Doing Democracy: Organizing & the Midterms

Ben Shahn For All These Rights… (1946)

So, the Midterms are done. To you who voted I say: Great, I am glad you fulfilled your basic civic responsibility. The big “Thank you!” goes to all of you who took the next step, who voted but also volunteered in getting the vote out, campaigning for someone, etc. For democracy to work, you need to get involved. You mustn’t make it your life calling, but it has to be a regular part of your life — as important as this week’s soccer match, band practice, pub trivia, the new season of Game of Thrones or whatever. Practicing democracy is as important than seeking pleasure from life, maybe more so. If democracy goes away, the pleasures in life become fewer.

Time to get involved is now. Plug in early, between elections, and you have a better chance of doing stuff you want to do. You also get to learn the process. Attempt to engage in the last weeks or even in the middle of an election is difficult. Campaign workers are stretched so thin and things are so hectic, you might not get a response. If you do get through, you are tasked with “boring” but necessary work. For some of you, rote work is a perfect foil to a busy life. Others feel cheated or that their talents are being neglected. Get involved now and you can find what is best for you.

If you have kids, I encourage you to make them a part of your democratic practice. Make doing democracy part of their education. School isn’t going to do it, at least not early enough. Chances are your kids aren’t going to take their first civics class until high school. Start them young, no later than 7 years-old, if you can (if they are older, do it now).

Vote by mail is nice and convenient but it won’t educate your kids. Take election day off if you can. Take the kids to the polls (or to an early voting site if you can’t do election day). You want them to see you vote. Don’t let them fill out your ballot (that’s illegal), rather interact with them, talk them through the process so they feel that they are involved. When you are done voting, take them out for ice cream and then talk about what you both just did. Make it a ritual — voting then ice cream — something that happens in every election. Primaries, special elections, as well as generals, you can have up to three voting/ice cream dates a year!

If you volunteer for a campaign, find tasks that you and the kids can do. One great way to get the kids involved is distributing lawn signs. Find a candidate or campaign that you want to support. Tell them what you want to do. They will provide the signs and a list of places to drop them off. Load up the back of the SUV with the signs and brats. Drive around and have the kids run the signs to houses. Don’t worry, the people will be expecting the signs. When they see cute kids at the door, they will smile and your kids will feel rewarded. Remember to explain what you are doing and why! Connect it with voting. And when you are done, ice cream! Again, make it a fun ritual.

I’m sure that you count among your friends at least one family where everyone gets along and shares similar politics — folks from the soccer team or school. Rope them in. That way you have someone to hang with, and so do the kids. It becomes less parent-children and more of a fun thing. Kids grown up? Snag the grandkids or the grandkids and the parents. No kids? Steal one, no, just joking, seriously, it’s a joke. Go it alone or with a friend or with a friend and their kids. Teachers: I know you can’t drag your students through a campaign, but you can encourage their parents to engage their kids. Emphasize democracy and civic responsibility not party or politics. If a student’s kid is a Trumpy, so be it. This is about democracy.

As your kids get older, and their skills and attention spans change, you can find other ways to plug in, but try to keep the rituals going and always educate. The goal is to make this an important practice, something that they do for the rest of their lives. Hell, maybe when you are fifty and they’ve spawned, they ugly lot of you look at election day as Thanksgiving or something.

Again, no one else is going to do this for you or your kids. My mom gave me a little bit of this in her scattershot, go-it-alone way by dragging me along on her talk-to-the-neighborhood campaigns. I was too young to know what was going on and she was too something to explain why we were doing what we were doing, but something stuck enough for me to be interested in politics. Imagine if my parents took a disciplined approach, something like voting, lawn signs and ice cream. I might be your fucking senator!

One of the reasons we are where we are today is because people refuse or don’t care to or don’t know how to do democracy. The system will not allow a vacuum. If you refuse to get involved, someone who is far stupider and meaner than you will gladly take your place. And when they do, they pass very shitty laws that allow for things like gerrymandered electoral districts and voter suppression.

The shenanigans in Georgia and Florida didn’t just appear. The ratfucking was been legislated into the system by politicians who have people who show up on election day and the day after election day and every day thereafter. These people have incorporated politics into their everyday lives. Businesspeople see no separation between business and politics. The Christian right sees no separation between religion and politics. They understand that you cannot be a successful or faithful spectator. Success and faith require participation, however limited. Their total participation has led to huge disparities in wealth, limited women’s health choices in most of our states, and election in which it is legal to suppress the Black vote. When we failed to show up, they took our place and now we pay.

