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. So I did that. I searched for “organizer” and filtered by “Entry-level position” anywhere in the US. I only came across 72 hits and after reading through them, almost none of them were what I would classify as organizing. Most involved providing charitable services or doing administrative work.
Generally the vast majority of community organizer job postings I see require 2-3 years of experience. But where we’re supposed to get those 2-3 years of experience I have no idea.
Why are so few organizer jobs entry-level?
Most community organizing nonprofits, like mine, are relatively small local groups in a particular city or region. They don’t really have the capacity to train people who don’t already know what they’re doing. There’s no Human Resources department, no instruction manual, no large cohort of new employees fresh out of school you can train all at once every year. And in a tough field like grassroots organizing where people often work for a year or two before realizing they can’t make the cut, nobody wants to take risks on people. Even worse, when an organizer leaves the job, it severs many of the relationships they built in the community, and some members/leaders leave with them.
Unlike for-profit corporations, nonprofits can’t raise money by selling stock to investors who want to take a risk with the promise of future gains. It’s hard for nonprofits to take the long view and investing in young talent just isn’t worth it in the short-run. And as much as we like to think we operate as broader social movements, we really operate as individual organizations out for ourselves. Why pay to train someone who’s probably going to be working for some other organization five years from now?
What’s out there for a young aspiring organizer?
Opportunities for people who want to start organizing usually lie with large national groups that have the scale necessary to train lots of new staff. For example larger unions like SEIU and AFSCME, faith-based community organizing networks like PICO and DART, or the PIRGs and their broader Public Interest Network. At one point ACORN was probably the biggest trainer of new organizers, but they’re gone now. And unfortunately, labor unions, faith-based community organizing groups, and the PIRGs are all shrinking. Some important training programs like the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) have also shrunk significantly from their former reach.
The other option that fills job postings for people looking to enter social movement work is as a canvasser doing grassroots fundraising. Of course they’re willing to take a risk on us when our job description includes raising our own salary. What is there to lose? Although canvass offices provide a point of entry for countless young people into activist work, they have high turnover since many people find the work somewhat unpleasant. Canvassing also teaches a limited skill set: canvassers get great at making initial contact with other people and getting them involved at a basic level, but never learn how to build relationships, develop leaders and deepen their commitment.
Of course the biggest advocacy groups in the country really do have the money to invest in young people if they wanted to. (Think the Sierra Club, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, etc.). But they typically don’t do much grassroots organizing or hire significant amounts of organizing staff. They prefer to contract with canvass offices to build their membership.
Don’t my endless hours of activism in college count for anything?
Often when young activists finish school, we find the social justice organizations we want to work for don’t take our student activism seriously as real work experience. It’s devastating to those of us who poured our hearts into this work, while struggling to balance our activism with paid jobs and studying. But it might be justified. Most campuses have little to no opportunities to work with well-organized groups that have experienced organizing staff who can serve as mentors. Many of the best and brightest young activists are sucked into the black hole of student government. Student activists often graduate with lots of experience planning workshops and movie nights and speaker panels but few of the tangible skills required to win a real issue campaign.
At best, many organizations that claim to do campus organizing will have one staff person assigned to tons of campuses across a whole region, so they spend little time on the ground building relationships, developing leaders, and investing in their skills. Movement organizations aren’t willing to seriously invest in students while they’re in school, so young people don’t gain the skills they want. Then young people don’t have the skills they want, so they’re not willing to take the risk to hire them.
So after graduation, many student activists end up unemployed or underemployed. Maybe we do Peace Corps or Teach for America because even though those organizations are deeply flawed, at least they want us, and kind of stalk us a little bit, which is nice I guess. Or we end up working in government or charity nonprofits or going back to grad school. Or slaving away at some dead-end low-wage job just like the people who write all those obnoxious articles scoffing at humanities majors said we would. Or with a sigh we acknowledge that our parents were right all along and that our pipe dreams of fighting for justice and equality were unrealistic, and we should just settle down and work as a desk-monkey at some faceless corporation and one day buy a house with a white picket fence and a golden retriever. Either way, a critical opportunity to become an organizer has been missed.
