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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Review: Politics is for Power

 Politics is for Power is an indictment of something I've been guilty of: treating politics the way sports fans treat sports, reading about it, sharing articles on social media, but not actually doing very much. It makes for a very uncomfortable read, but as the title of the book says, if you actually want to achieve political power you actually have to get off your ass and out of the house and do something:

The petitions with large numbers of signatures were primarily addressing legitimate policy concerns, but minor ones. Petition-gathering organizations such as MoveOn see the same phenomenon. Saving dolphins generates enthusiasm among petition signers. So does demanding funding for PBS and NPR. Aid to the poor? Not so much. Schaffner and I looked closer at the White House data. We obtained the zip code of every petition signer, which we linked to the income level of their neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, people in wealthy neighborhoods were more likely to sign online petitions than those in poor ones. More surprising is that those in wealthier neighborhoods were especially likely to sign petitions if the petition was about issues that were frivolous and narrow. Academics refer to this behavior as postmaterialist. For citizens whose material needs—food, shelter, health—are met, politics can be focused on frivolous and nonmaterial issues. Politics can be more of a game. (kindle loc 1016)

 When people quit Facebook, nobody likely calls them up or sends an email to convey concern or disappointment that they are no longer offering their political hot takes. The relationships are not serious enough that anyone would care to make such a call. That no one is relying on you is a great sign that the activity you are doing is a shallow hobby. (kindle loc 1711)

 Eitan Hersh's thesis is as follows: most people really don't care about politics --- all you have to listen to any interview with a typical voter to discover how incredibly uninformed they are, and how much the nuance or detail of public policy matters to them. Historically, political parties have gotten the loyalty of the electorate by doing things that matter to them --- getting them jobs, solving day to day problems in the community, and doing things like getting them healthcare. If you ever wonder why people in the middle east, for instance, support the terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslin Brotherhood, it's because their local organizations provide services:

Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood, all of which provide health and education services in addition to a political agenda. To ordinary people who don’t care much about politics, these groups say, “We care about you. We support you. When the time comes for a vote or a protest, be there for us.” In the story from Egypt and the Arab Spring, the leaderless resistance groups stood no chance in an election against the Muslim Brotherhood, which built a brand not just based on an ideology but on a commitment to community service. White nationalists are figuring this out, too. As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina was out in 2018 offering assistance to opioid addicts.19 When your ideology is as noxious as the KKK’s, you won’t win many supporters on your policy views alone. But you may win supporters if you show people you care about them. And if you show voters empathy and take care of people and the mainstream parties aren’t doing the same, maybe you’ll get some converts to your cause. (kindle loc 3161)

The author covers the history of the decline of such machine politics in the USA, where the parties got hollowed out as the electorate got wealthier and needed less help, and the top level political leaders decided that the local chapters can embarrass them by holding beliefs that contradict the national platform:

Top-down leadership retains control so that no local can go rogue and embarrass the national organization. Top-down unions, according to labor scholar and activist Jane McAlevey, recruit leaders based on “likability and charisma … [the] ability to speak with the media and chair meetings,” characteristics that aren’t particularly meaningful to trust-building with workers. McAlevey argues that unions have collapsed in part because they’ve lost sight of local workers’ potential for grassroots leadership. (kindle loc 2908)

 If you've ever volunteered for a phone bank, you'll know that the experience is shallow and doesn't feel right --- you're given a script and a bunch of phone calls to make and after you're done you're given some more. You feel like a telemarketer after all is said and done and there's no linkage to your political goals. Hersh says this is by design. The donation-oriented approach encourages this, but doesn't retain an on-the-ground organization to carry you through unexciting elections. The way around this is to provide services or to do deep canvassing, which makes less dedicated people uncomfortable, since you have to actually listen to people:

The idea of approaching a citizen who is not knowledgeable or interested in politics and focusing on listening rather than talking, or focusing on serving the material needs of the voter, feels dirty, in part, because any side can do it. We saw that in the previous chapter: the most pernicious political organizations offer services in exchange for political support. It feels dirty because politics, to hobbyists, is about ideas more than it is about power. Even if hobbyists think their side has the best ideas and ought to be in power, the thought of approaching people who don’t know anything about politics and saying, “Vote for my party because we are going to take care of you in these concrete ways,” is exactly like the kind of dirty transactional politics that they want to avoid. To the retired social worker I failed to recruit, even offering voters an empathetic ear felt dirty and transactional. (kindle loc 3315)

