Winning is not enough

One of the worst things about modern politics is how it’s been professionalized. An industry full of paid consultants and career political operatives has commandeered elections. They sell candidates the way cars and mobile phones and breakfast cereal are sold. Their candidates duck and cover, keeping their guard up and pulling punches. A few of them get elected and keep right on playing it safe, not proposing or voting for anything politically risky for fear of putting re-election in peril. And big problems keep going unsolved. To hell with that.

Amateurs — regular citizens with lives outside of politics — have been pushed out. Actual democracy requires their involvement. Our country needs amateurs involved. We need people running for office who don’t obsess over what they could say or do to get elected but rather focus entirely on what needs to be said and done to rescue our society.

The job that needs doing is not to win an office. It’s to push the conversation, alter the debate, provoke thought. To make change. The aim of regular citizens brave enough to enter the fray should be to succeed even if they are not victorious, to bring about the greatest possible change in people’s thinking even if they don’t receive the most votes.

Sometimes lightning strikes and unconventional candidates running with purposeful abandon win, as happened in New York with the election of twenty-something Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress. A Time Magazine profile of the rock star of the House observes that AOC “threatens the status quo, bringing a youthful impatience to a set of policies…like Medicare for All and tuition-free public college…. (S)he seems more concerned with movements than elections; she doesn’t talk about flipping seats and votes, but rather of winning hearts and minds. Hers is the politics of the possible, not the practical.”

For every one who rocks the boat and wins, many more will see their efforts fall short. The emotionally charged documentary film “Knock Down the House” profiles four boat rockers. Three of the four did not win their elections. But all of them set powerful, inspirational examples. The one who did win an office  — Ocasio-Cortez — is now leading the push in Congress for a Green New Deal.

I’ve heard it said the Green New Deal is like a watermelon, green on the outside but deep communist red on the inside. Critics — and there are many — call it radical. It better be. Drastic action is required to ward off climate catastrophe. As AOC rightly pointed out just the other day, “we’re going to pay for this whether we pass a Green New Deal or not. Because as towns and cities go underwater, as wildfires ravage our communities, we are going to pay. And we’re either going to decide if we’re going to pay to react, or if we’re going to pay to be proactive.”

Drastic action also is required to deal with hate and violence that are growing like a cancer in our society. There needs to be an awakening to how financial insecurity and economic instability and inequality produce anxiety that easily morphs into hate. When jobs that pay a living wage are hard to come by, racial minorities and immigrants get scapegoated even when the primary culprit is automation, not immigration. Robots don’t become the target of hate, people do.

Current economic conditions in America are a breeding ground for hate. The gap between rich and poor is wider in America than in any other major developed country, and current economic indicators foreshadow further deterioration of the economic status of blue-collar workers.

Just as we can pretend not to notice global overheating, we can pretend not to notice the signs of emotional distress caused by growing economic insecurity. We can act now to search for ways to relieve the anxiety that comes with watching employment automated out of existence, or we invite growing unrest and more violence and continued eruptions of hatred.

We can’t afford to pretend. Our country will circle the drain if we do. So run for office or help someone else run. Challenge all the pretending. Let the chips fall where they may. Our country needs you to be impractical and throw caution to the wind.