Let me start off by saying that elections get way more emphasis than they should, and that most of the real work of social change happens in the aftermath, pressuring elected officials to do the right thing.
But that being said, elections really do matter, and this one was truly beautiful.
To me this election confirmed my belief that we are at the beginning of a movement time, one of those eras when waves of progress seem to come all at once. You’re looking at me like I’m crazy. But it’s a lot more messy and uncertain when you’re experiencing it live than when we look back in the history books. Here’s my case for why I think progressives are going to win huge victories in the coming years.
But here’s my 7 Reasons Why Last Night Was The Best Night Ever:
1. Barack Obama is our president and we never have to hear about Mitt Romney again. In terms of policy change, I’m not that excited about this– honestly the next four years will look like the last two years– Republican Congress, total gridlock, not much getting done. Basically they just gave a black man the worst job in the world for another four years.
What was significant about the presidential race was that in the age of Citizens United, Wall St. wasn’t able to buy this election. Finance normally hedges their bets by giving to both parties or the expected winner. But after the major financial reforms enacted by the Obama administration, they went all in for Romney. And lost. When was the last time Wall St. lost anything except your money? Now I hope Obama has the cojones to give them some ice cold retribution. I’m also happy that in the darkest hour of the campaign, right after the first debate, I still called the election for Obama. Saying I told you so is the best.
2. The youth vote made an even larger impact than in 2008. I was so sick of all the bullshit narratives about apathetic young people who came out in 2008 for a fluke because they were brainwashed by Obama and won’t vote anymore because now they’re stupid and lazy blah blah blah. Oh what’s that? Young people made up 19% of the vote in 2012, EVEN MORE than in 2008? SUCK. ON. THAT. SHIT.
3. California passed Prop 30 and defeated Prop 32. This is near and dear to my heart because it’s what I’ve been working on this election. I think the incredible thing about Prop 30 is it’s a turning point. Since Prop 13 passed in the “tax revolt” of the late 70’s, California has been on the path of endless budget cuts to education. Yesterday we turned this around– the voters chose to invest in our youth and our future. In concrete terms, this resulted in a tuition freeze at the UC’s this year instead of a 20% fee hike. And Prop 32, which may have actually been more important than 30 for big picture strategic reasons, went down too. This all despite millions of dollars spent against us by billionaires and Super PACs who are now being investigated for money laundering. I worked with dozens of high school and community college students who spent countless hours volunteering to get out the vote because they knew their future depended on it. I’m so proud of them.
4. In California, Democrats will likely win 2/3rds supermajorities in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Some close races have ballots left to be counted, but newspapers are already calling it. This is a big fucking deal. Much of California’s budget craziness is due to the fact that you need a 2/3rds vote to raise taxes, or until recently, to approve the budget at all. The California Republican Party has become increasingly isolated and radical, viewing any compromise as a sign of weakness, making it nearly impossible to get the couple of extra votes needed to pass no-brainer bills like the Middle Class Scholarship Act. The bill would have closed a corporate tax loophole that benefits out-of-state corporations and used the money to slash college tuition by 60% for most students in California but failed this year. But this also opens up huge new opportunities. Some of these Dems are pretty conservative, and will be reluctant to vote for more revenue. But with a Democratic supermajority and some good organizing, you could potentially get single payer health care in California, or universal preschool, or dramatically reduce college tuition. As I said, big fucking deal.
5. The next Congress will have more women than any Congress in American history. Women candidates broke records in both the House and the Senate. One of these women, Tammy Baldwin, is the first openly-gay Senator ever.
6. Marriage equality made major strides. Maine and Maryland voted to legalize gay marriage, and Washington looks like it’s on its way. The tide is moving, it’s only a matter of time.
7. We can all stop talking about Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney!
Also, bonus points. For my Ventura Couny folks, we were in one of the closest congressional races in the entire country, and the Democrat, Julia Brownley squeaked out a victory over Tony Strickland, a politician I personally can’t stand. And Measure S in Berkeley, which would have criminalized the homeless for sitting on the sidewalks, was defeated.
Pretty soon the Supreme Court is probably going to hammer the last nail in the coffin of affirmative action. The court will be hearing the case of Abigail Fisher next week, a young white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin and blames it on affirmative action.
I think progressives should take this opportunity to give up on fighting for race-based affirmative action. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because those of us who care about equality in education will be much more strategic and effective fighting for class-based affirmative action.
First I want to explain why I’ve always been a supporter of race-based affirmative action. I think institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in every facet of our society that people’s education and economic outcomes are strongly affected by it from the cradle to the grave. I know there are some deniers out there. But if that inequality of opportunity wasn’t real, then why do racial achievement gaps persist so strongly? Let’s say certain types of people usually seem to win a hypothetical contest millions of times over. You can only really come to two conclusions: Either those types of people have some unfair advantages in that contest, or they are just naturally better. I’m assuming nobody who reads this blog is going to say white people are on average naturally smarter. So that leaves unfair advantage. Because education is so critical to success in the modern world, if some groups enjoy an unfair advantage over others, we have a moral responsibility to fight that.