 Hersh suggests that the antidote is to go out and organize your community and try to provide basic services. Even in rich wealthy communities:

Ture and Hamilton write, “One of the most disturbing things about almost all white supporters has been that they are reluctant to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.” Fast-forward fifty years from that book, when I sit and read through public comments arguing against low-income housing development in well-to-do communities, saying that new developments will “change the character of the town,” and when I see little or no organized effort in privileged white communities to support lower-income housing, I know what Ture and Hamilton were talking about. (kindle loc 3232)

 At the top level, that means the wealthy donors funding the parties have to be willing to give up control instead of pouring money into largely ineffective campaign ads to make themselves feel good. This will be a tough thing to do but given the asymmetry in politics between the two party if the Democratic party wishes to succeed it's the only way to go:

For a political party or wealthy political benefactor to do what I am suggesting—shifting resources to goods and services and hiring local organizers—requires them to empower local people, which means they will not maintain tight centralized control. This is sometimes hard for them to stomach. Empowering local organizers comes with risk. Leaders who hire local organizers need to know how to find good people, how to train them, how to empower and monitor them. If done well, this can be much more effective than any top-down approach, as I have suggested in the stories of organizers in this book. But do not confuse my endorsement with a claim that it is easy to pull off. If donors and parties want to do something more effective than silly campaigns ads, which have, at best, tiny effects on politics, they need to take some risks and do harder things. (kindle loc 3436)

 Unlike Democratic donors, Republican donors typically support politicians whose policy priorities align with a wealthy person’s financial interests. The donors can view donations as an investment. When Schaffner and I asked max-out donors why they made their contribution, many more Republicans than Democrats said that a very or extremely important reason for their gift was that the politician could affect the donor’s own industry (37 percent of Republicans versus 22 percent of Democrats). This asymmetry puts Democrats at a disadvantage. Not motivated by their own bottom line, Democratic donors instead have to be motivated by ideology, issues, or even by the entertainment value that a donation provides. For entertainment value, state legislative races and other low-level offices don’t offer donors much. Maybe this is a reason that over the last decade, Republicans more than Democrats have invested in the offices that, however small and unexciting, are the key to congressional redistricting and consequential state policies. (kindle loc 1312)

This is by far the most important and uncomfortable book I've read this year about politics. If you're a typical college educated reader who cares about politics, the book will make you squirm in many places as you realize how much of your time was misspent when you could actually be doing something else more effective. It doesn't mince words and is brutally honest about what it would take to gain political power. If you really want your side to win, the amount of hard work required is daunting. But I agree with Hersh that it is the only way to gain enduring political power. The alternative is shallow movements that fail or create political vacuums that will invite the folks who're willing to do the hard work to win:

Consider the Arab Spring.8 The Arab Spring is the name of a series of revolutionary movements that started as antigovernment protests in 2010. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and spread through Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, and to a lesser extent in other countries. By all accounts, social media played an important role in coordinating the protests, telling activists where and when to gather, transmitting information about where and when to send medical supplies and food. The Arab Spring failed nearly everywhere. The aftermath has been called the Arab Winter, a wake of death, destruction, and capsized rickety boats that carried now-drowned refugee children. The Arab Spring was a tragedy...In Egypt, for instance, protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square spurred elections, which was a major victory—after a mere eighteen days of protest, the country’s leader of almost thirty years stepped down. But the secular movement in Tahrir Square had no leaders, no ability to organize, and no capacity to mobilize voters. The liberal energy that spurred change lost the elections to an organized party, the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood, which was eventually forced out of power by a military coup. Activists with an Internet connection could crumble a government but could not build one in its place.9 To do that, you need a hierarchy of leaders from low-level people willing to knock on thirty-five doors to middle-level organizers to higher-level leaders with a plan. In short, you need an organization. In Egypt, the protesters never had that. (kindle loc 2509-2516)

This book is a call to action and an indictment of most of us in the (upper) middle class. I highly recommend it.

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