Ben Shahn Break Reactions Grip (1944)

Okay, time for a little more rambling on the Midterms:

Oh my, the meaningless debate over what constitutes a “Blue Wave”! Ignore the pundits. Democrats did great. They won more than 300 seats in state legislatures and a bunch of governorships. They have total control in more states than they did on November 5. In other states, they broke GOP control. The House takeover was the biggest for Dems since Watergate. And, considering what they were up against in the Senate they did okay. So, they lost North Dakota — always a stretch — but they won Arizona, which they might be able to keep for a long time. “Losers” such as Beto O’Rourke did far better than expected and carried others to victory by creating voter enthusiasm.

Let’s be cleareyed about Beto. Forget the celebrity and how much you dig him. That doesn’t matter one bit. You cannot turn your California, Massachusetts, or Illinois enthusiasm into Texas votes! When the race started, prediction was he’d get creamed. Instead Beto came close. He outperformed expectations, polling 4% higher than Hilary Clinton did in 2016. He set himself up for a win in 2020 if he decides to run against Sen. John Cornyn (which he should, forget Beto for President, that is stupid lefty celeb politics talking). Cornyn is not very popular in Texas. Cruz is.

I know, I know, you hate Ted Cruz, but your feelings don’t matter, and besides, you aren’t Texas. Texas likes Ted. Don’t believe me? Here’s some numbers from Texas, July 2018. John Cornyn: approve 42%, disapprove 29%, no opinion 30%. Ted Cruz: approve 48%, disapprove 35%, no opinion 17%. The margin for error here is 1%, so figure that only 1% in the approve or disapprove is going to move. That no opinion is totally up for grabs. The reason Cruz has a low no opinion is because it is tough to have no opinion about Ted Cruz! You like him or you hate him. Cornyn is different. Unlike Ted Cruz, Cornyn is seen as “just a politician,” in other words totally replaceable. Worse, Cornyn is that he has been in the Senate for 16 years and holds a major leadership position and still 30% of Texans have no opinion of him. Believe me: Beto, Cornyn, everyone in Texas politics, and involved in Senate elections is looking at that 30% and is either really excited or really panicked.

Ben Shahn Our Friend (1944)

More numbers. Many of these midterm contests have been or will be decided by 1000–3000 votes. That’s it. Think about it. Now think about how people you know, not intimates, but people you come in contact with every day, people who you say “Hello, how ya doin?” to. I am not a social butterfly and I can count about 100, from the couple who run my local coffee shop to the soccer players I say Hello to a few times a week to the people in my building. If I count you all in Internetland, it’s thousands.

Now consider this, nationwide 47% of eligible voters voted in the 2018 midterm. People are really excited about that but 47% is pathetic, especially considering that in San Francisco turnout was 70%, And if Frisco is 70% then to make the average there were places where turnout was in the 20%s!

Forty-seven percent turnout leave a lot of room for growth. Of the hundred or so people you know, the math suggests that 53% of those people did not vote. Say you reach out to that 53%. Maybe you inspire 10 or 20 to vote. Twenty votes generated by one person in a race that comes down to 1000 votes is huge. Twenty votes in Arizona, Florida, a tight congressional district in California or New York from you, you, and you can flip your state legislature, the House, even the Senate. Your engagement can make a difference.

And it has. My first roommate and old friend Stella Beratlis lives in Modesto, California, where there is a tight contest between Dem Josh Harder against Trump loyalist Rep Jeff Denham for Modesto’s House seat. Harder is 3000 votes ahead. Stella, who was active in the campaign, was probably good for at least 20 of those. (And, for the long term, her involvement served as example to her daughter and her friends, who as juniors in high school are all pre-registered to vote and can’t wait until 2020).

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Modesto California’s Central Valley, don’t think San Francisco or Los Angeles. Picture Nebraska, Iowa, or even Oklahoma, where much of the California’s generational white people came from. Modesto is an overgrown farm town in the middle of farmland. It is not a progressive city. If Dems in Modesto can’t flip that seat, you can make an impact where you are.

Now, when I posted something similar to this on facebook, Stella wrote that she hoped she made a difference but didn’t know. I replied:

A have a theory — based on educated/experienced hunch, no science — called “voting osmosis.” When someone makes it known to their peers that they are engaged in a campaign, those peers think about getting involved themselves, either out of inspiration, guilt, for social fulfillment, or realization that they can do it too. You don’t need to say a word other than let people know what you are doing.

In sports the cliché is “leadership by example” or “silent leadership.” Stephan Curry is the #1 example. He doesn’t bark at his team or give speeches. He works his ass off, listens, plays within a team structure and his teammates follow. As with Curry, it helps if your peers respect you and/or consider you exceptional or better than average at something.

As a parent you know that kids pick this stuff up, especially when you make it a regular part of your life. Parents who are habitual readers and leave books around the house will most likely have children who gravitate toward reading. No difference with politics. Remember that politics is part of everyday life. The same rules of social engagement that go on in other parts of life are operable in politics and organizing. None of this is very stable genius stuff.