Is there a solution?
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: We need more young people to become organizers. But a lack of young people wanting to be organizers isn’t the problem. (At least not the whole problem.) There are tons of young people already out there with the right personality type and natural talent who would be willing to give this work a shot and might become badass organizers if seriously given the opportunity. Here are my recommendations on how to provide those opportunities:
1. Invest in on-the-ground organizers who spend quality time at high schools, community colleges, and universities. Tap into the young activists who want to contribute to your work, help them develop tangible skills, and build relationships with the youth you’ll need to staff up your organization someday. Sure, not all organizations have interest or expertise in youth organizing. But then why not give some funding to a local organization that does directly work with youth to plug their members into your campaigns? (Side note: Someone should start a nonprofit that specializes in student organizing and contracts with all the big progressive advocacy groups in the country to organize student activists around their issues.)
2. If you have interns, give them real responsibilities that are the type of things you expect incoming junior staff to already know how to do. Think: if I hired this person in two years, what skills would I need them to have? Yes, sometimes you just need help databasing sign-in sheets from your events. And yes, sometimes it takes longer to train someone how to do something and clean up the mess when they fuck up than to just do it yourself. But if you view interns as long-term investments in future staff rather than short-term exploited labor who you’ll never see again, you might find that the benefits eventually outweigh the costs.
3. Link temporary training opportunities to permanent job opportunities. Develop organizer-in-training programs that allow you to both train and assess people, reducing the risk of hiring entry-level staff. But make sure those programs have the possibility of a real job at the end of them. This is probably the most difficult one to implement: Where’s the budget to pay these people? Who’s going to supervise them? In large cities, community organizations and unions could pool resources and hire someone to run an organizer-in-training program that plugs a cohort of students into local campaigns every summer and then pipelines them into whatever job openings are in the area when they graduate. In a less urbanized environment like where I work, there might not be enough organizations to do that, but on the flip side, if we train local organizers, we directly reap most of the benefits because they don’t have many other places to work except for us.
This might all seem like a lot of money to spend on a bunch of wayward millenials who might quickly change their minds and decide they don’t want to work for you after all. But that’s the nature of investing in the future. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s one way to make it more likely to pay off: If you’re spending all the time and money to grow your own staff, don’t be afraid to recruit them aggressively. Big corporations give out free Chipotle burritos at their info sessions at college campuses. Teach for America literally hires student interns whose job is to recruit other students. But if you’ve been intentionally working with young people, you don’t need any of that—you have direct relationships—take them out to lunch and say “Hey, what do you think about working for us when you graduate?” The reality is, most young people don’t know what the fuck we’re doing with our lives and could probably use the help thinking it through.
I’ll admit I understand the problem more than I understand the solution. What I do know is this: If our movements are going to survive, our organizations will need to take the long view and intentionally invest in a comprehensive pipeline that provides meaningful roles in our movements for young people.
On Monday the NY Times covered a fascinating new study on social mobility. As you can see from the map above, there’s huge variation in the likelihood a kid from a low-income family will end up making it out of poverty depending on where they live.
Despite popular misconceptions about the “American Dream”, kids who grow up poor in the US are less likely to climb into the middle and upper classes than their counterparts in Western Europe, Canada, etc. This is a phenomenon dubbed “The Great Gatsby Curve”— countries with high levels of inequality also have low levels of mobility– i.e. if the rungs on the ladder are farther apart, it’s harder to climb the ladder. Poor kids in the US suffer from a weaker social safety net, worse health care and nutrition, more unstable housing, limited access to childcare, preschool, and college, and have to compete with rich kids who are even richer than kids in other countries (and have the resulting advantages in life).
Now let’s assume the American Dream is not just some bullshit platitude and we really do care about opportunity for all, regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth.
We might be feeling pretty hopeless right now. Fixing America’s crisis of inequality sounds overwhelming, and this useless Congress has a snowball’s chance in hell of creating any costly new social programs like universal preschool.
