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.
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.”
I’m on the late train but over the last couple weeks there’s been another round of soul-searching among conservative political strategists. All this “soul-searching” is getting exhausting. Republicans should just give it up. Finding the soul of the GOP is like finding your missing other sock behind the laundry machine. It’s just not there so you might as well stop looking.
It seems as though House Republicans have mostly decided to either completely sink immigration reform or gut it beyond all recognition (if they don’t like the incredibly compromised Senate bill, there’s pretty much nothing left to give). I think they’re being assholes, but if I was them I would probably do it too– in the long run, the truth is they’re screwed either way.
Why drop their initial interest in making a deal? They never wanted to do it in the first place. It seemed like a political necessity after Obama won over 70% of both the Latino and Asian vote in November.
But all of a sudden, they have a justification to go with their hearts. Recently conservative pundits have jumped on this guy named Sean Trende who came up with an idea called the “Missing White Voter” theory. Basically it goes like this: The real reason Republicans lost in 2012 is that a whole bunch of poor rural white people were like “Obama is a Muslim socialist but Romney is a Wall Street elitist. Fuck it, I’m not gonna vote.”
The solution being put forward is for the Republican Party to adopt “libertarian populism”, whatever the fuck that means– basically my understanding is it’s the same exact policies as Mitt Romney’s Wall Street elitism– cut taxes and government programs, deregulate businesses, but you call them “populism” because you talk about them in a folksy way while wearing a cowboy hat.
The major implication here is that congressional Republicans should NOT support citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, because they probably won’t gain much support among Latinos anyway and they’ll further alienate the white people they really need to motivate to vote.
I think the Missing White Voter Theory is pretty weak. Other analysts say the numbers don’t add up and the GOP can’t win in the long run solely by making more gains among white voters. But Republicans don’t like it because it’s smart, Republicans like it because it tells them what they want to hear. It’s like a new fad diet where you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. They get to make no fundamental changes or tough choices and still win because if the GOP goes even farther right wing, white people will be stoked about voting again, right?
I actually agree with part of what Trende and others are saying: They’re right that Latinos probably won’t support Republicans even if they back immigration reform. They won’t get much credit for it, and the truth is, immigration is secondary to issues like education and jobs for most Latino voters. The problem is not just that Republicans are anti-immigrant. The problem is that Republicans are fundamentally anti- poor people.
Where I disagree with the conservative pundits is that they think they can still survive with another strategy. The demographic demise of the GOP (as we know it) will happen whether immigration reform passes or not. The main growth in Latino voters is coming from American-born kids growing up, not from people becoming citizens. Most young people who grew up poor and brown in America wouldn’t vote for the Republican Party no matter how much “rebranding” they try to do. And the usual conservative ploy of trying to wedge communities of color away from white liberals using social issues like gay marriage and abortion is especially doomed to fail among young Latinos.
The spike of immigration from Latin America that reached its peak in the 1990’s is pretty much over now. Net migration across the southern border is approximately zero. But the boom of immigration from Asia is just ramping up, and despite higher average incomes, Asian Americans are very progressive. As Latino kids born in the 90’s come of voting age, Republicans are totally fucked. As Asian kids born in the 2010’s come of voting age, Republicans are going to be even more fucked.
The fundamental problem of the Republican Party is something that can’t be rebranded or restrategized. The Republican Party made the wrong bet, right around the late 1960’s. They doubled down on bigotry and intolerance and it really worked for a while. But sometimes when you gamble, you lose, and there’s no take-backs.
Sorry guys. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
So I leave you with this image I found on the internet of Thomas Jefferson singing “Apologize”:
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.
If this week taught me anything, it’s that national politics is inherently disempowering. I felt that way during my brief time in DC in college, which is why I didn’t go back after graduation. Now I think I probably never will.
And once the national immigration reform effort is over, I don’t think I personally ever want to work on moving anything through Congress again. The bill released this week should have been disappointing: An arduous 13 year path to citizenship, with at minimum a decade in second-class status, paying taxes without any rights, with a trigger preventing anyone from becoming a citizen until billions of dollars of drones, fences, federal agents and electronic surveillance systems are sent to the border.