As a product of the University of California system, where affirmative action was banned in 1995 by Prop 209, I’ve seen the exciting sneak preview of how this Supreme Court case will likely turn out for the country:
Yeah it’s kinda like that.
California’s affirmative action ban has led to a campus filled mostly with kids from the upper-middle-class suburbs of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The many attempts to promote racial diversity by the UC system since Prop 209 have largely failed.
But sometimes, it’s less important what you wish could happen, and more important what you can actually win.
This Supreme Court, the most conservative in modern history, will probably strike down race-based affirmative action. Neither the majority of the American public nor the majority of our elected officials seem interested in keeping it.
A good political strategist knows when to throw in the towel. But a better political strategist knows when to seemingly throw in the towel, and when their opponent raises their hands in victory, hit them in the chin with a dirty ass upper-cut.
Social justice activists could abandon attempts to defend race-based affirmative action while organizing a broader coalition around class-based affirmative action that includes low-income whites. This is probably more politically winnable, legally defensible, and may be just a better policy for achieving social justice.
I’d propose some kind of comprehensive economic disadvantage index that includes factors like a student’s household income, parents’ educational attainment, neighborhood poverty rate, and what percent of students from their high school go to college.
While this doesn’t address direct discrimination by college admissions officers, it would still work against the inequality affecting youth in communities of color. Students who make it through the barriers of growing up in East Oakland or South LA will still get recognition in college admissions for the struggles they faced.
More importantly, class-based affirmative action might do more to advance equity in education anyway.
The current racial categories used in admissions are not very accurate measures of students’ privilege or disadvantage. An observant college student might notice the disproportionate share of the campus’s black community whose parents immigrated from Africa and the Caribbean. Or the fact that virtually all the Asians on campus seem to be Korean, Taiwanese or Indian. Despite the fact that many Southeast Asian communities in the US have similar levels of poverty to African-Americans and Latinos, they get lumped in the same “Asian” category as wealthier groups like Indians. And even though black immigrant communities have higher education levels and lower poverty rates, they are treated the same as black communities struggling with the legacy of American slavery.
The struggle for racial justice today is largely defined by the institutionalized racism that leads to deep and persistent poverty in communities of color. It’s a deep and complex web of oppression and no policy tool is going to be perfect.
But movements have to be built on victories. At a time when a backwards fall seems inevitable, class-based affirmative action is something we can win.
The media’s been blathering on, with a nauseating amount of corny sports/war metaphors, about how Romney dominated Wednesday’s debate against President Obama. I agree that Romney did better. And it did move the polls a bit.
But I will still literally bet anyone cash money right here right now that Obama’s going to win.
Why? Check out the graph on the right.
That’s because swing states are where the real campaigning happens. If you live in California like me, you might forget what a presidential campaign actually looks like. Obama and Romney volunteers don’t knock on your door or call you at night, their fliers don’t come in your mailbox, and their ads rarely show up on your TV. But in places like Ohio, every four years this shit called a campaign goes down on your block.
Here’s what that graph on the right means: Obama’s campaign team is just plain smarter and harder than Romney’s. It doesn’t show up in most of the country. But in the swing states, it’s very obvious that the Obama team is killin it.
Which is why Nate Silver, whose statistical model is probably the best in the game right now, calculates Romney hasn’t had more than a 1-in-3 chance of winning since late August. He puts Obama at a 78.4% chance of winning right now, which is down a bit since the debate. But it’s not nearly enough to really turn things around for Romney.
That’s because debates just don’t matter that much. Most debate viewers are people who follow politics and have already made up their minds. Think about all the swing voters you know. How many of them actually watched the debate?
What does sway voters, in the crucial swing states, is a passionate 20-something-year-old volunteer knocking on their door on a Wednesday night after dinner, and maybe fumbling the script they’re supposed to read a little bit and fidgeting with their clipboard, but ultimately getting some main points across and more importantly making a personal connection.
That’s where the Obama team is kicking the ass of the Romney team right now. And that’s why Obama is going to win.
The point I’m ultimately getting at here is I think most political journalists should be shipped off to some forsaken island and forced all day to watch two ants race across the barren rocks for moldy leftovers and report about it to each other.
They spend all their time on gaffes and speeches, but rarely cover the grueling behind-the-scenes work that actually wins or loses political battles, which really hurts the feelings of people who do that grueling behind-the-scenes political work.
But it’s not just my personal beef. This article from the NY Times sums up perfectly how political reporters just can’t keep up with how modern campaigns work:
Journalists tend to mistake the part of the campaign that is exposed to their view — the candidate’s travel and speeches, television ads, public pronouncements of spokesmen and surrogates — for the entirety of the enterprise. They treat elections almost exclusively as an epic strategic battle to win hearts and minds whose primary tools are image-making and storytelling.
