5 ideas, one week into the Era of Trump

I, like many of you, have spent the past month taking a deep dive into what the heck is going on with American politics. I am going to write something longer in due time, but for now, below are five ideas, inspired by the best takes I have read so far. My hope is they can help shed light on where to go and what to do next.

#1. We should understand the border war as the new culture war

American politics since the 1970’s has stabilized around two party coalitions. The quick way to describe the two has always been: a Republican Party that paired (1) economic liberalism with (2) cultural traditionalism and a Democratic Party that paired (1) economic regulation and public benefits with (2) cultural modernism. The domestic fights were generally culture war fights (gay marriage, English Only, flag burning, etc.) and regulation and public benefits fights (the Endangered Species Act, welfare reform, Obamacare, etc.).

A more nuanced take is to look at who won the day on each of these debates and see how the parties responded to those ascendancies.

By the 1990’s, economic liberalism had become dominant. A Democratic President had declared “The Era of Big Government is Over,” corporate-driven free trade was being promoted by both parties, and expanding Medicare to cover everyone was pushed out of the national debate. To those on the Left, the Democratic Party, as Roberto Unger once put it, ceased to have its own economic program — say, muscular unionism, anti-monopoly policies, serious welfare programs — and began solely providing a humanizing face to the corporate capitalist program of its Republican adversaries.

By the 2010’s, cultural modernism had become dominant. Fighting against women in the workplace became bizarre, powerful institutions – in tech, Hollywood, and business – became bulwarks of gay rights, and appealing to a multicultural America became the interest of future-thinking leaders in both parties (remember, the Spanish-speaking Bush family attempted to make inroads into the Hispanic vote in the 2000’s). To traditionalists, the Republican Party ceased to have a muscular cultural program and began solely providing a nationalist face to the cultural modernist program of its Democratic adversaries.

So, during the Obama era, the party coalitions were organized as follows: most Republicans advancing a muscularly liberal economic program and figuring out what to do with its losing cultural program and most Democrats advancing a muscularly modern cultural program and figuring out what to do with its losing economic program.

However, this situation created a vacuum, for there are millions of Americans that are not ready to give up the culture war and, in fact, can become very passionate about being the underdog fighters in it. Plus, there are tens of millions of Americans who are less in favor of muscular economic liberalism than Republican party elites are.

Seizing this vacuum is, in fact, how the last Republican President won. George W. Bush ran on a program of (1) fighting vigorously for the religious side of the culture war and (2) tempering the cruel elements of Republican economic liberalism. He even branded the two sides together into “Compassionate Conservatism.” This revved up evangelicals, won over suburban moms, and – because he chose to emphasize the religious aspects of the culture war and not the ethnic aspects – even won him a serious share of Hispanic voters.

This is exactly what Trump did, too, except with a 2016 twist. Instead of emphasizing the religious aspects of the culture war, he emphasized the ethnic aspects, trading a culture war for a border war. This way, he was able to fight the losing side of a culture war without quixotically fighting, say, gay rights or women in the workplace explicitly. (Meanwhile, he could wink at remaining religious conservatives by picking Mike Pence as his VP). Similarly, he tempered Republican economic liberalism, but instead of talking about faith-based programs for the poor (like Bush had), he talked about trade deals, infrastructure-based job programs, and preserving entitlemens, like Social Security and Medicare. Just like Bush, he was able to brand his cultural radicalism and economic heterodoxy together into one message: “America First.” This revved up white nationalists, did not scare off suburban moms, inspired those who had lost their manufacturing jobs, and even won him a serious share of secular voters.

Two things happened with Bush’s coalition after Election Day: (1) Bush eventually gave up on his economic moderation (continuing, rather than mitigating, Reaganite defunding, deregulation, tax cuts, and military spending) and (2) Bush used the culture war as a lever — through, for example, state gay marriage ballot initiatives — to rev up his coalition and win re-election in 2004.

