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.
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.
There are moments in history when time seems to move faster, turbulent eras when humanity lurches forward together. Like the shifting of tectonic plates beneath the ground we walk, change doesn’t happen smoothly, but rather builds pressure slowly until it abruptly ruptures in a sudden release of energy. The ancient mountains and calm valleys we see and take for granted as eternal fixtures of the landscape were products of devastating seismic events that moved continents.
The political, economic and cultural realities of the United States today are products of these social earthquakes, these movement times. Times when people marched and chanted in the streets, when powerful organizations were born, when leaders threatened and negotiated and hammered out deals that changed laws and institutions forever. In this country, waves of social change seem to break every three or four decades, with the years in between spent defending the victories won in those historic moments, while the next wave slowly swells beneath the surface.
Although the exact start and end date is unclear, it’s widely acknowledged that the last such time in the US was roughly from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s. The Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the Chicano Movement, the Second Wave of Feminism, the Anti-War Movement, the Environmental Movement and more, all brought sweeping changes to the country during this era. In the decades since, America retrenched, with bitter struggles to protect the laws and programs built under the pressure of those social movements.
I wasn’t alive then, and I’m no PhD historian. I don’t know whether most people in the early 1960’s truly understood the times they were living in, but I think we may be in the early stages of another one of those movement times. We’re due for the kind of social turning point that led to the Populist and Progressive Movements of the turn of the century, or the labor movement that brought the New Deal in the 1930’s, or the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. We’re undeniably seeing an escalation in street demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience, as well as a leftward tilt in popular culture, at the same time as the institutional tide of public policy seems to be decisively turning, with major progressive victories emerging from all corners of the country. From prison and police reform, to climate change, to gender and sexuality, to immigration, to economic inequality, things are moving fast.
At a time when there are more black men in prison in America than were slaves in 1850, a new generation of civil rights activists is opening the nation’s eyes to the sickening injustice of our criminal justice system. Just as slavery was replaced by the slightly more subtle but equally sinister Jim Crow laws backed by vicious voter suppression and public lynchings, the Jim Crow era was replaced by the explosion of the prison industrial complex and often-deadly “broken windows” policing in communities of color. A wave of reforms is forming, rolling back the mass incarceration and heavy-handed policing that has torn apart black and brown and poor families and made the US the prison capitol of the world. We can now clearly see that we’ve hit a turning point where our prison population is falling for the first time since it skyrocketed in the late 1970’s as a result of the War on Drugs and the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The pace of sentencing reforms is picking up. Here in California, home of the nation’s most notorious “Three Strikes” mandatory life sentencing law, voters overwhelmingly approved prison reforms with Prop 47 last year and Prop 36 two years before. Nationwide momentum for marijuana legalization is growing almost too rapidly to follow and the Obama administration has taken firm action against the racist disparity in sentences between crack vs. powder cocaine. But it’s the powerful #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked in Ferguson, Missouri, that poured across every major city in America, that are turning the nation’s eyes directly on the racism deeply embedded within the criminal justice system. They’ve put thousands in the streets, in die-ins, in public disruptions of day-to-day life from Black Friday shopping to Sunday brunches to demand attention to the almost daily killing of black community members by police and vigilantes and lack of accountability from the courts.
A few years ago, after the collapse of legislation in Congress to curb carbon emissions and the BP oil spill being met with “Drill, baby drill!” instead of curbs on offshore oil production, the environmental movement was filled with grim faces and weary sighs. After years of slogging through the critical but uninspiring legislative sausage-making process, many realized that the environmental movement simply didn’t have the life force to take on the juggernaut fossil fuel industry lobby, which wielded more power than ever in an era of free-flowing money in politics. They recognized that movements were built in the streets, not inside the Beltway, and shifted from composed policy wonkery to vibrant and turbulent grassroots organizing. Greens turned their energies to rallying the public around directly obstructing the tangible machinery of fossil fuel disaster, holding off the massive Keystone XL pipeline, launching an onslaught of local campaigns against fracking in communities sitting on profitable shale, and blocking rail lines used to transport crude oil. New York’s historic People’s Climate March kept the pressure on for broader transformation towards clean energy, but also marked a deeper shift within the environmental movement, an expansion beyond its traditional comfort zone of the white middle-upper class. This November, President Obama announced a historic deal with China, the first time the world’s two biggest polluters have agreed on a plan to reduce emissions. And as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama’s administration has ramped up his executive actions to curb emissions, securing his legacy of taking the largest steps against climate change of any president in history.