But particularly in a polarized race like this one, where fewer than one-tenth of voters are moving between candidates, the most advanced thinking inside a campaign is just as likely to focus on fine-tuning statistical models to refine vote counts and improve techniques for efficiently identifying and mobilizing existing supporters.
The bumbling incompetence of political reporters doesn’t just misinform the public. It implies that most of the work done by campaigns doesn’t matter. Which is funny because if they didn’t, candidates would just make speeches all day instead of spending so much money hiring field organizers all over the country.
So I just want to counter the bullshit by telling all the 22-year-olds with clipboards out there that you’re winning this thing, even if Barack Obama is a shitty debater. The proof is in the numbers.
The New York Times reported recently that new enrollment at American graduate schools is dropping.
This seems crazy considering that over the last decade, only Americans with advanced degrees saw any wage growth. Even the average bachelor’s degree holder lost income.
So what’s wrong with the kids these days? Don’t those idiots know what’s good for them?
Well. Are you the kind of nerd that reads an article like that and goes “I want to learn more, maybe I should download the full report”? I am, and I did. And here’s what I found.
Graduate degrees in arts and humanities: plummeting.
Graduate degrees in math, engineering, and health sciences: still shooting through the roof.
Here’s my theory: When I was starting college, we thought we were facing a horrible crash that would recover within a few years like most recessions. So being in school was a great way to wait it out. The ivory tower was like an armored fortress to protect us from the evils of recession-land. Grad school applications soared. Now we’re realizing for some reason we seem to be stuck in a long-term stagnation and we won’t return to full employment for what’s technically known as a Long Ass Time. Unfortunately, most grad programs don’t last a Long Ass Time, so instead those people came out two years later with a ton of debt and a still-shitty-economy. People are no longer using graduate school as a shelter, they’re now only going if the program will actually improve their economic prospects when they finish.
A similar trend has happened as news spreads that going to law school is an increasingly bad economic decision. Last spring I obnoxiously gloated to my law school aspiring friends that the law school bubble had finally burst— after a seemingly endless rise, law school applicants had dropped tremendously over the past year.
But then, as if Christmas had come twice, I had even more news to gloat about: Among those with low LSAT scores, applications were still high. The real drop in applicants was happening at the top of the LSAT score range.
Weird, right? Why would the best and brightest potential lawyers stop applying to law school?
It probably means the smartest people are the ones most likely to read news about how there’s a glut of people with law degrees in the labor market. They’re the ones who hear about things like recent graduates suing their law schools for fudging impressive job placement statistics and decide to not go to law school.
Now I’m all for education having inherent value outside of pure money-making. But higher education has grown absurdly expensive and financial aid has failed to keep up. If you just want to open your mind or something like that, you can literally get a Harvard education for free through downloading podcasts of their classes. There are also hella books in these old fashioned things called libraries.
It’s not that you shouldn’t go to grad school. If you want to be a surgeon, go for it. Maybe some other professional schools. Only a non-professional school if you actually want to be a professor. If you’re doing it because you “don’t really know exactly what you want to do yet”, please do us all a favor and donate your tuition to a nonprofit organization. Seriously, here’s a link to mine, you can pay with credit card.
Bottom line: If young people are increasingly saying no to graduate programs that won’t pay off, that’s a good thing.
Despite the single-minded focus of the presidential election on economic issues, there has been a deafening silence on one economic issue: poverty.
However, the case of the disappearing poor people in American political discussion is about to be busted wide open. Young Americans are increasingly self-identifying as lower-class, and if trends continue this could fundamentally change American politics.
Mitt Romney faced criticism recently for defining the middle-class as anyone who makes under $200-250k a year. It’s beyond me why liberals aren’t equally outraged that Obama has been basically saying the same thing by using that exact same income level as a cut off for his demands to raise taxes on the rich.
Of course Republicans don’t talk much about poverty because they don’t care very much about poor people.
But the Democratic Party has also given up talking about poverty because it doesn’t poll well. Despite Obama’s background as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, he has virtually stopped mentioning the word “poverty” since becoming president.
Often Democrats use “middle-class” as code for everyone but the rich. But I think many Democrats have actually abandoned thinking about poverty at all.
It’s common knowledge among poli sci douchebag undergraduates that most Americans of all income levels consider themselves middle-class, so you have to frame every political issue as how it benefits the middle-class.
Right? Wrong! According to new Pew polling, somewhere in the last few years we officially crossed the threshold—only 49% of Americans in 2012 consider themselves middle-class. Now nearly a third of Americans define themselves as “lower class”.
Where is the change coming from? Mostly a big shift in Americans under the age of 30.
Experiencing hard times in a recession is very different from altering your class identity. It takes a lot for someone who grew up in a middle-class suburb, graduated from college, whose parents still expect them to be a well-paid professional, and whose friends and romantic partners all come from pretty much that same socioeconomic background, to suddenly change their identity to being “lower class”, even if their official income puts them in that statistical tier.