But what this study says to me is that it’s possible to make a significant difference at the local level. The trap of intergenerational poverty in places like Atlanta, Memphis, and Charlotte might be worse than any country in the industrialized world. But places like Salt Lake City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle have social mobility comparable to places like Norway and Denmark.
What explains the differences? Why are rags-to-riches stories in Chicago much less common than its rival metropolises of NY and LA? Why is a poor kid in San Francisco twice as likely to become successful as a poor kid in St. Louis? Can growing up poor in Seattle really give you four times better of a chance in life than in Memphis?
When you look at the map, the worst regions are clearly the Deep South and the urban industrial core of the Midwest. I associate these areas with entrenched black-white patterns of inequality and segregation. But the article notes that in cities like Atlanta, while opportunities to rise in society are scarce for poor blacks, they are just as scarce for poor whites. Maybe communities like Atlanta are more likely to see poverty in racialized terms (“Those people are not like me”), weakening their support of attempts to advance opportunities for poor folks of all races.
But let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
The authors were looking for proof that tax credits aimed at reducing child poverty like the EITC lead to better social mobility. But unfortunately they found that local tax policies had only a small correlation with class mobility.
So what can we do to at the local level to increase opportunity? Which of these factors is most easily and clearly impacted by public policy?
It’s interesting to note that the factors that most strongly correlate with lack of opportunity are things you might associate with a social conservative policy agenda: promoting traditional family structures, community ties, and religious participation. So why then is the South, the heartland of social conservatism, the huge red swath on the map with the least opportunity? I’d argue this is because social conservative policies are extremely ineffective at actually accomplishing things like reducing teen birthrates, and often counterproductive (see: birth control, sex ed).
I don’t think anywhere in America we’ve actually developed effective policies to make people have stronger family ties or be more active in their communities. (I do think we could mitigate some of the negative effects of widespread single motherhood with things like universal preschool and paid maternal leave though.)
Unfortunately the factors most directly tied to government policy (college tuition, local public spending, etc.) are at the bottom of the list. Seems like if state/local governments want to raise social mobility the best thing they can do is increase per-pupil school funding, but even that has a pretty weak correlation. Clearly the focus should be on reducing high school dropouts, but how exactly policymakers should do that is the tougher question.
I think the most interesting part of this study is the link it establishes between social mobility and segregation along racial and economic class lines. In a sprawled out, highly segregated city like Atlanta, people in poor black neighborhoods are much more isolated from decent job opportunities, good schools, social networks and other resources.
Cities and counties should be paying close attention to this. Plan dense, walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods. Provide quality public transit connecting low-income communities to job and educational opportunities. Focus economic development and infrastructure spending on the urban center, not just on the suburban outskirts. Don’t allow wealthy NIMBYs to block affordable housing in the suburbs and don’t allow developers to gentrify poor people out of revitalizing urban neighborhoods. Smart growth is not just about sustainability and hippy shit. It’s about the goddamn American Dream. It’s about everyone having a fair chance to make it. Bald eagles and apple pie and all that.
Last but not least, for the community organizers out there: Notice that “Social Capital Index” there at the top? That measures people’s civic engagement and level of involvement in community groups. Whether you’re organizing community activists to increase school funding, provide subsidized childcare or better public transit, the act of organizing people itself enhances economic opportunity as much as any policy change. Helping strengthen people’s ties to each other and to their community is one of the key foundations of social mobility. The best thing we can do is organize from the grassroots to make this American Dream a reality.
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.
If this week taught me anything, it’s that national politics is inherently disempowering. I felt that way during my brief time in DC in college, which is why I didn’t go back after graduation. Now I think I probably never will.
And once the national immigration reform effort is over, I don’t think I personally ever want to work on moving anything through Congress again. The bill released this week should have been disappointing: An arduous 13 year path to citizenship, with at minimum a decade in second-class status, paying taxes without any rights, with a trigger preventing anyone from becoming a citizen until billions of dollars of drones, fences, federal agents and electronic surveillance systems are sent to the border.
