Let me die in my footsteps

Tomorrow, the second Wednesday in November, is the eight year anniversary of our generation’s biggest political mistake.

In early 2008, a young senator from Illinois gave us a warning. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time,” he told us. “We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

The day after we elected Barack Obama president, we decided to ignore his message. We treated Election Day as the end, rather than the beginning, of our Work. We packed up our “Yes We Can!” signs, patted ourselves on the back for making history, and waited for the Change we were promised.

But the Change didn’t come. Sure, a heck of a lot of progress was made — just ask someone who can now get married or who now has health insurance — but the deep Change we dreamed of in 2008 — a change in the way the political game was played, a fresh faith in government, a united country — never materialized. Disappointment and disillusionment abounds.

See, the young senator’s warning was right: change did not come from waiting for some other person, even if that person was an the honorable President. The hope we were waiting for, the change that we sought, remained ourselves, the citizens. But we did not learn this important lesson in time for our first presidency.

Today, eight years later, we vote again. And tomorrow, we decide if we repeat our mistake with our second presidency. This week is our test: did we learn our lesson?

Donald Trump is the candidate of repeating our mistake. Americans feel like we don’t have a voice. In response, Donald Trump has said “I am your voice.” Americans feel like our system is broken. In response, Donald Trump has said “I alone can fix it.”.

To elect someone who believes such things — and is shameless enough to say them out loud — is to disrespect ourselves, to abdicate our dominion, and to run away from our Work. It would be a failure to remember, as President Obama often reminds us, “that America is not about what can be done for us…it is about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”

Today, to affirmatively reject “I am your voice” and “I alone can fix it” at the polls will be a beautiful way to bury our mistake– a testament to our refreshed memory that only we are our voice and that only we, together, can fix our broken system.

But tomorrow is the real test. It’s when we decide, once again, if Election Day was the end or the beginning of the Work.

There is a lot of apocalyptic talk about the coming weeks. Flights to Canada and stocking up canned goods in bunkers and the like. We should cut that out. I am reminded of the Bob Dylan song, “Let Me Die In My Footsteps”:

I will not go down under the ground.
‘Cause somebody tells me that death’s coming round.
I will not carry myself down to die.
When I go to my grave, my head will be high.
Let me die in my footsteps
before I go down under the ground.

I don’t know if I’m smart but I think I can see
When someone is pulling the wool over me.
And if the war comes and death’s all around.
Let me die on this land ‘fore I die underground.
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground.

If “I am your voice” and “I alone can fix it” wins, I’m not flying to Canada or going underground… I’m showing up for Work.

And if he loses, I’m showing up for Work, too. There are too many wounds that need healing, too many problems that need fixing, too many projects that need heads, hands and hearts, and too many strangers that need neighbors to not show up for Work, no matter who wins. Because, in the end, our Work, not our President, will determine our destiny.

Hillary Clinton is right when she says “America is great because America is good.” I have faith in my fellow Americans that we will make the right decision, today and tomorrow. I have faith in my fellow Americans that we will die on this land ‘fore we die underground.

“Solidarity is a project”

At the Progressive Alternative, our initiative to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, we mention “building national solidarity” as one of our planks:

Build Programs for National Solidarity: National solidarity should be promoted through broader opportunities and stronger incentives to spend periods of one’s life engaging in American communities different than one’s own. Attempts to address national divides of race, culture, and class through the law and mass media should be supplemented with projects that encourage sustained, authentic in-person interactions in shared missions among individuals from divided groups. Such interracial, intercultural, and cross-class sports, music, conservation, education, worship, and service groups should be promoted and expanded.

With the campaign raging in the background, I just published an essay about the seriousness of this project:

Progressives are really good at identifying, analyzing and proposing specific policy solutions. Give us climate change and we’ll give you a carbon tax and solar energy subsidies. Give us police shootings and we’ll give you implicit bias training and body cameras.  Give us lack of access to health insurance and we’ll give you the public option and a ban on screening for pre-existing conditions. Just watch last Monday’s debate: for every issue, Hillary Clinton had a list of three or four solutions, devised by experts and backed up by binders full of white papers.

But when it comes to the cultural phenomena that are preventing these policy solutions from getting a fair hearing in our legislatures, we turn off.  When Republicans keep winning state houses, we have no words. When voters keep re-electing do-nothing Congresses, we retreat into snark. When 40% of the country thinks Donald Trump would be a good President, we are confused. When people don’t trust fact checks from the national media, we throw up our hands.  It’s as if every public problem can be bent to our will, but addressing any cultural challenge is insurmountable.

But this is not the case.

These all fall under the grand project of rebuilding national solidarity: reinvigorating our shared institutions, trust and fellow-feeling so as to make us one nation again. It is the flip side of Trump’s “if we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country” riff: if we don’t have national solidarity, we don’t have a country.  And solidarity does not mysteriously rise and fall: it’s a project that we have the choice to care for, work on, or let crumble.