In recent years, we’ve seen an astonishing transformation in the national conversation around gender and sexuality. I don’t know if the time we’re in could be called a Fourth Wave of feminism, or simply a mainstreaming of Third Wave feminism, but something is happening. The question asked is not whether feminism has suddenly become cool again, but how much this undeniable fact can be personally credited to Beyonce. Feminism’s resurgent strength has sparked a growing backlash, like the rise of “Men’s Rights Activists”, or Time Magazine’s inclusion of “feminist” in their “Words that should be banned in 2015” poll alongside choices like “bae” and “yaaassss”. The expansive type of feminism that emerged in the 90’s, holding positive views towards sexual expression, recognizing the complex interplay of gender with social forces like race and class, and seeing gender and sexuality as fluid social constructs, was largely consigned to university campuses, but with the help of social media kicked down the door of mainstream popular culture in the 21st century. For example, despite a theoretical embrace of transgender people in left-wing circles, even major LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign traditionally had a very soft “T”—showing little willingness to fight for transgender people. Yet this year, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to make the front page of Time Magazine, with the caption “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier”. Meanwhile the limited agenda around inclusion into marriage and military service that had long dominated political struggles around LGBT issues suddenly seems almost old news, with marriage equality’s seemingly inevitable push across the country and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell relinquished to the history books. This leaves an opening for a broader political agenda including issues like California’s groundbreaking law allowing transgender youth access to facilities and sports teams according to their gender identity, tackling LGBT teen homelessness, addressing transgender healthcare, extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples, and cracking down on employer discrimination against LGBT workers. What greater testament to the rapid shift in the public’s attitudes around gender and sexuality than the sudden eagerness of corporations like Dove and JC Penney to jump on the bandwagon by running advertising campaigns trying to align themselves with this social change among their consumers? All this momentum has given greater traction to core gender issues in American politics: What started as a loosely organized network of college women determined to fight sexual assault on their campuses became a national debate drawing in everyone from Fox News to President Obama, and creating a flurry of legislation. Discussions around economic policy have increasingly acknowledged that the gender-pay gap is alive and well, that women make up the vast majority of America’s low wage workers, that US law is stunningly medieval when it comes to paid family leave. And while the wave of Republican state legislatures won in 2010 has been devastating to reproductive rights, it brought a national spotlight to red-state feminist leaders like Wendy Davis, and last year reproductive rights advocates won big at the ballot box in Colorado and North Dakota. Mainstream understanding of reproductive justice is even beginning to expand beyond abortion, with California passing a landmark law banning the forced sterilization of women in prison.
Just as with prison reform, on immigration, American social movements have always had trouble fighting for the rights of those seen by society as criminals. After immigration reform legislation floundered under the Bush administration, much of the energy was sucked out of the immigrants’ rights movement. But two things happened. When Tea Party Republicans swept statehouses in 2010, a series of draconian anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” SB1070 galvanized immigrant communities and their allies. And a powerful undocumented youth movement emerged, proudly declaring themselves “DREAMers”, using attention-grabbing tactics, and breathing life into the national immigrants’ rights movement. Most notably, as key DREAMer leaders were both undocumented and queer, inspired by the gay rights movement, they renewed and reimagined the concept of “coming out”, making countless previously unsympathetic US citizens realize that they had friends, neighbors and coworkers who were undocumented immigrants. While comprehensive immigration reform was blocked by Republicans in Congress despite overwhelming public support and massive demonstrations across the country, the bold tactics of DREAMer activists forced the Obama administration to twice take executive action that it long claimed was impossible: First, to provide deportation relief and work permits to DREAMers brought to the country as children, and then for millions of undocumented parents of US citizens. Meanwhile, immigrant-friendly states like California allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses and curbed the use of local police resources by federal immigration authorities. Latino and Asian voters showed their power at the ballot box in 2012, as Republicans were stunned by an overwhelming defeat at the hands of immigrant communities. With that memory fresh, it seems unlikely any Republican with their eyes on the presidency will overturn Obama’s executive order, cementing in place the DREAMers’ victory and creating an inevitable pressure for Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill.
