How to Get on Your Way To Being Less Shitty at Politics if You Start Out Shitty in the Same Way I Started
A bunch of recycled cliches that were nonetheless pretty helpful for me
|David Iscoe||Nov 9, 2018|| 1|
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States and on January 25th, 2017 our boss at The Onion walked into the office to tell us that we were all losing our jobs and also to meet most of us for the first time. It’s been a rough 21 months since then in a lot of ways, and my memory of time takes weird shapes. It’s hard to remember how I was and felt and thought in the “before” times, even when specific memories from before are strong and certain places and relationships still feel the same.
One thing that definitely changed is my relationship to politics, which I used to understand more as an observer instead of a participant. I often got an unearned feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of horrified helplessness, or a sick feeling of entertainment, laughing at the behavior of a few characters who provided comic relief from the bleaker drama underneath. I still feel those things to some extent, but more often I’m processing the news into knowledge or action and throwing out the rest. This process feels engaging, and feeling engaged feels good.
On Tuesday Democrats picked up eight seats in the New York State Senate, giving them a full majority for the first time in a decade, almost entirely due to activist effort. I don’t know the names of most of the people who did it, but there were hundreds of them at the core of things and thousands who pitched in for shifts, and I know a few. A woman named Jane organized house parties and fundraisers for candidates in Brooklyn, and helped build a statewide underground discussion group for activists. A woman named Lynn, with the guidance from her daughter Emily and Emily’s friend Laura, organized a group of mainly recent retirees out in Suffolk County to mobilize around elections, and had them out knocking on doors every weekend and many weekdays from the spring through the fall. Then on election night, after canvassing out in Suffolk all day, I walked into a bar in Bed Stuy to watch the election results, and I saw a bunch of talking heads on TV blathering on about some two-bit president and what stories he would tell, and I was like “what does this motherfucker have to do with anything?” and I went out to go to a home watch party with a bunch of activists who had laptops and had the cable on low volume and wanted to talk about the work. That felt a lot better.
Back during the 2016 primary, when I was a spectator throwing my anxieties and analyses into Twitter and Facebook posts and comedy scripts, my cousin Celeste reached out to me and said something like “Join a social movement. You’ll feel better.” That was very good advice, and aside from feeling better, I’ve managed to produce some identifiably useful work. I’m not great at it yet, but almost all the work in the world is produced by people who aren’t great at it yet, and while you’re improving it’s good to keep working in the meantime.
When people ask me about politics, I sometimes feel like they want me to help them process their feelings, or understand things better, or talk for the hell of it, and I’m glad to do these things for family and friends because I care about their feelings, I’m intellectually interested in how it all works, and like to shoot the shit and blather on as much as anybody. But talking isn’t the endgame. If we’ve talked about politics a lot, I want to know what people are doing about it. I want a bunch of people mobilized and exploring things on their own and doing better work than I am.
Over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I heard from people or figured out from experience or both that formed impressions in my mind that were useful for me for sorting out what to do, and so here they are as a vague set of principles if you happen to be starting from relatively the same place I was. Many of you have been working much longer or have found your niche doing something else or whatever it is, but to the extent you are like me you may find it useful to the extent I found it useful.
(This title/concept is cribbed from this 2015 Daniel Mallory Ortberg lecture)
How to Get on Your Way To Being Less Shitty at Politics if You Start Out Shitty in the Same Way I Started
Simplistic truisms I have found to be basically true
Rendered annoyingly in the imperative because that’s how I talk to myself
Make a commitment to be active
I remember watching elections and being like “we gonna win this thing?” and then later realizing I was really asking “so are a bunch of hard-working people gonna win this thing for me?” It’s like how sports fans say “we” for teams they’ve never contributed to, but it’s even more foolish because while it’s understood that you can’t play professional baseball, anyone really could actually get in the game politically. My high school friend Lily, who came from a political family, used to wear a shirt with the Martin Luther King quote “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” It can be hard to internalize if you come from a culture that adores stardom (and I have some feelings sometimes about people spreading the message from a leadership role), but it’s real. Nobody is helpless. Whatever is happening elsewhere, there is something going on around you that can be made better and something you can do to push it that way.