These are the stakes of the “building programs for national solidarity” project that we included in the Strong Communities section of The Progressive AlternativeIntervention. Hillary Clinton’s recent proposal to create “a new National Service Reserve that will expand ways for young Americans to serve their communities and their country” is an ambitious and heartening example of such a program.  In the Intervention, we call for supplementing “attempts to address national divides of race, culture, and class through the law and mass media” with “projects that encourage sustained, authentic in-person interactions in shared missions among individuals from divided groups.”  A National Service Reserve’s expansion of volunteer service opportunities to both more young people as well as older, “encore participants” would be a step in that direction.

Read the full essay — Solidarity is a Project — here at the Progressive Alternative.

Freedom, Participation and Solidarity

Freedom is participation in power. If we are unable to influence the social forces that affect our lives, we are not free.

But here’s the hard part: one cannot easily participate in power alone. Sustained participation — the seed of sustained freedom — requires solidarity: folks who are different being in it together.

Where solidarity erodes, participation withers and freedom dims. You can see it across the country today. Where there isn’t solidarity among neighbors, their public problems fester unchallenged, and erupt around town in the silent suffering of “personal” issues. Where there isn’t solidarity among citizens, their governments become distant and corrupted, and a tyranny of inertia leads to perpetual disappointment and popular cynicism. And where there isn’t solidarity among workers, the profit machine hums along maniacally indifferent to important human needs, and the labor and dignity of the humans who maintain it are routinely disrespected. Less solidarity means less participation means less freedom.

Ralph Nader often explains that political rights are worth nothing without remedies, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities. By the first half of this dictum, he means that a right does not mean much if you do not have a venue in which to claim that your right was breached and the possibility of a formal remedy to that breach. For example, the right to free speech means nothing if you do not have a court system in which you can claim your right to speak was breached and have a chance at the force of the courts coming to the defense of your speech.

By the second half, he means that remedies will go unused unless there are institutions organized to facilitate their use. For example, if public interest legal groups do not exist to bring free speech cases for those without the time and money to seek remedies when their free speech rights are breached, the remedy of the courts and the right to free speech might as well not exist.

A similar principle applies to solidarity and participation in power. Democratic freedom is worth nothing without venues for participation, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities for solidarity. Being a democracy does not mean much unless you have venues — like routine elections, accessible representatives, comment periods, court systems, referenda, newspapers, open markets, access to capital, a public culture, and public places — through which opportunities for participation are available. But in turn, these venues for participation will go unused unless there are facilities to foster and channel the solidarity of people.

For neighborhood solidarity, that facility is the civic group: the local organization that brings neighbors together in cheer and concern to develop and realize their public sentiments. It’s the PTA and the Lion’s Club, the Girl Scouts and the church committee.

For citizen solidarity, that facility is the grassroots political party: the federated organization that, at its best, engages its members in crafting and advancing a national vision. It’s the district captain that welcomes newly naturalized immigrants into the election process and the state platform committee that puts an exciting new idea to paper.

For worker solidarity, that facility is the union: the workplace organization that brings together workers so as to turn allegedly personal issues — your isolated wage, your isolated injury, your isolated wrongful termination, your isolated incident of sexual harassment, your isolated gripe with the boss for stealing your overtime pay — into communal issues that elicit the respect and response of the whole. It’s the groups of workers who brought us the weekend and compensation for workplace injury, health and safety standards and sexual harassment remedies, sick pay and an end to child labor, parental leave and the eight hour day.

We can see what happens when these facilities are in decline.

With no civic groups, the media takes over and we begin to understand our neighborhood problems only through the lens of abstract fights staged on screens composed by those far away.

With no grassroots political parties, the insiders take over and American party politics becomes a mix of endless visionless fundraising and cynical voter mobilization every other year.

And with no unions, the corporatists take over and the perspectives of workers are erased from public discourse: the value of entrepreneurs pushes out the value of maintainers, the needs of consumers pushes out the needs of producers, and the imperative of more jobs pushes out the imperative of better jobs.

So the next time you hear someone decry the state of the nation — the next time you hear them list off how the media and the politicians and the businessmen have ruined this place — remember two things: that the way we got into this mess is that we stopped supporting and improving the facilities designed to foster solidarity; and that the way we will get out is to revive and reinvigorate them again.

Today, on this Labor Day, let us recommit to worker solidarity, the seed of worker participation, which itself is the seed of worker freedom. And let us be grateful to the unions that have fostered it, and the Americans — like my grandfather, Joe Gubbins, a labor lawyer from Chicago — that worked for and alongside them as they won for us much of the freedom we have today.

In the words of the old labor song:

We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own
While the union makes us strong.
Solidarity Forever.
Solidarity Forever.
Solidarity Forever.