But perhaps the largest unfinished business of the social movements of the last century was tackling America’s deeply entrenched economic inequality. The Populist Movement floundered after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan, and was absorbed into the more moderate aims of the Democratic Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the year before his death, proposed a Second Bill of Rights expanding on the New Deal and declaring access to housing, education, healthcare, living wage employment and secure retirement as a human right. But as the turbulent union movement of the 1930’s settled into the stable labor bureaucracy of the postwar era, the social pressure for deeper economic changes dissolved. Lyndon Johnson, who sought to leave his mark on the nation through the Great Society’s anti-poverty programs and civil rights laws instead found himself drawn deeper into the black hole of the Vietnam War, eventually declaring “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved”. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s death, the Civil Rights Movement was gearing up to launch a massive “Poor People’s Campaign”, to tackle what its leaders saw as the next big obstacle to equality and justice: poverty. But left in disarray after Dr. King’s assassination, facing internal strife and external hostility, the Poor People’s Campaign disintegrated quickly.
After the 2008 economic crash, it seemed that the next great opportunity to take on economic inequality had been lost, as the stunning rise of the Tea Party dominated the American political landscape. But it was perhaps the Tea Party’s overreach, attempting to strip union rights in the old labor stronghold of the post-industrial Midwest that awakened the American labor movement. A 2011 uprising of workers and students in Wisconsin inspired the tactics and paved the way for the Occupy Wall Street protests that exploded organically across the country later that year, later drawing union support. And while many (myself included) proclaimed that Occupy would quickly dissolve because of its adamant insistence against institutionalizing itself for fear of being co-opted, the movement dramatically shifted the frame of public opinion and flipped the political landscape. Occupy forced institutions to pay attention to income inequality, from the Obama administration to the International Monetary Fund, and despite Occupy’s “death”, it’s no coincidence that we’ve since levied the highest tax rate on the richest 1% since before Ronald Reagan. And although the left is full of Obama disillusionment, we should not understate that he’s overseen the widest expansion of the social safety net since the movement time of the 1960’s and the strictest financial regulations since the movement time of the 1930’s. This reflects a major shift in the political direction of the country, after decades of slashing programs for the poor and loosening rules for Wall St., carried out gleefully by both Republican and Democratic administrations. But no economic transformation happens in the US without unions,
long the most powerful force on the left. A true movement era will require a rejuvenation of the ailing labor movement, just as the 1930’s industrial union movement grew out of the ashes of craft unionism, when political commentators proclaimed unions to be dying just as they do now. Just as innovative 1930’s labor leaders like John Lewis built much of the American middle class by organizing factory and mine workers, thought at the time to be unskilled and therefore un-organizable, the labor movement today is aggressively organizing service workers who are striking at companies like WalMart and fast food chains long thought to be beyond labor’s reach. Sure enough, change is bubbling beneath the surface of the labor movement, in experimentations with alt-labor organizations like worker’s centers, and raising wages and benefits through laws and ordinances rather than collective bargaining. Last year, voters approved every single minimum wage on the ballot, including in four solid red states. The “Fight for 15”, ridiculed in the media just a year ago when fast food workers first went on strike demanding $15 an hour wages, has now become reality in two of America’s biggest cities, with San Francisco and Seattle passing $15 minimum wage ordinances. It’s not just wages that are being raised, but ordinances securing paid sick leave, cracking down on wage theft, providing retail workers with reliable schedules and full-time opportunities, and extending labor protections to long-excluded workers like domestic workers. The National Labor Relations Board is now beginning to redefine employment itself, holding mega-corporations like McDonald’s accountable for labor abuses by their franchise owners and subcontractors. It’s increasingly clear that the fight over income and wealth inequality did not fizzle out with Occupy, but in fact is just starting to heat up.
