Monday, January 20, 2014

Where My Politics Come From (and Where They're Going)

There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long,
But now I think I'm able to carry on.
It's been a long, a long time coming,
But I know, change gonna come, oh yes it will.
—"Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke

In 2004, I voted for George W. Bush.

Or I would have, anyway, but since I was only 17 on Election Day, I could only make up my mind who I wanted to vote for. At the time, I wasn't very engaged in politics; the Iraq War was on everyone's lips, and on their minds, so that is the issue that I focused on when making the decision who to wish I could vote for. The notions that the war could be (1) excessively costly or lengthy, (2) successful only in damaging America's already tarnished reputation in the world, (3) waged on false pretenses, or (4) immoral and heinous in every way, were all foreign to me, as they were to many Americans.

At the time, removing a dictator with probable access to WMDs made sense to me. We were the world superpower, so it was our job to make sure the rest of the world was safe from such things. Besides, I knew little about John Kerry, aside from the fact that he was not George W. Bush, who seemed to be doing a pretty good job, as far as someone with my limited view of the world could tell. Why change?

This was pretty much the reverse of the logic I used in the mock elections we held in my fourth grade classroom in 1996. I voted for Bob Dole, because I thought the fairest thing would be for someone else to have a turn being president. If I had to let my sisters have their turn with the TV to watch Fiddler on the Roof, even though I really wanted to play Super Nintendo, why shouldn't Bill Clinton do the same with the presidency?

I don't recall being given a "Perot" option on my ballot.

While anyone who pressed me on the subject would have found that, before I went to college, I called myself politically conservative, the fact of the matter was that I was politically ignorant.

And in fact, I carried this ignorance with me well into college also. After the midterm elections in 2006, I admitted casually to a friend that I hadn't voted. I said that I hadn't had time to pay attention to the issues or the candidates on the ballot, and I felt it would have been wrong to vote under such circumstances. "Come on man, you should've voted anyway," he said, "after all, there's plenty of ignorant Republican voters out there, so you'd just be balancing them out."

This was, of course, an incredibly rude and presumptive thing to say. This friend is not a particularly rude or presumptive person, so I cut him some slack and didn't get in his face about it, but I sometimes still wish I'd thrown it back at him and said something like "Ha! You don't know me. I'm a Republican. And you're a dick." Of course, this wouldn't have been true; I was no Republican, I was just what I'd said I was: ignorant.

~   ~   ~

2009 GPD rates (brown countries in recession)

More than anything else, what finally made me pay attention to politics was the financial crash in 2008. I hadn't wanted to stick my nose into the presidential race before then; it seemed too messy, too upsetting. However, once I had an item on my agenda—namely, not graduating from college into a second Great Depression—the race became important to me personally. I voted for Obama on the strength of his economic plan; though by then I agreed more with the Democrats than Republicans on most social issues, I would probably have considered going the other way if McCain's reaction to the economic situation had made the most sense to me.

But once I finally stuck my nose into politics, I found I couldn't get enough of it. I started reading whatever I could get my eyeballs on, at least on the liberal side. I found that conservative publications had a tendency to make me angry; they seemed to hit below the belt more than I was comfortable with. I later realized this was an illusion—lots of the left-leaning stuff I was reading was happy to tear down the opposition with insults rather than objective statements about policy; I just found it easier to read because I usually agreed with liberal positions.

After graduating, I went to work for an AmeriCorps program, which sent me to schools in low-income neighborhoods on Chicago's south side. Working with my students—many of whom came from poor households—and observing the life and activity of the poorer areas of my city had an impact on my political thought that was at least as profound as my reading had been. I saw a lack of economic opportunities, a lack of access to nutritious food, and a lack of proper educational support for struggling students. But I also met a lot of good people, many of whom were working hard to breathe life back into their communities, to provide access to important services, and to care for each other as best they could. Seeing all this moved me politically to the left, as I began to care more about a strong social safety net, better distribution of wealth, and improved access to good education.

At the same time, I watched the political gridlock that developed in Washington with curiosity, then disgust. It frustrated me first when the Democrats seemed to push so little new legislation through when they had control of the legislature and presidency, and then even more when the conservative comeback shut things down in the capitol for good. I lost a good deal of my faith in President Obama, not just as someone who could get things done, but as someone who shared my values on things like war, education, and economic and social justice. I watched the Occupy movement with hope when it formed, and then despair as it was rejected and failed to accomplish change on a national level. With the rise of corporate influence and money in politics, the intransigence of the political right, and the general failures of the left, I started to despair of politics ever being a way of bringing about positive change in our society.

I think this is where a lot of my peers are right now: change, through politics anyway, is impossible. Why bother to try? Disengage from politics and turn toward other things. This is what conventional wisdom tells us is our present, and maybe our future.

Fortunately for me, I hooked in to something different. A progressive political movement is stirring, finally. Who knows how far it will go, or what power it will be able to exert, but it is out there, and I have seen it at work, and been a part of it. Yesterday, I attended "Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality;" it was a public meeting, held in a large Catholic church on Chicago's south side, where over 2000 members of progressive political advocacy groups gathered to publicly define specific policy goals, and to get real, live, on-stage commitments from political leaders to vote for and advance these goals. We talked about fighting mass incarceration of young men of color, creating and enforcing stricter regulations on fracking, expanding corporate tax transparency, and pressuring companies to pay their employees a living wage.

If you're a progressive person, but you're despairing like I was, then get excited instead: a train is coming, and you don't need a ticket to get on board. The people that gathered yesterday were part of the National People's Action, an umbrella group of local progressive organizations across the country that are advocating for change. They've got a strategy to take back economic power for the people, they're putting it into action, and they're here to stay.

I'm happy to be where I am politically. I can get engaged with specific agenda items that I care about, and help to bring about positive change in the world. I hope other people in my generation in this country are able to do the same.

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