Be The Change You Want To See In The World

I got a great email today from a self-described “well-educated, politically literate, 30-something person with a job and a kid” who spends “let’s say 45 minutes a day that I spend thinking about politics” and who had a great question:

That 45 minutes is about 40 minutes reading you, Ezra Klein, and Steve Benen and 5 minutes talking to my husband who’s been busy reading Kevin Drum and Jon Chait. It’s all very lovely to be well-acquainted with graphs, but I’m starting to realize that I am part of the problem as well. I don’t actually DO anything besides read and fulminate in the quiet of my own home.

She wants to know what she should actually be doing to try to create change, since “[w]atching Jon Stewart tell me things I already know in funny voices is starting to seem hollow.”

This has become one of my refrains when talking to people in person. If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing. And I do think there’s a lot of wisdom to the old Le Tigre song “Get Off The Internet.” Reading and talking to like-minded people about how powerful people are failing can seem like action, but it really isn’t. As for what you should do, probably the most obvious step is to make sure to remember to volunteer doing something at peak election season, but I would also suggest the following two steps that I think people underrate:

— Make sure to call/write to your member of Congress and senators. Even if their vote is entirely predictable, they still pay attention to what they’re hearing from constituents, and the overall volume of feedback still matters. If reliable liberal members get praise from their constituents from doing liberal stuff, then they become emboldened in their liberalism. You should be doing this regularly. If a major legislative proposal is dropped, let your elected officials know how you feel about it. Both positive and negative reinforcement matter.

— Be personally annoying about your political views when they’re relevant to your interactions in everyday life. I, being a jerk, will absolutely not allow someone to make a remark about the high prices, crowding, and mediocrity of DC bars without subjecting them to a discourse about the DC liquor licensing regime. Lots of people who think they’re not interesting in the DC liquor licensing regime are interested in its consequences. If you are in a car with me and we’re in a rush hour traffic jam, you are damn well going to listen to me talk about congestion pricing. This generally doesn’t work in Washington for national politics, but whatever it is you do, I’m sure you interact with lots of “apolitical” or moderately conservative people who remark now and again about things in their life to which politics is relevant. Point this out to them. Tell them who the bad guys are. Recommend some good blogs. Your friend Bob probably thinks he doesn’t care about monetary policy, but does care about the state of the labor market. Explain it to him. Be bold. Be annoying.

These two things are, I think, the most underrated props of conservative dominance in the United States. Conservatives write and call Congress at a much higher rate than progressives, and more-or-less ordinary people hear conservative political messages from preachers and business executives all the time.