i. Politics as public projects; elections as terrain-setting
Politics, to me, is the word we use to describe the interplay of our public projects. These projects range from the specific (“We want to regulate this product”) to the conceptual (“We want to achieve equal justice under law”); from the bounded (“We want policies that protect our family”) to the grand (“We want an international climate plan”); from the self-interested (“We want this tax break for our income bracket”) to the civic-minded (“We want to ameliorate this social ill”); from the state-centered (“We want to end this war”) to the culture-centered (“We want to change this practice”) to the market-centered (“We want to modernize this industry”). These projects advance through struggle: against inertia, against friction in the institutions that can help realize them, and against each other. We identify with some of these projects and their respective struggles, while disdaining and fighting other ones. We treat most as practical steps to address complicated challenges, but experience a special few as simple religious crusades. These public projects — and the struggles for them, the fights between them, and the processes that grant them power — are the meat and potatoes of politics.
We care about elections because we care about our public projects. I like to think of elections as contests to determine the legislative terrain on which our various public projects will interact in the coming years. Seen this way, voting in elections is like picking the arena where the real match will eventually take place: though the possible arenas may vary widely — with each possible arena advantaging some projects and disadvantaging others — they are not the matches themselves. The matches themselves are between the actual public projects that we continually struggle for every year regardless of which terrain was selected in the last election year. No matter how lopsided an elected arena’s terrain is — no matter how much this year’s batch of elected officials will advantage certain public projects over others — Election Day is not the closing bell but the opening one; and the true players are not the various candidates, but us.
ii. The bitterness of abstract fights
But in the heat of campaign season, our passion for the public projects we care about and our passion for the campaigns we feel will advantage them in the coming years blend together. In fact, Presidential campaigns want them to blend together: the most successful campaigns become so abstract as to make millions of us see their candidate as the one who will, in the coming years, best advantage all of our varied public projects.
This is why election seasons become bitter: we all get defensive about our preferred candidates because attacks on them are perceived as attacks on our beloved projects. And, adding more fog to the forest, we all perceive candidates differently and cannot know which projects our neighbors are reading into their candidates or our own.
Put another way, behind any given “#FeelTheBern” or “#ImWithHer” typed into a Facebook post is a bundle of public projects that a specific neighbor cares about; yet, all we can see is the abstract hashtag. Therefore, all we often do to understand what our neighbors are expressing is apply our own, personal bundle of meanings for that abstraction. Again, this is what campaigns want us to do: they want to temporarily boil our varied desires into one broth; they prefer pliable and profitable hashtag-based politics to stubborn and concrete project-based politics.
Like most of us throughout the past year, I have experienced this bitterness of abstract fights. I have bristled at attacks on Bernie Sanders, because when I see #FeelTheBern, I see single payer health care, freeing Congress from monied interests and the great, catch-all project of the Left: opening up power to more people in more ways. I cringe when I see #ImWithHer because, to me, it means meritocracy over democracy, professional class interests over the interests of the poor and working classes, and centralized management over decentralized participation.
But to other people, #ImWithHer doesn’t mean that; it means the projects of applying modern expertise to complex public problems, the hand-to-hand defense and inch-by-inch advancement of progressive policy in a compromised age, and — as touted by the campaign this week — the historic advancement of professional women. That’s why, I suspect, some people take personal offense at skepticism towards Hillary: to them, it’s skepticism towards the projects they hold near and dear.
This abstract shadow boxing — multiplied by millions of conversations, amplified by the internet, stoked by the campaigns themselves and drawn out over a year — results in the state of hashtag bitterness that we Democrats currently find ourselves in.
iii. Up from bitterness
Some may think that I am queuing up an argument that the path out of this bitterness is to stop caring about elections: if we all experience each campaign differently — and if these different experiences divide us and distract us from advancing the projects we care about — then why don’t we just stop fighting for one candidate over another?
But that, of course, should not be the answer, because election results still matter to our projects. The difference in legislative terrain between a future where Democrats win in November and one where Republicans win in November is significant enough to make it worth our while to expend some time and effort over the coming months to come together and build a coalition to elect a slate of candidates — in my previous metaphor, to select a legislative arena — that we believe will be more beneficial to our projects over the coming years.
But in the long run, the only path up from hashtag bitterness — up from the abstract acrimony that makes so many people find politics unpleasant — is to remember that before we were #WithHer or before we were #FeelingTheBern — even before we were #MakingAmericaGreatAgain or chanting #YesWeCan — we were citizens who cared about a certain set of public projects.
When we start treating politics not just as the choosing of leaders — not just as the deciding of whose #side we are on — but also as the advancing of public projects, the whole experience of political engagement becomes much more heartening. We begin to take the long view, liberating ourselves from the biennial boom and bust of electoral victory, defeat, and post-Inaugural disappointment. We begin to see the citizenry — rather than the politicians — as the agents of political change, quieting the endless national psychodrama of constantly examining the souls of and relationships between our leaders. We begin to find hope outside of Washington when Washington fails us, because public projects, unlike electoral campaigns, can be advanced at various levels and on multiple fronts.
