Seeing that most of the American media including Daily Kos has been in full throttle about a presidential election that at this moment is almost a year away, I’ve been feeling the peer pressure to get in the race, make up my mind, and pick a horse. However, each time I follow the heated discussions in favor of or against one candidate or another, I find myself getting strangely disinterested, almost bored. At first it worried me, as I consider myself on the engaged side of the political spectrum — as a naturalized U.S. citizen I take my democratic duties very seriously. In fact, I signed up with Daily Kos in 2008 specifically to play a more active role in my first presidential election as a newly minted citisven (my name is Sven, get it?!).
Let me first get this out of the way: I think Bernie is great, I’ve been warming to Hillary, and Martin O’Malley seems like a perfectly “electable” candidate for a liberally-minded voter like myself. I don’t ever expect to be 100% in agreement or “love” with any candidate, as the simple fact that all of us humans are beautifully different and life is very nuanced and complex would make that kind of a prerequisite for a vote almost insurmountable. I probably don’t have to mention that the Republican field of candidates gives me hives, so like most sane people I cope with the clown car by laughing (though nervously at times).
So why am I not feeling the Bern, or the Hill, or the Mall?
The Personality Blues
At first I thought I had resorted to my native German mode, in which elections are something you don’t get too wrapped up in until a couple of months before going to the polls. Though you do have individuals running against each other to some degree, in a parliamentary system it’s the parties who nominate their candidate for chancellor, so as a voter you’re probably voting as much if not more so on the party platform than for the respective leaders.
There simply isn’t as much of the extreme focus on individuals and their personal platforms or character traits that presidential systems like the American one depend on. There are no primaries, no Iowa caucuses, no endless contests spread out over months and months. Plus, the parties have set budgets for operations and election campaigning, so the hyper buzz on steroids created by all the money and advertising isn’t turned up to eleven as it is in American politics (even Bernie is dependent on the money buzz, just smaller amounts from more people). For better or worse, Germans (and most other Euros) don’t get as worked up about elections as early.
However, the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I realize that that isn’t it, either. Just because I hail from the German Social Democratic tradition (which btw I think describes Bernie’s platform better than Democratic Socialism and would be easier branding for an American electorate, but correct me if I’m wrong) doesn’t mean I’m automatically detached from a candidate’s personal appeal or the allure of their platform. I was pretty psyched about Barack Obama as far back as 2007, and I remember feeling the “Ralph” in 2000 (I was in CA and couldn’t vote back then, so no, I didn’t elect Bush), so I’ve had my share of electoral crushes.
It is, in actuality, exactly those previous crushes and what happened after those elections that have led me to back off a bit on the “my candidate is the last great hope for humanity” juice. I’ve been working in sustainable urban planning since around that 2008 election, and the more I’ve traveled to cities across the world and learned about planning challenges and inequities in my own Bay Area neighborhoods, the more clear it’s become that most of the work and action that not only affects people’s lives but gets them engaged in democracy at all happens locally, every week and every day, between elections.
Spending a year and a half of my time out of every four-year cycle fretting over presidential candidates is just more of a time/mindspace commitment I’m willing to make. I think this sort of round-the-clock campaigning mode sucks up too much air from a political ecosystem that needs to be nourished and energized on all ends of the spectrum. I know Bernie is the first one to say he can’t do it without a strong (and ongoing!) grassroots movement to help his agenda, but so do Hillary and Martin, so did Barack, and so do most politicians I’ve ever considered voting for. So what matters most is that we who believe this to be true actually do the arduous and non-glamorous work it takes to build these (lasting) people movements from the bottom up, and that work takes time and effort.
It Takes A (Sustained) Ecosystem
I’ve also been involved in environmental activism, from protesting the Keystone XL pipeline to shaming Chevron to pay for their pollution to calling for climate action more broadly. All of these movements have borne fruit, from Obama nixing Keystone to Chevron losing big at home and abroad to the U.S. finally getting serious about climate change. These weren’t things that any Democratic president could have just pulled out of his/her hat, but issues that needed critical grassroots movement to expose the polluters and generate the kind of change in public opinion that gives leaders the wave they need to ride on, not just to take a more progressive personal stance but to be able to enact policies that will stand the test of time.
I think the Keystone XL fight is actually a very good example of how this bottom-up or outside-in process works. While it was essential to have a Democrat in the oval office who would at the very least listen to the arguments on all sides, the foundation for the eventual executive rejection of the pipeline — as Ben Adler outlines in his piece The inside story of how the Keystone fight was won — was laid long before Obama ever put any ink on it.
