Mimi, my friend, was recently informed by me that I would be leaving her in a few weeks. returning Reno to aid UNITE-HERE (the hospitality industry union) in the potentially terrifying 2022 election. “Even though,” I added, “I hate electoral politics.”
She just laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You’ve been saying that as long as I’ve known you,” she replied with a grin.
How right she was. And “as long as I’ve known you” has been a pretty long time. We first met over a quarter century ago when she was hired by me and my partner to organize a field campaign against Proposition 209. The ballot initiative was one in a series of pandering to the racial anxieties that white Californians experienced during the 1990s. The first was Prop 187The law bans the provision by government of any services, including education and health care, to undocumented immigrant. Californians overwhelmingly approved this initiative in 1994 by 59% to 41%. However, a federal court ruled that most of its provisions were unconstitutional, and it was never put into effect.
We weren’t so lucky with Proposition 209, which, in 1996, outlawed affirmative-action programs statewide at any level of government or public service. Its effects reverberate to this day, not least at the prestigious University of California’s many campuses.
A study that was commissioned by the Office of President 25 years later revealed that “Prop 209 caused a decline in systemwide URG enrollment by at least twelve percent.” URGs are the report’s shorthand for “underrepresented groups” — in other words, Latinos, Blacks, and Native Americans. Unfortunately, Proposition 209’s impact on the racial makeup of the university system’s students has persisted for decades and, as that report observed, “led URG applicants to cascade out of UC into measurably less-advantageous universities.” Because of UC’s importance in California’s labor market, “this caused a decline in the total number of high-earning ($100,000) early-30s African American and Hispanic/Latinx Californians by at least three percent.”
We lost the Prop 209 election. However, the organization we helped to start back in 1995 won. Californians for Justice, still flourishes. Led by people of color, it’s become a powerful statewide advocate for racial justice in public education with a number of electoral legislative It has won numerous victories.
Shortcomings & the Short Run
How can I hate you, electoral organizing? Let me list the ways. First, such work requires that activists like me go far, but rarely deep. It forces us to view voters as if they were a number on a list and not as individuals. Under intense time pressure, your job is to try to reach as many people as possible, immediately discarding those who clearly aren’t on your side and, in some cases, even actively discouraging them from voting. This approach to elections can lead to a weakening of the connection between citizens, their government, and reduce all forms of democratic participation to one action: a vote. This kind of political work rarely creates organized power that lasts beyond Election Day.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon for electoral campaigns to involve lying to voters but also to your own canvassers (not only to you) about whether or not you can win. In bad campaigns — and I’ve seen a couple of them — everyone lies about the numbers: canvassers about how many doors they’ve knocked on; local field directors about what their canvassers have actually done; and so on up the chain of command to the campaign director. In good campaigns, this doesn’t happen, but those may not, I suspect, be in the majority. Lies can be a bad habit for anyone trying to build a strong organization and a better world.
Lying, like the philosopher Immanuel Kant arguedThis is a way to treat people as if they were nothing more than things to be used. Organizers of electoral campaigns are often tempted to adopt an instrumental approach to others. They assume that voters and campaign workers only have value if they can help you win. Such an approach, however efficient in the short run, doesn’t build solidarity or democratic power for the long haul. Sometimes, of course, the threat is so great — as was true when it came to the possible reelection of Donald Trump in 2020 — that the short run simply matters more.
Another problem with election? Campaigns so often involve convincing people to do something they’ve come to think of as a waste of time, namely, going to the polls. A 2018 senatorial race I worked on, for example, focused on our candidate’s belief in the importance of raising the minimum wage. We won that election. But, four years later the federal minimum wage remains stubbornly at $7.25 per hour. This is not through any fault on our candidate. Still, the voters who didn’t think electing Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen would improve their pay weren’t wrong.
On the other side, the governor we helped elect that same year (and for whose reelection I’ll be working again soon) did come through for working Nevadans by, for example, signing legislation that guarantees a worker’s right to be recalled before anyone new is hired when a workplace reopens after a Covid shutdown.
You’ll hear some left-wing intellectuals and many working people who are, in the words of the old saying, “too broke to pay attention,” claim that elections don’t change anything. This view is difficult to accept in a world that has seen the Supreme Court radically reshaped by Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell bent on reshaping it. nearly the last century American political life. It’s true that overturning Roe v. Wade doesn’t affect my body directly. I’m too old to need another abortion. Still, I’m just as angry as I was in 2016 at people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wasn’t Bernie Sanders. As I told such acquaintances at the time, “Yes, we’ll hate her and we’ll have to spend the next four years fighting her, but on the other hand, SUPREME COURT, SUPREME COURT, SUPREME COURT!”
Okay, maybe that wasn’t exactly the most elegant of arguments, but it was accurate, as anyone will tell you who’d like to avoid getting shot by a random heat-packing pedestrian, buried beneath the collapsing wall between church and stateOr burned out In another climate-change-induced conflagration.
If Voting Changed Anything…
Back in 1996, as Election Day approached, Californians for Justice had expanded from two offices — in Oakland and Long Beach — to 11 around the state. We were paying a staff of 45 and expanding (while my partner and I lay awake many nights wondering how we’d make payroll at the end of the week). We were ready for the get-out-the vote push.
Just before the election, the newsletter of one of the three seed money organizations published its monthly newsletter. The cover featured a photo of a brick wall spray-painted with the slogan: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Great, just what we needed!
