Can we please get married?

Just came from the US Social Forum in Detroit, which was amazing. Huge props to the organizers. It was no small feat. A lot of people came looking desperately for some sense of life in the social justice movement. And they found it. The Inter-Alliance Dialogue in particular is super super inspiring on many levels.

On a frustrating note, I was struck by the incredible disconnect between the folks at the social forum and folks in the mainstream progressive community (I only saw a few dozen people who overlapped out of 15,000+). Such a shame!

First of all, the social forum was more than ten times as big as the biggest progressive conferences in DC this year. And it was probably more than five times as big as Netroots Nation, the big blogger conference. So why is it so far off the radar of the mainstream progressive movement?

I could talk about this endlessly, but mostly, I want to say: I’m pro-marriage. For everybody. I think the social forum crowd, the blogger crowd, the civil rights community, and the mainstream progressive crowd have a lot to learn from each other and my big take away is that we desperately need a constructive intra-movement dialogue.

In my gut, I believe there is a common story and 30 year strategy that hasn’t been articulated yet that could unite the majority of folks from the many fragmented threads of our movement.

We desperately need to articulate that story and strategy because the Tea Party/ GOP is about to kick our teeth in while we’re stumbling around talking past each other.

In short, we need a strategy that is able to simultaneously:

1. Push and critique Obama and Democrats in Congress for not being progressive enough.

2. Push and critique the Republicans in Congress and the Tea Party ten times as hard for being ten times as bad on most things (even though we’re ten times as disappointed with the Democrats).

3. Turn out voters to elect the best progressive candidates to win in primaries AND the general elections this year so that the message coming out of November is that the American people want a MORE progressive agenda, not a less progressive agenda.

It sounds basic. But the mood at the social forum and in many conversations is to be luke warm at best to the third prong of the strategy, the voting part.

That is fucking scary!

Somehow we need to learn to learn to walk, chew gum, and drink water at the same time.  One strategy by itself is not a winning strategy.

I think we have a completely illogical way of evaluating whether voting for progressives or Democrats is a worthwhile activity.

The logic is: We voted for Democrats and it didn’t get us what we want. In fact, the Obama administration is doing some things that are extending the bad things Bush did (in particular with the war in Afghanistan, ICE enforcement, and a too-cozy relationship with Wall Street). Therefore, we should stop voting or trying to get people to vote. In short, voting doesn’t work.

That’s like saying: We did a direct action against BP. But BP is still doing bad things. And the oil is still gushing. Therefore direct action doesn’t work.

Or: We planted a community garden and bought organic local foods.  But it didn’t stop agribuisness from dominating the market with pesticides and GMOs. Therefore supporting local foods doesn’t work.

Or: We stopped a prison from being built but the US is still #1 in incarceration. Nothing changed. Therefore stopping prisons doesn’t work.

No, the lesson is we have to do a lot MORE direct actions. We need to plant MORE gardens. We have to stop MORE prisons. And more and more and more.

And we also need to get more people to vote.

All of these activities make a small difference in the scheme of things. But together they have a cumulative effect over time. It makes me really upset when I hear a prominent leader at the social forum say we shouldn’t vote in November to teach the Democrats a lesson. To me that’s like saying: We should stop planting community gardens to teach Whole Foods a lesson. The food industry is what we and 300 million other Americans make it.

Yes it’s rigged. But it’s reality. And we need to be about the long hard struggle of un-rigging it. And the way to do that is: create alternatives, change the culture, elect better leadership, and pass better laws. It’s a 30 year plan. We’re actually doing a decent job. But we need to keep at it.

The food industry reflects us. The political leadership reflects us. The more we participate, the more it reflects our values. The more we participate by voting, lobbying, direct action, media, political education, whatever, the more influence we have. These are all just tactics –tools in the toolbox. Don’t tell people we need to stop using certain tools. We need to use EVERY FREAKING TOOL WE HAVE to make deep transformative change. Yes each action by itself is small, and yes it’s frustrating we’re not more powerful. And yes, we wish we could snap our fingers and make Obama do what’s right instead of negotiating with the thousands of lobbyists from Wall Street.  But this is the reality we live in. Acting like voting doesn’t matter or that it “feeds the beast” is like saying community gardens don’t matter because they don’t change what’s sold at McDonalds… yet.

Speaking of community gardens, I know a woman in Florida who was an anarchist and a radical cheerleader, and a community garden person. In 2004 I tried to get her to help me on the election. She said no, she didn’t believe in voting. Then she wrote me back in 2005 and said she had decided to run for city council! And she won! Now she is taking on the local developer interests which are driving gentrification, and she has become a hundred times more sophisticated and effective as an activist. What if we had 1,000 more like her?  It would make a huge difference at the local level, and then trickle up to the national level and begin to transform our politics over the coming decades as people of color become a majority.

Why are people so opposed to voting as a tactic?

The Tea Party isn’t opposed to voting. And that’s why they’re the most powerful and successful political movement in our country right now. They know how to play the game.

Look, I’m going to be honest. I’m terrified. And I don’t understand why other people aren’t terrified too.  The “intensity gap” between Republicans and Democrats is almost 2:1. 50% of Republicans say they’re motivated to vote, compared to 30% of Democrats (USA Today). We worked so hard to stop Republicans from controlling our government. And we’re actually making incredible progress. The Dream Act is on the table in a way it wasn’t before. We’re getting some financial reform. Some health care. Some investment in green jobs. We can’t give up now.

Whole Foods is starting to carry local foods. Safeway is starting to carry organics. My little community garden is starting to make a dent in the overall food system.

