Free Speech and Broken Hearts

A friend of mine who is both concerned with liberty and the well-being of her neighbors sent me the ACLU’s position paper on Freedom of Expression. She had genuine conflict because she is concerned about our 1st Amendment rights and agrees with their position, but doesn’t want to be or appear to be unloving to her friends and neighbors affected by this. I decided to respond openly because I know this is something a lot of my liberty-minded friends struggle with.
I will not ever say that Nazis, or any other awful group that you can think of, can’t assemble in the public square peacefully and express their point of view. Yes, they can do it, and should be free to do it peacefully without legal consequences. (Financial and social consequences are another matter entirely.) Here are the challenges I have with this line of discourse:
  • Relatively few people are saying they shouldn’t – There are varying degrees of outrage, disappointment, and sadness about the protest, but most who are opposed recognize their right to free speech.
  • They’re not peacefully assembled – A woman was killed and 19 people were injured by the car that plowed into counter-protestors. At least one man was beaten in a garage. When violence begins, your right to speak ends.
  • There is a double standard – There are conflicting accounts from the ground, but a number of accounts point to police being more vigilant and aggressive toward the counter-protestors. I don’t want to speculate on to what degree the police were prepared for violence from the right-wingers versus the left, or how that compares to a BLM rally or vigil, but there is certainly a sense of a double standard when you look at, for instance, the protest in Baton Rouge with the iconic picture of the woman appearing to cause riot officers to lean back from the force of her resolute will.
Talking about free speech is important, once people actually start saying they shouldn’t have it. When people start lobbying for policy to be introduced, then you should speak up against it, and speak up loudly. As it stands, most of the complaints are angry, sad, and hurt people just wishing that these people would go away.
Speaking of hurt, let’s talk about the heart. Leaping to free speech as the first thought in your mind when you see something like Charlottesville is at best callous. It’s a failure of love to not see your neighbor’s fear and pain and seek to help resolve that first. When a good friend is hurt by someone, do you start trying to see the good in that other person? Do you try to convince your friend that they’re being unreasonable by being so upset? No, you hug them, cheer them, get some food, commiserate for a bit. If your friend becomes obsessive about the situation, or wants to get revenge, then maybe you talk them down and start pointing out where they’re being unreasonable. But you start with care and love.
Pointing out a Nazi’s right to speak freely isn’t love for your neighbor. It’s true, but it’s not helpful or kind. Instead of fixating on the right of evil to exist, turn that energy and focus to your neighbor and let them know through your words and actions that they are not alone, that you stand with them. Show them that when the torches come to your city, they don’t have to stand alone.

Views from the 6th: A Post-Mortem

The Georgia 6th District race is over. Karen Handel is the latest occupant of the seat formerly held by Newt Gingrich. Ossoff, despite running a machine of a campaign and spending more money than any rep ever has, lost by about 10,000 votes. So what did we learn?

Party allegiance is stronger than candidate evaluation, at least for now. Handel is a weak candidate that benefitted from the bruising multi-way primary. But the supposed Republican slate and antipathy for the Democratic name buoyed her well beyond her own charisma and message.

We need a deeper bench. Ossoff wasn’t a bad candidate and had strong support. But how much better would another local person holding current office or with known community credentials have fared? County parties do candidate development, so if you think everyone in power are a bunch of numbskulls and you can do better, contact your county party and step up. If you live in Atlanta, contact me and I’ll personally see to it that you are connected.

Not sure if you are ready to run? You can start with a two hour canvassing shift. Get behind a local candidate. Start talking to people. See how the game is played. Decide after that.

We have to fix gerrymandering. This district in this climate was winnable for Republicans because it was drawn that way. And incidentally, it’s your state legislatures that redraw federal districts. So again, stepping up for 2018 and 2020 state races are your best bet to have a chance to change this.

It would be good to try some different voting systems. Ranked voting would eliminate grueling and expensive runoffs, and allow people to better express their preferences. In this race, if we had ranked voting and you liked Ragin Edwards but would be okay with Jon Ossoff, you could’ve voted her first and him second. This would both better express preferences and encourage more people to run. And it would be substantially cheaper. Most importantly, having only one vote per election would increase turnout as well.

Hearts over minds. The progressive message is one of hope, inclusion, and courage. (I don’t call it the Democratic  because it’s not clear to me that they are on one message top-down.) The Republican narrative currently being sold is backward-looking to imagined halcyon days that conveniently ignore the exclusion and oppression required to produce them. It continues to be about an expansive and pervasive fear — terrorists, criminals, even our own government. This is not a message that should win rationally. 

But winning isn’t rational. So progressives have to pitch a message not about how stupid it is to want to live in 1950, but how courage is standing up for your neighbor, not letting terror cow us. For the religious, we don’t talk about where literal interpretation of the Bible is problematic; we leave that to the theologians. We talk about the emphasis on service and love for the outcast that we are called to, and how all the fear talk about today’s outcasts flies in the face of that.

Money doesn’t matter; we have to vote. Jon Ossoff proved that money can’t win an election. He literally had more money than he could use, and beyond a certain point, it only produced fatigue in the electorate. As good as turnout was for a runoff, the rain still kept many away, and it still was less than the presidential election, even though the impact of the lower level race on the area is greater. 

There are no two ways about it. We have to vote. Money can’t win an election, and as long as you have enough resources to reach the electorate, it won’t lose it either. It’s all about showing up during the generous three week early voting window and casting that vote.