It’s not as if I didn’t agree, at least in part, with the sentiment. The two main parties have little in common when it comes down to foreign policy and the global projection of military power. Since the end of World War II, Democrats and Republicans have cooperated in a remarkably congenial way when it comes to this country’s disastrous empire-building project, while financially rewarding the military-industrial complex, year after year, in a grandiose fashion.
Even in the Proposition 209 campaign, my primary interest was in building long-term political power in California for communities of color rather than in a vote that I knew would be lost. Still, I felt then and feel today that there’s something deeply wrong with the flippant response of some progressives that elections aren’t worth bothering about. I’d grown up in a time when, in the Jim Crow South, voting was still largely illegal for Blacks and people had actually died Fighting for their right vote. Some of my feminist forebears were there decades ago. tortured While campaigning to vote for women.
Making Voting Illegal Again
1965 – President Lyndon Johnson signed this document. Voting Rights Act, explicitly outlawing any law or regulation that “results in the denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color.” Its specific provisions required states or counties with a history of voter suppression to receive “pre-clearance” from the attorney general or the District Court for the District of Columbia for any further changes in election laws or practices. This provision was considered the core of the Act by many experts..
In 2013, the following was added: Shelby County v. HolderA Supreme Court that was largely shaped and influenced by Republican presidents tore that heart out. The court ruled, in essence, that since those who were once exempt from voting can now vote, jurisdictions don’t need to have preclearance for changing their voting laws and regulations. It was deemed that it was effective and should be thrown out.
Some states took immediate action to limit voting rights. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced that it would implement a strict photo ID law. Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also began to enforce photo ID laws that had previously been barred because of federal preclearance.” Within two months, North Carolina passed what that center called “a far-reaching and pernicious voting bill” which:
“instituted a strict photo ID requirement; curtailed early voting; eliminated same day registration; restricted preregistration; ended annual voter registration drives; and eliminated the authority of county boards of elections to keep polls open for an additional hour.”
Thankfully, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the North Carolina law and the Supreme Court did not disturb the ruling.
But as it turned out, the Supremes weren’t done with the Voting Rights Act. The current Trumpian version will be the court in 2021. issued a ruling In Brnovich against Democratic National Committee upholding Arizona’s right to pass laws requiring people to vote only in precincts where they live, while prohibiting anyone who wasn’t a relative of the voter from hand-delivering mail-in ballots to the polls. Even though such measures would have a disproportionate impact on non-white voters in practice, the court ruled that as long as the law was valid, it was legal. Technically the same for all voters, it didn’t matter that, in practice, it would become harder for some groups to vote.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, stated that states have an even more important interest in limiting voting. This is preventing voter fraud. In other words — at least in the minds of two-thirds of the present Supreme Court — some version of Donald Trump’s big lie about rigged elections and voter fraud has successfully replaced racist voter suppression as the primary future danger to free and fair elections.
Maybe elections actually do change things. Otherwise, why, in the wake of the 2020 elections, would “they” (including Republican-controlled state legislatures Be so determined to make it harder for certain people in significant parts of the country to vote? And if you think that’s bad, wait until the Supremes rule next year on the fringe legal theory of an “independent state legislature.” We may well see the court decide that a state’s legislature can legally overrule the popular vote in a federal election — just in time for the 2024 presidential race.
The Future Is Awaiting Us
I speak by phone with another friend a few times per week. We began doing this at the height of George W. Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s vicious “war on terror.” We’d console each other when it came to the horrors of that conflict, including the illegal invasion of Iraq, deaths and torture of Iraqi Afghan civilians and the seemingly endless expansion American imperial meddling. We’re still doing it. It seems like the world is traveling one more mile every time we speak.
Both of us have spent our lives trying to stop capitalism, militarism, or authoritarian government. To say that we’ve been less than successful would certainly be understating things. We keep going, and we continue to discuss what we can do.
At this point in my life and my country’s slide into authoritarian misery, I often find it hard even to imagine what would be useful. Faced with such political confusion, I rely on my core conviction that when the future is uncertain, the best thing we could do is give people the opportunity to achieve in concert what they couldn’t achieve by themselves. Sometimes organizing drives can lead to victory. Even when it isn’t though, helping create a group capable of reading a political situation and getting things done, while having one another’s backs, is also a kind of victory.
That’s why, this election season, my partner and I are returning to Reno to join hotel housekeepers, cooks, and casino workers trying to ensure the reelection of two Democrats, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto Governor Steve SisolakIn a state in which the margin of victory for the Democratic Party is large, hasn’t grown Since 2012.
From our previous experience, we know one thing: we’ll be working in a well-run campaign that won’t waste anyone’s time and has its eye on the future. As I wrote about the union’s 2020 presidential campaign for Joe Biden, more than winning a difficult election is at stake. What’s also important is building organized power for working people. In other words, providing the kind of training and leadership development that will send “back to every hotel, restaurant, casino, and airport catering service leaders who can continue to organize and advocate for their working-class sisters and brothers.”
I still hate electoral politics, but you don’t always get to choose the terrain you’re fighting on. The Republican Party has been almost shouting its plans to steal next year’s presidential election through its machinations at all levels, including the state, county, and federal levels. It’s no exaggeration to say that preserving some form of democratic government two years from now depends in part on keeping Republicans from taking over Congress, especially the Senate, this year.
So, it’s back to Reno, where the future awaits us. Let’s hope it’s one we can live with.