Join a group
Not only do groups help you band together to accomplish goals, they help process your thoughts and feelings in a political direction in a way that’s very hard to do alone. You’re generally plugged into society in a role that reproduces the status quo, and so your interactions end up demobilizing you, pulling you back into your old inertial patterns. Only through concerted effort can you break these patterns, and get advice related to mobilizing instead of falling comfortably back.
Be ready for inconvenience
You’ll be trying to take political power away from people and that’s not going to be easy, because if it were easy to take people’s power they wouldn’t have it. Be willing to ask tough questions of yourself: What hours am I willing to lose? What resources am I willing to give up? Who am I willing to offend? What jobs am I willing to refuse? It’s not like everyone has to be a martyr, but it’s very hard to move while holding onto everything. I know people who have lost or quit jobs or gotten out of relationships because they’ve wanted to live up to their political beliefs, and I know people unwilling to undergo minor inconvenience or risk any disruption of their allegiances. The former seem happier to me. (Of course sometimes you’re really working your ass off or struggling with illness or just trying to keep your head above water, and it’s fine to take the space and rest you need or ask for help – all the more reason for others to give more).
Make sure you’re touching something
Politics is not the work of choosing the best beliefs, it is the work of organizing and distributing power. So think of how your work helps a candidate win, or exposes an issue, or gets a policy on the books, or influences a voter, or gives people the tools they need to do work themselves. If you don’t know what work to do, ask the people who are doing the work what they need help with. If you cannot identify how your work is work, it is probably not work.
Do the chores sometimes
Sometimes people who are raised to have high status see themselves fitting into politics only in high-status roles, and this is a bad instinct. Everyone should do some kind of chore, some kind of boring work that just anyone can do, whether it’s being a body in the street, doing repetitive call or text work, taking notes, checking people in, carrying supplies, doing data entry, or knocking on doors. This is useful in itself, and also helps to put you in the right mindset for politics: one of many people pitching in work and benefitting from when other people do it. Don’t do the chores all the time, even if you feel okay doing it, because it’s not fair to you and because other people should have that experience (thanks to Colette from my Indivisible group for enforcing this last point even though she covers for a lot of people’s chores).
Ask not if you are a good person, ask what is good for a person to do
It seems like a lot of times the question people are asking when they wonder about the world and themselves is “am I a good person?” And it’s like “who cares, dude?” or “No such thing.” There’s no kind of person you can be that means you’re so good that bad decisions are okay, and there’s no kind of person you can be that means you’re so bad that good decisions aren’t worthwhile. I know it’s natural for people to worry about whether they’re good people or not, but the less you worry the easier it is to do good things.
Find a group or groups where you’re organized around a goal
Organize around a goal
The goal can be a policy (e.g., save health care), an electoral goal (e.g., win control of the state democratic party), a community goal (e.g., bring everyone in the 57th assembly district together to talk about what the local issues are), or something else entirely, but the world is easier to affect and understand a piece at a time. I’ve learned more on single-issue or single-focus campaigns than through generalized education. If you follow a voting reform bill, you learn that the holdup is in the state senate, and from there you learn how the committee and caucus structure in the senate works, and which politicians are really dedicated and which are useless, and then you learn the electoral picture behind who’s in office and who isn’t, and then you learn which districts are in play, and what issues people care about in those districts, and by the end you understand the system to a depth you never could if you tried to comprehend it all at once. It’s like how solving algebra problems teaches you math in a way that you can’t quite get just from reading the chapters (if you’re a “learn by doing” type).
Avoid discussions where everyone knows or says the same things
Sometimes I’m in a room where people talk about politics and it seems like we all know the same things. This makes me anxious about how I’m spending my time, because who’s gaining any information, and what’s the use? I try to be in rooms where I can learn something or teach something, and once we’re all on the same page, it’s time to do things instead of talking about them.
