Living for politics

May I remember that “just living” is the whole point of doing politics.

Image Credit: George Wylesol/The New York Times

“Welcome back!” read my friend Allan’s email. “So happy to have you back and seeing that hard work paid off. Thank you for all that you do. Please don’t cook this evening. I am bringing you a Honduran dinner — tacos hondureños and baleadas, plus a bottle of wine.” The tacos were tasty indeed, but even more pleasing was my friend’s evident admiration for my recent political activities.

My partner and I had just returned from four months in Reno, working with UNITE-HERE, the hospitality industry union, on their 2022 midterm electoral campaign. It’s no exaggeration to say that, with the votes in Nevada’s mostly right-wing rural counties cancelling out those of Democratic-leaning Las Vegas, that union campaign in Reno saved the Senate from falling to the Republicans. Catherine Cortez Masto, the nation’s first Latina senator, won reelection by a mere 7,928 votes, out of a total of more than a million cast. It was her winning margin of 8,615 in Washoe County, home to Reno, that put her over the top.

Our friend was full of admiration for the two of us, but the people who truly deserved the credit were the hotel housekeepers, cooks, caterers, and casino workers who, for months, walked the Washoe County streets six days a week, knocking on doors in 105-degree heat and even stumping through an Election Day snowstorm. They endured having guns pulled on them, dogs sicced on them, and racist insults thrown at them, and still went out the next day to convince working-class voters in communities of color to mark their ballots for a candidate many had never heard of. My partner and I only played back-up roles in all of this; she, managing the logistics of housing, feeding, and supplying the canvassers, and I, working with maps and spreadsheets to figure out where to send the teams each day. It was, admittedly, necessary, if not exactly heroic, work.

“I’m not like the two of you,” Allan said when he stopped by with the promised dinner. “You do important work. I’m just living my life.”

“Not everybody,” I responded, “has a calling to politics.” And I think that’s true. I also wonder whether having politics as a vocation is entirely admirable.

Learning to surf

That exchange with Allan got me thinking about the place of politics in my own life. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in activism of one sort or another for most of my 70 years, but it’s been just good fortune or luck that I happened to stumble into a life with a calling, even one as peculiar as politics.

There are historical moments when large numbers of people “just living” perfectly good lives find themselves swept up in the breaking wave of a political movement. I’ve seen quite a few of those moments, starting with the struggle of Black people for civil rights when I was a teenager, and the movement to stop the Vietnam War in that same era. Much more recently, I’ve watched thousands of volunteers in Kansas angrily reject the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned a 50-year precedent protecting a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Going door to door in a classic political field campaign, they defeated a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas constitution, while almost doubling the expected turnout for a midterm primary.

To some observers, in a red and landlocked state like Kansas, that wave of resistance seemed to come out of nowhere. It certainly surprised a lot of professionals, but the capacity to ride it didn’t, in fact, come out of nowhere. When given a choice, it turns out that a substantial majority of people in the middle of this country will vote in favor of women’s bodily autonomy. But many of them won’t do it without a push. To build such a successful electoral campaign required people who’d spent years honing the necessary skills in times when the political seas appeared almost unendurably flat.

Some of those skills, learned through repeated practice, were technical: crafting effective messages; targeting the right voters; navigating coalitions of organizations with sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing priorities. And some might be called “moral skills,” the cultivation of internal characteristics — patience, say, or hope — until they become second nature. The Greek philosopher Aristotle called those moral skills “virtues” and believed we acquire them just like any other skill — by practicing them until they become habits.

You could compare some of us with a political vocation to a surfer sitting on her board constantly scanning the sea ahead, hoping to discern the best waves as they form, hoping she’d practiced well enough to ride them. Like so many surfers of this sort, I’ve probably wiped out more often than I’ve successfully ridden the waves.

Character flaws for justice

“This is the year,” I told a different friend long ago, “that I want to develop character flaws.” She was understandably startled, not least because my character has never been what you might call spotless.

“Why would you want to do that?” she asked.

“Because I’m getting ready to work on a political campaign.” I was only half-joking. In fact, doing politics effectively requires habits that don’t come naturally to me — like keeping information close to my vest rather than sharing everything I know with all comers.

