We, They, and Us: UU Tactics and Strategy for 2020

We stand today a month removed from the 2019 UUA General Assembly, under the theme “The Power of We.” The tagline, and the Assembly content itself, has helped promote a discussion on what “we” within Unitarian Universalism means. From that, the logical next step is to discuss the not-we, the “they”. And in a dialectical fashion, with “we” the thesis and “they” the antithesis, “us” is the inevitable synthesis.

Or is it?

I attended a summer gathering in New England last Sunday, in which the topic was on the we-they-us trifecta. From the description, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction the sermon was going to take. Additionally, because the summer gatherings often had discussion segments, I didn’t know how the random mix of people who showed up that Sunday would interpret the title and topic.

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Ultimately I was disheartened by what I heard from the individual leading the service. While in a recent post I dismissed the “generation gap” hypothesis explaining the tension within the current UU church, the content of the sermon clashed strongly with my political socialization, and the realities of America as it exists in 2019.

The address focused in part of the term “political tribalism.” This is an old concept, but it was revived by author Amy Chua in a new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Chua has a fairly lengthy, fairly controversial history- she authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which ignited a national debate on high-expectation parenting and whether that had a negative effect on child development. More recently she was a leading voice arguing Brett Kavanaugh was a great leader of young women and carried water for him during the rape allegations that threatened his nomination to the US Supreme Court (her daughter was later rewarded with a Kavanaugh clerkship in a blatant and cynical quid pro quo). She authored a giant Atlantic feature to uncritically lay out her entire thesis of political partisanship tearing apart the constitutional system of American government.

I’m not going to devote this entire post to Chua, who I think is decent at historical analysis but pretty consistently wrong in her contemporary social commentary (for the record, I read her comparative historical book Day of Empire when I was a teenager and thought it was pretty good). The idea of “political tribalism” in the sermon was, from my perspective, a fundamentally misleading concept for a number of reasons. It’s also been taken pretty much at face value in the media. Let’s list three big problems:

  • The term has an imperialist mindset. “Tribalism” is used as a way to say our politics are more primitive, brutish, and violent than they were previously. Whether that is true or not isn’t the point in this case. Many communities exist as tribes today, they are not a historical stage of development. To suggest that tribes and “tribalism” (whatever that means) are primitive and inferior is both cultural erasure and pretty racist.
  • It’s a false equivalence. Dividing America into “left” and “right” tribes, or “red” and “blue”, or saying tribes fall under racial, ethnic, national, and gender lines is painting with a broad brush and saying all these “tribes” are short-sighted and destructive. Conflating the alt-right, who have murdered people in cold blood in places like Charlottesville and Christchurch, with the left, who in this period haven’t killed anyone, is misleading and indicates a politically useless centrism. It also treats ideological difference as little more than bickering, rather than a life-and-death struggle for universal health care, an end to the climate collapse, and justice for communities of color targeted by police violence.
  • Its logic is entirely backwards. The idea is that political partisanship is undermining the Constitution and the government that stems from it. This is both really obvious, but also misidentifies the problem. Partisanship is not what’s hurting society. It’s the Constitution. As I wrote in 2016, in “The pre-democratic American Constitution“, the Founder were fundamentally opposed to democracy and willfully ignorant that partisanship and political parties would arise around issues such as taxation, the extent of federal power, and most importantly, slavery. The Constitution has never been rewritten to establish America as a contemporary democracy, unlike every other modern country, developed or developing. Reducing partisanship is not only not going to happen, it’s not even going to solve the core problem. 

The sermon then transitioned from political tribalism to reaching out to the “they”, creating dialogue with the other side. This means talking with “reasonable” Trump supporters, finding common ground, and using moral suasion to stop the racist Trump regime. The individual giving the sermon talked about regular discussions with a Trump-voting gym acquaintance, and how productive all their discussions have been.