I think there’s actually a deeper-level shift going on among young people who came of age during the Great Recession.
So what are the implications of that kind of shift?
Lefty activist types are always moaning about the lack of class-consciousness among the American working class. Why do so many low-income people vote against their own interests because they identify as middle-class? It’s so much harder in the US to create the political pressure to reduce income inequality. No one wants to wage another War on Poverty if everyone thinks their family is the Brady Bunch.
So if that changes, it changes everything. If our generation signals a new trend, in the next generation we could see broad new demands for the political system to serve the interests of low-income Americans: single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, free universities, strong unions, affordable housing, real public transportation and a return to 1950’s-era taxes on the rich. A change in the identity of millions of young Americans could mean no less than a reemergence of the political power of the working-class.
For a person of color running for office, a hint of the radical left is the kiss of death. We live far from a “post-racial society”, but most voters do seem to be willing to give a candidate with a funny name who looks different from them the benefit of the doubt as long as they’re squeaky clean all-American on the inside. However, that trust can evaporate quickly if the candidate evokes memories among white voters of the more confrontational racial politics of an older generation.
The speculation of San Antonio Mayor and DNC keynote speaker Julian Castro being the first Latino president someday makes sense with almost mathematical precision. A charismatic Latino governor of Texas who carried the massive state for the Democratic Party in 2024ish when changing demographics have made it possible would lock down the electoral map.
However, the right wing is great at playing the guilt by association game. And Julian Castro, like many young politicians of color who awkwardly bear the label of being “post-racial”, also holds the liability of being tied to the radical left on the national stage.
Castro’s mother, Rosie Castro, was an activist in the Chicano Movement of the 1970’s who helped found a political party called La Raza Unida and unsuccessfully ran for San Antonio city council. Julian grew up an activist baby, marching in rallies with her as a kid and working on campaigns as a teenager. He credits his mother for his political consciousness.
For a delightful preview of how this story will be told as he runs for higher office, check out this profile on conservative blog Breitbart.com:
Indeed, he, along with his twin, Joaquin, currently running for Congress, learned their politics on their mother’s knee and in the streets of San Antonio. Their mother, Rosie helped found a radical, anti-white, socialist Chicano party called La Raza Unida (literally “The Race United”) that sought to create a separate country—Aztlan—in the Southwest.
Today she helps manage her sons’ political careers, after a storied career of her own as a community activist and a stint as San Antonio Housing Authority ombudsman.
Far from denouncing his mother’s controversial politics, Castro sees them as his inspiration. As a student at Stanford Castro penned an essay for Writing for Change: A Community Reader (1994) in which he praised his mother’s accomplishments and cited them as an inspiration for his own future political involvement.
If the story seems all too familiar, it’s because it feels exactly like the attacks on Barack Obama’s associations with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Van Jones, Bill Ayers, and his own mother and father.
A perfect example of how these attacks easily tap into a latent fear of The Other lying in the heart of voters is the new movie just released called 2016: Obama’s America. Never heard of it? Well it’s grossed over $20 million in the last week and a half, making it the fifth highest grossing political documentary in American history. It’s probably because you’re an urban coastal college-educated liberal and all your friends are too. Go outside sometime.
Written by Dinesh D’Souza, it closely mirrors a book written by the same man, called The Roots of Obama’s Rage, which essentially claims that Obama, in his desire to bring himself closer to his estranged father, adopted the elder Obama’s Kenyan anti-colonialist anger and secretly hates America, blah blah blah. You can find a good synopsis here.
I suspect as more and more “The Next _____ Obama” candidates start to pop up, these young progressive people of color will be increasingly witch hunted with ties to the radical left dug up among family, friends, professors, spiritual leaders, and coworkers.
Because there are a lot of politically radical older people of color out there and young people of color know them. They might be close family. But even for those without politically active parents, most people who enter the world of politics, especially those breaking boundaries, usually do so with the guidance of older mentors and advisers.
Maybe Barack Obama’s father did have anti-colonial anger. Maybe it’s because the British committed atrocities in their colonization of Kenya and much of the suffering in Africa today is connected to the aftermath of colonialism. And I can imagine that Rosie Castro’s life growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Texas in the 1950’s might make her support the radical edge of the Chicano Movement.
The truth is, people of color have faced a lot of really fucked up shit in history. And some people are, not surprisingly, going to be mad about it. And although young people of color who run for office haven’t personally experienced Jim Crow or the Japanese Internment, and many of their feelings toward racial politics might hold more hope than anger, they will probably know at least one person in their community who is angry about American history.
All of this is not to say that Julian Castro shouldn’t run for president. It’s meant as a warning to people like me, young people of color who have contemplated running for office and have family members who would end up on one of Glenn Beck’s chalkboards if we ever did. It’s to say that America is not post-racial, there are deep wounds waiting to be peeled open, and anyone who wants to run for office should be prepared for their opponents to deliberately pick at those racial wounds until they bleed.