The HLS public interest fight in Harvard Magazine

Over the past year, in the Harvard Law Record, I have been agitating for Harvard Law School to better live up to its public interest mission: “to educate leaders who contribute to the advancement of justice and well-being of society”.

The same cause was spotlighted in a recent Harvard Magazine article, “The Purpose of Harvard Law School“:

“Between the well-established path to corporate law and the demands of a just society, HLS takes no position on where its graduates ought to work, and struggles to articulate a role for itself in a broader justice system. Career options are framed as a matter of personal choice or market demand rather than public need, reflected in the recruiting structure that accommodates corporate law. How pervasive should corporate law be at a top law school? What do Harvard graduates owe to the public? These are questions Harvard hasn’t answered—but the controversies of the last year, and the ones sure to come, suggest that perhaps it needs to.”

Pete Davis calls for a broader view of the law school’s responsibilities in the justice system. The nation can’t sustain a just legal system unless its civil institutions are committed, actively, to promoting access to legal resources: “Harvard pretends not to take policy positions, but it does. We took a position on the DREAM Act, for example, which said that to fulfill our duties as a university, we need immigration reform,” he says. “The issue of funding public defense is very simple to solve. There is already a Legal Services Corporation, there’s already a source of funding for public defenders, but they don’t have enough money, and because they don’t have enough money, the legal system is skewed. The deans of the top five law schools could all go to Congress and say, ‘We cannot keep producing lawyers for a legal system that isn’t working,’ and call on lawmakers to adequately fund public defense.”

Read the incisive and insightful article here.

Beware the Merchant of Certainty

We live in uncertain times. Our governing institutions are rusty and corrupted. Our workforce is going through a painful transition from a manufacturing economy to one based on services and information. As our media expands to welcome voices it once unjustly excluded, our national culture is fracturing. While our real-world communities wither, our millions of screens display disparate messages and no moral leader has emerged to break through the white noise and point the way towards national solidarity. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that our politics has left us disoriented and bewildered.

This uncertainty is uncomfortable. The slow and staggered death of old ideas and the fits and starts of new ones, the scripted choruses of outrage and the disappointments of failed prophets can wear a people down. For many, the consequences of our uncertain times spill out beyond the dizzying screenscape to cause real human pain: children imprisoned by fear-mongering policies, livelihoods lost in changing industries, and neighborhoods cored out by corporations that paid the watchmen to look the other way.

This discomfort and pain leaves us susceptible to fear. Specifically, it leaves us susceptible to the fear of what will happen if we do not escape our uncertainty soon, if we do not grasp for some quick and certain resolution to the day’s tough questions.

This fear creates a market for merchants of certainty. Like the cosmetics shills who tell you why you are ugly to sell you makeup, these con men also sell the problem and the solution in the same pitch: why you should be afraid and how you will be protected if you only follow them.

Many a nation have fell victim to this pattern: uncertainty leading to discomfort leading to fear leading to a successful con by a merchant of certainty. When at our best, America is a nation specifically built to avoid this fate. We have baked into our being a democratic faith that places our hopes not in heroic strongmen at the center of power but rather in extraordinary ordinary citizens spread out across the land. Trusting in the strength and kindness and wisdom of our citizens and communities, we have aspired to be an open nation, trading traditional dogmas and central planners for a government and economy and culture that welcome anyone’s participation, no matter their background.

But this American idea – of a strong people and an open nation, of a democratic faith in ordinary citizens – only works if we ceaselessly reject fear. This is why the last President to chart a course out of gravely uncertain times told us that the only thing Americans have to fear is fear, itself.

The latest merchant of certainty is running the same old con: selling us on fear and its antidote in one pitch; telling us we have no voice and that only he can be our voice; telling us we cannot fix the system and that only he can fix the system. He says he ran for President so that “the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves.”

But he’s wrong. We can defend ourselves. We can fix the system. We can have a voice. We can have more faith in our neighbors than he does. We can let that covenant from the Book of Isaiah seep deep down in our souls:

“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”

We live in uncertain times. But what has made America great has been our ability to muster the strength and openness to hold on through the tension of uncertainty without resorting to the quick and easy fix. What has made America great has been those generations who took the long and hard way out of each moment of uncertainty: those who devoted their lives to solving a tough problem or building a robust system or hosting a difficult conversation or growing a loving community. What has made America great has been our rejection of fear. As this year’s merchant of certainty inches frighteningly closer to sealing his biggest and darkest of deals, I can’t help but think that our only hope — to stop not only today’s menace but tomorrow’s as well — is to make America great again.

What does it mean to “Humanize the Caring Economy”?

At the Progressive Alternative, our initiative to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, we mention “humanizing the caring economy” as one of our planks:

We need to return to our heritage of participatory direct care. We should support projects that humanize the support for our sick, imprisoned, young, old, mentally ill, and destitute. The third-party bureaucracies that we currently pay to unburden us from responsibility towards one another should be supplemented with a culture of widespread participation in direct care for each other.