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Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Here’s a reality check: of all the potential options for 2020, this person is most likely voting for Trump again. 2020 will be a very high-mobilization election, this is very clear. Basically everyone who voted in 2016 is going to vote in 2020 as well- with the exception of those being disenfranchised by Republican state governments, the Trump-packed court system, and the Department of Justice. So, it’s not likely that this person abstains from voting for president. There’s a slight chance they vote third party instead of voting for Trump, but people who say they’re going to vote third party often end up voting for a major party candidate. So is this proud Trump voter really going to vote for a Democrat, even a centrist like Joe Biden? Let alone a progressive like Warren, or Sanders? To do that, they would have to like the Democrat more than they like Trump, and Trump has 90% approval among Republicans, which is as high if not higher than approval ratings by Republicans for previous GOP presidents.

Is it worth the time and effort to try to persuade one Trump voter to vote for the Democrat? Probably not.

Gene Sharp, in his influential pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, talks about four ways for a nonviolent resistance campaign to win- conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion, and disintegration. Here is the section where he discusses the probability that opposing forces will convert to the resistance’s side:

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(Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 35) (full text)

Now this applies more to mass action at a very large scale, like what is currently happening in Puerto Rico. The mainland has not had mass action of this scale for any sustained period- not during the Women’s March(es) or the airport protests, or the recent Lights for Liberty vigils.

But it can be fairly applied to the one-on-one conversations we have with political opponents. Can Trump voters be converted? Maybe, a few? I was politically socialized starting around the beginning of the Iraq War, with the first phase ending with the election of Obama. The “bipartisan” period in American politics is dead, and has been for a long time. The parties are now, for the first time in a long while, if ever, ideologically coherent. There are no longer sectional differences, meaning liberal Northern Republicans and reactionary Southern Democrats. Trump has control of the Republican Party, and its voting base agrees with what he’s doing. They don’t want someone “moderate.” The party will not be taken back by Trump opponents, who are a tiny fraction of the party and politically irrelevant. People who think individual moral suasion is a viable political tactic want to go to a mythical past that, if it ever existed, hasn’t in my 29 years on this planet. The desperate need for “normalcy” is wanted, but there never was normalcy. Unless you were an upper-middle class professional white person, for whom the profound injustice and violence of the US political and legal systems do not reach you, except in documentaries and charity outreach.

Alternatives to Converting “Moderate” Trump Voters

  • Register a street to vote. Or a neighborhood. You have a lot of time to do it. Every hour you argue with an uncle or a tennis friend or whomever in your social lives voted for Trump, you could do something that a) affects more than one person, and b) uses energy to uplift marginalized communities
  • Fundraise and organize rides to the polls.
  • Phonebank for candidates and ballot issues.
  • Collect signature for popular ballot issues (like the minimum wage or legalized cannabis) which boost turnout.

All of these things are better uses of your time. It is not about reaching across and compromising with “they” to create “us.” Not everyone should be compromised with. The leader of the service suggested “not leading” with UU values like trans inclusion and marriage equality. To hide these issues in discussions is to treat them as, ultimately, political expendable. This election is about mobilizing and empowering the “we”, more than reconciling with “they.”

“They” need to be defeated politically. Their policies need to be repealed. The courts they packed need to be countered. The concentration camps need to be destroyed and their inhabitants freed. I don’t really care whether my uncle votes for Trump in 2020. Because I’m going to find people to cancel his vote out and then some. That’s the way forward.

The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Ten million reasons to vote for Jill Stein, M.D.

The Democratic National Convention has catalyzed a new, much stronger debate about voting Democrat or opting to support the Green presidential nominee, Jill Stein. Dan Savage produced perhaps the “To Be or Not to Be” of misguided anti-Stein arguments a few days ago. The response by Green national co-chair Andrea Mérida Cuéllar was a comprehensive defense of the Green Party ideology and strategy, also highlighting how Savage is against bullying unless the victim is a third-party politician:

We Greens are also well acquainted with Savage’s rhetoric of entitlement regarding Democratic candidacies—for example his violent remarks aimed at Green Pennsylvania congressional candidate Carl Romanelli in 2006, who was challenging Rick Santorum and Bob Casey.  At that time, Savage said about Romanelli, “The idiot Green? . . . Carl Romanelli should be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.”

