This is the worst I remember feeling about the results of an election since the famous “Contract with America” moment in 1994. I feel like there are some potentially helpful parallels between that moment and this one, at least for me. And I’m recognizing, as I tell this story, that it’s grounded in my own relative privilege—mine and the people who are closest to me.
In 1994, I was working as the canvass director of a sizable door-knocking operation at California Peace Action. At that time, California was a pretty different place, at least politically, than it is now. Bill Clinton had won the 1992 presidential election in California, but the state was far from reliably blue, in both national and state elections. The Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who was a notorious enemy of people of color—Latino immigrants, in particular—was running for re-election, and Republicans were desperate to prove that the presidential win was a one-off.
There was a tremendous amount of white anxiety over the fact that California was in the process of becoming a majority-minority state, due to an influx of Asian and Latino immigrants. And that white anxiety was manipulated into a political backlash (or as Van Jones dubbed it more recently, a whitelash) that targeted immigrants, African Americans, and women over the course of a couple of political cycles.
In addition to the racial anxiety that was being felt by whites, there was a fair amount of economic anxiety being experienced by the public regardless of race—the country was coming off a recession—Bill Clinton’s informal campaign slogan had famously been “It’s the economy, stupid”—and Clinton had started closing down military bases and cutting defense industry contracts, as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. High-paying defense jobs were going away, and it wasn’t clear to many voters what was going to replace them.
California conservatives had put Prop. 187 on the ballot, to stoke the fear of immigrants, and drive up turnout among white working class voters who were experiencing economic turmoil. Prop. 187 essentially made it illegal to provide public services to undocumented immigrants—hospitals and schools, in particular, were supposed to not only turn people away, but report them to immigration authorities.
And it worked.
Governor Wilson got elected. Prop. 187 passed. A whole slew of conservative Republicans were elected to congress, and noted racist Dan Lungren was elected Attorney General.
The day after the election, most people who had been working on the election were in shell shock. I got a huge lift that day when a group of high school students (most of whom had been ineligible to vote in the election) walked out of school all over the Bay Area—including a group that came marching up Mission Blvd., right past my office. Hundreds of thousands of people were thrown into limbo, not knowing if their children would be allowed in school, or if they would be denied needed medical care. We had to mourn and organize at the same time, just like now.
As I look at California today, it looks like one of the most hopeful spots in the electoral universe. It’s a reliably Democratic vote in presidential contests. Republicans didn’t have a chance in the most recent US Senate election.
So what lessons do I take away from the ’94 election that makes me feel at least a tiny bit hopeful now?
- Create organizations that were staffed and led by leaders of color, LGBT people, youth and women—or coalitions of those groups working together. One of the groups that I helped in a very small way to start, in the wake of Prop. 187, was Californians for Justice, and I’m proud to say they still exist and are still fighting for justice.
- Don’t deny that bad shit is happening to people & will happen to people, as a result of short-term electoral losses. Groups on the left that actively showed solidarity with immigrants succeeded in California, because solidarity always matters.
- SOLIDARITY ALWAYS MATTERS. Defend the vulnerable.
- Issue-based organizing is more effective than candidate-driven organizing, almost every single time. The way this often plays out in California is through organizing—both offensively and defensively—around ballot initiatives.
- Similarly, election-only tactics are not a strategy for winning. Direct action, legal challenges, individual legal defenses, and sometimes just feeding people or providing other basic human needs are all important, if we want to build a different world.
- Electoral politics doesn’t matter at all, unless it produces visible change. And that doesn’t just mean political change—it means representational change. Look at this photo of the current statewide office-holders in CA, and tell me again how we should keep running straight white cisgendered men as the most possible progressive champions.
- Deep organizing wins more than last-minute election-year canvassing. If you can’t be an organizer in a community that you don’t belong to for whatever reason, then don’t show up in that community in October of an even-numbered year and expect to move people. Center your work in the organizations that are doing that work all year round—help them raise money, teach them skills they don’t have, amplify their voices instead of your own.
- And finally, SOLIDARITY ALWAYS MATTERS. Everyone’s life is equal to yours.
We’re going to lose some things that really matter. We’re going to see people who we love get hurt by the policies of the new Administration. I don’t want to sugarcoat any of the pain that some people are going to feel over the next four years. But I do want to feel some hope myself, because I know that if we lose hope, we will lose the strength to keep going. And I’ve got to keep going.