These might all seem like unrelated and disorganized political battles in a hyper-partisan era. Many of the elders who remember the last movement time in America will dismiss the activism of today as incompetent clicktivism. Their children, raised in the eras of Nixon and Reagan, may be too cynical to believe in progressive change. And our millennial generation, with no memory of major social movements except the sanitized versions we watched on PBS specials, may assume that our messy activism could never compare to some fictional time when everyone marched united under the banner of Martin Luther King for justice and equality forever.
But dear fellow young activists, we have to understand that back then shit was messy too. That we were divided between countless different organizations with competing agendas. That we faced right-wing backlash and sometimes it seemed like we would lose everything. That we sometimes broke windows then too, and people called us thugs. That our elected officials seemed to always disappoint us, to begrudgingly tolerate our movements rather than stand alongside them. That often it seemed like we were pouring endless resources into something so small and incremental, like desegregating one little public transit agency in Montgomery, Alabama.
But the worst thing we can do right now is allow ourselves to be so filled with self-doubt that we hesitate and fail to seize this opportunity. It’s useless to cling to the moderate center, because that center is not in the same place it was five years ago, and that center will not be here five years from now. We have no choice but to stand by our values. Especially those of us who have embedded ourselves in longstanding organizations and institutions, who do menial work in the halls of power, who are surrounded by those who will tell us, with the paralyzing wisdom of experience, that now is not the time. Because we will never have a better opportunity than right now. We may spend the next 30-40 years of our lives defending the gains that we manage to win in the next 5-10 years.
We should listen to our elders, let them teach us the lessons they learned. We may be in a time when social media allows us to plan massive demonstrations without singular charismatic leaders like Dr. King. But we do need to practice discipline, we do need to create institutions that will last, and if we do it right, those institutions will be more democratic, more inclusive, more true to our values, than those of our grandparents’ generation.
The nation is stirring, and if you listen, you can hear it rumbling. We live in turbulent times, and there are many roles to play in these times that shape history. But as Dr King said, “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
Today I’m thinking about the hope and faith held by Dr. King and the importance of optimism.
Harry Belafonte tells a story in his amazing memoir, ‘My Song,’ about King being challenged by his SCLC deputies on his accelerating radicalism generally, and the Poor People’s Campaign specifically, just a week before he died… Belafonte quotes King telling the group, gathered at the singer/actor/activist’s New York apartment: ‘What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.’ When Belafonte asks what that means they should do, an exhausted King tells him: ‘I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.’
This is the kind of optimism that looks with wide open eyes at the reality of the world and decides not to dismiss it and withdraw from it, but to engage it and reshape it. King realizes he is fighting to be part of an America plagued by poverty and war. But he not only believes that marginalized people can be included in this society, but puts them in the role of heroes: those who through their liberation and inclusion can lead the movements needed to heal it.
Many activists are cynical people. It’s hard not to be, organizing reluctant people to fight uphill battles against a powerful status quo. Anger is an important motivator. But people are never truly called to action without that seemingly-impossible combination of anger and hope: An understanding of the world as it is, and a deep belief in a vision of the world as it should be.
In fact, optimism itself is fundamentally necessary to the spread of a worldview that supports progressive change.
Conservatism is deeply dependent on pessimism. The foundation of the right-wing narrative is pessimism: basically those promiscuous gay birth-control-using kids these days and all those dangerous criminal brown and black people are taking over America, crumbling its moral foundation and taking all our tax money to spend on drugs. Therefore, beef up the prisons and the military, dig your heels in on traditional practices, and slash the social safety net. The fact that most people believe teen birth rates, drug use, and violent crime are rising right now when they’re actually all plummeting in the US is a testament to the power of conservative fear messaging. Every time you spread the idea that this country is going to shit, a Republican gets elected somewhere.