Perhaps not the greatest imagery given the murder of James Byrd Jr.

Bernie campaign people are evaluating what to do next, with many not wanting to play the spoiler.

But here’s a secret that isn’t mentioned in many of your friends’s Facebook monologues about unity and the lesser evil: most American voters can’t play the spoiler. The US doesn’t use a national popular vote like many other countries. Only four states in 2012 were within five percentage points. In my home state of California, being the 3,000,000th insurance vote for Clinton isn’t terribly useful.

People like Savage, who profess interest in real opposition to the two major parties, know nothing of how the presidential race can create opportunities for change. Ballot access is essential for providing real choice. And Stein doesn’t need to win to move the cause forward. I don’t mean this in the abstract “changing the conversation” sense. Getting 5% of the national vote gives a party access to funding for the next presidential cycle. This means over $10 million in cold, hard cash in 2020:

5% of the vote nationally is another important threshold. If the Stein campaign reached it, the Green Party would qualify for general election public funding in 2020 that will be worth over $10 million. The public funding for minor parties that qualify (5% to 25% in the previous election) is based on the ratio of the percentage received by the minor party to the average percentage received by the major parties.

Since the Greens contest offices at all levels, a few thousand dollars scattered around here and there could mean Green city council members, mayors, and even state representatives. For Sanders supporters looking to continue his “political revolution”, a vote for Stein is a meaningful step in the right direction.

The pre-democratic American Constitution

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Discussions about the American political system often seem too…exact. The foundation of law and source of political norms in the United States is portrayed as entrenched, and the Constitution set up as laying out the politics of today in detail.

For instance, the statement “America is a two-party system”. Most facts about the modern American political system are codification through improvisation. It’s because the United States has a pre-modern, pre-democratic Constitution.

Sitting at the core of American law is an archaic foundation, that we spend a lot of time pretending isn’t a dead albatross that we have to drag around. One school of legal thought is that because the Constitution is so short and vague, it can evolve with the times. Whether this is because it is a living document, or that the wisdom of the Framers is seen as a matter of political opinion. Yet the Constitution has not aged well. Modern America is held together with legal gaffer tape.

So, what is the Constitution not equipped to handle? Competitive elections (so, democracy as we know it today). Political parties. Interest groups. Money in politics. A society in which people other than white landowners had value. The welfare state. Modern monetary policy. Economic integration. Cultural shifts on civil rights based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choice. The Industrial Revolution. Multilateral treaties and international cooperation.

The vagueness has often not been a benefit at all. There is nothing in the text that says women are allowed to vote, but it took a constitutional amendment to specifically make that a right. The Constitution is not adaptable if its general principles must be updated by legally binding alteration.

In practice, the Constitution is dragged into each new era by common law. But this means that the decisions of a small, homogeneous judicial clique decides what are new rights. And there’s nothing to have reversals that go in the opposite direction of progress. Judges essentially create a substantial portion of the law from whole cloth- given the vague nature of their source material, rather than giving a yes/no decision, they have to create new standards.

Now a constitution need not be updated every year, but basically no other constitution in the world predates the basic norms of how democracies govern.

This is hardly an original view. There has been one substantial effort to reconcile the 18th century worldview with principles recognizable in 2016. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights was proposed as a way to deal with one of the most fundamental shifts in American society- that is, economic rights that aren’t directly related to property. The proposal was nothing left than a complete revolution in the role of government. Most of the ideas in the Second Bill of Rights have never been implemented and may never will.

Besides economic rights, no procedures are supplied for how American democracy should work. The Framers willfully refused to regulate party politics, so when partisanship erupted, the rules were improvised. But the well is even drier here, because instead of vague principles, there’s just…nothing. America is a two-party state in practice, but it’s a zero party state in fundamental law.