We should look to Trump also (1) giving up on his economic nationalism and (2) surfacing a losing border war — through, say, border walls, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and reviving “English Only” policies — to rev up his coalition.

#2. We should engage and empower blue collar youth of all races

Much ink has been spilled on how the Democrats lost power because they lost the white working class vote. It’s true: Trump beat Clinton by a much wider margin than Romney beat Obama among white voters without a college degree. 34% percent of the Obama coalition was white voters without a college degree — a larger portion of the coalition than black voters, Hispanic voters, or well-educated white voters — and Clinton was not able to reassemble that column of the Obama coalition. Much of this is due to young Northern white voters without a college degree: Obama beat McCain by almost 20 points among 18-to-29-year-old Northern white working class voters while Clinton did not even beat Trump among that group.

However, the white working class was not the only group to relatively disengage from the Democratic Party in 2016. There was also a considerable decline — 5-10% — in black voter turnout. Restrictive voter ID laws do not account for this decline: turnout dropped consistently across the country, including an 8% drop in turnout in majority black wards of Philadelphia and 47,000 fewer voters cast for Clinton in Detroit (which is 82% black) than for Obama four years earlier.

Two groups within the demographic especially account for the decline: young black voters and black voters without a college degree. Young black voters made up 46 percent of black registered voters who did not turn out to vote in 2016. This is likely driven by favorability: Clinton’s favorable rating was 10% lower among the youngest black voters as among the oldest. In majority-minority communities with high education levels, Clinton beat Trump by wider margins than Obama beat Romney. But in majority-minority communities with lower education levels, Clinton won by an average of only 7 percentage points, three points less than Obama’s margin of victory in 2012.

This storyline is not covered by the media as much, because these black voters did not switch their allegiance to Trump– they simply disengaged from casting a ballot for Clinton. Because this storyline is not covered, Democratic strategists are centering their future plans on appealing only to young blue collar voters who are white, without considering what they can do to better appeal to young blue collar voters who are balck. So, I raise this all not to say anything critical of either of these groups– it is the job of a party to engage voters with it’s program, not the job of the voters to get in line. I raise this because who a party identifies as disengaging from them is who that party chooses to adjust themselves to the next election cycle. The Democratic Party thus should adjust itself to better engage all young blue collar voters — white and black — in the next election cycle. A revival of Bobby Kennedy’s “black-and-blue” rhetoric — appealing to black and white, urban and rural wage workers with neighborhood values (family, church, community) and practical economic power (minimum wage, benefits, unionization) — might do the trick.

#3. We should opt for hitting Trump directly, rather than technically

14% of the electorate in 2016 — 18 million voters — found both candidates unqualified for office. This group — the fully disillusioned — broke heavily for Trump: 69% to 15%. Trump and his cronies are mud kings — if the game is tit-for-tat, they win. That’s why they love muddying up the waters: if they are attacked for something, they attack back relentlessly until there is so much chaos that people do not know who to trust.

This is why I am very skeptical of Trump criticism that hits him on minor technicalities, like his improper procedures, his breaking of decorum, his spelling, his bizarre style choices, his manner of speaking, or his misunderstanding of history. When we hit him on minor technicalities, we play into his game. First, by criticizing minor aspects of his proposals — for example, the countries he has chosen for his refugee ban — we appear to be endorsing the general thrust of his proposals. Second, by criticizing his style choices, we play into his narrative that he is the forgotten man’s hero who disturbs elites by breaking stupid rules for the sake of helping the people. It would not surprise me if we found out that he intentionally misspells words or misquotes history just to bait his opponents into getting into the tit-for-tat mud pit with him.

The better way to take him on is to just clearly and consistently hit him at the deeper level: the immorality and misdirection of his leadership. Trump is not bad because he is boorish — we would love a goofy President who supported good policies. Trump is bad because he is (1) leading our country in the wrong direction; and (2) he is lying about it.

