March 2, 2016

On revolutions

There are a hell of a lot of thinkpieces going up right now on Trump, and Sanders, and Cruz, and Hillary.

This isn’t one of those. I’m going to do my best to avoid mentioning those names.

There’s a lot of talk going on right now about ruling elites, about inequality, about corporate interests and super PACs. What’s pervasive right now is this concept of a giant, moneyed conspiracy oppressing the common American, stamping out opportunity and trying to throttle progress while it’s still in its crib.

That’s an exciting image. It makes you mad as hell. It upsets you, it makes you want to go out and do something.

But I actually don’t think that it’s the case. I don’t think that’s how it works. On the one hand, money doesn’t seem to actually buy elections. Super PACs actually seem to be mostly great at wasting money. Just look at Jeb Bush, who spent an inconceivable fortune for a handful of delegates in the GOP Primary. If money buys elections, the cost is more than even Jeb’s warchest could afford – or the current heir to the establishment throne, Marco Rubio.

But on the other hand, that’s not how American politics works. American politics is not structured as a top down organization, with a few elites making choices about us plebs down here on the ground – it is, sometimes very, very frustratingly, a bottom-up organization, with lots of tiers and stops and breaks in the chain.

So the questions I find myself wanting to ask people all the time these days is: who’s your state senator? Who’s your state representative? And did you vote for either of them? Did you vote in the primary for either of them? And did you vote in the midterms?

The reason I ask this stuff is that everyone knows that everyone’s sick of deadlock in Washington DC. But this deadlock is fueled by a handful of House Representatives (and Senators, but it’s the House that’s key) who have their districts drawn so their seats are completely safe, so they don’t need to act reasonable to ensure that they get re-elected.

Their actions and their policies are functionally irrelevant. Their election is automatic. Their districts have been drawn so that their core voters make up the majority. An impregnable fortress has been built around them.

But they didn’t build that fortress. Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures. And if you aren’t aware, most state legislatures these days are controlled by the GOP – a historic number of them, in fact.

This took decades to establish. And it doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon.

Until that changes, congressional districts won’t change.

Until congressional districts change, DC deadlock will remain as contentious as ever.

As long as DC deadlock remains in place, things will not get better for America as a whole. They’ll likely get worse.

So yeah. Here we are.


I get kind of frustrated when I see all of this revolutionary rhetoric getting tossed about. Because in our heads, revolutions take place overnight. One day, the Girondists are still in charge of Paris – the next, the Tuileries Palace has been taken, and there’s a whole new gang in charge.

But if you really want a peaceful revolution in America, one election isn’t going to do it. This isn’t going to take place overnight. This is going to take years. Maybe decades. If you want to change the system, you’re going to have to do something that hasn’t happened a lot before: you’re gonna have to show up to vote. A lot. In a lot of little elections.

And yeah, there are absolutely obstacles in your way. And some of it is indeed money. Lots of state legislatures only pay their representatives a pittance, meaning only millionaires can afford to step into elected office.

And yes, those in power – usually moneyed people – have made voting hard on everyone else, ensuring a low turnout so that only those with vested interests (usually their interests) show up.

And yes, lots of corporate interests are financing campaigns at the state level. But it’s still a really, really small voting pool, since there’s such low voter turnout in these things.

So it can be done! You can indeed defy the odds. Just look at Eric Cantor.

Eric Cantor is the only house majority leader in American history to lose his seat in a primary. And the reason he lost is that the voting base got pissed at him, decided they wanted someone else, and then showed up to vote.

And it’s that last part that’s really important. They showed up to vote. In a midterm primary. Which is where candidates and incumbents are frequently weakest.

God, if there’s one word that puts voting Americans into a dull stupor, it’s the word “midterm.” So very, very few people vote in the midterms – especially the midterm primaries. That’s a hell of a lot of critical seats decided by wonks, zealots, or people who just didn’t have anything better to do at lunch. We get all razzed up about the presidential election, but it’s the primaries and all the other little elections that make a big difference.

But it can happen. If people get passionate enough, if they get devoted, if they get organized, they actually can make a difference. These local elections are frequently so small that it takes just a small, passionate group to get the job done.

Just look at one presidential candidate out there now – Ted Cruz. (Sorry, I had to mention one.) His senate seat was a total upset. He won it in the Republican midterm primary against Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst – a man with a lot of establishment cred and whole lot of money behind him. But Cruz’s supporters were passionate and organized, and they made it happen.

So can you.

This probably isn’t the answer you want. Revolutionary rhetoric is way more satisfying than hearing that you need to show up to vote in a marathon of myriad elections, many for candidates you likely have never heard of. But one solid rule I’ve found is that the more exciting the rhetoric is, the higher the odds that the problem being discussed isn’t nearly as simple or easy as it sounds.

The issue here is that the people who show up to vote at these elections are usually the people directly impacted by the offices being elected. IE, they get taxed or regulated. And the only thing that really gets taxed or regulated is money. So the people who are showing up to vote are the people making money. And they, like any voter, are voting their interests.

The people who aren’t showing up, on the whole, are the young, the poor, and the marginalized.

Some of this is by design. Some of it isn’t.

All of it can be overcome, though. If you just keep showing up.

The future doesn’t actually belong to the rich or the powerful, or to corporations. It belongs to the people who show up.