Inspired by a recent episode of the podcast Invisibilia about how one town in Belgium uses participatory care to treat those with mental illnesses, I just published an essay explaining what we mean by this idea:

Those on the margins of our conception of “normal life” — the physically and mentally ill, the imprisoned, the very young, the very old, the destitute, the displaced — used to be wholly and directly cared for by their families and neighbors.  In recent centuries, three trends changed this: (1) old models of family (e.g. multi-generational households) and community (e.g. caring about your neighbors) began to change; (2) we developed public standards of care that cast light on the failures of local, organic systems to adequately care for those in need; and (3) we developed modern state and commercial bureaucracies capable of funding, engineering and providing care.

However, in transitioning away from a model of participatory and community care and towards an institutionalized and bureaucratized model of care — one managed by a mix of professional experts and mistreated, low-wage workers — we lost many of the benefits of the old model.  If we can develop systems that supplement the current model of care with more opportunities for community members to participate in their neighbors’ care, we could preserve the benefits of our current model while salvaging the benefits of the old.  Not only would those being cared for be helped by more organic, neighborly relationships; those doing the caring would also be served by re-engaging in our most human practice: caring for each other.  Even more, our anxieties stemming from the “abnormal” elements in our own personal and family lives would lessen as the normal abnormalities of life move out of the managed shadows. The solidarity and understanding of a shared, sacred project replaces the fear and isolation of a universal, shameful secret.

Read the full essay — Towards Participatory Care — here at the Progressive Alternative.

Latest All Rise! episodes

I have a long-form interview podcast over at the Harvard Law Record called All Rise!  We just released our 4th and 5th episodes to complete the first season.

In the 4th episode, we interview former ICC Prosecutor Alex Whiting:

In the 5th episode, we interview legal historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin:

Subscribe to All Rise! on iTunes here.

New Progressive Alternative Essay on Deepening Democracy

At the Progressive Alternative, our initiative to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, I just published an essay explaining that deepening democracy doesn’t always mean “everybody voting on everything” — it means building participatory institutions that open up power to more people in more ways:

When most people imagine deepening democracy — increasing citizen participation in power — their mind often jumps to the furthest extreme of direct democracy: endless meetings of every citizen ignorantly voting on every issue.  If this is what deep democracy means — all of us taking time to discern the right policy regarding inland fisheries regulations and medical device taxes — then deep democracy is ridiculous.

But this is the wrong way to think about deepening democracy. Rather than seeing a deep democracy as a system where every citizen has a vote on every issue, we should imagine it as a system where every citizen has a variety of open avenues to having their voice heard and ideas realized. To deepen democracy is to open up power — the power to start projects, change projects, and stop projects — to more people in more ways.

The mechanism for deepening democracy is the participatory institution: a system that gains political power for the purpose of distributing it to a wider variety of people. A deep democracy would consist of a dense array of interconnected participatory institutions.

One such category of participatory institutions are what one might call “passive input tools”: avenues built into closed governing bodies to allow citizens to directly engage with legislative processes when they have reason to do so. A prime example is the “notice and comment” periods that federal agencies host before enacting new regulations and city planning boards host before approving new zoning changes. Each citizen does not vote on every regulation or zoning change, but when a new change arises that they wish to have input on, they have the opportunity to have their voice heard. Less potent examples include surveys and listening sessions that governing bodies utilize and town hall meetings that legislators occasionally hold.

Even better are “active input tools”: systems which force governing bodies to actively seek citizen participation on certain governing decisions.  One example is participatory budgeting, which sets aside a portion of a governing body’s budget to be decided on by the citizens themselves. Another example is the periodic community visioning, which invites the whole community to come together to lay out its priorities and ideas for the coming years.  One could imagine other active input tools, such as a requirement that Congresspersons hold Congressional District visionings to set priorities for the coming term or a system by which an annual citizen convention is held to place, say, five issues on the ballot without having to go through the initiative or referendum process.

Perhaps the most effective participatory institutions are what we, in the Progressive Alternative intervention, refer to as participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power.  These are standing participatory organizations that address the same issues as bureaucratic entities, but are organized to better engage and amplify the unorganized public at large. The classic example is the trade union, which organizes workers to counterbalance employer power. But other examples include: consumer purchasing cooperatives, which organize consumers of certain projects to counterbalance seller power; tenant unions, which organize tenants to counterbalance landlord power; and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in D.C., which organize neighborhoods to counterbalance city council power.

Read the full essay — Deepening Democracy: The Varieties of Participatory Institutions here at the Progressive Alternative.

Beyond Hashtag Bitterness: Campaign Season vs. A Politics of Public Projects

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.

dorothy-dayThe 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.