We can’t let the Tea Party win now. We can’t let the right-wing win with the message that Obama and the Democrats are too far to the left. Are you freaking kidding me?  Are we really saying it’s a good strategy to let the Tea Party win in November?

Voting is so easy. It’s one more little easy thing to do on top of all of the hard stuff we do. It usually takes less than an hour for the whole process. This isn’t a heavy lift. It is complimentary to every other action we need to take (protesting, direct action, etc). And it’s free. It’s not like asking someone to spend tens of hours preparing to do a direct action and getting arrested and going to jail. It’s not like it takes hundreds of hours like clearing an abandoned lot and planting a community garden. Voting is just a simple little thing. It takes less than an hour. You won’t get arrested. You don’t have to pay extra for it like organic foods.

And it has a small but important effect over time. It helps inch things one baby step in the right direction instead of one giant step in the wrong direction.

Here’s the disconnect:

We need to have a real sense of what one vote or one election can actually produce.

You wouldn’t walk into a store with a penny and expect to buy a new TV.  You wouldn’t yell at the store clerk and say: I brought my penny. You give me that TV right now!

But if we save up a lot of pennies over time, eventually we’ll have enough for that TV.

If we can organize enough of us to vote, and run candidates, and push winning policies and messages in enough local and state elections over years and decades, eventually we’ll be able to elect better and better leadership.  Over time, our pennies will add up. We’ll be able to buy that TV.

If we give up now and go back to only protesting and complaining about Democrats without ever getting serious about building power, organizing voter blocs, running candidates and governing, we could find ourselves protesting for a very long time.

On the other side of the equation, the mainstream progressive groups need to embrace and learn from the grassroots social justice movement. We need to make stronger, bolder demands. We need to have the backs of people who are most effected by bad policies like ICE enforcement. We need to escalate tactics when appropriate instead of taking our cues from the administration.

I have way more to say about this but I’ll stop here…

Can we get married now please?


6 responses to “Can we please get married?

  1. Hi Billy,

    Michael likes to joke that if voting really mattered, they wouldn’t let us do it. But then we follow up with, “Yes, vote, but if that is *all* you do on the civic engagement front, don’t be surprised if you are disappointed in the outcome.” Thanks for working so hard day to day to nudge along progressive ideals. My focus remains on transportation–trying to convince neighbors and politicians to move away from car-dependency.

  2. Gin!!! So good to hear from you! That’s whats up. One thing you and I have always shared is a passion for public transit and alternatives to cars. I’ll never forget how you took Ariel tunnel running! For better or worse, I still don’t drive. Sending you and your family love and look forward to one day meeting them!

    • Caitlin Kinahan

      Hey Billy! Still knockin’ ’em down and pickin’ ’em up one peg at a time. G-d love ya. Just wanted to interject on the transportation note, although not directly related to the original point Gin made, that there should also be a focus on access to transportation and voting. That disconnect has been a great enabler of the far rights to limit the already quieted voices of the lower class from both jobs and voting among many other social mainstreams. In so doing, they also protect their majority opinions and the illusion that more is being done than said to engage this group and end the miscarriages of justice that have become cyclically intrinsic to the demographic. It is something that seems so simple and yet goes overlooked and underexamined in our country’s socio-economic history. Access can equal awareness when given freely. Thanks for always fighting the good fight. You haven’t changed in 25 years! So refreshing.

  3. doesitreallymatter

    Voting only works if you vote for a candidate who is not greedy or self absorbed. In order to find the right candidates, the citizens who truly want the best for our country you have to take the money out of the office.
    Greed and Self image are powerful human desires. Sadly we live in a world where Self Image is only second to the size of someones Bank account.
    The fact so many people want to run for a political office shows that fact alone, so to ensure the people who take these positions are worthy of the honor take away the bank account that goes with it.
    Make it illegal for any person holding a public office to gain more than the national median.
    Maybe then it will be easier to weed out the greed and self absorbed members of the political community and leave room for the people who truly care about this country… (/end rant)

  4. My problem is that people ask me to vote/work etc, but when I read more about them, I’m disillusioned by what I read. In order to progress through the meat grinder of elections to a state or national level requires a candidate to water down their message in order to get anyone to vote. Or they claim to have an position, but just say something to get a vote or two.

    I stopped calling myself a progressive since I don’t find that many people I agree with. I don’t think of myself as a centrist and certainly not a libertarian or conservative. So your ideas are good, but frankly what I have seen is most progressive groups agree with the concept of combining as long as your group morphs into their group.

  5. Thank you all for the comments! Caitlin thanks! -great to hear from you! Doesitreallymatter, I hear you and it’s a creative proposal. I wish we could implement it. The problem is we live in the real world. It DOES really matter and unfortunately, we have to do the best we can with the cards we are dealt. Most people to some extent are greedy and self-absorbed. That’s just how we are. But we’re also compassionate and generous. Gotta make the best of the reality we live in rather than wishing for another one. Ya know? You have good ideas and heart –please get involved in changing this reality, which unfortunately means voting for a lot of people who are slightly less greedy and self-absorbed… one baby step at a time. Rich, thank you for all your comments. I hear you, it’s hard to find a group or a cause that’s completely aligned with any person’s values. And you’re right – organizations tend to act as fiefdoms that put their organizational interest ahead of the greater good or the good of the individuals involved. For me, I feel like for better or worse, that’s the nature of the world. So I think I take the opposite approach. I want to ally and connect and smush together with as many groups I sort of agree with as possible in the hopes that by learning from each other and collaborating we can become better, as imperfect as all of us are. And in doing so to create a more transformative culture… does that make any sense?

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