That’s why we should hit him at these deeper levels, by consistently and powerfully repeating (1) a diverse nationalism based in patriotic solidarity is better than a walled-off nationalism based in chaotic fear and (2) economic and political power should be decentralized among the many rather than concentrated among the few, while repeatedly reminding everyone that (3) Trump is a con artist who only cares about himself.

So, the next time Trump mispells a word in a tweet, ignores a procedural precedent or even posts a picture of a taco bowl, we should resist the urge to play into his hands and correct his technical mistake. Rather, we should repeat the big messages: Down with Fearmongers, Up with Solidarity; Down with Oligarchs, Up with Democracy; Down with Con Artists, Up with Patriots.

#4. We should see the acute emergency as the face of a long emergency

It is understandable that some see Trumpism as a uniquely sinister force that has come out of nowhere. Some think the strategy should be to paint Trump as an acute emergency for America that stands outside of normal politics.

However, no matter what might be strategically best, the truth remains that the acute emergency of Trumpism is a symptom of a longer national emergency. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also appointed corporate insiders to lead the departments of government tasked with overseeing corporate regulation. The Republican Party has been unable to build an internal coalition to partner with Democrats to pass immigration reform throughout the 2000s. When the world was called on to help Syrian refugees last year, 30 governors called for the U.S. to turn them away. The 114th Congress had 182 climate change deniers in it. The Senate Majority Leader has made it his life work to dismantle any campaign finance barriers to converting economic wealth into political power. The Speaker of the House rose to power because he drafted a tremendously unpopular and unfeasible budget that would cripple Medicare, end federal medical research, stop federal food inspection, cease college tuition aid, and cut support for the health care of the quarter of American children in poverty, all for the sake of lowering the taxes of millionaires and billionaires. Indeed, Trumpism is not the first powerful menace in recent American politics.

If we solve the acute emergency, we are still left with the long emergency, which will assuredly produce more powerful acute emergencies in due time. Just as “a house divided against itself” could not stand 150 years ago, a house so lacking in solidarity — between the races, between the parties, between the haves and the have-nots, being the cities and the country — cannot stand today. If Trump does not destroy us, the next, more suave con artist will.

As those recently mobilized by the thuggish and shocking face of our collective isolation begin to see that solving the acute emergency will not solve the long emergency, they will lose their fervor. That’s why it is imperative that we use this moment to not just fight Trump, not just fight Trumpism…but to fight the sickness itself and plant the seeds of the antidotes to the long-emergency: the seeds of more solidarity, the seeds of more sustainability. the seeds of more democracy.

#5. We should turn mobilization into institutionalization

Mobilization might just solve the acute emergency. Twitter and Facebook can, as we saw in Tahrir Square a few years ago, turn out crowds at a moment’s notice. As Trump continues to misfire, the waves of crowds and calls to Congress will only grow. But as we also learned from Tahrir Square, mobilization might have been enough to topple a dictator but was not enough to prevent another from rising up.

That is why we need to turn mobilization into institutionalization: we who show up to ralliers need to get onto lists and into weekly meetings. We need to get to know each, build trust, and establish routines of engagement. We need to mix the large group work of turning out for big rallies with the small group work of learning about particular issues. All of the groups we are praising in the Era of Trump — Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, CAIR… even the federal judiciary itself — are the product of civic leaders who turned the spark of mobilization into institutions that are so lasting that they show up 100 years later. We must fight the long emergency with civic institutions built for the long-run.

So let’s not just tear down the wall this year… let’s build the foundation.

Commitment in the Age of Trump: two practical steps forward

My favorite high school teacher has this poster in his classroom: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” It’s a wise message for the first week after the crisis: I worry if we jump into “The Response Plan” too early, we will repeat the same mistakes that brought us here. You can already see it happening in our newsfeeds, as everyone’s plan for the Age of Trump seems to be: “Everybody just needs to double down on my worldview.” Carving out time for reflection in spaces outside of campaign politics—reading spiritual books rather than pundits’ hot takes, watching a play rather than a cable news show, reaching out to real people rather than ranting about the latest stranger’s horrible comment thread—is crucial if we hope to shine a path out of here.

