Solely spending your money and free time on presidential pageants is unwise
The other day my colleague Chris Faraone made an interesting comment on social media—inveighing against those who lavish money on presidential candidates with the next national elections still a year and a half away:
We held a forum for the people of Somerville to address critical issues in their community that are being ignored. 130 people came. As opposed to when a candidate from out of town, in a race for which the election is more than a year away, packs the Somerville Theatre, with people throwing untold gobs of money at this guy.
On one hand, this kind of thing makes me question my commitment to community journalism. At the same time, I accept the challenge. There is nothing harder than getting people to care about the issues in their backyard; after Trump got into office, we saw donations to the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism go through the floor. We nearly folded. Sadly, I am seeing a similar hysteria now.
Please stop throwing your money at these megalomaniacs and visit givetobinj.org instead. If you really just happen to love the national stuff, we have a bar rented out in Manchester for the primaries, and you can come hang out with us up there. Until then, please help us cover local. It’s important.
True, he said this in the context of encouraging readers to support the nonprofit journalism organization we run alongside DigBoston, and I wouldn’t be boosting his signal on that front if I wasn’t in complete agreement.
But it’s important to consider the problem Faraone highlights in explicitly political terms as well. The late Speaker of the US House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Cambridge famously channeled the truism “all politics are local” and I think he was absolutely correct to do so. One can quibble about exactly what he meant. Yet this much reasonable commentators can all agree on: National politicians are only as strong as the local politics upon which they stand.
Put another way, politicians—and, naturally, political factions—that don’t have a strong local base are inherently weak.
That is one reason why I long ago decided to focus both my political activism and my journalism on Boston and Massachusetts. On my city and my state. As a result of a very negative experience with Beltway politics that saw me propose and organize the “Age and Youth in Action Conference” in Clinton-era Washington, DC—only to find myself completely outmaneuvered by activists close to Democratic Party leadership when I tried to form an alliance between left-leaning student groups and elder groups aimed at defending and expanding the Social Security system.
In the months that followed, I reflected on what had gone wrong. And the main problem, as I saw it, was that I had no political base in the Boston area or in Massachusetts in general. Without that base, it was impossible for me to get anything of consequence done in DC.
Being the youngest member of the national board of an advocacy group didn’t give me such a base. So, I walked away from federal politics, and resolved to get deeply involved in local and regional political activism. Mostly in and around the labor movement.
What I discovered over years of work was that state and local politics were much larger arenas than I had realized. And that it was vitally important for many more people to engage the political process at both of those levels. From the outside, as advocates and agitators (as I have been). But also from the inside, as candidates for office—and ultimately politicians.
Yet people really don’t put much effort into state and local politics, I’m sorry to say. Not in the large numbers that are really needed. Especially when it comes time to elect local and particularly state politicians. Voting numbers remain scandalously low compared to many other democratic nations—all the more so when there are no federal contests. In 2018, only 60.17% of registered Mass voters went to the polls. Compared to a still-poor showing of 74.51% in 2016. And 50.84% in 2014—the lowest turnout of any of the races listed on the secretary of the commonwealth’s website. Going back to 1948.
The turnouts for state primaries—which are the only times when seats in the legislature are actually contested in most cases—are far worse: 21.85% in 2018, 8.84% in 2016, and 16.81% in 2014.
To pick the obvious municipality to compare state turnout stats with, only 54.8% of registered Boston voters cast ballots in the state election of 2018, 66.75% in the presidential election of 2016, and 41.99% in the state election of 2014. Shockingly low for a major city in an advanced industrial democracy. Remembering that many people don’t even bother to register. As Pam Wilmot of Common Cause said in a Boston Globe article on efforts to institute automatic voter registration statewide, there could be as many as 500,000 unregistered voters in the Bay State. Making all the voter stats in this article even worse than they appear, given that the number of registered voters was 4,434,934 in February, according to the secretary of the commonwealth.
But the number of contested races for seats in the state legislature is truly dismal—and hasn’t even had a significant spike during a recent midterm election season that was supposed to see new life breathed into a moribund American political system thanks to a grassroots reaction to a controversial president.
According to a study by Ballotpedia, only 12.3% of available seats in the Mass legislature were contested in the 2018 primaries. Up from 10% in 2016 and 11.8% in 2014. Which is to say not really up at all.
Week after week, I’m writing about big problems in one policy area after another—housing, transportation, higher education, labor, environment, and on and on—and pointing out where increased public involvement in state and local politics could really have a positive effect. And there is a good deal of grassroots community activism and related volunteer work happening on many key issues. But little really changes because people continue to allow all too many do-nothing incumbents to keep their seats term after term after term. Many running without even token opposition.
Not that every pol needs to be unseated, or that putting term limits on politicians is automatically a good thing. But it could certainly help Massachusetts politics if, say, more candidates connected to strong grassroots movements for social justice ran for office each election season. People who don’t just do whatever big corporations pay them to do once elected.
So, I would really like to see more people put much more money and sweat equity into politics at the state and local level. And, yes, I’d be absolutely thrilled if more of those people were socialists like me. After all, one of the big reasons I’ve been watching Somerville politics so closely is because a number of socialists and social democrats have been elected to city council.
But honestly, we could also use more open right-wingers running for office in Massachusetts—and winning some seats. Better that, than electing more right-wingers who call themselves Democrats and give outsiders and the uninformed the idea that we live in some kind of left-wing fantasy land. As I’ve opined time and time again. I don’t believe that a democracy can be a democracy without free and open debate at all levels, and without multiparty elections. And I think it’s dangerous to live in a country—or a state—where everyone claims to think alike.
Almost as dangerous as living in a country where the rich and power rule the roost, and people think it’s a good idea to spend tens of millions of their hard-earned dollars on a presidential election spectacle where the populace isn’t allowed to vote directly for the candidates. Who in turn will automatically have to take office catering more to the interests of the billionaire class than to any other single group in our society. Whatever they promise on the hustings.
We need to pull that system down. And the only way that is going to happen is by improving politics at the state and local level, and building mass movements capable of effecting profound (“small d”) democratic change on federal politics.
If people think that even state and local politics are so corrupt that it’s not worth voting—let alone getting active in public affairs at those levels—then we’ll continue to see politics as usual at all levels. And America will continue to spiral downward toward some unimaginable abyss.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.