Saturday, November 17, 2012

You're Doing it Wrong

Recently I read an article about a public debate surrounding the marriage amendment where a proponent of the marriage amendment, Reverend Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, made an interesting argument.  He campaigned for the marriage amendment but against the Voter ID one, and blamed it all on the DFL, which is strange because his allies at Minnesota for Marriage are also the ones that put Voter ID on the ballot.
"What black folk need to do is wake up and evaluate the Democratic Party harder than they've been doing," McAfee said. "Because they've left us out to dry, and many others."
First off all, I’d probably agree that the DFL and the progressive community in general did not focus enough on the Voter ID amendment.  There are a variety of reasons for this; we knew for a while a marriage amendment was going to be on the ballot while voter ID was added much more recently; polling showed a close race about marriage and initially a big majority supporting the concept of voter ID; marriage has been a national issue for years with a large political infrastructure from a variety of groups to support anti-amendment campaigns while voter ID largely took the progressive community by surprise and the fact that while ”The Democratic Party” may seem like a bottomless pit of resources to some they did have a few things on their plate already (10 electoral votes to put in the President’s column, a Senator to reelect, four House seats to defend and four to try and win, two bodies to the state legislature to take back and some other stuff as well (an assorted bunch of county commissioners, mayors, city council members, various knights, retainers and school board members come to mind, at least for me).   But what I was struck by was how I think the Reverend is approaching politics, especially coalition politics (which is presumably what he is trying to do when he criticizes “The Democratic Party”) is going about it in the completely the wrong way.

While it’s easy to portray ”The Democratic Party” as this big monolithic institution “Doing The Wrong Thing” (and what DFL activist doesn’t like to do that!) as political parties go, it’s important to remember that it is a highly permeable and open institution.  Indeed, it’s really only composed of local units (either counties or senate districts) that are all composed of precincts caucuses.  This is a system that massively rewards how much activists are willing to participate.  If Reverend McAfee is disappointed with the priorities of the DFL he can actually, with the help of some other folks, take over his local DFL party units and then call State DFL Chair Ken Martin and scream a lot at him about what he’s doing wrong.  Yes, dear reader, this has been done before.

In addition, it brings to mind one of the best things I’ve ever read about politics, from Bonnie Honig and she is working off of an essay from Bernice Johnson Reagon (she founded the gospel group “Sweet Honey in the Rock” but is writing describing her own extensive experiences as an activist):
Coalition politics is not easy.  When you feel like you might "keel over at any minute and die," when "you feel threatened to the core," then "you're really doing coalition work."
Exactly.  The only way to achieve anything in politics in a Democracy in a state of 5.5 million—let alone a nation of over 300 million—is to do things with coalitions.  The first rule of coalition politics is that everyone, yes everyone, has to give up something for the rest of the group.  No one person or group can hope to get everything they want or very quickly they will find themselves becoming a coalition of one, because everyone has left, because you won’t agree to compromise.  Instead to do real coalition work (whether you are trying to put a stop sign in your neighborhood or elect a president) everyone has to agree to set something aside, to agree to pursue things they might not care about (or might not agree with) and do it all in a way they might not prefer to ensure that they have a chance to get their issue addressed.  In this way the good Reverend is not doing coalition politics well at all, he’s asking for help on his issues while actively campaigning for something the DFL wanted to defeat.  That is an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that the DFL rejected at its convention, where it’s defeat was consistently citied by its Chair as a priority, that the DFL Governor symbolically vetoed in the Capitol and vowed to campaign against, that thousands upon thousands of DFL identifying folks (including my mother) volunteered to help defeat and over a million people who also vote for Obama voted no on.  That type of coalition politics will never work anymore than Ralf Nader running against Gore (and getting George W. Bush elected President) will make Democrats more excited about the Green Party. 

In writing about coalition politics in a different sense, that is writing about how Obama supporting libertarian writer for the Atlantic Connor Friedersdorf wrote a long treatise about how he felt he had to reject Obama because of drone and civil liberty policies, Political Scientist Jonathan Bernstein summed up how limited the good Reverend’s (and Friedersdorf's) point really was:
It undermines the Friedersdorf choice entirely. Because if you’re really doing coalition work – if you’re really doing politics – you’re not thinking in terms of “who should I vote for?” Instead, you’re asking who we are voting for, and by election time you’ve already negotiating not only whom “we” are supporting, but, more important, who we are. And part of the pain of it is that, yes, it sometimes means supporting someone you don’t like, or someone who advances politics you don’t like.

It’s not just that you may have to cut deals that involve sacrificing what you think of as your principles. It’s that real coalition work – real politics – involves taking other people, their beliefs and cultures and values and preferences and passions, seriously. It involves trying to see the world as they see it. And that may expose you to their pain, and even the possibility that you (or at least folks in groups you identify with) caused some of that pain. It may involve finding out that people within some group you’ve always thought you identified with are actually radically different from yourself, and don’t even consider you one of them. It involves allowing for the possibility that you won’t come out of politics the same way you went into it. That takes more than a little courage.
It’s fine for McAfee to have his own views and criticisms, just as its okay for me to have mine.  But he won’t achieve what he wants if he won’t also engage in coalition politics, deamnding the DFL to do what you want while campaigning against it won’t work.  No more that me telling him how he's church should allocate his resources will work. We should all remember that.

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