It is frustrating that many all but worship the Constitution, while ignoring the problems caused by its continued existence. It feels like we’re playing blackjack, but using rules from a book about bridge.

Obstruction by design

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One of the great tropes of American politics is the ineptitude of Congress. In particular, great amounts of journalistic ink have been devoted to gridlock in the U.S. Senate. The headline is always correct- the Senate is dysfunctional and no expertise is needed to see that. But I think there are some poor assumptions made when people talk about the Senate. Here are two:

  • Senate legislative gridlock is new. It’s really not. Important legislation has passed the House only to die in the Senate since the birth of the Republic. In particular, the first half of the 19th century went from crisis to crisis, as while the South had a much lower population than the North, they were given an equal number of senators.
  • Senate rejection of treaties is new. The US has signed many treaties but often does not ratify them. UN treaties are some of the most well-known, such as the Kyoto Protocol and more recently the UN  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which failed two years ago. This predates the UN, as the United States, who proposed the League of Nations but did not become a member due to Senate opposition.

Both segue into my main point- the Senate is an inherently obstructive institution. That is why it exists. Its flaws are not borne of modern political culture but just the latest decoration. Not only is the Senate by nature obstructive, I would say that almost all upper houses in parliaments and congresses are obstructive. By nature the elections for the upper body are not rooted in proportionality- many bodies like the German Budesrat have an artificially small gap between tiny regions and huge ones. In cases like the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, the members aren’t elected at all, and their modern power is purely to delay and obstruct legislation.

The deification of the Founding Fathers, and the subsequent Framers, needs an injection of the political reality they crafted. The Connecticut Compromise gets applause as a brilliant piece of union-saving policy work, but it dictated a system where the rights of the minority could hold up nearly every vital government function. This ‘minority’ is often abstract, usually given a very virtuous portrait. Currently that minority is often a group of small-minded politicians, who by virtue of the Senate system do not need to explain their actions or defend their conduct. In the past that minority was representatives of slave power, who killed actions to limit the spread of slavery using the power given to them, even when they were strongly outnumbered by free-state residents.

Media outlets and individuals bemoan terrible Congressional approval ratings, and how little is done in the Senate in particular. This should not be surprising. American government is a blueprint for obstruction.

Principle Five: An invitation for radical economic democracy

I’ll be out of the state for 2 1/2 weeks starting Sunday, so full posts will be rare or non-existent. Since I’ll be headed to a scenic part of the world, I’ll take nice pictures and write as much poetry as I can.

I’ll be giving the guest sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist congregation in mid-September. Part of it is already written, there is still quite a bit of research to be done, primarily religious history reading. There are a lot of parts to tie together, which is encouraging. Ideas are not a problem, it’s just a matter of number and order.

At its core, this is a meditation on the fifth principle of Unitarian Universalism, where we triumph “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In particular, the last five words, “in society at large” are of deep interest to me.

That is an incredibly radical statement, far more than is acknowledged. If UUs are to promote democracy in society at large, it goes far beyond traditional electoral government. In terms of time invested over a lifetime, the economic system is far more present than all the campaigns, referendums, and voting days combined. There is no way to deny that the American economic system, capitalism of a vast size and scale, is a critical part of society. In 2014, it is also undemocratic. Large firms are highly resistant to public opinion, and voting power is decided by investment- which scales with wealth. If you own stock, you have a stake in a publicly-traded company. If we are honest, everyone has a different kind of stake in the actions of these companies. Their pollution, their political donations, their treatment of workers and communities. We are socially taxed with representation.

As written, principle five is calling out for economic democracy. Meaning a system where the workers and the decision-makers were the same people. Such a shift would go beyond reform, it would ditch the economic structure and start from scratch. Not that this is unheard of- America like many other countries has a tradition of co-ops and collectives, just not on the national and international scale. The nice things about UUism is the built-in radical instinct.