Find other groups via your groups
One of the best things about being in a politically organized group is that you gain exposure to other people doing the same work. If it seems like they’re more effective, or know specific things you don’t, or have a different kind of membership, or could use your resources, reach out and see what you can do together. If you think you can contribute, join them or go to a meeting. Eventually you can figure out where you fit best, but if people are properly focused on the work they’ll never fault you for branching out somewhere else, and they’ll be glad that you’re adding knowledge and connections. A lot of what I do is just read things in one Slack group and ask questions of or relay information to people in another group.
Rely on a network to delegate news consumption and distribution
A friend recently asked me what outlets to follow for local Brooklyn politics, and I replied that no outlet is good if you’re not processing it through an action group. The news gives you a few developments at a time, but it doesn’t really give you a sense of long-term patterns, and even the patterns it does trace describe the shape of the status quo more than the shape of what people are aiming to build. I found that I got my best sense of the news from Slack channels, where there are not only people scanning for specific pieces of knowledge, but people who have different pieces of the puzzle who can weigh in on and contextualize things after they’re posted. Only after these discussions, and sitting in enough meetings with high-information people, could I really read the news and make sense of it on my own.
I also had people I could go to with questions when things in the news related to their work. Sebastian could tell us what was happening in the IDC, two women named Jan were each reliably tuned in to the state of voting rights (and Susan could tell us everything regarding political integrity when she had time), Richard could tell us which attorneys were credible on progressive politics on their works, Marcos understood politics in the Hasidic community, Emily and Brandon had a strong sense of who was ready to make an electoral move, Amber could talk about what was happening with the unions, Michael could crunch numbers on any issue and give a data-driven prediction, Cristina could give insider perspective on AG candidates, etc. I think of these names, and others, a lot more than I think of publications when it comes to information sources.
Build your own map of the news based around a question
As an activist, you’re reading the news to answer a specific question you need the answer to; but as a consumer, you’re reading news based around the question “what can get people’s attention?” (Whether it’s a broad focus on traditional cable, or a micro-targeted focus on algorithmic social media). Needless to say, what gets your attention is not always what you need to know. If you take responsibility for a specific question, combining your own research with the news, you can start to predict things and these predictions will be useful to people. Many of the people I follow on Twitter do this, tracing specific patterns to take a pulse on the right to protest, or the role of technology in politics, or labor rights, or racism and sexism in messaging, or real estate money in NYC politics.
My own focus for the last year was the state senate, which I started researching some time in the fall of 2017 after Colette and Sebastian delegate the task to me. I saw that we needed to target Republican seats, and that it was realistic to shoot for at least four or five but up to eight, with a real chance of ending the IDC and then getting 11 flips by 2020 for a veto-proof majority. I set up a chart to track them, created a bunch of Google Alerts, and got on phones with people around the state. Jane (mentioned above) had started a statewide network and someone plugged me in to disseminate this guide; she also organized meetings where Brooklyn activists met senate candidates from the Hudson Valley and Long Island. Laura and Emily connected me with Lynn in Suffolk County, and I drove out to talk the importance of the state senate hot seats in and near their district. A lot of other people around the state were doing the same.
Months later, City & State, probably the most comprehensive state/local political publication, rated only a couple seats as “toss ups,” and zero Republican-held seats as even “lean Democrat,” and I told people in my circle that I respectfully disagreed with that assessment. In the end, challengers backed by grassroots activists managed to flip eight Republican-held seats (not all the same ones I had as the top targets, but all on my broader list), and following the defeat of six IDC members and one party hack in September, we now have 15 new state senators more progressive than their predecessors, a development that the news has finally caught up with (or “up with which the news has finally caught” if that’s your style).
None of us started out as experts, but being curious and asking questions consistently can make your predictions better than you’ll get given to you. There’s a scene in the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale where June goes to the old Boston Globe office and starts putting together different trends in the news, connecting different trends that led to the rise of that bullshit fascist fundamentalist patriarchal state whose stupid name for itself I won’t dignify with a proper noun (seriously that place sucks and is very boring, besides all the trauma it’s just so aggressively WASPy New England and without even the charm of those Bahston accents and even if it were otherwise a utopia I’d still hate it for its aeasthetics), and says something in the narration how it was all there but nobody was putting it together. It’s a little on-the-nose, but I think it’s a pretty good on-the-nose message for the times, and I liked the fact that she wasn’t any kind of expert, just some ordinary person with time and motivation. There are people tracing these kind of things these days, but there’s always room to find something people aren’t tracing yet and take charge of that thing.
