I spent November 8th working at the polls. Not getting out the vote, or even monitoring the vote, but simply part of the electoral administrative machinery: keeping the lines orderly at PS 269 in East Flatbush, helping voters check in and make their way to the booths so they could cast their ballots. There was something reassuringly dull and technocratic about the process that capped the absurd political dramas of the prior year.
I got home late and stayed up later to watch the news coverage. By the time I went to sleep, it was pretty clear what the outcome would be. I woke up to the confirmation on Wednesday morning. I was disappointed, of course; and surprised, like many, because I believed the polls and analysis that said Clinton would win. But I wasn’t surprised by the idea that it could happen. I wasn’t shocked. All the signs were there.
In the past month, my news consumption and social media commentary have both been excessive. However, with the exception of a lengthy Facebook post the morning after the election, my writing output has been minimal. I tried to go into listening mode. I wanted to see what people smarter than me thought. I talked with old friends and former colleagues, including several who I’d lost touch with in recent years.
More than anything, I’ve been looking for that overarching analysis that would explain what happened. The signs were there and we shouldn’t be shocked that Trump won, but the details of how it came together matter. Unfortunately, most of what passes for analysis is just a one-off data point that confirms some particular interpretation: exit polls say X or the vote swing in these counties suggests Y. We should always be skeptical of explaining complex phenomenon with monotone stories.
Naturally, differing interpretations will persist for decades, as any given story serves one political interest or another: just look at how differently the right and left talk about the Reagan administration. And my academically minded friends will point out that the course of the events will be argued well into the history books.
Fair enough. In the meantime, I needed something actionable. The closest I’ve seen to this broader analysis is a piece titled: “Everything mattered: lessons from 2016’s bizarre presidential election” (the article also has a great list of links to those single-explanation analyses). The short version: many factors came together to result in a Trump victory; we can’t ignore any of them as we chart a path forward.
We’ve seen a flood of attempts to chart that path. That’s what my morning-after Facebook post tried to offer, prematurely. Again, many smarter people have offered their thoughts. While the stream of that commentary has subsided without any single consensus—which it doesn’t necessarily need—the transition process has required activists, politicians, journalists, and others to start acting anyway. Politics waits for neither final analysis nor perfect strategy.
Having tried to digest as much analysis and commentary as possible, I returned to my morning-after post with an effort to update it. The list of priorities below is my current thinking, one month after I worked a very long day to help people play their most tangible role in the democratic process. If we want that to mean anything, we have many longer days ahead of us.
1. Alliance and protection
As disappointed as I may be in the election’s outcome, I sit in a privileged position. Many others are personally threatened by the machinery of the American state and by the private acts of fellow citizens in ways that I’ll never have to experience. In the past month, the worst elements of American society have felt emboldened, leading to a spike in hate crimes and a meeting of white nationalists in DC. We’ve seen no sign that a Trump administration will stop encouraging those elements. Things will be far worse when the administration controls levers at the NSA, FBI, Justice Department, ICE, and other agencies.
To counter, support to national organizations like the ACLU has also grown dramatically in the past month. Protection will also require support to and alliance with the communities that are most under threat. Leaders from those communities need to be given the mic. In the rush of journalists to report on the Rust Belt and rural America, they can’t lose sight of those places where immigrants, minorities, and marginalized groups are going to bear the brunt of a Trump administration. And those of us who have privilege within this system have to be willing to show up—physically—when needed.
2. Fixing the news media
I wrote a longer piece on fake news and post-truth politics at the beginning of October. Much more has been written about it since the election. There have been positive signs (e.g. Zuckerberg acknowledging the problem, advertisers pulling support from various fake or incendiary sites, skyrocketing newspaper subscriptions) and negative signs (e.g. Trump tweeting lies and attacking mainstream outlets, feckless Republicans unwilling to challenge him on basic facts). I don’t have much to add to my earlier analysis, beyond emphasizing that the problem is bigger than just fake news swaying votes. At the core, this a problem of public discourse and whether people from different communities are able to have a conversation. It’s a multifaceted problem that’s been festering for years; the election exposed it dramatically, and now we need to deal with it.
3. Base building and local action
The mechanics of the Democratic party are geared toward national elections. Massive operations drop into swing states every four years, and the main entry point for many activists is to donate or volunteer to GOTV. The party’s much-lauded technology and data advantages surely move the needle in these elections, but they obscure a deeper problem: mobilizing voters is much harder if they aren’t first organized.
I confess to being one of those unorganized voters. I’ve lived in nine or ten places over the past 15 years, but have never deeply engaged in local politics beyond what was required for my job. I haven’t shown up for community meetings like I could, or voted in most local elections, or even known what issues are important to many of my neighbors. I’ve also been very hesitant about getting involved in party politics. Partisanship is anathema to how I see the world.
People like me are a problem for two reasons. First, countless opportunities to move progressive policy forward at the local level will struggle when people aren’t paying attention. And second, working on these local opportunities builds power to make change at the national level.
Being organized means building the base: getting people involved in the way their children are educated, the way their communities are policed, the way economic development is promoted, the way their environment is protected. It’s an education and relationship-building process first, and only then can it be about mobilization through phone calls, protests, or voting. And, critically, it’s a leadership development process: these are the pipelines through which community leaders become city council members, state senators, cabinet secretaries, and presidents.
Some institutions still exist to do this organizing, but others (like unions) have faded in their power. For urban knowledge workers like myself, our closest analogue is Facebook or Twitter—a very poor substitute, despite what the tech evangelists may claim. You have to actually show up, physically, to work with your neighbors on the things that matter in your community. From there, you build the bonding social capital to tackle even larger problems.
4. Bridge building and outreach
America has a social cohesion problem. It’s amplified by the “filter bubbles” of online social networks and the hyper-partisanship of our political system, but it starts from the real world. Start with a basic human tendency to see the world in terms of “us” and “them”, compound it by differing cultural values, then add fissures around career and educational opportunities, and allow for geographic self-sorting. The result: we’re more fragmented than ever.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that it mostly lies outside the political realm. Fights over political power will always involve some amount of division. No amount of new messaging, inclusive policies, or better organizing will overcome that. If we want to build cohesion, it has to happen in win-win spaces like culture, media, economics, or education. It has to provide opportunities for contact and collaboration. The bridging social capital built can then be transferred to the political realm.
Within the political realm, don’t forget: There are many Republicans who aren’t happy about the Trump takeover of their party, and many more will become disaffected when he fails to deliver on his vague promises.
5. Responding strategically
The national level will be unfriendly to progressive causes for at least two years; so will many state houses. We have to take policy victories where we can, but a lot of effort will need to be devoted to mobilizing in response to threats as they arise. These will succeed more to the extent that the above steps have been taken: again, organize then mobilize.
The transition period has already sparked responses, both strategic and reactionary, as we see news coverage and objections made to various appointments. We need to sustain this into the confirmation processes and, more importantly, into the legislative process. We’ll lose many of those battles, but we can win some and use the losses to prepare for the mid-term elections.
6. Reforming the system
The American political system has many problems: the rural bias of the Electoral College, the gerrymandering of Congressional and statehouse districts, the influence of money on elections and lobbyists on policy-making, the executive power of the president, etc.
These are features, not bugs. None of these are mistakes. They’re all deliberate choices made to increase the power of those who already have it. If you want to change what people do with their power, you have to build countervailing forces and then change the system within which power operates.
Most reform victories start at the local level before working their way up. If you don’t like the national politics, start by getting involved where you are.