There’s a fine line, too, between sitting on information and telling lies. In fact, to do politics effectively, you must be willing to lie. This truth is often taken for granted by those involved. A recent New York Times article about a man who can’t stop lying referred to a study of people’s self-reported truthfulness. Writing about those who admit to lying frequently, reporter Ellen Barry says,

“This ‘small group of prolific liars,’ as the researchers termed it, constituted around 5.3 percent of the population but told half the reported lies, an average of 15 per day. Some were in professions, like retail or politics, that compelled them to lie. But others lied in a way that had no clear rationale.” [My emphasis added, of course.]

As Barry sees it, politics is self-evidently a profession that compels its practitioners to lie. And I tend to agree with her, though I’m less interested in the lies candidates tell voters to get elected than the ones organizers like me tell people to get them to join, stick with, or fund a campaign.

Often, we lie about whether we can win. As I’ve written previously, I worked on campaigns I was sure we were going to lose, but that I thought were worth fighting anyway. In 1995 and 1996, for instance, I helped build a field campaign to defeat California Proposition 209, which succeeded in outlawing affirmative action at every level of government. We didn’t have much of a chance, but we still built an army of volunteers statewide, in part by telling them that, though our opponents had the money, we had the people capable of engaging voters no one expected to participate.

So, we said we could win because we were thinking ahead. Proposition 209 represented a cynical effort (indeed, its authors called it the California Civil Rights Initiative) to harness white anxiety about what would soon be a nonwhite majority in California. We hoped that building a multi-racial coalition to fight this initiative, even if we lost, would prepare people for the struggles to come.

But did I really know we couldn’t win? At some point, I suppose I traded in one virtue — truthfulness — for another — hope. And then, to project confidence and encourage others to hope as well, I had to start believing my own lies (at least a bit).

The funny thing about hope, though, is that sometimes the lies you force yourself to believe turn out to be true. That’s what happened this year with the campaign in Nevada. You never have enough canvassers to talk to every voter, so you have to choose your main target groups. UNITE-HERE chose to target people of color in working-class neighborhoods who rarely or never participate in elections.

Voters in Nevada are unusual in that more than a third of them (37%) are registered to vote with a small party or have no party affiliation at all. This is the largest single group of voters in the state, and it included many of our targets. Registered Democrats have a 6% edge over Republicans in Nevada, but the question always is: Which way will the people in the mysterious middle vote — for us or them? During two weeks of early voting, I downloaded the statistics on the party affiliations of the voters in Washoe County, where I was working. Democrats were winning the mail-in ballots, but when it came to in-person voting, the Republicans were creaming us. It didn’t look good at all — except that the numbers of small-party or no-party voters dwarfed the consistent edge the Republicans held. Which way would they jump?

I typically kept those statistics to myself, since it wasn’t part of my job to look at them in the first place. In the upbeat daily briefing for our canvassing team leaders, I concentrated instead on reporting the crucial everyday numbers for us: How many doors did we knock on yesterday? How many conversations did we have with voters? How many supporters did we identify? Those numbers I could present with honest enthusiasm, pointing to improvements made, for instance, by working with individual canvassers on how to keep doors open and voters talking.

But the funny thing was this: the hope I was projecting turned out to be warranted. The strategy that failed in California in 1996 — bringing out unlikely voters in communities of workers and people of color — succeeded in Nevada in 2022. When we opened the mystery box, it turned out to contain voters for us.

One more conversation

I once had a friend, Lauren, who, for years, had been a member of one of the political organizations that grew out of the 1960s radical group Students for a Democratic Society. She’d gone to meetings and demonstrations, collated newsletters, handed out flyers, and participated in a well-functioning system of collective childcare. One day, I asked her how the work was going.

“Oh,” she said. “I dropped out. I still spend every Wednesday night with Emma [the child whose care she had shared in that group], but I’m not doing political work anymore.”

“But why not?”

“I realized that everything about politics involves making people do things they don’t want to do and that’s not how I want to spend my life.”