Started by First Nations tribes in Alberta and ranchers in Nebraska, it was an organically grown movement that slowly but deliberately spread from the heartland communities to climate change activists (amplified by Daily Kos blogathons!) to the big environmental non-profits and eventually to the President’s desk over a period of five years. At one point last year, 2 million people explained to President Obama and Secretary Kerry during a 30-day public comment period why the risky tar sands pipeline was not in the national interest. By the time TransCanada pulled out and President Obama submitted his official rejection last week, the political winds regarding that pipeline had shifted so drastically that basically all the President had to do was spread out his cape and fly through a wide open door.
While it’s impossible to know if and how any of the current Democratic presidential contenders would have handled this issue differently from PBO, I think it’s fair to say that the two key elements that led to the eventual rejection of KXL — aside from having an intelligent non-ideologue in the oval office — was to a) let the state department review take its full course and b) use that time to build the kind of citizen mobilization that moves public opinion and pressures decision makers to do the the right thing (which now also happened to be the popular thing).
Who knows, maybe a President Sanders would have come out against the pipeline earlier, though chances are he would have held his cards closer to his chest than he did as a senator, knowing that it would ultimately be more prudent to let the review process take its course and let the activists do their part of the work before taking a definite position. In my view, the process would have played out very similarly with Hillary or any other center-to-leftish Democrat in office, but without all the grassroots mobilization creating the right kind of tail winds, a go-it-alone rejection would have left a huge opening for the fossil fuel lobby and their Republican bidders to create a backlash to call the decision “partisan” and “radical” and begin pushing through other pipeline projects.
By staying on the sidelines for so long, President Obama’s rejection ended up being no big deal, as if it was just the most normal thing in the world, thus suffering no political damage from something that would have been highly controversial just a couple of years ago.
As Rebecca Solnit wrote in one of her must-reads a few months ago, One magical politician won't stop climate change. It's up to all of us:
But it’s not the belief of the majority or the work of elected officials that will change the world. It will be action, most likely the actions of a minority, as it usually has been.
She goes on to put into words my own concerns about spending so much bandwidth on a single person in a single election.
As the Obama Administration nears its end, I keep hearing from the bitterly disappointed and the generally bitter, who seem to believe that one man should have reversed the status quo more or less singlehandedly. They blame, credit, and obsess about the 53-year-old in the White House. But Obama is just the weathervane, and he knew it when he was elected.
Then, he implored the great wind that lifted him up and carried him along to keep going. Instead, people believed the job was done when it had just started and went home. Had the exhilarating coalition of the young, the nonwhite, the progressive, the poor who are usually excluded from political power kept it up, had they believed the power was ours, not his, we could have had an extraordinary eight years. The failures are not his alone – we can’t expect more of politicians than of the civil society that could push them. We can expect more of ourselves.
Zen & the Art of Making Change
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be (passionately!) advocating for their preferred candidate, whether it’s out in their communities or on a blog. I also think that it’s possible to promote a candidate while at the same time being engaged as an activist. But my experience with American politics is that people get so worked up during presidential election seasons for such an extended period of time that they crash really hard once the spectacle is over, regardless of whether their candidate won (“we crossed the finish line, time to collapse!”) or lost (“we worked so hard for nothing, time to despair!”).
So just speaking for myself, while I’m more naturally aligned with Bernie’s longstanding positions, I feel that the best service I can be of to the causes he represents is to spend my spare time advocating for them, more so than beating the drum for his candidacy. As someone who gets easily turned off by hyper partisan sales pitches on any side, I find that the added benefit of engaging with and listening to people on local issues and in the community is not only better for my own state of mind but often more effective in getting them to change theirs. Or at least look at things from a perspective that would align them with the candidate who best represents that perspective. And not just presidential candidates once every four years, but local ones, everywhere and all the time. And if they don’t find the right one, they may even choose to run themselves.
There are already plenty of people right here on Daily Kos and on the internet in general making better cases for Bernie, Hillary, or Martin than I ever could. So I don’t see my time spent most effectively by adding one more primary screed (except for this one, I promise!) or arguing in comment threads about candidates. I say this not to discourage those who do from doing so, but perhaps to give those folks who may feel a similar alienation from the election hoopla the permission to step away from it without feeling like bad citizens.