That being said, Castro 2024!
It’s Labor Day! Let’s talk about unions. Specifically about how the decline of labor unions is the biggest thing young progressives should be freaked out about and aren’t.
Now that I’ve made one sweeping bold statement with minimal evidence (isn’t that the whole point of a blog?), here goes another: I believe the economic justice movement will be the most important social movement of our generation.
Income inequality has reached levels only rivaled by those that ignited the American labor movement and the New Deal, and doesn’t show any signs of turning the other direction. Clearly the spontaneous explosion of Occupy shows that this is the biggest issue resonating with our generation right now.
The decline of organized labor is one of the largest factors in the growth of income inequality and shrinking middle class of the last few decades. Although trends like globalization and technology are creating larger gaps between rich and poor across the world, no industrialized country has experienced the immense rise in income inequality that is happening here in the US. That is to say, this problem is manmade: through policy, institutions, and culture specific to our country.
As an organizer, I believe most things happen or don’t happen as a result of political struggles whose outcomes are determined by the power built by organizing people and/or money. Given that, if we can’t figure out how to reverse our shrinking ability to organize people as workers, our hopes of achieving a more fair economy look pretty dismal.
There are all kinds of differing theories for why organized labor is in decline: unions have priced themselves out of the market in an increasingly competitive global economy, public opinion has turned against them, employers have developed a hostile anti-union culture, policy change has rigged the rules against labor organizers, the growing service sector is much harder to organize, etc.
Policy does play a role—an op-ed today from economist Dean Baker highlights how Canada has not had a decline in union membership during the several decades that unions have been decimated in America. Baker credits the legality of card-check unionization drives, where a majority of workers simply have to sign a card, rather than an election where employers can delay, intimidate, and fire union supporters. However, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have created a similar system in the US died in Congress and is unlikely to pass any time soon. I think legislation requiring strict time limits for union elections and harsh penalties for employer intimidation would be a more likely alternative in the more conservative political culture of the US.
However, I think the path to real change lies in a complete overhaul of the American labor movement. Complaints about unfair rules, although true, show the myopic stagnation of modern American organized labor. At the height of the American labor movement, unions were illegal in the US. You don’t get much more “hostile policy environment” than Pinkerton detectives literally beating your ass in the streets.
The truth is, the American economy has changed completely since the 1970’s. Labor organizing has to shift as the economy shifts. Organized labor found itself at a similar hopeless low point in the 1920’s, as America had made a major transition into an industrial economy, where craft unions had become increasingly irrelevant. Skilled craftsmen had been replaced by industrial machines that employed masses of unskilled immigrant laborers who the old unions viewed as unorganizable. But the CIO built a new model of unionization that sought to organize whole factories, whole industries at a time using strikes and sit-ins. The CIO’s meteoric rise ushered in the height of the American labor movement and the largest middle class ever created in world history.
We are moving from an industrial to a service economy, and this change has dramatically accelerated during the Great Recession. Although most of the jobs lost were in middle-class sectors like manufacturing and construction, most of the jobs being gained are in low-wage industries like hospitality, food service, and retail. This is the growing share of the economy that most unions have long dismissed as unorganizable—service jobs dominated by young people, women and people of color, where worksites contain small groups of people scattered across large geographic areas who are often part-time or temporary.
We need a new organizing model for the service economy—not just unions that organize service workers, because there are a few (and to give them some deserved credit, these are some of the most progressive unions today). But a whole new model, like the CIO invented for industrial workers.
We can continue to have broadly shared prosperity and a strong middle-class with a service-based economy. Service workers can and should have the dignity of being able to afford to live in a safe home, to take care of their family when they get sick, to send their kids to a good school and to retire after working hard in life. There is no inherent reason why an assembly line worker should be able to be middle-class and a service worker should be poor, except for the fact that it is easier to organize a union under the current model in a GM factory than a Chipotle.
What should this new model look like? I have no idea and won’t pretend to. I have spent zero years as a labor organizer and only a few years as a service worker.
What I do know is that it will likely take the collective brains of a lot of great organizers to figure it out.
But what we don’t need is more of the same. We don’t need unions spending so much of their time pushing bills like EFCA that are dead on arrival. We don’t need unions fighting losing battles over trade agreements and globalization. We don’t need unions being cash cows for the Democratic Party and then being ignored as soon as elections are over. We don’t need unions clinging to the last safe harbor, the public sector, where unions are seen as a special interest pitted in opposition to the average taxpayer rather than workers fighting against corporate greed.
What we need is a real investment in organizing new workers, and an approach that is open to experimentation. (If I had more space I’d like to give credit where credit is due to the many examples where this is already starting to happen.)