But I wasn’t really disappointed. It was mostly what I expected. (See above article on why nothing truly progressive can make it two steps past the starting line in Congress.) My reaction was basically “Sigh… It is what it is.”
I do politics because I believe my world is bursting at the seams with injustice and pain because of deep systemic imbalances of power. I do politics because it’s exhilarating to see the disempowered become empowered. Nothing sends a chill down my spine like that look of invincibility in someone’s eyes when they realize their potential to be an agent of change. But congressional politics is so completely disempowering for those who engage in it, that it defeats the purpose of my political involvement.
1. It takes forever.
The founding fathers did this on purpose. They were down with democracy, but afraid the poor people would vote to take all their shit and distribute it freely amongst the unbathed toothless masses. So they created checks and balances to make sure the will of the majority couldn’t happen too fast, if at all.
For example, every once in a while there’s a big high-profile gun massacre. Suddenly everyone realizes that gun violence kills people every day, and this briefly creates the political willpower to beat the gun lobby. The masses tweet about it, TV pundits rant about it, and politicians make somber speeches about rising above partisanship to address this national tragedy. But by the time legislation actually grinds its way through the sausage machine of Congress, media attention moves on to something else and the public loses the urgency to push. But lobbying interests like the NRA can hold out for the long fight.
And sometimes the fight is really long. I worked to pass a financial aid bill in college that student advocates fought over with banks for 15 years before it finally reached the president’s desk. I got the taste of victory. But how many students calling for reform for years before me left with the lesson that big banks always win and activism is useless?
2. It’s an inside game
Major pieces of legislation are complex. Bills are hundreds of pages long and nearly impossible for a non-lawyer to read. This is better than short, vague bills that are full of loopholes, oversimplify social issues, and ultimately have to be sorted out in lawsuits. But the consequence of complexity is that it shuts out regular people from the process.
Worse, it’s even inaccessible to many members of Congress. There are so many bills and amendments to constantly vote for. They just don’t have enough staff to follow and analyze all of it. So they rely on lobbyists. One of the secret weapons of lobbyists is that they usually know way more about the subject matter than the member of Congress and their staff does.
The big decisions don’t happen in the big floor vote when everyone is paying attention. They get made in bill markups when little amendments get added and key words get switched. Those are the kinds of decisions regular people can’t access. How is a farmworker supposed to track a subtle amendment in federal legislation that might exclude them from immigration reform or indefinitely delay their path to citizenship?
The strategy and tactics needed to win an inside game are bad for developing leaders. Strategy has to be coordinated nationally and relies on closed-door negotiations between power brokers. Grassroots community members can’t really be part of strategic discussions and instead wait for directions to be passed down by those coordinating the central effort in DC. They usually never meet the decision-makers or the opposition. The tactics needed are low-skill, low-engagement actions like call-in days that are bad for building organizations and their members. At the end, it’s easy for people involved to question whether their work really made a difference at all.
3. It’s all about money
I have a healthy mixture of respect and horror at anyone willing to run for Congress. It’s exhausting, miserable, and absurdly expensive. You spend most of your day kissing donors asses, all while working every waking second and hoping your sleep-deprived brain doesn’t say something stupid while under constant media scrutiny. The average winning candidate for Congress raised over $2,000 per day in 2012. It doesn’t end once you get elected. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recommends its sitting members spend 4 hours every day in “call time” (making fundraising calls).
I was once involved in a campaign where a student I trained lobbied a senior Democratic senator to support closing offshore tax havens and was explicitly told by her DC staff that the member couldn’t support the bill because some of her biggest corporate donors used those offshore tax havens. Brutal honesty. All governing bodies are swayed by powerful interests. But nothing compares to the U.S. Congress.
I used to think local politics was boring, tinkering at the margins, something weird old people with too much time on their hands did. Now I see the value of local politics as a place to develop authentic leadership among the disenfranchised, to directly confront power face to face, and to win victories that the community feels direct ownership over.