I was raised with pretty cynical politics. For most of my life I believed that America was irredeemably racist, materialistic and violent. My political consciousness developed largely through 3 national moments: The dismantling of civil liberties in the early 2000’s and horrifying start of the Iraq War, the failed push for immigration reform in 2006 when I started watching cable news and was stunned by the swell of public hatred towards immigrant families, and the financial crash in 2008 and following years of heartless austerity as I worked to get a public education in a system that was crumbling around me. Disillusionment came easy.
It took me actually doing work to make me disillusioned with disillusionment. I worked on campaigns that beat bank lobbyists to pass legislation raising tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid and defeated big oil at the ballot box in California. I stood behind Nancy Pelosi at her press conference in San Francisco to announce the passage of historic health care reform. I helped organize Oakland residents to force big developers to guarantee thousands of living-wage local-hire jobs targeted at those who needed them most. I turned out the vote to raise enough revenue to finally balance California’s budget so the youth I work with today are dealing with how to restore budget cuts in their schools, not how to make them.
And sure, I was a very small part of each of these victories and I know they each would have happened without me. But not without a lot of people like me. The real transformation was not the impact I had on this work, but the impact this work had on me. It made me see myself not as someone passively affected by the conditions of the world around me, but as an agent of change. It made me believe in the power of people like me, young people and people of color, to be neither the villains nor the victims in the story of my country, but the heroes. I began to believe in a different story, one that ended happy.
I deeply believe that the forces of peace and equality and enlightenment throughout history tend to win in the end. I’ll admit I’m going on faith and a loose grasp of history given to me by what’s left of California’s public education system. But I believe victory in the battles we fight today will one day feel just as inevitable as the battles fought by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
Practicing optimism is not just about motivating yourself or feeling happy. It’s about changing the dominant narrative about our world. It’s about telling stories of hope where we are the good guys and we win.
So the next time you see some corny Upworthy link that says “This 3 minute video will restore your faith in humanity” maybe you should watch it. We could all use our faith in humanity restored sometimes.
Conservative politicians use the word “responsibility” a lot, especially to sell policies that punish people—for being poor, for being immigrants, for being sexually active women, etc. If you’re poor, it’s your individual responsibility to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and get more money, it’s not our social responsibility to give you food stamps so you don’t like… die and whatnot.
Effective political messaging taps into the universal values we hold like freedom, fairness, compassion, etc. that go deeper than our political affiliations. That’s how you move people who might otherwise disagree with you.
Responsibility messaging resonates strongly with me. Responsibility was the single most important value I was raised with. If I could magically create a wordcloud of everything that came out of my mother’s mouth when I was a child (after removing some heavy cussing) “responsibility” would probably be the most commonly uttered word in my formative years.
But I was taught a different kind of responsibility than the right wing likes to talk about. I had a single mom who was working, going to school, and raising children all at the same time. I admired her individual grit and determination, but also the responsibility of her circle of friends who all pitched in to collectively help raise me and my little brother because my mother gave birth earlier than they did. Now my mom owns her own home and has an empty nest, and it seems like every month she’s letting a new friend crash at her house until they get back on their feet. My understanding of the word responsibility comes from the incredible women I was raised by. It means stepping up to care for our communities in times of need.
The kind of responsibility I learned growing up was not my responsibility to myself, but my responsibility to others, to my family, to my community. In elementary school I was packing my own lunch, doing my own laundry. These are things you can reasonably expect a 9 year old to do, the basic tasks of taking care of oneself to not be a burden on others. But by the time I was a teenager, greater responsibilities were expected of me. I was cooking dinner every night for the family, making sure bills were paid on time every month. I stepped up because my family needed me.
I think the right-wing is stuck in what I would call Elementary School Responsibility. It’s a worldview where responsibility is not about community, but about the individual. Or as my mom would say, “How to wipe your own ass”. In their worldview, responsibility is about taking care of yourself alone. It’s making sure you personally go to a good college, get a job where you make a lot of money, own things like houses, and don’t end up in jail. Apparently if you get any help doing any of these things, you’ll never learn the true meaning of responsibility.