I also, however, believe in Roberto Unger’s insight about hope and action: “It is a common mistake to suppose that hope is the cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action. You act, and as a result, you begin to hope.”

So, this week, what then should we do? My proposal: alongside carving out time for reflection and offering immediate care to our neighbors, we should spend this week making a commitment. Concretely, we should make a commitment to a certain amount of time and a certain amount of money that we are ready to consistently give to our country in the coming years. Very specifically, we should each commit to a number of hours we are ready to give each week and a percentage of our paycheck we are ready to give each month.

See, in the end, the projects we care about survive on time and money. Some projects are more time-based and some projects are more money-based, but the same rule applies to all civic projects: if they lose hours and lose cash, they die. If they gain hours and gain cash, they grow.

We have a choice of how we want to primarily express our citizenship in the coming years: through virtue signaling or through civic work.

The Age of Trump will give us endless opportunities to signal our virtue. Each scandal will give us an opportunity to broadcast our rejection of Trumpism and validate our place among the redeemed.

Vocalized resistance to Trumpism is part of the path forward, but it is only a small part. The idea that there is an elect few who are aware and innocent of social sin is wrong and dangerous. We all are susceptible to the patterns of thought and action that produce our social ills. To think that it is only the others, over there, who have fallen to racism and materialism and militarism is to ignore our own weaknesses and to distract ourselves from preventing our own worst impulses from festering. The greatest atrocities in human history have been committed by those who believed themselves to be the chosen moral few, set apart from the “vulgar mob.”

That’s why the center of our citizenship in the Age of Trump must instead be civic work: real time and real money being given to real groups working on real projects aimed at ameliorating real problems. The rate at which these projects will grow and these problems will be addressed—the rate at which we will overcome Trumpism and get back on track towards that kind and welcoming America we believe in—will be determined by how much time and how much money we give: by how many hours we give each week and by how much of our paychecks we give each month.

So, what then should we do this week? Here’s two concrete steps:

  1. This week, get together with your friends and family to make your patriotic commitments: pledge to each other how many hours each week and how much of your paycheck each month you are ready to give. If you can, lock in a specific time each week (“Saturday mornings” “Wednesday and Thursday nights”) for your hours at first: you’re more likely to keep your pledge if you develop a weekly routine.
  2. Next week, spend the first hours of your time commitment thinking about which civic arena you want to serve and act in. If you are lost as to where to get involved, one way to orient yourself is to think about three different types of civic arenas: communities, issues, and institutions.

One way to get involved is to draw closer to a community: to get more deeply involved in the lives and struggles of, say, a neighborhood or a town, an immigrant community or a religious community, an age group or a special affinity group. It’s to become more invested in your town’s Iraq War veterans community or Somali immigrant community or small business community. It’s to step up in your church or at your school or on your block. It’s to think about the hopes and needs of the elderly or of foster kids or of prisoners in your state.

A second way to get involved is to draw closer to an issue: to become obsessed with a public policy area. You’d be surprised how much of an impact you can have by spending a year getting into the weeds of an issue, keeping up with the issue in the news, raising awareness about it with your community, and getting involved with political action surrounding it. The more narrow you get with the issue you choose, the more national your scope can be. The more local you get with the scope you choose, the more broader your issue area can be.

A third way to get involved is to draw closer to an institution: to play a part in crafting how, say, our press, our universities, our government agencies, our school systems, our religious institutions, our unions, our political parties, our legal systems, or our medical systems can better live out and extend their missions of serving the public interest. We need civic innovators and institutional revivalists now, more than ever in our lifetimes.

Now that you have hours committed each week, you have time to take test-drives to find which of these civic arenas is the best fit for you.  Civic action has a momentum to it: dip your toes in and you will be swept up.

It is through our example—our example of what the Good America looks like—that we will overcome the Age of Trump. They shall know us by our fruits.