But I wasn’t really disappointed. It was mostly what I expected. (See above article on why nothing truly progressive can make it two steps past the starting line in Congress.) My reaction was basically “Sigh… It is what it is.”
I do politics because I believe my world is bursting at the seams with injustice and pain because of deep systemic imbalances of power. I do politics because it’s exhilarating to see the disempowered become empowered. Nothing sends a chill down my spine like that look of invincibility in someone’s eyes when they realize their potential to be an agent of change. But congressional politics is so completely disempowering for those who engage in it, that it defeats the purpose of my political involvement.
1. It takes forever.
The founding fathers did this on purpose. They were down with democracy, but afraid the poor people would vote to take all their shit and distribute it freely amongst the unbathed toothless masses. So they created checks and balances to make sure the will of the majority couldn’t happen too fast, if at all.
For example, every once in a while there’s a big high-profile gun massacre. Suddenly everyone realizes that gun violence kills people every day, and this briefly creates the political willpower to beat the gun lobby. The masses tweet about it, TV pundits rant about it, and politicians make somber speeches about rising above partisanship to address this national tragedy. But by the time legislation actually grinds its way through the sausage machine of Congress, media attention moves on to something else and the public loses the urgency to push. But lobbying interests like the NRA can hold out for the long fight.
And sometimes the fight is really long. I worked to pass a financial aid bill in college that student advocates fought over with banks for 15 years before it finally reached the president’s desk. I got the taste of victory. But how many students calling for reform for years before me left with the lesson that big banks always win and activism is useless?
2. It’s an inside game
Major pieces of legislation are complex. Bills are hundreds of pages long and nearly impossible for a non-lawyer to read. This is better than short, vague bills that are full of loopholes, oversimplify social issues, and ultimately have to be sorted out in lawsuits. But the consequence of complexity is that it shuts out regular people from the process.
Worse, it’s even inaccessible to many members of Congress. There are so many bills and amendments to constantly vote for. They just don’t have enough staff to follow and analyze all of it. So they rely on lobbyists. One of the secret weapons of lobbyists is that they usually know way more about the subject matter than the member of Congress and their staff does.
The big decisions don’t happen in the big floor vote when everyone is paying attention. They get made in bill markups when little amendments get added and key words get switched. Those are the kinds of decisions regular people can’t access. How is a farmworker supposed to track a subtle amendment in federal legislation that might exclude them from immigration reform or indefinitely delay their path to citizenship?
The strategy and tactics needed to win an inside game are bad for developing leaders. Strategy has to be coordinated nationally and relies on closed-door negotiations between power brokers. Grassroots community members can’t really be part of strategic discussions and instead wait for directions to be passed down by those coordinating the central effort in DC. They usually never meet the decision-makers or the opposition. The tactics needed are low-skill, low-engagement actions like call-in days that are bad for building organizations and their members. At the end, it’s easy for people involved to question whether their work really made a difference at all.
3. It’s all about money
I have a healthy mixture of respect and horror at anyone willing to run for Congress. It’s exhausting, miserable, and absurdly expensive. You spend most of your day kissing donors asses, all while working every waking second and hoping your sleep-deprived brain doesn’t say something stupid while under constant media scrutiny. The average winning candidate for Congress raised over $2,000 per day in 2012. It doesn’t end once you get elected. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recommends its sitting members spend 4 hours every day in “call time” (making fundraising calls).
I was once involved in a campaign where a student I trained lobbied a senior Democratic senator to support closing offshore tax havens and was explicitly told by her DC staff that the member couldn’t support the bill because some of her biggest corporate donors used those offshore tax havens. Brutal honesty. All governing bodies are swayed by powerful interests. But nothing compares to the U.S. Congress.
I used to think local politics was boring, tinkering at the margins, something weird old people with too much time on their hands did. Now I see the value of local politics as a place to develop authentic leadership among the disenfranchised, to directly confront power face to face, and to win victories that the community feels direct ownership over.
You could fill a high school yearbook with superlatives about different issues within the broader progressive movement: Most Likely to See a Victory This Year, Most Important Total Lost Cause, Best Facebook Profile Picture, etc.
