I am inspired to write this by a bout of rage, which has blindsided me on a Thursday night when I should be resting, shutting off my politics brain (and certainly my phone), and taking out my anxiety on a slice of Nino’s pizza. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to share some thoughts about power, which are equal parts the result of some recent training and instruction I’ve been undergoing, as well as the nausea that comes from sensing local campaigns starting up before the terrible presidential election has finished.
Let me just first say that I have spent the last two days thinking very deeply about power. I was in a training with the Advocacy Institute, which is full of smart folks who help us to understand how to navigate city and state government in order to win our campaigns. We power mapped Albany and City Hall, we dug into what makes our electeds tick, how to best get the buy-in of legislative staff. It was an inherently cynical process: in order to benefit from the training, you have to first acknowledge how much of politics is rooted in relationships and power dynamics, much less in our social justice values. But once you embraced that fact, you started to figure out how best to work the system to get the outcomes our communities need.
Somewhere in the course of the training, I started to think: why the hell do people go into electoral politics? If it’s often slimy and thankless, gossipy and cutthroat, why do it? To get some press on your name for 2-4 years? Is it worth it? I’m sitting there thinking: all the supposed glory that this involves pales in comparison to the amount of work, the enormous spitballs of criticism that are shot at you each day. Could power really be that enticing?
I thought about the local level, in particular. Where the glory is lowest and the wins are few. I thought about my elected officials (and those who are trying to become them) in my district. I chuckled to myself about the latest fashion around here if you’re running for office, which is rushing to Facebook to give “updates” to friends and neighbors about basic city services, as if it is insider knowledge, as if one owned the information. As if we require unofficial government liaisons to translate things like alternate side parking schedules. I’m reminded of high school lunch rooms – of basic popularity contests, of schoolyard power grabs. Of the deception involved in making people believe that they need you – like giving a man a fish, while holding on to your extra rods, and then just raking in the thank yous till the sun sets. What is it all for?
Of course, you can’t actually knock anyone for having a strategy. Campaigns have been won on plenty more disconcerting behavior than treating your neighbors like children. And ultimately, we leave it up to voters to decide and filter, as we should. But behind carefully executed media strategies, we would do well focus on where one’s power comes from, and what are its checks. And just like the saying goes that you should evaluate a potential spouse by what flaw you can live with, we should choose our electeds based on who they are most accountable to. That is the single clearest measure of what an elected’s term will look like.
For instance, my district comes from a long history of electeds winning voters by doing simple, personal favors for people. Favors that never required an elected or a government aficionado in the first place. Things like: can you tell me where my polling site is? Can you help me get a permit for my event? Can you share my post about my lost cat? Ive seen people ask an elected TO HELP THEM RESERVE THE BACK ROOM OF A FREAKING RESTAURANT. Where hath our dignity gone? Meanwhile, that same elected or elected-to-be won’t fight for more funding for the district, won’t show up for a community during controversy, won’t be the champion on bold issues for justice that *should* be the elected’s priority in the first place. Why? Because this strategy gets them plenty of rosy votes, but leaves them accountable to no one. Their power is based in things like Facebook likes and an age-old favor. Hence why our state senator has been in elected office since 1998 and will run unopposed in November, despite plenty of corruption and wallet padding, and being an outward Trump supporter in a district with a growing progressive base.
We need to do a better job of electing leaders who are accountable to a base that represents their district. We need to elect people on substance, not on bells and whistles. And what this would require would be a more careful understanding of the source of candidate’s power and accountability relationships. Are they powerful because of their connections? Are they powerful because of their access to resources? Are they accountable to those they represent? How? Who will be able to take this person to task for the dealings we dislike?
It’s not that power is inherently our enemy. It’s that power which comes from no one, and is accountable to no one, is our enemy. So we must evaluate our candidates thoroughly based on where they came from and who can take them down. To evaluate them by any other means is selling ourselves short.