It’s Thursday, July 7, 2022 in Portland, Oregon, and while it was a warm day, it was not an overly hot day. That has not prevented certain people from being upset and hangry.
Fifteen minutes, let’s go.
I had a chat with an old friend today and inevitably we got on to Politics, which as a reminder is always personal, and something from which technology cannot escape, no matter how many exhortations that the algorithm is neutral. Of course the algorithm isn’t neutral. The algorithm does whatever people want it to do.
Anyway, this is going to be U.S.-centric for reasons that include the usual, like me living here, my children being U.S. citizens, and so on. Oh, and remember: this is all armchair reasoning. I am, of course, not a professional politician, a pundit, an organizer, or even… well, I don’t know.
Look, it strikes me that one of the main reasons why the Democrat Party in the U.S. has done such a piss-poor job in certain areas is, vaguely, due to a “lack of discipline” compared to the GOP, which is to say there’s some things the GOP care about a lot, and they’re single-mindedly focussed on those things and achieving those things. Which is how you get a bunch of celebration about a through-line to rolling back the Federal protection for the right to abortion, thanks to the repeal of Roe.
Some of this, you might think, is down to the left (sigh) being slightly more sensitive to public perception and optics and so on, and for it to be easier to react to the news cycle, or want to control the news cycle. That seems to be a losing game: the point of the game isn’t to win the news cycle, the point of the game, if it includes the news cycle at all, is to win the news cycle so that you achieve a policy objective. In this way, you might even be somewhat comfortable with politics being treated as a sport, so long as the sport is what you play so that you can achieve your policy objective. If you lose sight of your policy objective and you focus on playing the meta-game instead of the actual game, then, well, you run the chance of losing, or not realizing that you’re doing something completely different.
This might, unfortunately, be a sort of wordcel-type thing, which you have to believe me, I feel incredibly uncomfortable about, and if I may try to draw an analogy or connection, it would be looking at the whole political melange through a outcome/process oriented lens. Outcome-oriented people don’t really care about process so long as they achieve their outcome (see, for example, not giving a shit about “rules” or more accurately conventions about appointing supreme court justices), process-oriented might care more about doing things properly, of which one example might be placing an emphasis on compromise and reaching across the aisle, when compromise and reaching across the aisle are merely tactics one might use on the way to, well, your policy objective which, let’s be absolutely clear about this, should be something like “enshrining and codifying the right to abortion”.
When I talk about this with friends (or even strangers, honestly) the whole thing starts to look somewhat fractal: where would you even begin? Say you want better/different candidates so you can move on from the Democratic Party old guard. Where would they come from? What’s the pool? At a high level, you might start thinking that there’s a problem here in general, which is that doing politics is quite hard, time-consuming work, and if you’re not being paid to do it, then you’re doing it in your spare time. Now I don’t know about you, but the amount of spare time people have in this country isn’t particularly great right now, so let’s just assume we’ve limited the pool to:
It’s almost as if you look at the kind of people who get elected on to local school boards and proceed to run out anyone moderately progressive and you’re surprised that some of them (many, now?) a) don’t have children in school anymore, or b) are retired. Yeah, I know, I didn’t say all.
So in the end it comes down to this: politics is personal, and the personal is local, because we are only the size we are and we only have a certain radius of effect, affect and effectiveness. There is a light-cone of politics, and there are speed limits.
The discipline thing is distressing because you have to really, really care about something and be single-issue about it, then you need to be activated, and then you need that activation to be successful. A few of those things are relatively easy to do - it’s demonstrably easy to whip up a fear of the other and turn that into the trans are coming for your children or books are making your kids nonbinary, and for that fear to sufficiently motivate someone to do… something. Being against something is, of course, more motivating than being for something (he says, without citation, as if fear is more of a motivator, or more providing of energy that exploration or novelty, and you’d kind of expect that to be true in a folklore sense).
But I digress, as always. The thing about the local is that with my “tech can’t solve things but it can sure help, if you know what it is you want to achieve” hat on, I assume without evidence or invalidation that one could put together the kind of consistent toolkits to “take back” local governmental organizations, piece by piece, so that they’re not taken hostage. The horrible version of this would be “the app for making local government blue”, which excuse me while I vomit, but is also sufficiently interesting in terms of looking for, and then developing, the kinds of tools and data and so on for more participatory local democracy that takes into account the fact that people are time-poor. I mean I know that I probably should be more invested in local politics and take part more, and that I should go to more community meetings, or that it should be easier to find out about candidates and vote for them rather than the giant pamphlet that comes around in Oregon with the short bios and exhortations to vote for whomever at whatever. (There is also the peculiar American obsession with local, directly elected government and civil service that feels like it’s ideologically opposed to an unelected civil service that’s good at its job, almost as if the point is to deliberately hobble a citizenry, but again, I digress)/
So I think there’s a potential hole, something – I’m not sure what shape yet – where the hard work of figuring out how to effectively run in a gazillion local races across the country is gathered, the data is munged, the tools rounded off and made easier to use such that there’s radically more participation in this local, direct democracy that does exist, so it’s not at risk (or at less risk) of being captured by extreme ideologues. In other words, is it because people don’t care, or is it because it’s too hard? The binary is false, of course, of course people care that their school boards aren’t stuffed full with a majority of frothing-at-the-mouth reactionaries, of course people want to be reasonable, if we are to take at their word that most Americans believe love is love, then, well, maybe it is too hard? We wouldn’t know if we didn’t try.
The flip-side of this is that making it too easy to participate will result in lots of people participating, and this is where my inner paternalist/technocrat emerges, distrustful of the fact that the people will do a good job and we’ll just revert to mob mentality. But that brings me, I think, full circle: what if most candidates weren’t the people who had the most time to be in mobs? What if participation were easier? What would that look like? Personally it feels like I’ll end up giving it a few more years, hit the grand old age of 45, and then dive into this and have every single one of my preconceived notions invalidated, and then learn a lot instead. And I know that a bunch of you will reply to me and say: well, Dan, did you know what we’re doing in terms of local democracy and political involvement over here? And I will, unfortunately, look at it, and with great guilt and shame, not try it because I don’t have the time. I know: I’m proposing a solution without having actually tried to engage. There it is, I’m outing myself.
That’s it, and I just found out that my goddamn 15-minute sand timer doesn’t even work and got stuck. What a wonderful metaphor.
How are you doing?