Even now, years later, I can see her point. Whether it’s asking my fellow part-time university teachers to come to a union meeting, trying to get a stranger to accept a leaflet on the street, or convincing a potential voter to listen to me about why this election matters and should matter to them, my strange vocation often does involve attempting to get people to do things they don’t particularly want to do.

Of course, it’s because I do believe in whatever I’m trying to move them toward that I’m involved in such politics in the first place. Usually, it’s because I believe that my goal should be their goal, too, whether it’s racial or economic justice, women’s liberation, or just keeping the planet from burning up.

But that leads me to another character flaw politics requires. You could call it pride, or even arrogance; it’s the confidence that I know better than you what’s good for you. Oddly enough, it may turn out that it’s when I’m pushing the most selfish goals — when I’m working for something I myself need like a living wage or the right to control my own body — that my motives stand up best to my own scrutiny.

It’s then that I’m asking someone to participate in collective action for my own benefit, and what could be more honest than that?

Politics as a vocation

Politics as a Vocation” was the title of a well-known lecture by German sociologist Max Weber. In it, he famously defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Even when the use of force is delegated to some other institution — say, the police — Weber argued that citizens accept the “right” of the police to use violence because it comes from the state. That source of legitimacy is the only thing that separates a police force (so to speak) from any other violent gang.

For Weber, politics meant either leading a state or influencing its leaders. So if a state controls the legitimate use of force, then politics involves deciding how that force is to be deployed — under what conditions and for what purposes. It’s a heavy responsibility that, he claimed, people take on for one of only two reasons: either as a means to an end (which could be anything from personal wealth to ending poverty) or for its own sake — for the pleasure and feeling of prestige that power bestows.

“The decisive means for politics,” Weber wrote, “is violence.” If he was right, then my friend’s intuition that politics is about making people do things they don’t want to do may not have been so off the mark. Even the form of politics that appears to challenge Weber’s premise — the tradition of nonviolent action — involves a form of coercion. Those who willingly expose themselves to political violence are also trying to make people do something they don’t want to do by invoking empathy (and possibly feelings of guilt).

If, in some fashion, all politics really does involve coercion, can a political life possibly be a morally good one? I still think so, but it requires tempering a commitment to a cause with what Weber called the “ethic of responsibility” — a willingness not only to honestly examine our motives but to genuinely consider the likely results when we choose to act on them. It’s not enough to have good intentions. It’s crucial to strive as well for good — if imperfect — outcomes.

“Politics,” Weber said, “is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” But there’s another kind of life he also recommended, even if with a bit of a sneer, to those who don’t measure up to the demands of politics as a vocation. Such people “would have done better,” he observed, “in simply cultivating plain brotherliness in personal relations.”

And therein lies the greatest moral danger for those of us who feel that our vocation is indeed politics: a contempt for that plain “brotherliness” (or sisterliness) that makes ordinary human life bearable. There’s a saying attributed to Carlos Fonseca, one of the founders of Nicaragua’s revolutionary party, the Sandinistas: “A man [of course, it’s a man!] who is tired has a right to rest. But a man who rests does not have the right to be in the vanguard.”

And there it is, a fundamental disrespect for ordinary human life, including the need for rest, that tempts the activist to feel her calling makes her better than the people she’s called to serve.

In the end, if we do politics at all, it should be precisely so that people can have ordinary lives, ones not constrained and distorted by the kinds of injustice political activists try to end.

“I’m just living my life,” my friend Allan told me. In truth, his life is far more admirable than he believes. I’d say that he has a vocation for kindness every bit as heroic as any political calling. We’re not the only folks he feeds. The day before he visited us, he’d delivered dinner to another friend after her shoulder surgery. He spends little on himself, so he can send most of the money he earns to his family in Central America. During the worst of the pandemic shutdown, he regularly checked in on all the old folks he knows, startling my partner and me into realizing that we’ve lived long enough to fall into the category of elders to be looked after.

At the end of this long political season, back home from Nevada, I find that I’m full of admiration for the life my friend Allan is “just living.” As I wait for the next Trumpist wave to rise, may I remember that “just living” is the whole point of doing politics.

Read Tom Engelhardt’s response here.


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