Do not put your faith in princes.
It’s now official, well almost official. Hillary Clinton will be the democratic nominee and many of my friends are depressed. And I’ve been thinking about politics. Not that I have much news to say, but I haven’t seen my thoughts reflected elsewhere, so I want to put these out there.
First of all, I am recognizing that in the debating I have returned to an adversarial style, a pugilistic stance in political debate that really dates back to my younger activist years. I became an activist at 13 when I first organized my neighborhood against the neutron bomb (remember that) and then brought youth to a rally against the execution of Solomon Mahlangu (remember him). I also became active in my school where we had a school council with student members. I served there for three years.
A lot of the reason, I now realize, for me to become politically active is that I felt powerless. As good a reason as any. But I didn’t know then, what I know now, and that is that power is there for the taking. But you do have to show up for it.
And once you understand that power is there for the taking, you have to change your stance. Anger is not enough. Being feisty and aggressive is not enough. At some point one’s anger about a lack of change reflects a sense of entitlement, in particular if you haven’t done enough yourself to explore all the ways in which you can truly make a difference. And one thing about democracy—flawed as it is—it does require me (and you) to step up.
So here’s what I want to say to all my friends who voted for Bernie Sanders and are now feeling the pain.
It’s never about the candidate.
If Obama’s election in 2008 taught us anything, it is that it’s not about the candidate. Yes, it matters that he became president and not John McCain. Imagine that for a second. It could have been John McCain, and it could have been Mitt Romney.
But I also remember that very general sense of activists’ blue balls after Obama’s election—and forgive me for the overly male metaphor. We did really hope and then realized that Obama really was the moderate he had said he was all along. We still have prisoners on Guantanamo Bay. We kill people with drone strikes, including American citizens. Big banks are what they were. He is in favor of the Keystone pipeline. And many other things.
He also light the White House in rainbow colors. That is not only symbolic, though symbols like these matter. LGBT people really are freer and safer than they were 8 years ago. We have an affordable care act, even though I would have liked a single-payer system better—it’s still a huge deal that all children have health care today.
At Obama’s inauguration, Harry Belafonte told progressives to stay close to Obama and be on his case. “If we fail, he fails,” he said. And many progressives feel that Obama failed, which should mean that they feel that they themselves failed. If Belafonte was right, that is.
The point is that it was never just about the candidate. It was never about Bernie Sanders. And it’s never just about value and opinions. Yes, those too matter, but they’re not enough. The reason I could never vote for Sanders has nothing to do with his opinions. Most of them are fine. It’s that I couldn’t take his call for a political revolution serious.
Revolutions are a big deal. They’re serious. And he just did not act like he took his own notion of a revolution serious enough and that bothers me to no end. When he was asked about this revolution, he himself said that he was too busy running for president to have figured it all out.
It’s not about the candidate.
All politics is local, Tip O’Neill famously said. All politics is personal, say I. For better or for worse.
So, how about that political revolution?
Since Bernie Sanders only had himself to offer and he has now lost, let me offer some other ideas.
It all starts with where you are and beginning to express political power. It may be a small amount, and nobody has enough power by themselves to make a difference. We have to join with others. Fortunately, because we are fortunate that way, there are many ways to do it.
Start where you are.
- Is there a union where you work?
- Is there a neighborhood committee?
- Is there a League of Women Voters chapter?
- Is there an oversight committee for the police?
- Is someone looking out for local environmental pollution?
- Is someone building community gardens?
- Is there enough affordable housing where you live?
- Are there enough places for children to play freely?
- Are the schools safe for trans students?
- Does your state still have the death penalty?
There are many, many things to do.
I am not suggesting that you become a single issue activist. I am merely suggesting that you become an activist.
In all of the areas I listed, and hundreds of others, there are public organizations at work, and you can join one of them.
If you truly believe that the elections were rigged, go and see where the oversight committees are that hold the Registrar of Voters accountable. They do exist. Alameda County’s is here. You can be part of counting the votes.
The point is this.
Find one area where you can express power, and run with it.
Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton will give us any power. You have to discover where you can express yours. And too many of those who voted for Sanders have not even begun to see how much power they can have. Nor have the Clinton voters for that matter.
Do you know who your local representatives are?
I mean, have you met them?
If you haven’t, you should try. I tried with my local city council member. I wrote several times, offering to serve on a commission where there was an open seat. Not a word from him.
Guess what? I won’t vote for him again.
All politics is personal.
I don’t care about this council members’ opinions at this point. I really don’t. We have such a low turn out of voters in this country, including in liberal Berkeley. And when one of the people who did turn out and voted for you and said he wanted to perform some act of civic service, and you cannot be bothered…
You’ve got to go.
Another council member, Laurie Capitelli, did meet with me and did appoint me on a commission. He is running for mayor, against my local council member. And I will be voting for him. Do I agree with him more? I don’t know for sure. I know that when I disagree, he is accessible to me and I can speak with him. The guy in my neighborhood is off doing other things. I won’t agree with anybody 100% and most of the time, close enough is good enough. Can we work together? Can we have differences and talk? That is what matters.
I will help in Laurie Capitelli’s campaign too.
These are small things. But who knows where it ends. You can never know until you start and try.
What I know for very very sure is that no political revolution will happen without many more people involving themselves. It does not do to complain about a rigged system. Not if you don’t know where the Registrar of Voters is and how you can be part of overseeing its operation. That’s a way of saying that someone else should organize the revolution for you and that’s just expressing entitlement, not power.
Start small, start personal, start local. There are too many things to do.
And next time, find one person who didn’t vote and bring them to the polls. If everybody does that, we’ll have a 70% turnout next time around. If you think that a revolution can’t happen, see what’ll happen with a 70% turn out. I believe that we will have had a revolution by then.
In the mean time, it’s still a democracy. It’s flawed in many ways. But most of my friends who voted for Bernie are smart and have some means. And those who voted for Clinton as well. You all can do something. This country is working pretty well for you so far. It’s not for too many other people.
Becoming political is an act of service for others. Engaged service.
You won’t get it all your way and that’s a good thing. It’s good thing because you haven’t figured everything out. If I had gotten things my way when I started out as an activist, well, we’d be in a world of hurt right now.
So let’s all have some humility. It’s not about us. And everybody who reads this has layers of privilege. That’s great. I am truly happy that you have it. Now let’s use it. Together.
Engaged service in coalition. That’s how a political revolution happens!