I’ve written that everything is an everything story, by which I mean that, in a global economy that is hyper-connected–physically, via supply chains, and digitally, via the Internet–it is difficult to separate one issue from another. For instance, climate change and authoritarianism would seem to be disparate challenges; yet solving the former is incompatible with the latter, and the more chaos is sown by a warming planet, the more likely despots are to capitalize on it to consolidate their power.
I’ve been thinking about said interconnectedness over the past month, during which time mass-shootings of Black shoppers in Buffalo, NY and schoolchildren in Uvalde, TX have again thrust to the fore America’s gun-violence epidemic; the Supreme Court has both further expanded gun rights and eroded abortion rights; and record-shattering heat waves have battered the world.
In all three cases–gun violence, abortion rights, climate change–the ongoing failure to act looks very similar: voters claim to support solutions to the problem; there are known solutions to the problem; voters often vote for politicians that oppose those solutions; and little-to-nothing happens because many politicians are swayed by a well-heeled lobby with outsize influence.
Consider the following polls:
- A 2021 Gallup poll showed 52% of Americans support stricter gun laws, but with a partisan divide: 91% of Democrats, 45% of Independents, and just 24% of Republicans
- A 2021 Pew poll identified areas of bipartisan support:
- “81% favor subjecting private gun sales and sales at gun shows to background checks”
- 63% support bans on assault-style weapons
- A 2021 Pew poll identified areas of bipartisan support:
- A May 2022 poll found that 64% of Americans do not want Roe overturned (NPR)
- In 2020, Pew found that “65% of Americans say the federal government is doing too little” about climate change
Now I’m aware of the saying, often attributed to Mark Twain, that “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” How you word a question, whom you ask, and how you interpret the responses can yield wildly different conclusions. Still, these gold-standard surveys are directionally indicative of a trend that is not unique to Americans, but certainly prevalent here: our actions often do not align with what we believe, or claim to believe. I mean, despite these poll numbers, we are not taking action on climate, Roe has been overturned, and the just-passed Bipartisan Safer Communities Act includes neither a ban on assault weapons nor high-capacity magazines.
So what’s going on here? Well, the wealthy–starting with white land- and slave-owners at our founding–have a long tradition of obfuscating their appropriation of wealth and power by getting low and middle-class whites to blame their station on immigrants, people of color, LGBT folk, Native Americans, and others. After all, it’s not like the days of slavery or Jim Crow were good for the average white person; access to opportunity was limited for all but a few. And yet it was and remains easier to blame the lack of opportunity on immigrants stealing your job than to ask why the business owner is growing richer while he lays you off. Indeed, Trump’s entire appeal can be boiled down to white grievance.
(This is neither to absolve bigoted people of their bigotry, nor to assert that, were it not for the influence of the wealthy, their racial attitudes would somehow be enlightened. But the phenomenon of voting against your interests has clear benefits for those with power. And the powerful know how to redirect anger away from them and toward the powerless.)
Our Constitutional system itself facilitates minoritarian rule, most notably through the Electoral College; and since then, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other tactics have further cemented this dynamic. So the decks are already stacked. Add to that the fact that voter participation rates are abysmal; that Citizens United has allowed money to corrupt our political system; and that voters rarely go beyond surface emotions when evaluating candidates and ballot measures, and it’s not surprising that we are where we are. There is much cause for rage, despair, and cynicism.
How are we to bridge the gap between what people say they support, the politicians they actually vote for, and what policies those politicians enact? We are facing a number of urgent crises–of democracy, of gun violence, of civil liberties, of climate change. Something must be done, and yet there are no easy answers: solving for these is not as easy as registering to vote, donating money, or attending a protest.
In the early days of Capital Good Fund, I realized, as we started making more than a handful of loans a month, the stark difference between delivering a service (such as a loan) and building an organization that can deliver that service, at scale, efficiently, and in a life-changing manner. In a similar vein, it’s easy to respond to the latest injustice with one-off actions–vote, donate, protest, tweet. But to achieve deep and durable impact, we must develop an infrastructure that is rooted in community, built on relationships, and that can sustainably push for change at the local, state, and federal level, as well as within corporations, nonprofits, and international organizations. (In his great book, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas, Gal Beckerman argues for a model of bettering the world based on “‘slow thinking’ — the steady accumulation and dissemination of knowledge that begins with ‘the friction of two people trading ideas'”.)
The Republican Party has spent the past few decades building out this infrastructure; it is partly why they control a majority of state-houses and has a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court. The Koch Brothers, The Federalist Society, Steve Bannon, Peter Thiel, Fox News and the Murdoch family–all of them have put money, time, and thought into crafting the America we live in. Democrats have not only not kept pace, they have failed to wield the little power they have acquired, when they’ve had it.
It is hard to break through the noise. People will ill-intent are very good at shouting over people who mean well, at shamelessly advancing their interests and beliefs. To enact policy that makes a difference for people and the planet, we have to be laser-focused, not on hot-takes or rage-donating or despair, but on identifying the levers of power, then pulling on them with all our might until a more just world comes into view. Those levers can include one-on-one engagement with voters or elected officials; plugging into grassroots networks of activists and advocates; marching in the street as part of a coordinated campaign of action; giving to grassroots and frontline organizations, especially those that are under- resourced; and countless other approaches. So go out there, find your lever(s) and get to work channeling rage into change.
Finally, here is a partial list of organizations building progressive political power to consider getting involved with / donating to:
- Vote Forward. Write letters to likely Democratic voters to encourage them to vote in the midterms. In 2020, I wrote 2,500 letters with them; this year, I’m writing 1,500. They have data showing they can increase voter turnout by around three percentage points.
- Indivisible. A network of progressive activists with a good track record and lots of resources.
- Run for Something. They help younger progressive run for and win elected office.
- Check My Ads Institute. Battling misinformation and disinformation.
- Climate Emergency Fund. Support groups engaged in nonviolent protest of climate change.
- Evergreen Action. Advancing pro-climate policy at the federal level.
- Movement Voter Project. Support grassroots groups organizing their communities to build a stronger progressive movement.
- Faith in Public Life. Activating the faith community to advocate for progressive policy and action.