How change happens
If we look at change in America, how it tends to happen is that social change leads to political change leads to policy change:
Social change -> political change -> policy change
What does this mean?
It means that the public perception of what is “right” changes first, which then leads to new people getting elected, followed by policy change. This is the model used by corporate think tanks like the Mackinac center, and the one activists such as Bill Moyer (not Bill Moyers) describe in Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements. This is how the Civil Rights movement, the suffragist movement, the LGBTQ movement, and the corporate special interest movement have all managed to pass significant legislation.
What this model says is that in order to accomplish something through legislation in our country, the ideas behind the legislation have to be mainstream. Otherwise what happens is that people get unelected. For example, in order to pass gay marriage in some places, this idea had to be popular first. It had to not cost politicians their jobs. In places where the idea is popular enough and has enough public support, it’s been passed.
You can also look at gun legislation. In order to pass conceal and carry laws, the idea that it’s okay for everyone to walk around carrying guns needed to be popularized so that politicians could pass laws without getting unelected. Toward this end, the NRA invests a great deal of money on advertising and popularizing these views. They’re views which, at one time, would have been perceived as crazy. Views like: “Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.”
You can think of movements as a current that helps get people elected who will do better things. Movements change the culture. The culture changes politicians.
What Cynthia Nixon is doing for New York just by running
Cynthia is a high-profile candidate who, because she can bring issues front and center through her celebrity, is already impacting the Cuomo administration. For seven and a half years, Cuomo said he had no power to disband the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of Democrats who united during Cuomo’s first year in office to give Republicans control of the State Senate. Strangely this year, as Cuomo faced Cynthia’s primary challenge, the IDC was disbanded. According to Cuomo, “[Ms. Nixon’s run] had nothing to do with it.”
Other things Andrew Cuomo has done in the four months since Nixon entered the race:
In the glare of a movement spotlight, even Andrew Cuomo has to actually look like a real Democrat.
Imagine now what could happen if the movement could beat him in the primary. In all likelihood, New York would have a progressive governor because the state tends to lean Democratic. Even if this doesn’t happen though, the movement should keep building and as the movement builds, the politicians change. As the politicians change, the legislation changes.
What we almost got right in 2016 (whether we meant to or not)
What all this means is that if we truly want to change things, we need to change the current and elect better politicians. In the past election, we almost got it right—not with Hillary and not with Bernie, but with Hillary and Bernie. Bernie was the tip of the movement spear. He was out front talking about inequality. He asked a very simple question:
How do we create an economy that works for all of our people rather than a small number of billionaires?
His interest was more from the social movement perspective. He pushed popular opinion. He moved Clinton and the Democratic Party to adopt more populist ideas.
Clinton was the politician who won the primary. She had the money and the party connections to get elected. Because remember, in our political system you have to get people elected if you want to change policy. If you don’t have representation, you have no influence on policy.
If Clinton had gotten elected, it would have been on the most populist Democratic platform in my lifetime. What happened, though, was that there was still a lot of distrust between these two groups. Clinton and the Democratic Party weren’t able to convince enough of the populists that she was serious. She relied instead on hoping that people would never vote for Donald Trump.
Her campaign lacked a reason to believe. In the book Shattered, one of her election aides posed her problem as this:
How do you take credit for eight years of Democratic progress but also get that things haven’t gone far enough?
The answer should have been: be honest with people. You simply say, “We’ve made progress, but we haven’t gone far enough.”
You give them a reason to believe. I saw Clinton twice during the 2016 campaign season and didn’t see a reason to believe other than, “That guy over there is much worse.” The reason to believe should be:
We can change things for the better. Here’s how to do it. We need both a movement and politicians.
This is what I like about Cynthia Nixon. She gets this.
Politicians aren’t leaders. They do one thing and one thing only. They get elected. Leadership has to come from the movement. On the conservative side, they have it easier because their leadership comes from powerful corporate special interests. It is a top down movement that is much easier to coordinate with their politicians.
If we’re going to win, we’re going to have to figure out how to do this in a bottom up fashion. With millions of leaders. Or as Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio said at Netroots:
We’re not gonna beat big money with big money. We’re gonna beat big money with big organizing.
What can I do?
To wrap up, here’s a few thoughts on what we can do:
- Get involved somehow. Find ways to use your talents to help. Even if it’s just a little. If you’re reading this, chances are you already are. If that’s the case, help get others involved.
- If you consider yourself an activist, have this conversation with politicians or with other activists.
- Politicians need money to get their message out to get elected.
- If they can count on a movement base, they need less money. This is one thing you can do to help get the money out of politics.
- Primaries are a good thing. They get people involved. They raise awareness. And they can push on politicians in office if you can run a strong one like Cynthia Nixon.
- If you’re more involved on the political side, have this conversation with activists.
- Start by violently agreeing with where they want to get to. This tends to be easy as we can usually agree things are pretty messed up. Avoid details.
- Then ask: Okay … So how to we make it happen?
- This is a very different conversation from fighting about politics and/or personalities. It’s about how do we get there. Let’s figure it out. There’s not going to be one answer and we’re going to need lots of help.
- One way we can do this is through primaries. When conservatives were going through their early movement forming in the ‘80s, they came up with a simple rule for primaries. The rule rewritten for liberals is: Vote for the most liberal candidate who can win. Not the most liberal candidate. Not the most perfect candidate. The best candidate who can win. After the candidate wins, return to the movement to make it easier for better candidates next time.
- And everyone should be talking about this with people who are not involved. Help stand them up. Help them understand that we can change things.
In my experience, the above conversations are much more productive than arguing with people that you’re not going to win anyways. Win everyone else, and they won’t matter. Keep fighting! And remember that you are never alone and you are never not powerful.
David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy (print or ebook).