So here’s where the young progressive activists come in. Of all the friends I know who went into community organizing, campaign work, policy work, nonprofits, etc. since I graduated, I only know one who decided to be a labor organizer.
If we believe in a fair, sustainable economy with human dignity for all, we must create a vibrant labor movement. If we want to rejuvenate the labor movement, it will require experimenting with new approaches to organizing service workers. And if we want the establishment of organized labor in America to try new models of organizing service workers, we young people have to start putting our shoulders up against that bureaucratic wall and pushing against the heavy inertia of tradition.
And if we don’t? It’s our asses on the line. It’s us and our friends who will be struggling to support families on that paycheck from the mall.
Happy Labor Day, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but history shows that it’s not impossible. If our predecessors could do it against all odds, so can we.
American progressives act like a teenager who’s gotten so used to being rejected for prom and picked last in dodgeball that we just keep our heads down and try to make it through another day without getting our asses kicked. The message I want to send to the American political left is similar to what I want to tell all disaffected and awkward teenagers. I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and say “Chill the fuck out! You got this!”
It’s fair for progressives to feel like losers. After all, we’ve mostly been fighting defensive, losing battles for a solid forty years, leaving us with a nation of gaping income inequality, a tattered social safety net, and immense corporate influence over elections and lawmaking. We’ve been beat not only in the arena of laws and government, but in the arena of ideas: The commonly accepted worldview in America every day seems to bear a closer and closer resemblance to the Hunger Games, with ruthless competition and inequality accepted as the necessary conditions for the prosperity of life’s winners.
So when the Supreme Court upheld health care reform, setting the stage for the rollout of arguably the most historic victory for the left in a generation, many of us were stunned. Not because we thought Obamacare was actually unconstitutional, but because we’ve seen the right wing consistently dominate nearly every major American institution, including the Supreme Court, and expected a losing vote along ideological lines.
But progressives, get your boots on, because we’re entering a new era of ass-kicking. And no, the asses being kicked won’t be ours. I believe we’re going to win this round of history and here are my three reasons why.
1. Their Coalition is Falling Apart, Our Coalition is Coming Together
The right’s coalition is essentially made of three parts: working-class rural evangelicals, wealthy pro-business social moderates, and national security war hawks. All three loved Ronald Reagan, a unity that lasted through much of the Bush years, but ultimately ended in fracture best seen in the 2008 GOP presidential frontrunners: Mike Huckabee (working-class evangelicals), Mitt Romney (Wall St. types), and John McCain (war hawks).
Like any coalition, it was built over time. In the late 1960’s, the Republican Party created the “Southern Strategy”, a plan to wedge working-class Southern whites away from the Democratic New Deal Coalition that had held dominance since the time of FDR. Nixon and his strategists used racial issues and the Democratic Party’s passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s to make white Southerners place their political allegiances with the side that served their racial interests, not the side that served their economic interests. The emergence of the Christian Right in the late 1970’s pulled working-class rural whites further into the coalition. The religious establishment embarked on a campaign to politicize their base and move into partisan politics and media, starting organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority. Through much of American history, war has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. But neoconservative war hawks gathered under the banner of the right in opposition to the peace movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. They argued that a powerful American military presence was necessary to secure global freedom in the face of communism, and later Islam. Thus national security interests became aligned with the religious and economic interests of the right wing, as protecting the Christian American tradition and free market capitalism became the main motive for use of US military force around the world. And Wall St. pro-business types? Well, they’ve been with the right since the days of Herbert Hoover. By 1980, the modern conservative coalition was solid enough to usher in decades of social change according to their demands: deregulation of industry and finance, slashing the social safety net, and dramatically lowering the top tax rate.
However, in the aftermath of the Bush years, the mess of the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008, and finally the crushing loss to Barack Obama, this coalition began to unravel. With politics focused on the economy, the main fissure came at the seam between rural evangelicals and the pro-business establishment. Many conservatives, suspicious of Wall St.’s ties to government, believed the Mitt Romneys of the world had sold out their small-government conservative principles for corporate welfare and might even secretly not quite believe in their social values, only embracing them at arms length in order to get the votes of rural evangelicals. (Now why would they think that?) Grassroots conservative activists saw this as part of some larger morality play, where the reason the right had lost in 2008 was a lack of faithfulness to its right-wing principles. This tension finally erupted into the Tea Party, a movement of raw anger not just directed at Obama, but also the Republican Party establishment. The schizophrenic GOP primary of 2012 made clear that a large portion of conservatives could barely stomach Mitt Romney and everything his part of the right wing coalition represented. The coalition may remain intact as long as they are united by a common enemy (Obama), but it seems to be inevitably on the verge of collapse.