Ben Shahn Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco (1931–32)

One cliched narrative of these midterms is that the election is a referendum on Trump. Since Trump is so unpopular, Trump will sink the GOP. There is some truth to that, however, let’s not make this about Trump. Time to give the Democrats some credit.

A president’s unpopularity will get people thinking about voting, but it won’t get them to the polls. People need a positive reason to show up otherwise they will stew in cynicism. In order to win, the Dems had to run good candidates who would speak on issues that their districts care about. The Democrats not only succeeded in doing that but they did so by running a diverse group of candidates, candidates chosen by voters in Democratic primaries. The Democrats did not play one-size-fits-all. The GOP did. The Democrats won.

Republicans ran hundreds of mini-Trumps, even pols that weren’t natural assholes became Trumpy. As a result, the GOP offered one flavor — pale white entitled anger. The uniformity in GOP candidates up and down the ticket was near total Stepford and they got hammered. That is what “ideological unity” buys you in a diverse country. Nationally, ideological homogeneity buys you 46% of the electorate and the only place 46& works, unfortunately, is the electoral college.

The pundits worry about this diverse Democratic Party (actually they’ve been on this worry since the 1980s). They’ve worried themselves into believing in a “Democratic Civil War.” Bah. Let’s be real here. Dem Socialists, Liberals, Moderate, and Centrist Democrats agree on most policy, while disagreeing on how and how fast to achieve what they want. On every major issue, the distance between Dems is far far far less than that between Dems and Republicans.

Let’s do a short exercise. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez will be one of the most lefty Democrats in Congress. Rep. Connor Lamb is a solid centrist Dem. Let’s look at where they agree on major issues and compare that to the GOP/Trump position.

Roe v Wade
Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Support
GOP: Coat hangers please

Climate Change
Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Action desperately needed now

Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Science is useful
GOP: Science is bunk

Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Pro-immigrations, reform the system
GOP: Lock up children, immigrants are bad, deport them all

Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Make the rich pay their fair share
GOP: Make everyone else pay for the rich

Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Preserve Obamacare while expanding Medicare
GOP: Abolish Obamacare, return to a system run 100% by insurance companies

Gun control
Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Background checks, close loopholes, etc.
GOP: All babies get a birth certificate and a concealed carry permit

Right Wing Racism/Anti-Semitism
Ocasio-Cortez/Lamb: Full condemnation
GOP: Endorse Steve King, silent on Trump’s racist outbursts

…and so it goes. If there is a civil war in America, it is not between Democrats. It is between the racist, misogynistic, anti-science soldiers for the 1% and the rest of us.

Ben Shahn This is Nazi Brutality (1943)

Take a moment to read this E.J. Dionne piece. It underscores a lot of what I’ve written and is the perfect pushback to all the centrist garbagemen urging Dems to tread carefully and not “give in to radicalism.” Dionne correctly states that Dems must push their agenda on healthcare, education, infrastructure, etc.

On policy, Dems must put the GOP on the defensive. A public Medicare opt-in is popular among voters in both parties. House Dems should pass opt-in legislation, forcing Republicans to take a stand. If the GOP Senate passes it and Trump signs it, we are all better off (and the Dems claim a win). The GOP fights it and they get to explain why they are unwilling to help American people. Don’t think it won’t work. Opposition to Obamacare hurt the GOP in the midterm, especially with Medicare expansion popular among voters in very red states.

Pundits say the Dems need to choose between pushing policy and investigating the Trump administration. Totally bogus. As E.J. writes, Nancy Pelosi is a pro and the Democratic House leadership is skillful enough to do pass legislation and carry out multiple investigations. There not only is no either/or here, there can’t be. To play one or the other is democratic malpractice. The Trump administration is thoroughly corrupt. I must be investigated from top to bottom.

Forget about impeachment. Impeachment outs all too many resources in one fight. Let’s take some advice from Ho Chi Minh, the man who beat back the United States military with a peasant army. Ho wrote that the struggle between the Vietnamese people and the U.S. “is the fight between tiger and elephant. If the tiger stands his ground, the elephant will crush him with its mass. But, if he conserves his mobility, he will finally vanquish the elephant, who bleeds from a multitude of cuts.”

Impeachment is attacking the elephant head on. If the intent is to cripple Trump, inflict a “multitude of cuts” by investigating Trump’s business, that of his family, and the swampiness of every damn cabinet head. Make them all sweat. Tie them up. The energy that they spend on worrying with their lawyers is time not spent fucking up the country. If the Democrats do what E.J. (and I) suggests and they will be in a good place for the 2020 elections.

Ben Shahn Demonstration (1933)

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Ben Shahn Supermarket (1957)

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