There are a lot of places people like us can make a HUGE difference if we choose to — just ask the seven or eight dedicated people described in Rebecca Solnit’s essay who have single-handedly kept the divestment initiative alive in San Francisco, a supposedly liberal, climate-concerned city of 850,000.
Another piece of good news is that there are great efforts and opportunities to get away from primary overload right here on Daily Kos, where we can make ourselves useful, get inspired, and have a potentially large impact not only on this but on future elections countrywide, up and down the ballot.
Chris Reeves laid it out in his post It's Time. The 50 State Strategy Returns — and We Need Your Help Crowdsourcing it:
To this end, the Crowdsourcing the 50 State Strategy Group will be geared to help provide information that allows Daily Kos readers to make a big impact all over the country.
- We will highlight filing deadlines, rules and procedures in states as they come due.
- We will discuss elected officials from your precinct race to your US congressperson.
- Encouragement for those running races that are considered very difficult — to help grow the party where it isn't.
- Provide an outlet for candidates to speak to the Daily Kos community to raise support for their efforts.
- Offer support — from research and analysis.
evcoren went into great detail as to how and where we can recruit better local candidates all across the country in his post Crowdsourcing the 50 State Strategy:
The problem is a massive candidate recruiting failure that will result in many voters having no Democrat to choose when they go vote in November 2016. One example of this recruiting failure is US House races:
- We need to pick up 30 seats to win back the House and actually have a shot at governing
- 34 of the 79 Republican Members of the House of Representatives who represent districts where President Obama got at least 47% of the vote currently are running unopposed
- 139 Republican Members of the House of Representatives currently have no Democrat running against them
- In many of the seats where we have candidates, those candidates do not have the resources currently to get their message out
- Ohio’s Congressional filing deadline is December 16, 2015 and currently 7 out of 12 Republicans in Ohio are running unopposed
Here are all the diaries from that fantastic campaign so far:
We’ve spent a year preparing, and I hope you’ll be willing to join us on this journey. How can you contribute to this effort? We need researchers by state, leaders for each of those states and down to each congressional district. We need readers to run for local office, can you run or do you know someone?
The administrators of this group are Chris Reeves, evcoren, Meteor Blades and navajo. If you’d like to join this group send navajo a kosmail and let her know how you want to help.
As for me, I’ll be spending my day tomorrow in Oakland, joining thousands of other concerned citizens at one of the lead-off climate rallies for the all important COP21 negotiations about to take place in Paris. If you’re in the Bay Area, you should consider joining, not only because you can hang out with fellow Daily Kos people in real life (meet at 10:30 AM at the bridge near Lake Merritt, look for kimoconnor, or at 1pm at Frank Ogawa Plaza, kosmail navajo), but with all the tension right now in the physical and the cyber world it can be quite cathartic to get together with kindred spirits (who may even support different candidates) to rally around the goals and dreams we all hold in common.
The tragedy in Paris has only strengthened our resolve to stand together for a peaceful and livable planet. This movement for climate justice has always also been a movement for peace– no matter what background or religion, a way for us to protect our common home. So as world leaders gather in Paris at the end of November for the COP global climate summit, folks around the world will be marching in their communities.
This Saturday, November 21, you're invited to the northern & central California regional march & rally in Oakland. This one of the first of many around the world, so it's especially important that we come out! It's a family & kid-friendly event, rain or shine. Here are the details:
Join us in a Northern California
mass mobilization in advance of the 2015
UN Conference of Parties in Paris (COP21)
Saturday Nov 21, 2015
weather forecast is clear and sunny!
10:30 am - Gather at Lake Merritt Amphitheatre
12:00 noon - March
1:00 pm - Rally at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza
Meet: Lake Merritt Amphitheatre (map)
March to Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza (map)
[contingent assembly info | march route map (note route change as of 11/19)]
RSVP on Facebook
Check for shared rides or buses if you're coming from afar!
Rally program listings on NCCM's Nov 21 event page
Transportation and Parking information here.
Somehow, these kinds of engagements feel more meaningful to me, at least at this stage of the 2016 election.
As a voter, I’ll continue to stay informed about the candidates’ platforms and the most essential news items pertaining to the primary race.
As a citizen, I will try to keep my input of presidential election chatter to a minimum and be as engaged as possible in some of the less glamorous political races.
As a writer at Daily Kos, I will continue to cover what I consider important issues, especially in the environmental field, regardless of popularity.
And as a human being, I’m just trying to stay open, loving, patient, forgiving, resilient, curious, calm, and compassionate on this crazy but only planet we have to live on.