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.
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.
Nationwide the 2015 election had the lowest voter turnout the country has seen in 72 years, 36%. Countless state, county, city, and school races across the US went scarcely noticed by voters. San Francisco held a hugely controversial election that many commentators said was a battle for the city’s soul, with millions of dollars spent on ballot initiatives aimed at the city’s spiraling housing costs and rapid gentrification. Yet only 41% of registered voters cast ballots. Closer to my home, the city of Santa Barbara held a historic election, its first since switching to city council districts, which promised the potential to shake up City Hall, yet voter turnout was 38%.
Why Odd-Year Elections Keep People From Voting
Local governments that choose to hold their elections in odd-numbered years typically see far lower voter turnout, often dropping by half, and the voters that cast ballots are overwhelmingly whiter, older, and wealthier than those who participate in general elections.
Imagine a working immigrant mother who recently became a US citizen. She’s excited to vote, but has never done it before. After working long hours cleaning houses, picking her kids up from childcare, cooking them dinner and washing the dishes, she realizes it’s election day and the polls close in an hour. The local city council elections haven’t really been covered on TV, which focuses mostly on national news, and are rarely mentioned in the weekly local Spanish newspaper. The candidates don’t bother knocking on doors in her apartment complex, where few residents are eligible or registered to vote, and even fewer turn out during odd-year elections. She doesn’t know who is running for city council, what they stand for, or what issues are being debated. With time running out before the polling booths close, she decides she’ll wait to vote next year, when she can cast her ballot for the president.
The gap between voter turnout in national elections and odd-year local elections has widened over the years, with a few potential causes:
- Demographic change means there are more voters like the woman mentioned above, young people or immigrants who are new to voting and have less access to information about local politics.
- Americans are working longer hours, which means they feel more and more strained for time to follow local politics, research issues, and vote.
- As campaigns have become longer and more expensive, people living in cities or states where an election takes place every year feel overwhelmed and fatigued by trying to research and sort through information in seemingly endless election seasons.
- Local newspapers and TV stations have declined, gone bankrupt, and laid off investigative journalists, while national cable news like Fox News and national online news sites like the Huffington Post have boomed, leaving voters with scarce access to information about local issues.
The problem with odd-year elections made national headlines after the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where off-cycle elections are one of the primary reasons why the city government so starkly lacked representation from the majority black community.
The Anti-Irish History of Odd-Year Elections
But why do these off-cycle elections even exist? What reason does a city have to hold an election separate from the state and national elections? Why spend extra taxpayer dollars to run a separate election when it clearly leads to lower voter turnout?
The answer lies in history. Off-cycle elections are mostly credited to Progressive Era reformers in the late 1800’s who saw them as a way to fight corruption in big cities. But they were also a favorite policy of anti-immigrant political groups who blamed rapidly growing populations of Irish and other immigrants for using urban political machines to get jobs and services for their communities.
Sarah Anzia is probably the leading academic scholar studying odd-year elections. While much of the attention on her work has focused on her suggestion that public employee unions are one of the major factors keeping municipal elections in odd years, I think something much more interesting is buried in her earlier examination of the history of odd-year elections. Their original intent was primarily to break the backs of Irish political organizations in big cities.
Anzia found that by the 1890’s, when Progressive Era reformers took up the cause of off-cycle elections for cities, there had already been a long history of politicians changing the dates of city elections to manipulate outcomes. There is no thorough national record of this history, but it can be dug up in case studies of individual cities. Off-cycle elections emerged during the mid-1800’s through what Anzia refers to as “partisan power plays”, political parties jockeying to change the rules of the game to help them win. Specifically in cities like New York and San Francisco, it was a result of an alliance between anti-corruption reform parties and nativist anti-immigrant parties who found a common enemy in the Democratic Party, which in many big cities had become dominated by a well-organized urban Irish voter turnout machine.
An Alliance Between Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Corruption Activists
For many reformers in the 1800’s, Irish and corruption were synonymous. The era was the height of a wave of immigration to the rapidly industrializing US from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe. Immigrants lived in extreme poverty, worked under highly exploitative conditions, and received little assistance or rights from the government. More than any other group, the Irish built political power in the US’s biggest cities in response to the intense racism Irish immigrants met when they arrived. Tammany Hall and other Irish-dominated political organizations ensured immigrant communities access to basic services, jobs and emergency assistance, built infrastructure and charities, and were rewarded by a loyal bloc of voters. Yet they also became a symbol of corruption, rewarding their supporters with government jobs and giving bribes to get what they wanted, especially under New York’s notorious Boss Tweed.