Don’t spend too much time on news you can’t use
There’s more news that’s fit to print than there is room to print it, and like anyone I’m prone to scrolling through it for hours. But more often these days I’m asking myself “Where does this fit in my map of the world? What do I already know? What will I do differently?” The more quickly you can translate things into knowledge or action, the more time you have to really learn or work. It helps that I’m not currently in the world of reactive topical news and comedy, so I don’t have to read or comment on each thing that’s part of “the conversation,” and can spend longer letting things sink in and making sense of them. It’s very easy to feel guilty for not reading all the news, but remember that information isn’t necessarily knowledge, knowledge isn’t necessarily action, and each person can only do some action but not all the action.
People are experts on their own struggles
I feel like most people I know get this reflexively by this point, but discourse about what happens to people should center the people most directly affected. I think we all get that a diversity panel featuring a bunch of white guys is a bad thing. Then again, some people (almost everyone in Congress) are still legislating the work conditions of sex workers without asking sex workers what would make themselves, and lo and behold, recently laws are putting them in more danger and making human trafficking more prominent. Prominent liberal publications (especially in the UK for some reason?) are letting cisgendered people write about trans experiences, or about the insecurities trans people stir up in them. Well-meaning liberals are still saying that disenfranchised voters in the South “deserve the government they vote for” instead of listening to them about the barriers they had in the way of voting. We still tell people who are unable to get by financially that, based on this theory we have and the numbers we’ve chosen to look at, the economy is actually working well. We still write about mental illness as something we’re scared of, not something people struggle with.
This is going to be a problem as people like me, who start from a privileged background, gain and share information and amplify our voices, and I think it’s important to realize I have a limited role; basically, getting people who started at a comparative level of ignorance to mine to gradually learn more and ask better questions and listen more. People like me should not run for office or take glamor roles; we should work on our own people and support people who are struggling based on the struggles they have. It’s important to remember that although we often have prestigious information, because a certain set of knowledge is associated with class, we’re generally pretty low-information on what challenges people are actually facing.
Of course doing this well, like doing anything else well, this takes practice. A lot of well-meaning people are trying to understand “the white working class” (which is not actually Trump’s base – that would be rich suburban Republicans, as he got not only his best numbers but almost all his funding from wealthier people) and featuring those people’s beliefs about Donald Trump, who is terrorizing other people, as well as their completely uninformed beliefs on the people being terrorized. This is not only inhumane to the people who are subject to this terror but written about as objects, and inhumane to the people who are underrepresented in favor of these same few mythologized people, but it’s also inhumane to the people suffering in those working class communities, because it is not actually focused on the essential problems. People are experts on their own struggles; we should write about the problems of getting jobs or clean water or education in these rural areas, instead of only considering people suffering from these problems (many of whom are not white or not Trump voters, and most of whom are not men) to be interesting when they start inflicting harm on others.
Forget palace intrigue
Maggie Haberman has written a lot of articles about Donald Trump. She knows him more closely than any other prominent reporter, and gave us absolutely no predictive insight into the effect he would have on the country. There’s a clip from 2015 of her laughing after Keith Ellison predicted Trump would win just the nomination, and it’s one of those things that’s sort of not as simple when it seems but it sort of is. There’s really a limited about you can gain by studying him closely, as opposed to studying the systems which would determine his rise and fall. After the election, Haberman and the New York Times continued to publish insights from his close circle, which all contributed to the idea that his fall was imminent and that people around him would step in or ameliorate his worst instincts. Meanwhile, people who were looking at economic decline, civic integrity, racism and sexism in America, media patterns, and other large-scale trends behind his victory consistently got things right.
