If you read one book about politics this year, make it How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office. Sure, there are dozens of books about how Bush is evil, how politics are corrupt, and how America has become a right-wing theocracy. And I like those books; but this book actually shows you how to do something about it.
How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office compiles over twenty stories of young activists getting involved in local political campaigns – for mayor, Senate, state representative, and more. Over and over again, the same message is repeated: At the local level, you and your friends, CAN get someone cool elected, and make real changes in your community.
Although I have been skeptical of Upski (author of Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons) in the past, a lot of his intro is right on: “The harsh reality that we young whippersnappers [!] hate to face is that most people in American actually don’t think like us and our friends. The revolution is not going to happen tomorrow. Winona LaDuke will not become vice president of the U.S. or even governor of Minnesota.”
Instead, the book concentrates on the difficult day-to-day local organizing necessary to win local elections. And the successes are real. Voters elected 26-year-old Jason West mayor of New Paltz, N.Y. in 2003. (West, a member of the Green Party, has since grabbed national headlines for marrying same-sex couples.) Alisha Thomas, a 24-year-old black woman, won a state legislature seat in notoriously racist Cobb County, Georgia. Paul Wellstone inspired progressive folks all over Minnesota.
Lots of important decisions about everything from zoning to police funding get decided mostly by local aldermen and women. Electing progressive folks at this level can make a huge difference. Hopefully this book will motivate young people to get involved in these battles.
However, despite all the attention on the local, the explicit goal of the book is to use these local strategies to defeat Bush in the 2004 presidential election. While I obviously think Bush should be defeated, presidential elections are completely different their local counterparts – the odds of getting a genuine progressive election are worse, the ability to influence candidates is less, and money rules everything.
Add to that the creeping suspicion of many folks that Kerry isn’t really that much better, or, at the very least, he’s a manipulative amoral rich guy. Of course, if I’m in a swing state, I’ll vote for him, but look at his record: just a few weeks ago, he called for 40,000 more troops in Iraq. He voted for No Child Left Behind, the PATRIOT ACT, the authorization to invade Iraq, the Bush tax cuts, and more. Everyone keeps talking again how this time it really matters who gets elected. Although, of course, it always matters who becomes president, I wonder if progressives should really expect much success from working like crazy on the presidential election. What would success mean? Four years of Kerry?
At one point, Upski writes that establishing a solid progressive majority “will take a thirty-year-plan.” He calls for the Left to study and co-opt some of the tactics of the Right. All of these are good ideas, but perhaps a better way to achieve a progressive majority would be to focus on building local progressive communities, elected local politicians, and then, slowly but surely, creating a genuine grassroots movement that would push the Democratic party further to the Left, while perhaps creating support for a genuine third party – instead of placing that much importance on electing Kerry. It’s not the sort of thing that happens overnight. In fact, if it only took thirty years, I’d be amazed.
But these criticisms have more to do with the way the book is packaged and its call to action than with the stories themselves. And, in the end, getting motivated to do political organizing is the important thing. And these stories will make you realize how much power you can have in a democracy – if you have a good strategy, lots of energy, and are willing to build coalitions – even with people who – oh, the horror! – aren’t into the same bands as you, aren’t your age, go to church, and have an American flag in their front yard. –Maddy (Soft Skull Press, 71 Bond St., Brooklyn, NY 11237, www.softskull.com)