Of course history is written by the victors, and the late 1800’s political battles between middle-class Protestant whites of English descent and the working poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants are simplistically depicted as the good reformers versus the corrupt mobsters. There was corruption in the urban immigrant political machines no doubt. But poor people and immigrants voted for them because they provided basic infrastructure and human services in their neighborhoods and defended their rights, as opposed to the intensely racist treatment they got from parties like the Whigs or the Know Nothings. As we make policy today, we should examine this history with a critical eye to separate real anti-corruption efforts like civil service reform from shameless attempts to break Irish political power like odd-year elections.
The reform movements of the late 1800’s certainly had their discriminatory undertones, walking the fine line between hating corrupt Irish political machines and hating Irish people. Legendary reformer cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose work is shown in this post, is credited in history textbooks with taking down notorious Boss Tweed but often depicted Irish people as drunken violent monkey-like creatures who had taken over the country. The movement’s belief in rational scientific progress flirted at times with eugenics, the idea that keeping the poor and uneducated from breeding would further the human race. And the push for alcohol prohibition was often tied to the idea that Irish, Russians and other urban immigrant groups were drunks who were ruining the moral fiber of American society.
San Francisco and New York
But in the case of off-cycle elections, the switch was often won through a direct alliance between anti-corruption reformers and anti-immigrant bigots. In 1850’s New York, the racist nativist Know Nothing party allied with the Whigs (precursors to Republicans) in the state legislature to separate New York’s city election away from the state and national elections. Voter turnout for city elections plunged, especially for Democrats, who depended on working-class immigrant voters who failed to turn out in off-cycle elections.
Irish who came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush brought Tammany Hall-style political organization to the West Coast in the 1850’s. The People’s Party, a local San Francisco party that drew its support from both the financial elite and anti-Irish nativists, was born in response. During their decade of control of San Francisco, the People’s Party led a successful push to switch San Francisco to off-cycle elections by allying with Republicans in the state legislature to change the city’s charter.
These cities set the precedent for a trend that swept the country decades later. Today, our cities are facing low voter turnout and unequal representation because of a policy rooted in anti-Irish racism. There is no evidence now that cities with even-year elections have any more corruption than those with odd-years. But the much greater threat facing our democracy, the power of unlimited corporate money, is made much more powerful in low turnout off-years, when voters are disengaged and tuned out, and it’s easy to buy an election.
Today’s defenders of odd-year elections say that if local elections are moved to even-years that local issues will be drowned out by national politics. They say that the small turnouts for odd-year elections are actually a good thing—that a small group of citizens who are well-informed and pay attention to local issues are the ones who should make the decisions.
But is it possible that the “uninformed” voter has something meaningful to contribute to their community? That a young person or low-wage worker who rides the bus every day might actually have a better perspective on the city’s public transit system than a member of the Chamber of Commerce who has seen a presentation by a city official on the subject? That an undocumented immigrant or young black person may not go to the same dinner parties as city councilmembers and school board trustees, but they’ve experienced harassment at the hands of city police that the members of the Rotary Club have no idea about? That while some people’s definition of local issues are limited to parking and potholes, the family who just got evicted because they can’t afford rent might consider raising the city’s minimum wage to be an important local issue?
Odd-year elections are driven by a fear of the people that tears against the fabric of our democracy. It’s a fear that the people are too stupid to govern themselves. Although it might be couched in more polite language today, it’s the same fear of the ignorant Irish masses, mindlessly mobilized by political machines. Today’s defenders of odd-year elections should know the history of what they’re defending because they carry on its legacy today.
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.
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.
Every year there is a mass migration of idealistic and ambitious young people from across the United States to Washington, DC, the political power center of the nation and arguably the world. It’s hard to say whether this is the best career move for people aspiring to make a name for themselves in politics— there are more opportunities for long-term advancement and networking in DC, but in most other parts of the country one can rise through the ranks faster with less menial work “paying your dues”. But for those of us not just calculating the best career move, but genuinely wondering how to make the biggest impact through public policy affecting real people’s lives, right now moving to DC is one of the worst decisions you can make.
With the unceasing noise and constant sense of urgency in Beltway politics, it’s easy to feel like there’s a lot going on, like you’re a soldier in an epic battle between good and evil where the stakes are dangerously high and immediately felt. But in the end, how much has actually happened in DC since Republicans took the House in 2010?
Almost no legislation of real significance, good or bad, has made it through Congress in the last four years. One might say that this paralysis will pass, that it’s a temporary reflection of the bitterness of tough economic times, the racist resistance to Barack Obama’s presidency, or the death spasms of the Tea Party.
Democrats have built up huge voter majorities in the nation’s largest cities, in part due to the racialized battle lines of American politics and diversity of our cities, and in part due to “The Big Sort” as analysts call it, where more Americans are moving to places where our neighbors share our political/cultural views. As an increasingly urbanized nation, the overwhelming Democratic majorities in big cities carry the swing states, making it harder and harder for Republicans to win the presidency through the Electoral College.