Meanwhile, a modern progressive coalition is uniting closer than ever before. Throughout world history, the left has mostly been a ragtag team of disenfranchised groups who through some miracle (and a lot of hard organizing) managed to band together under some general values like equality, community, compassion etc. Yet this coalition is often fraught with arguments over who is more oppressed and whose progress should be the priority, like a pissed off hydra whose multiple heads can’t decide which enemy to bite and often just bite each other. Environmentalists sometimes find themselves at odds with organized labor, who sometimes take positions against immigrants, who sometimes vote in opposition to LGBT people, who sometimes help gentrify black neighborhoods. But I think we’ve recently seen a historic consolidation of our progressive coalition. Just this year, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza both endorsed marriage equality for gays and lesbians for the first time. In 2009, the two federations of labor unions in the US for the first time came to an agreement supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalist groups teamed up with unions in 2006 to create the Blue Green Alliance advocating for green jobs. Meanwhile, mainstream environmentalist groups have begun to adopt the principles of environmental justice. Urban community organizations have been doing groundbreaking coalition work between blacks and Latinos, fighting the narrative that pits American born low-wage workers against immigrants.
Like the right wing coalition that was built over a decade from the late 60’s to the late 70’s, this modern progressive coalition will take some time to reach its true strength. But the signs are clear: there is more unity on the left, and less unity on the right, than any time in recent history.
2. Modern Communication Technology is Eroding the Right’s Advantage in Messaging
Over the last few decades, conservatives have won the war of ideas. The basis of right wing ideology (individualism is the natural way of things, government is always bad, racism doesn’t exist anymore, etc) has become the basis of American political thought in general. For a long time, the right has simply had stronger, more cohesive messaging. I’ll acknowledge some of it is just that their communications people are smarter and more strategic than ours. But I think much of it comes from political psychology, and the different ways that conservatives and liberals approach political communication. Studies have shown that people who identify as conservative have stronger impulses to respect authority and more group discipline. They also think more in the language of abstract values and principles than policy analysis and comparing outcomes. Thus the right has a natural advantage in top-down, highly cohesive, simplistic messaging. In other words, they’re bred for the age of talk radio and cable news. Thus, as talk radio and cable news eclipsed print newspapers and as people began to prefer TV commentators shouting at each other over the old boring evening news anchors, the effectiveness of conservative messaging grew. Right wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch learned how to use the media effectively as a political tool and built an empire of news outlets that reached millions of Americans. The TV commentators of the left were no match for the titans of conservative cable TV (think Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O’Reilly). Republican Party political figures coordinated their messages with conservative activists and media pundits much more closely than the Democratic Party did with left-wing activists. It all relied on the willingness of conservatives to all roughly stick to the same set of messages and talking points distributed from the top down.
On the left, cohesive messaging has never been our strong point. Most of us hear a simple, powerful political argument and say something like: “Well what you didn’t mention is how this group is affected, and the potential unintended consequences of that policy. Here’s a series of statistics and a great Noam Chomsky book to explain what I mean.” We’re a less homogenous group, so we tend to craft messages in ways that help mobilize our own communities. The way we talk to a middle-class white college student about health care reform is different from how we talk to a middle-aged black mother or an uninsured immigrant service worker, and the different parts of our coalition have a hard time sitting down at the table to come up with some talking points that work for everyone. If the Democratic Party tried to hand down talking points to progressive journalists, nonprofits, and professors they would get smacked upside their collective heads. When we try to communicate our message to political moderates, it ends up being full of wonky facts to contradict the dominant conservative worldview (“GDP growth has no correlation with marginal tax rates!”) or fringe-sounding arguments that use unfamiliar academic language (like “reproductive justice” and “intersectionality”). What we don’t do is collectively articulate our own values in words people understand and clearly frame our vision of a different world. Without strong, unified messaging, we quickly lose ground in major policy debates. For example, when you poll Americans on individual parts of the Affordable Care Act, virtually all of them get solid public support, including majority support among Republican voters for many major provisions of health care reform. However, when you ask Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the law overall, it remains widely unpopular. We managed to take something the American public liked and wanted, and let the right convince them that they hated it.
But the light at the end of the tunnel is here! We are entering an age of new media. Having conservative TV pundits, radio show personalities, Republican politicians, right wing advocacy groups and think tanks all arguing from the same set of talking points is becoming less and less advantageous. The era of Rush Limbaugh is over! All hail the era of the viral infographic! And we’re great at viral infographics! Anyone can create their own content that would appeal to their own social network, and thus micro-target our messages to the narrowest of socioeconomic, demographic or regional categories. Policy wonks and political junkies can share news and data in a way that is visually appealing and accessible, and have it spread virally out to the grassroots. Here, the top-down approach of strict adherence to a set of talking points will fail. People don’t click on a link to the same dogmatic argument they’ve heard for years. People don’t obediently share memes made by the Republican National Committee.
Of course we’re still at the beginning stages of this change. Most people get their news from the traditional sources still, and although the Bill O’Reillys and Glenn Becks of the world are on the decline, they remain powerful. However, we know where things are headed and it can only be good for us on the left. What social media is allowing us to do is crowdsource our messaging. In fact, it’s what we progressives have been doing all along, it just wasn’t working before.