Today I want to cast my vote for “Most Strategic”. I’d define “strategic” as the issue that focusing resources on to win a major victory now will most build the long-term strength of our movement and set us up to be more effective in taking on everything else.
We’ve all heard the talk about how immigrant communities won the election for Obama in 2012 and the Republican Party is doomed. There’s some truth in it. The percent of Americans born in another country is the highest it’s been since the 1920’s. The combined political muscle of those who are immigrants, live in immigrant neighborhoods or have immigrant family members is pretty hefty. Immigrants tend to have more progressive views on most issues than people born in America. And American-born Latinos and Asians are even more progressive than their parents.
But I think we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Latino and Asian voter turnout is still really low. Latinos and Asians are shamefully underrepresented in Congress, more so than African-Americans. Community organizations in Latino and Asian neighborhoods tend to be weaker than those in black neighborhoods.
Lack of political power is a cycle, a positive feedback loop. When a community is disenfranchised and oppressed, people see no value in engaging in a political system that shits on them. This weakens their organizations, results in scarce political representation, and an absence from the negotiating table over policy. This leads to being shafted even further by policy and budget decisions, which further heightens the community’s distrust of politics.
It takes a major social movement to break this cycle. The Civil Rights Movement and its echoes grew political power within the black community. The civil rights generation saw their collective action directly result in change in their daily lives. They saw powerful institutions panic in the face of their strength and scramble to maintain the status quo. And they saw themselves win.
It’s not emphasized enough that winning is fucking important. People like winning. They feel afraid, powerless, and insignificant until they win. Even incremental, incomplete victories create organizations and develop leaders and build the confidence to win again.
It’s no accident that despite a massive coordinated effort to suppress them at the ballot box, black voter turnout rates in 2012 may have surpassed whites for the first time ever. The dominant media narrative said the novelty of voting for the first black president had worn off and turnout would plummet. Maybe true for white liberals. But for the black community, it was no novelty. It was a moment in history where many people of color felt a sense of their political power and the motivation to win again.
We won’t see the true power of American immigrant communities until we win a major victory. The Chicano Movement was smaller and won far fewer victories than the Civil Rights Movement. Immigrants’ rights activists have seen a few small victories lately like deferred action for DREAMers. But something big has yet to come. And when it does, the result will be a shift in our political landscape.
I expect the passage of comprehensive immigration reform to create a shift in communities like the ones I organize in. I believe folks will see the power of taking to the streets and demanding justice, and many more will join future struggles over education, income inequality, even climate change.
Now I’m not saying everyone drop whatever you’re doing and work on immigration reform. I am saying leaders and participants in all progressive movements should be paying close attention to what happens here, because it affects all of us.
Even symbolic displays of solidarity make an impact, especially on issues strongly dependent on winning public support. When a black civil rights leader, a union president, or an LGBT rights activist publicly takes a stand on the issue of immigration, it signals to their followers that their struggles for dignity are bound to each other.
For example, Bill McKibben, one of America’s foremost leaders of the movement to stop climate change, recently wrote an op-ed in the LA Times supporting immigration reform. Environmentalists and immigration advocates haven’t always been BFFs. But McKibben gets it:
Election after election, native-born and long-standing citizens pull the lever for climate deniers, for people who want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, for the politicians who take huge quantities of cash from the Koch brothers and other oil barons. By contrast, a 2012 report by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza found that Latinos were eager for environmental progress. Seventy-seven percent of Latino voters think climate change is already happening, compared with just 52% of the general population; 92% of Latinos think we have “a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation here on Earth.” These numbers reflect, in part, the reality of life for those closer to the bottom of our economy. Latinos are 30% more likely to end up in the hospital for asthma, in part because they often live closer to sources of pollution.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign came under fire last week for telling one of their speakers at their rally in front of the Supreme Court not to mention that he was an undocumented immigrant. The largest gay rights group in the country should know that “coming out” as undocumented is a key strategy for moving hearts and minds, because like with LGBT issues, people are most likely to change their minds if they know someone personally affected.
Listen, all I’m saying is, this shit is really important, not just for undocumented immigrants, but for all of us. So try to say nice things and don’t fuck it up, okay?