And, most importantly, to begin to practice a politics centered on public projects rather than public figures is to begin to practice a politics conducive to national solidarity, because, contrary to popular belief, it is in concrete projects, not abstract ideals, where we can find the most common ground. In this age of the culture war, achieving consensus on what America is or on who the heroes and villains of history are or on which values to prioritize over others is a much more quixotic project than achieving consensus on, say, steps to improve our prison system, promote clean energy or increase neighbor-to-neighbor interaction. This is the mistake of President Obama’s theory that transcendent rhetoric could end the culture war: it is not our shared ideals that will bridge our partisan divides; it is our shared projects that will.
iv. Fighting electoral abstraction with neighborhood reality
And yet, campaign season continues to pull us, en masse, away from this productive and hopeful mode of project-based politics. This would be fine if it were an infrequent and temporary pause — a bounded burst of passionate coalition-building and chest-thumping for the sake of having your majority win a preferential legislative terrain for the upcoming years — but campaign season, in recent years, has ceased being bounded and temporary. Rather, campaigns now begin years before each election and the cults of personality generated for campaigns extend years into governing terms. Cable news networks and clickbait websites carry on the abstract warfare 24/7, 365 days a year. Dissent from the party line — protests that were at one time only discouraged in the weeks directly preceding Election Day — now are met with calls for team unity even during non-election years.
As the campaign season mindset engulfs all of politics, we start to neglect the public projects that drew us into politics in the first place. Having been hooked on the dramatic and easily-quantifiable politics of elections, we become bored by the day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out work of pushing concrete proposals forward. Our hashtags cease being symbols representing deeper projects and instead become hollow shells. Our politics becomes stuck in abstraction, only coming down to the real world to gather anecdotes that validate our side in the symbolic fights. The bitterness smothers our hope and, with it, our motivation to continue participating in politics.
That’s why it’s so important that we, even in these months leading up to Election Day, consciously re-commit to the long-term public projects that transcend our electoral campaigns. The best way to do this — to re-cultivate our passion for concrete public projects — is to move down the abstraction ladder and renew our love for the real-world people and places we hope to serve. I have been arguing that before we are electoral campaign supporters, we must first be activists. But before we are activists, we must first be neighbors. Before we can change communities, we must first be members of them. This is what we mean by citizenship — serving a community — and patriotism — loving a place. The more we become citizens of real communities and patriots of real places, the more fire we will have in our belly to fuel the long and hard work of advancing important public projects.
The great American Catholic, Dorothy Day — one of our history’s shining examples of deep citizenship and patriotism — never voted herself, but she cared enough about the vote to get beat up for it. In 1917, she picketed the White House over the treatment of imprisoned suffragettes and was subsequently arrested herself. She was sentenced to 30 days in Occoquan prison, where she was reported to have been slammed into an iron bench multiple times by guards. After Day went on a hunger strike with her fellow suffragettes, President Woodrow Wilson ordered their release two weeks early and shortly thereafter announced his support for Women’s Suffrage.
However, Day never saw the vote as the center of politics. Rather, she worked tirelessly every day to care for real people and real places, while, at the same time, translating her neighborhood experiences outwards into larger projects. She took a vow of poverty and opened up Houses of Hospitality across the country to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and serve as community centers. She started the Catholic Worker newspaper to report on what she saw and learned: evictions, unemployment, strikes, pickets, lynchings, child labor and poor factory conditions. She weathered scorn when she took a pacifist stance against World War II, arguing that war was incompatible with Christ’s teachings and prefiguring the Catholic Church’s broader support for non-violence decades later. She held weekly meetings where speakers would come, present points of view and lead discussions. She started farms to hire the unemployed and provide food for her Houses of Hospitality. She was a woman of many public projects.
To Dorothy Day, the most important house in American politics was not the White House, but the house in any neighborhood across the country where the doors were open: where the hungry were fed, the homeless were sheltered, and the isolated were organized. She believed the vote exemplified the idea that man “wants a part to play, a voice to speak in his community,” but also that our votes were insufficient to fully realize our parts and our voices. She likely preferred some leaders to other ones — and was not opposed to forming coalitions with others or having audiences with the powerful to achieve certain ends — but she steadfastly saw us neighbors and citizens — not far off politicians — as the agents in advancing what to her was the overarching project of political life: building “a society in which it is easier for people to be good.” She advanced that project in a practice of long-view politics that was anchored in a lived reality too visceral to allow one to get caught up in abstract fights.
She called on us to join her in that project and that view of politics.
I’m with her.