3. Our Base is Growing, Their Base is Shrinking
We are a demographic bomb that’s going to explode in Rush Limbaugh’s face. The best part is, he knows it. Even between the 2008 election and the 2012 election, the voting bloc of young people, single women and people of color identified by liberal strategists as the “Rising American Electorate” will have grown by millions. In fact, the RAE accounted for 81% of the population growth in the country between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census. Progressive-leaning demographic groups are steadily rising as a share of the voting population, and conservative-leaning groups are declining. No one believes this trend is going to turn around any time soon. Soon enough, America will look like California and California will look like LA. And astonishingly, the GOP and the right as a whole are proving themselves either a) laughably incompetent at appealing to anyone other than straight white males or b) actually crazy enough to be willing to shrivel up and die rather than give up racism, sexism and homophobia. Maybe it’s just that people are smart enough not to trust an ideology that’s been trying to screw them over for all of human history just because they get a Cuban senator who offers up a watered down version of the DREAM Act. Either way I think it’s safe to say that everyone saw this coming and in 30 years what’s left of the Republican Party will be wondering why they actively chose to dig their own grave generations ago.
Rather than moderate their views on issues like immigration or women’s rights, conservatives are making last ditch attempts to ensure this demographic change does not lead to political change. They know if all those immigrants’ kids whose parents they tried to deport, all those young single women whose ability to sue for equal pay they filibustered, and all those young people whose college tuition they raised, actually register to vote, turn out at the polls, and get politically organized, they’re totally fucked. It might explain many Republican members of Congress’s reversal on the (formerly) bipartisan DREAM Act, or any other proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens and vote. Today’s slew of voter suppression laws and voter registration purges spreading across the country, supposedly designed to address some nonexistent wave of rampant voter fraud, are a transparent attack on young people, immigrants, and low-income communities. UFO sightings are more common than voter fraud in the US, but somehow conservatives around the country have decided this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with, preferably before November 6, 2012. The right has also developed an obsession with taking down organizations that enhance the political power of those progressive-leaning groups: ACORN, Planned Parenthood, unions, etc. Perhaps the scariest is the Tea Party vigilante “True the Vote” groups that are traveling all over the country to intimidate voters at the polls, again under the strange assumption that there’s some epidemic of illegal college student voters trying to ruin America.
These kind of tactics might work for a while. They succeeded in the post-slavery South for a few generations between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. But in the end, they’re a desperate short-term strategy that will fail. Eventually the right will have to concede that they ignored the writing on the wall and have spent most of history trying to limit who was defined as part of the “real America”, as Sarah Palin would say. But as their idea of “real Americans” becomes a smaller minority of the population, they will either have to acknowledge the humanity of others or shrivel away into the margins of the history books.
However, demographic change does not automatically produce political power. If California is a predictor of what the national population will look like soon, it is also a warning that conservatives can have an influence far disproportionate to their share of the population if they remain more politically organized. Voter education, registration and turnout efforts will help win political battles. But this must be combined with stronger stances to make real progress on issues like college affordability or immigration reform (I’m looking at you, Democratic Party establishment). A voter taken for granted is a voter who has better things to do on election night. However, with some tough organizers and some accountable elected officials, we can change the electoral map in the United States, and thus the realm of political possibility, forever.
The Roadmap to Victory
From the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s, conservatives built a powerful movement that fundamentally altered the course of the nation’s history. They stood upon a bedrock foundation of America’s strongest institutions: big business, the church and the military. Unified, clear, and values-based right-wing messages echoed through millions of homes in the era of talk radio and cable news commentators. Elections still mostly hinged on who could win the votes of older white males, and conservatives rallied monolithic support from this base.
But at the beginning of the 21st century, this movement has begun to stumble. A rift has appeared between the grassroots conservatives of America’s heartland and the business elites that dominated the Republican Party. The media megaphones of the right, Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, are beginning to fade from prominence. And their single-minded focus on older white voters is backfiring, as a more diverse and progressive generation comes of age.
I believe that the history books will one day read that starting in the late 2000’s, the progressive movement began to shift the balance of power. The books will say that starting around this time, a series of stunning alliances formed between groups with historical tensions. Unions, immigrants, civil rights groups, LGBT activists, environmentalists and more began to stick together under a banner of solidarity based on the basic values of fairness, community and dignity. They ultimately failed to come up with anything resembling a cohesive message, but in the age of social media it didn’t matter. Their ideas spread like wildfire across social networks, with millions of grassroots activists and everyday supporters writing blogs, sharing news, creating graphics that communicated the values of their movement. And starting in 2008, something changed: the presidential election didn’t depend on who won the votes of older white males, but on black and young voters turning out to the polls like never before. From then on, the tide began to shift, and a new growing majority looked at the politicians who had dismissed them in favor of the “real America”, and this new majority declared: “We are the real America.”