It is to our credit if these are the Americans to whom we want to trace our moral genealogy. But we should not confuse the fact that they took extraordinary actions with the notion that they lived in extraordinary times. One of the biases of retrospections is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own–that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it–and someone always needs it–we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.”
Kathryn Schulz, “Derailed” The New Yorker, 8/22/16
I’m having a kind of weird election year.
It’s been a long damn time since I didn’t have a job that revolved around electoral politics in even-numbered years. The last time that I worked for an organization that didn’t make endorsements was 2001. I’ve been doing election work, on and off, since 1992. Half of you reading this probably weren’t old enough to vote then. Hell, some of you may not even have been born yet.
It’s kind of nice, for the first time in over a decade, to just be able to talk about politics with my friends and family, and not to have ‘professional’ opinions about it. My kids are a little freaked out that I’m not doing more to get their favorite candidate for president elected–this is, after all, the first election year that either of them can remember that I don’t have an electoral job–but hey, they’re old enough to phone bank, even if they’re not old enough to vote yet.
It’s also nice to be able to express opinions that don’t match up with any organizational need to be able to make a deal, or count on a vote. It’s taken me a little while to figure out what I want to do with this newfound freedom, but it came to me, when I was looking at this list of candidates that had petitioned for the statewide ballot in PA.
On the Democratic side, there are two women, and nine men. And one person of color, who honestly, I had to google because I had never heard of him. I couldn’t get the Treasurer candidates in this screenshot, but they don’t help–on the Democratic side, it’s two more white guys.
So here goes:
white, straight, cisgendered men who consider yourselves allies in the movement–take a step back before running for office
No, I mean that. Sit down, and listen up. Oh, and get out your checkbooks while you’re at it.
Before I go any further, let’s just be clear–this post is not about the US presidential election, or the Democratic candidates therein. This is about the repetitive experience that I have had, over the past 25+ years of working in electoral politics and watching cycle after cycle happen where white men got into primaries involving candidates who didn’t look like them, because the straight white men were more “electable.” Because running as a woman, or a person of color, or a gay man inevitably means that you are operating in the world of “identity politics.”
It’s amazing to me that white men, who make up a minority of both humanity and the US electorate, get to describe other people as running on “identity issues.” Is being a white, straight, cisgendered man not an identity? Do the things that you think matter not matter to you simply because you are a white, straight man?
I understand–you’re different from all the other straight, white, cisgendered men who have ever run for office in the past. I love you, I really do. And I know you think you can help more by winning an election and becoming a legislator, or a city council person, or a dogcatcher (does any place actually have elected dogcatchers?), or a prothonotary, or a US Senator, or whatever.
But you know what will really help me? Having a legislature, or city council, or US Senate that looks more like the country of which it is allegedly representative.
That means more women have to win. And more African Americans have to win. And more Asians, and more Latinos, and more trans people, and more folks who are differently abled.
You know what helps them win? Not having to spend time convincing you that you shouldn’t run, and that they should, and instead spending time raising money & talking to voters.
It is not sexist to want a woman governor, if your state has never had one. Hell, it’s not sexist to want a woman governor if the ratio of past governors has been 40-1 in favor of men.
It’s not racist to want an African American state treasurer, if your state has never elected an African American to statewide office.
It’s not wrong to want to decide that you want to support a candidate who’s in a wheelchair, or one who is a lesbian, or one who is an immigrant.
And you might not always agree with those people, 100% of the time. Because they have viewpoints and life experiences that are different than yours.
We don’t agree with you all the time either, but we still vote for you.
Sometimes we vote for you because we think you’re the best candidate, sometimes because we don’t have other options. Sometimes we have to vote for you, because you’ve pushed the rest of us out of the race.
From now on, my standards for what makes a man progressive are changing. I’m going to think you’re a progressive when instead of standing up, to challenge a woman or a person of color, an LGBT candidate or someone who is disabled, you decide to take a seat. You decide to write them a check. You decide to mentor them, and help them find competent staff. You decide to volunteer for them, help get your organizations to endorse them, and throw your considerable networks behind them.
After all, if we’re going to be held to standards in order to consider ourselves progressives, that ought to include some standards in what white male progressives are doing to expand the electoral playing field for everyone who isn’t them.
On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I re-read “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”
“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(full text of the speech here)