From despair, work

What America needed more than anything from this election was solidarity: the feeling that we are all in this together, that we have a shared direction, that we have found common ground. Instead, the greatest threat in our lifetime to our national solidarity—to our neighborliness, to our decency, to our commitment to shared endeavors—has arrived. We thought we were better than this. But we have been blindsided. And we are confused and afraid.

When we are confused and afraid, we are tempted by twin evils.

First, we are tempted to quit. We are tempted to run away to Canada, or run away to irony, or run away to fantasy. We are tempted to hide away and build our bunkers.

Second, we are tempted to blame. We are tempted to search for our scapegoats and fall guys. We are tempted to tie some people and groups to the whipping posts and place our hurt onto them.

Our first task on this dark week is to resist these immediate temptations.

Today, we don’t need quitters, we need patriots. Before we are activists, we are citizens. Before we are citizens, we are neighbors. Before we can change a community, we must be a member of it. And to be a member of a community is to love it: to not quit it when it needs you the most.

Today, we don’t need blame, we need direction. We know one way these next few years could go: with every Trump scandal, we could re-litigate the campaign, going back and forth on whether Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein, Julian Assange or James Comey, Bernie Sanders or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is the most to blame. But if we want to get out of this mess, we need to go another way: to take time to reflect on these past years and develop a positive direction towards a better Democratic Party, a better progressive movement, and a better liberal culture.

Our second task on this dark week is to remember the message that gave us Hope almost a decade ago: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Next week, we still have many of the same challenges that we had last week. Our economy still leaves a quarter of our children in poverty. Our criminal justice system still cages two million human beings. One in four Americans still say that they have “no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs.” Our Congress is still being corrupted by monied interests. And our climate is still changing.

Even in the Age of Trump—especially in the Age of Trump—we must not cease being the change that we seek in these arenas. These projects—of turning strangers into neighbors, of making the economy work for everybody, and of freeing our democracy from the grip of money—need more of our hands and hearts and heads. If you have never participated in civic life before or devoted a couple of hours a week to public projects before, now is the time to step up.

Additionally, of course, over the coming months and years, there will be more grave challenges that arise out of the Age of Trump. Brave patriots will set up projects of resistance to secure the protection of the vulnerable, the empowerment of the marginalized, and the preservation of our precious inheritances.

These projects of resistance will especially need our help. Now is the time to report for duty.

Our final task on this dark morning is to commit to live out, in our own lives and communities, our vision of what we believe the Good America could look like. We have lost the White House, the Congress, and the Courts. But we have not lost our lives, our neighborhoods, and our communities. We have not lost the example we can set with ourselves, our friends, and our neighbors of the type of country we want to live in.

If we believe in a welcoming America, we can practice hospitality with all our hearts. If we believe in a decent America, we can practice decency with our hearts. If we believe in a fair America, we can practice fairness with all our hearts. We can bind together with others who believe in that same America– the America that sees itself as Great only when it is Good.

President Trump can’t stop us from showing this country what the politics of joy and justice looks like. President Trump can’t stop us from showing this world what the Good America—the America of extraordinary ordinary citizens practicing open-hearted devotion and practical creativity in neighborhoods all across the country — looks like.

It is through our example that we will overcome the Age of Trump.

This week, we should think about how we, personally, want to live out the Good America during the next four years. In my own path towards living it out, I turn to Francis– the pope and the saint.

Pope Francis once said that the thing he thought his church needed most was “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful… nearness, proximity.” He said he wanted his church to be “a field hospital after battle.” He explained: “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds… start from the ground up.”

There are a lot of wounds in this country. There were wounds before last night and there sure as hell are a lot more wounds after last night. In the Good America that I believe in, we would be like Francis’ field hospitals for each other: we would draw nearer to each other rather than fear each other; we would tend to each other’s wounds before we sneer at each other’s deficiencies. In the Age of Trump, I hope we can show our country what great field hospitals we can be.

St. Francis put it even better, centuries ago:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

What America still needs more than anything is solidarity. I have immense faith that we can build it. But, now more than ever, we are reminded that it will take hard work.