Unfortunately, this definition of the word “Responsibility” has become the dominant one in America. But it wasn’t always this way. On a hunch I looked up historical trends in the usage of the phrases “Your responsibility” and “Our responsibility” in American texts using Google NGram.
“Our responsibility” was the more common usage through most of our history. The phrase suggests collective action to care for the needs of a larger community. It grew gradually over time, with spikes during national crises like WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. “Your responsibility”, meaning taking care of yourself, takes off suddenly in the early 1970’s and becomes the dominant usage at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution.
What’s fascinating about this graph is that it mirrors historical trends in income inequality, union membership, the real value of the minimum wage, and other economic data that shows that sometime in the early 1970’s there was a change of direction in America. Something snapped, where average working families’ incomes no longer grew along with the nation’s economic productivity, as they had throughout American history until that point. For the last 40 years we’ve been moving rapidly away from a “We’re in this together” economy and towards a “You’re on your own” economy.
Those terms were coined by economist Jared Bernstein, but we could just as easily call it an “Our Responsibility” economy and a “Your Responsibility” economy.
This didn’t happen naturally. Somebody jacked the word “responsibility”. Or more accurately, a whole generation of right-wing politicians, academics, lobbyists and media commentators did, intentionally and effectively, as part of a comprehensive effort to slash the social safety net, gut regulations, cut taxes on the wealthy and lower wages. Words matter. As a people, we’ve allowed our language to be corrupted, and have abandoned “our responsibility” in favor of “your responsibility”.
Now I think making sure over 30 million people can see a doctor when they get sick even if they can’t afford it is the definition of responsibility. I also think the Republican idea of responsibility these days looks like this:
But we can take back the meaning of responsibility, just as we can correct our course after four decades driving down the path of widening inequality and cold individualism. We can provide education for our children, take care of our loved ones when they’re sick, and allow our elders to rest. We can, and in fact, we must. It’s our responsibility.
Yesterday I read a post on the Daily Kos that included a searing critique of the 4th of July holiday by Frederick Douglass. The article mentioned Douglass’s feud with Abraham Lincoln over the president’s stubborn dedication to the policy of capturing and returning runaway slaves from the South, even while he advocated for abolition.
I was struck by a similarity to President Obama, who often cites Lincoln as his personal role model. Obama recognizes the need to create a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who moved here to find a better life, but now live in constant fear of deportation. He made the issue the most important policy priority of his second term. But at the same time, his administration is deporting immigrants at a faster pace than any president in history, causing hardship and heartbreak among separated families. Moral inconsistency? Political necessity? Who knows.
But here’s the real reason Obama deports so many immigrants. He’s the president of the United States. That means a majority of American voters had to like him better than the other guy. The problem with a lot of American leftists is that they live in places like Berkeley and don’t get out much. They just don’t come in contact with the solid majority of Americans who support drone strikes, militarizing the border, and all sorts of other nasty things.
Honestly, ask yourself: Could I be elected president of the United States? I couldn’t– not by a long shot.
Anyone who can be elected president is either:
a) Not really that progressive, or
b) Acts like a centrist really convincingly
In Obama’s case I think it’s a combination of both. Generally I would say Obama is better than the average modern Democratic president of the United States. So I think it’s nice that he’s done more progressive stuff than the guy who signed NAFTA and DOMA, deregulated the banking system and slashed the social safety net. But I’m just not going to expect him to be the messianic love-child of Karl Marx and Gandhi.
Someone recently told me a quote that struck me: “Those who are easily disillusioned were suffering from too many illusions in the first place”.
My main point is one I’ve harped on before.
Elected officials shouldn’t be your movement leaders. They should be your targets. Even elected officials who are your allies should be your targets, because you can often push them to do more than they would otherwise (see Obama, DREAMer sit-ins, Deferred Action).
What I’m trying to say here is don’t expect Obama to become Frederick Douglass. Obama is Lincoln. Frederick Douglass could never be elected president of the United States.
Just be Frederick Douglass. We could really use one right now.