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Our Limited Political Visions

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I’ve long stated that liberal preconceptions of politics are so limiting to be extremely ineffective. It’s not we shouldn’t focus on elections–obviously that’s a huge part of politics. But how to win elections is about organizing and not only just to get people registered to vote, which is a nearly irrelevant political activity outside of registering new citizens and college aged kids. And yet this is often seen to be the prime example of political action without any real question of whether it works. As we saw in 2020 and for that matter the Virginia elections, which saw record turnout, you can register all the people you want to, but that’s no guarantee they are going to vote for the people you want. For a long time, both liberals and a lot of people on the left believed that if you could activate people to participate, they would do so in a way that would show that our values were in fact the most popular. Yeah….about that……..

Another example of this shallow thinking about elections is the issue of money in politics. In the aftermath of Citizens United, there was a legitimate fear about corporate power overwhelming politics. Democrats responded quite effectively to this, especially since the Bernie campaign of 2016. People are very motivated to give money to candidates. It’s become the top way that people can get involved in politics without actually doing anything. Here’s the problem–it’s ineffective. You need a certain amount of money to win a campaign, yes. But that’s a finite number. More money does not mean winning. That’s because voters have to be…wait for it…organized! And not just to show up to vote either. They have to be organized to believe voting matters. They have to be organized well before the election–like all the time–to believe that liberal values are worth fighting for.

You see, elections are misunderstood by people across the political spectrum. They are not the be all and end all of politics. What they are is a referendum on how you have done in organizing people in the years before the election. This is why third party nonsense is indeed moronic–the Green Party has done nothing to organize anyone ever but intervene in elections for starkly negative purposes. It’s what, amazingly, the Bernie campaign didn’t understand in 2020, completely misreading how to win the Democratic primary while doing absolutely nothing to expand their base in the previous four years. But it’s also completely misunderstood by your average liberal (and for that matter the media), who downplay (and in this site’s comment threads totally dismiss) organizing between elections as the more important base building structure for political change. Street protests, union organizing, community organizing, and all this other grassroots stuff matter in terms of electoral politics (they matter in many ways outside of this but that’s not the subject here) by getting people moved toward understanding their place in society and how to make change in our nation long before they are being asked to vote in the next election. You have to get them to that point first. Otherwise, they won’t vote. Or even worse, they will be attracted to Donald Trump and his ethnonationalist racism.

So there’s a lot that we need to rethink about liberal approaches to politics because the evidence has increased that our prior conceptions of how to win elections simply doesn’t work.

Michael Tomasky has a very good essay in the recent New York Review of Books about the first year of the Biden administration. He diagnoses many problems, including Biden’s poor responses to some crises and the problems of Lord Manchin. He actually had a great discussion of Manchin, basically saying that the reason he is the way he is comes from his background in the West Virginian elite where he his an employer very suspicious of workers have any power at all. But that’s not why I am linking to this. It’s because he rightfully points out that had the gazillions of dollars poured into Senate campaigns by small dollar donors had paid off and won some seats, we wouldn’t have to worry about Manchin or Sinema. But they didn’t.

First, there are the maddening losses by Democratic Senate candidates who were defeated in 2020 despite raising barely conceivable amounts of money and vastly outspending their Republican opponents. In Maine, Sara Gideon outspent GOP incumbent Susan Collins $63 million to just under $30 million—and lost by 9 points. Gideon took in more than she could even spend, ending the campaign with a $15 million surplus. In North Carolina, Cal Cunningham outspent GOP incumbent Thom Tillis $51 million to $25 million. He lost narrowly, by under 2 points, but he lost all the same. In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison spent a staggering $130 million to Republican Lindsey Graham’s $97 million and still lost by double digits. Amy McGrath outspent Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Theresa Greenfield outspent Joni Ernst in Iowa. Both lost badly.

Something is very wrong with the way these campaigns are run if they can raise that much money, mostly from small donors, and not even come close to winning. Raising tens of millions and spending three quarters of it on TV ads, which is customary, is clearly dead as an electoral model, at least for Democrats in purple or red states. Someone needs to invent a new version of how to campaign in those places. What it has to do with Build Back Better is this: if just two of those five had won, Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t have mattered—Go vote no, Chuck Schumer could have said to them; I have my fifty votes. Two more Democratic senators would also have increased the chance of filibuster reform, which would have made it possible to pass voting rights legislation.

I actually think Tomasky may be wrong about there be something wrong with the campaigns, except as more of a systemic issue. The problem is that money doesn’t actually matter that much, at least not after a certain point. I find this assertion almost undeniable at this point. And yet, this is still the entire model for the Democratic Party. Appeal to voters to give money to candidates through increasingly frantic e-mails. This personalizes politics, leading to the complete flushing of cash down the toilet to give to Amy McGrath and Jamie Harrison, neither of which ever had a shot in hell of winning, just because Democrats rightfully hate Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. This model is unlikely to change because no one has anything else to offer. Moreover, how disturbing is it that this didn’t work even after 4 years of Donald Trump and the Republicans who supported him? It’s very disturbing! It’s also more than worth noting that the real exception to this was in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams understands how years of organizing are necessary to win and thus she saw it through, yes in part thanks to cash from around the nation, but really through years of work done on the ground beforehand.

The biggest problem with this direct fundraising of massive cash is obvious–it just doesn’t work. It’s entirely possible that Democrats are still going to vastly out fundraise Republicans in 2022 and lose many Senate and House seats. You can give a bunch of money if you want to but it probably isn’t going to do any good. That’s because ads don’t convince people to come out and vote for you. Not only does everyone hate political advertisements, but you just tune it out after awhile. You have to convince people to believe in you in other ways. That almost all happens before the electoral cycle begins. It almost all happens outside of the electoral process at all. It happens with on the ground organizing around issues and social change. Until Democrats figure out how to do this, all the money in the world clearly won’t make a difference. And the costs of not doing so, as we all know, are immense, frightening, and given the combination of Republican authoritarianism and climate change, possibly the end of the nation and world we know.

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