Our generation’s greatest challenge begins today.

In these next few years, we test our mettle.

Let’s get to Work.

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.

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.

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.

New Getaway news

Getaway, our effort out of the Millennial Housing Lab to build and share tiny houses in the woods, has been in the news these past few weeks:

  • CNN“Sure, living in a tiny house full-time may sound daunting, but renting a wee retreat for a couple of days is an easy way to get a taste of the downsized life.”
  • Yahoo“Hilary and Shane Lentz were hooked on the idea of a tiny house, but they weren’t sure the reality would be so appealing.Their curiosity led them to the hills of New Hampshire, where a business that started at Harvard University rents out tiny houses for $99 a night.”
  • L.A. Times“Ten designers, adventurers, campers and doers put their heads and brute strength together to build three homes on wheels. The results seem to have jumped from the pages of Dwell magazine. Get out of the city and leave its distractions; play a board game or grab the marshmallow stick that’s waiting for you. If you are OK with using a compost toilet and paying a nominal amount for the stocked provisions, you’ll be all set to enjoy the peaceful wooded surroundings and, of course, see if you could live tiny long-term.”
  • Associated PressGetaway is the first project at Harvard’s Millennial Housing Lab, a group of business, law and design students exploring new housing ideas. Staff, a graduate student in business, said his stints living on a boat and in an Airstream trailer inspired him to help spread the tiny house movement. “Small spaces force you out into the world, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said.”

Plus, Zipcar recently released a video about Getaway:

Getaway update

This past summer, we launched Getaway, a startup that builds tiny houses, places them in the woods, and rents them out by the night to folks looking to getaway and test-drive tiny house living.  We are hoping it can help expand the tiny house movement and encourage simple living.  We just launched our first intro video:

Plus, a couple of our guests filmed a video about their stay:

We just launched our third house, The Clara, named for my grandmother…© Daniela Goncalves © Brian Tortora

…and we’re looking to expand to New York in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Democrats and the Politics of Winning

Over at the Progressive Alternative, our initiative to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, I just published a piece on the first Democratic presidential debate, arguing that the party should resist the lure of the “everybody loves a winner” mode of politics:

This election season, we desperately need an alternative vision in contrast to the one put forth by the Party of Winners. This alternative vision should be inspired by our democratic faith in the constructive genius of ordinary citizens: a vision which affirms that if you wish to find the best ideas, you should visit the outskirts of town, not the shiny towers in the city center; a vision which aims to hold our democracy and economy open so that the present arrangement, including the winners at the top of it, do not get locked into their position; a vision which calls on us to not just rise from the ranks, but to rise with them. Unlike the one put forth by the Party of Winners, this alternative vision is not of a nation judged by the heroics of its few phenomenal heroes. It is a vision of a durable republic continually co-created of, by, and for its extraordinary ordinary citizenry.

Such a democratic vision could fit comfortably within the heritage of the Democratic Party. We were the party founded by Jefferson and formed by Jackson as the democratic alternative to political elitism. We took the populist route out of the Great Depression. We redeemed our originally-narrow view of who constitutes “the people” to become the eventual home of Civil Rights and feminist movement veterans. We best understood the role that the ambitions of immigrants and young people play in enlivening the nation. And, most proudly, we took as our party mantra the complete rejection of the greatest threat to our democratic faith: fear, itself.

“It is no surprise that Trump spent Tuesday’s debate belittling candidates (@realDonaldTRump: “Sorry, there is no STAR on the stage tonight!”) and recommending that they be silenced. What is saddening, though, is that most political journalists and Democratic elites did the same thing. They could not resist joining in on Trump’s game, hoping to feel for themselves the same pleasure he must feel while he bullies ‘total losers.'”

Compare Sanders’ theory of change to that of the debate’s winner, who has presented no theory of where the American people can participate in her plan for change aside from donating money and showing up to vote.

Read the full essay — Laughing at Losers: The Trumpification of the Democratic Partyhere at the Progressive Alternative.