The UU congregations and fellowships are aggressive with their external pressures, as divestment from fossil fuels was passed at the General Assembly this year. Boycotts have been used in the past and should continue against anti-LGBT and anti-union organizations. Social change often requires economic change- in the case of the Civil Rights Movement desegregation applied not only to public schools, but the private enterprise of Southern society.

The core structure of a traditional enterprise is oligarchical, where the board that regulates the executive often share members. I’m trying to dig down into the religious history of opposing economic elites and keeping certain things beyond the reach of money. Driving the money changers out of the Temple and driving the insurance companies away from healthcare are moving on the same axis. Part of true democracy is keeping the political, electoral democracy strong and robust.

So it’s interesting working through the whole issue. What is the democratic process? Different countries have different methods of voting and different political cultures. What is society at large? What does that exclude? Individual conscience and collective will are often in conflict, that is another dicey subject.

This is the beauty and the madness of the seven principles. Each covers a vast swath of belief and conviction. The madness is the vagueness, but the beauty is that you can get lost in each one and test the limits of your mind and soul. When I give my sermon in two months there will be those that accept my definitions and implications, and those that don’t. Our parish minister has to deal with that with every sermon she makes.

Never before have such a project been put before me. Public speaking is one matter, a matter I’m comfortable with. Context is important, though. This is like a final project presentation, but instead of competing for points I’m searching for engagement and understanding. I’m excited, and hope it will be a chance for personal growth and contribute to the growth of the congregation at large.

EU elections – the nature of democratic fatigue

In march I wrote a lengthy piece on voter turnout in developed nations, particularly ones with low corruption. My ultimate explanation for the phenomenon of declining voter turnout was what I dubbed democratic fatigue. Google shows that I’m not the first writer to come up with this phrase, but I’m one of very few. It’s a good definition of the problem, so I will continue to use it. Perhaps it will catch on.

The European Union elections concluded last week, one of the largest democratic events on Earth. Ever since direct elections to a European Parliament started, turnout has decreased significantly. Good news in 2014 came not from a positive growth in participation but a stagnation. It was basically the same as it was the last time around in 2009.

Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html
Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html

What this figure means is an open question. It could mean that 43%, on aggregate, is the bottom. What may be more likely is that there was an increase in interest from far-right and Eurosceptic parties, which propped up an otherwise shrinking electorate. Certainly this may explain some results in countries like France – it’s not just a big shift from other parties, but rather that the National Front electorate is just more interested in these elections. Looking at a party like UKIP, which won the UK elections, one has to see their history of success with EU elections alongside their zero Members of Parliament.

That’s an interesting modifier when looking at democratic fatigue – belief that the election results will change power relations. This applies locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. The perception is that the European Parliament is basically powerless, so voting is more an intellectual (or anti-intellectual) exercise. I find the whole process interesting as an outsider from a two-party country, but it’s quite different from the inside. There’s a thirty point difference between this year’s European elections and the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom. The split between presidential and midterm elections in the United States is well-known. It’s clear that it’s a continuum – people view the President as a clear power player, Congress as a lesser and more nebulous institution, and it goes down the line. The European Parliament at this point has more in common with the UN General Assembly; it is adjacent to power in several directions but is clearly not the group in charge of things.

How to make the EU more engaging and increase participation (an article with some of that conversation is here) is not sure- the disillusion with the elections is nearly total in Slovakia, for instance, while turnout in other countries is robust and healthy. The current state of things seems to be sliding towards a negative election, where people vote for anti-EU parties in increasing numbers, rather than groups that want to build the EU into something larger and better. This isn’t a majority of the vote but it’s headed that way. In my original post I talked about how turnout declines when things are working more or less okay; the Eurozone crisis perked some people up a bit, going against the prevailing feeling that the EU elections are pointless.

There are lessons with last week’s elections all over Europe that can apply on the local and national level. What the European Parliament lacks in power and reach may apply to other governments, and turnout may be lower because of those same issues. Overall turnout for these elections was about the same as for Egypt’s election of their new military general-turned-politician, despite an opposition boycott. Perhaps everyone has found a reason to not show up.