But because Democratic voters are packed into dense urban districts that are not even close to being competitive, with a little help from Republican state legislatures who drew congressional district lines to favor Republicans, it has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to take the House of Representatives. Although in 2012, more Americans actually voted for a Democrat for Congress, Republicans still won a solid majority of congressional races, because such a large portion of those Democratic voters lived in big cities, far from the real battlegrounds for control of Congress. It wouldn’t be the first time one party in Congress enjoyed a deep and lasting structural advantage—after all, Democrats controlled the House for an uninterrupted 40 years, from the mid-50’s to the mid-90’s. It’s very possible that 1994 was the start of a long-term Republican control of the House that was only briefly interrupted for four years in a reaction against the utter disaster of the Bush presidency.
Today’s political geography is built for divided government, with an entrenched Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled presidency. With the trend towards hard partisanship among American elected officials, national politics may continue to be stalled and irrelevant for the foreseeable future.
It’s easy to imagine the next few years in Washington, DC. Republicans retain control of the House in 2014, 2016 and 2018, unless there’s some freak miracle like the Republican presidential candidate being exposed as an actual robot controlled by Goldman Sachs. Republicans briefly take a slim majority in the Senate this year, but lose it again in 2016. A series of truly awful people try to outdo each other in the Republican presidential primary and Hillary Clinton wins the White House in 2016. Republicans in Congress maintain the same bitter, unwavering, near-apocalyptic opposition to the political agenda of Clinton as they did to Obama. Much sound, much fury, no progress.
Of course nothing in politics is permanent. Eventually, something will have to give. Maybe the Republican Party will moderate its positions on social issues like immigration, reproductive rights, or LGBT equality and win some votes from constituencies like middle-class Latinos and Asians, suburban white women, or business-oriented yuppies. Maybe as gentrification pushes more and more low-income people of color out of urban centers into smaller working-class cities, suburban congressional districts will become more competitive, as is already happening in California, where a disproportionate share of the tightest congressional races took place in the last election. Maybe party leaders and elected officials will simply grow weary of gridlock and begrudgingly accept compromise in order to pass legislation—not necessarily embracing moderation, but embracing pragmatism—two sides can still fundamentally disagree but each prefer to win half a victory for their constituents by negotiating a deal.
But these are the kinds of changes measured in decades, not years. The average Millennial right now stays at their job for 2.3 years. Over that time horizon, you can safely expect Washington’s paralyzed irrelevance to continue.
So young progressives, the question to ask yourself is: Am I okay with the likelihood that if I move to DC for a job in the current environment, I will spend the next couple years looking hella fly in a suit but accomplishing very little that makes a real difference in the lives of people in my community?
If the purpose of your public service is to make people’s lives better, your time and energy is better spent at the state or local level.
In the last few years that politics have been hopelessly gridlocked at the national level, here in my home state of California, progressive activists have had some stunning victories. We’ve raised taxes on the wealthiest 2% to finally balance California’s budget, increase education funding and end the era of devastating cuts to schools and other services that have defined most of my conscious life. We directed additional funding to schools in high poverty communities where students need an extra boost. We’ve given almost all workers three paid sick days, raised the minimum wage, and passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, extending normal labor protections to workers who have long been excluded due to racial and gender discrimination. We’ve passed the TRUST Act which significantly reduced deportations of immigrants, and allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. We banned single use plastic bags and passed policies to promote cleaner cars. We expanded rights for transgender students in schools. We reformed the “three strikes” law that was unnecessarily putting people who had committed nonviolent offenses in prison for life. We’ve made a huge expansion of financial aid for middle-class college students. We’ve had one of the most successful rollouts in the country of the Affordable Care Act, providing healthcare to over a million uninsured. I’d challenge anyone who’s been working in Washington, DC over the last four years to try to top that.
But this isn’t just about places that are more progressive than the rest of the country. Some of the most crucial political battles of our time are taking place in conservative states where activists are pushing back against draconian anti-immigrant laws, discriminatory voter suppression laws, and laws restricting women’s reproductive rights. In red states, progressive organizers are fighting off attempts to cut aid to struggling families, to eliminate rights of workers to organize unions and go on strike, and to deny millions of poor families health coverage by obstructing Obamacare. If you think the action is in DC, you’re watching tennis during the Superbowl.
And where you can truly make the biggest impact rarely makes the news. By working in your own neighborhood or city, you can expand public transportation, build affordable housing, add parks and green space, increase access to healthy food, improve local schools, shift towards alternative energy, reduce poverty, maybe even stop the next Ferguson.
If we really believe we’re the next generation of leadership, let’s take our responsibilities seriously and be intentional about where we invest our efforts. Let’s remember the work we do isn’t just a hobby or a career ladder, but something that actually matters to real people. Let’s be accountable to our communities, to the places we know best, the places we know how to change for the better. And after laying the groundwork and building our social movements from the bottom up in all corners of the country, when the time comes we’ll be ready to make Washington work.
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.