None of us have access to Donald Trump, and that access isn’t worth a damn anyway. We understand his patterns pretty well at this point, enough to make predictions. But we still have a lot to learn, and a lot to do, about protecting immigrants or reinforcing civic infrastructure or restricting police violence or building a strong opposition or creating more connected communities or relieving mental health stress or many other things. The best thing we can do about the tyrant in the palace is to slowly cut off his supplies (attention, political support, power) from the outside.
Don’t put people’s humanity up for debate
I was on the debate team for a few years in high school, and we participated in a format called “policy debate” or “cross-ex.” Each year there’s a question about public policy, and each tournament you get scheduled a few affirmative and a few negative rounds, and you have to win all of them. People do not figure out which side is correct in the course of this debate, they figure out who was better at arguing. It’s a fun sport, and a lot of people on my team went into politics or law or media.
One thing we didn’t do was allow people to write resolutions like “Resolved: Maybe Hitler was right” and then try to make their best case, even if we were convinced that we could defeat them in embarrassing fashion. To start a debate is to acknowledge that maybe something is right and maybe it is wrong. There are many such debates that are reasonable. Is a market-hybrid system better than a single-payer system for efficiently guaranteeing that everyone gets health care? I don’t know, that’s a real debate. Do people deserve to get medical treatment even if they’re poor? Yes, that is not a thing we should debate. We can debate how to best deliver that result, but the principle should not be up for discussion.
The great thing is that once we affirm basic principles, it actually opens the door to a lot of reasonable, interesting, nuanced debates, within a space where there are no inhumane outcomes. I’ve heard great debates about what structure most effectively delivers fair housing, about what type of voting measures best ensure full participation, about whether a firmly progressive journalist or an experienced staffer and community activist is best to challenge an inhumane state senator. It’s not that debate doesn’t sharpen your beliefs, but that you should look for debates in your actual areas of uncertainty, rather than letting people question whether your fellow humans have rights.
Compete, compete, compete (don’t pick winners, make them)
We have been very timid about politics, constantly asking whether we can win before trying. This past election, a lot of seats on the state, local, and federal level were flipped, and a lot of referenda were passed. Nobody knew for sure which would be successful, but everyone pushed each as far is it could go. We should do the same every electoral season, and every legislative session, pushing for the best possible result in each arena we can.
Don’t play respectability politics, but do respect your principles
A lot of times people don’t protest or compete or say things because they are worried their opponents will not like these things. This is foolish; the reason opponents do not like things you do is because they are opposed to you. But it also follows that you should not do things that are wrong; for example, violence is bad. We should fight voter suppression with rigorous enfranchisement, not disenfranchisement. We should not allow people who abuse people to still be in power over people. We should not replicate patterns of racism, sexism, classism, or ableism while attacking opponents (Audre Lorde famous said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” which is very perceptive and important but also slightly stuck in my craw because there’s a literal-minded strain in me that just imagines a bunch of tools and a house and of course in that case anyone’s tools will do, they don’t know who owns them or whose house they’re working on, but in terms of actual movement politics she is of course right about things and has made an invaluable contribution to the discourse.)
Anyway, sometimes I hear the idea that “we need to fight as dirty as they do to win,” and I disagree because there’s politics in what dirty tactics should exist, but we certainly need to fight harder and more intensely and come up with our own effective tactics (like civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts) that get seriously in the way of our opponents but that don’t also work against our politics.
Lay groundwork as you go
You don’t always break through on the first attempt at flipping a seat or getting a law passed, but you gain experience or a platform to build on. Movements should be sure to consistently engage in things, like registering voters or building action groups or gathering data, that will be useful to the next people who attempt something. The more we invest in groundwork instead of personalities, the better we do over the long run.
This guide isn’t for everyone
Again, this is attuned to people with both the inherent mediocrities of my own privileged backgrounds, and similar capacities for the things I am able to do well. I don’t know your own roadmap, and we need many, many different ones distributed to different people. I don’t know who you are, this works for me.
I don’t know shit
This is not an “end of journey” or “enlightened” type of experience. This is what it’s like partway in, partway through my development. I’ll figure out more and other people will figure out things I don’t and already have.
Don’t @ me
Just do better work.