If you don’t believe that you making that effort to vote makes a difference now, you are abdicating your responsibility as a citizen. I don’t want to hear all this Illuminati/Bilderberg/same-same talk. If there is an Illuminati or similar, your apathy means they don’t even have to work hard! 

At least show up, every election, and make the corruption in the system expose itself. You might be surprised to discover there’s no man behind the curtain at all.

2017 Georgia Sixth District Election – A Post-Primary Analysis

The Congressional primary for US House District GA-06 was held yesterday. As expected, the election went to a runoff. I have some thoughts on how the race shook out, having followed it closely since I decided not to run on January 5. My thoughts are my own and don’t represent any party or organization of which I’m a member. I’m also no Nate Silver. But let’s talk about it anyway.

Jon Ossoff, the golden boy of the left who rose from his Congressional staffer background with a blessing from John Lewis and a lot of grassroots fundraising, garnered 48.1% of the vote, at 92,390 votes. Karen Handel, former Secretary of State and perennial statewide candidate, rose to the top of a bruising field of 4 credible Republican contenders to get 19.8% of the vote, at 37,993. The other 16 candidates picked up the remaining 32%, with almost all of that going to Bob Gray, a local businessman, Dan Moody, a former state senator, and Judson Hill, a sitting state senator who vacated his seat to run. Since no one got 50% plus 1, the election goes to a runoff on June 20. What do the rest of the numbers tell us?

Missing Voters

I’ll lead with the data which for me was the most disappointing. If we look at the 2016 Presidential Election results in the district, Tom Price, the incumbent, got 201,088 votes. Rodney Stooksbury, a candidate that ran no campaign, had no website, and did not even have a picture, managed to garner 124,917 votes. It’s unsurprising such a candidate didn’t break 40%. What is surprising though is that with all of the energy put into this current race by Democrats, turnout across all 5 Dems added up to a mere 93,911 votes. This is a gap of 31,006 votes. Since we can assume that no one showed up specifically to vote for Stooksbury, that means a quarter of the people that bothered to show up to vote for Hillary Clinton couldn’t be bothered to show up to vote for any Democrat.

I predicted when this election was going on that the district could be won if all the Hillary voters simply showed up again and voted for any Democrat they preferred. With the same proportions, Ossoff would have had a handy victory. So why would so many people stay home?

It’s Hard Out Here for an Independent

There were two candidates who did not make a party declaration: Alexander Hernandez, a local film industry worker, and Andre Pollard, a computer programmer. Between them they managed to garner a whopping 176 votes out of nearly 200,000. If we look at their fundraising totals, we see that Hernandez spent $49.12 per vote and Pollard spent a whopping $95.45 per vote. This sounds bad until we realize that some of the leading candidates had even worse numbers, which I’ll get into in a minute. As I discussed in my article about what I learned in my exploration for a Congressional run, the money is a big deal, because it’s your voice. Hernandez and Pollard weren’t able to lean on a party and para-party infrastructure to speak for them or against their enemies, so they had to rely on their personal relationships. And like most regular people, they didn’t know a lot of rich people, certainly not ones that liked them enough to invest in their victory.

Speaking of which, a political consultant I spoke with during my preparation grilled me and asked, “what’s your path to victory?” He meant, who in the district will support you besides your mom and your neighbor? What demographic segment is looking for you to run and will come out and vote for you, then tell their friends to do the same? What coalition can you build to pull together enough votes to be a credible threat? If you don’t know the answers to those and a bunch of other questions, then don’t bother running; you’re wasting your energy and your own or your friends’ money. You’d be better off finding a candidate that will advance the policy nearest to your heart and volunteering to support them.

Really quickly, I’m not saying “don’t run! Let the two big parties do it!” I heartily encourage anyone who feels the call to run for office. I do think you should run with a goal of winning though; the taste of campaigning that I got showed me that it’s a difficult, thankless grind that isn’t worth doing for your ego or pride alone. So if you are truly neither Democrat-leaning nor Republican-leaning, figure out your path to victory before you run, or figure out how you’re going to make your third party stronger locally.

The Money

I mentioned earlier how the independent candidates spent a crazy amount per vote, right? Let’s take a look at how the other candidates spent:

Name Party Votes Spend Spend Per Vote Percentage
Jon Ossoff Dem. 92,390 $6,183,941 $66.93 48.10%
Karen Handel Rep. 37,993 $279,767 $7.36 19.78%
Bob Gray Rep. 20,755 $321,028 $15.47 10.81%
Dan Moody Rep. 16,994 $1,865,030 $109.75 8.85%
Judson Hill Rep. 16,848 $359,210 $21.32 8.77%
Kurt Wilson Rep. 1,812 $199,149 $109.91 0.94%
David Abroms Rep. 1,637 $155,412 $94.94 0.85%
Ragin Edwards Dem. 502 N/R 0.26%
Ron Slotin Dem. 488 $70,522 $144.51 0.25%
Bruce Levell Rep. 455 N/R 0.24%
Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan Rep. 414 $26,068 $62.97 0.22%
Keith Grawert Rep. 414 $34,106 $82.38 0.22%
Amy Kremer Rep. 349 $15,233 $43.65 0.18%
William Llop Rep. 326 N/R 0.17%
Rebecca Quigg Dem. 304 N/R 0.16%
Richard Keatley Dem. 227 $9,349 $41.19 0.12%
Alexander Hernandez Ind. 121 $5,944 $49.12 0.06%
Andre Pollard Ind. 55 $5,250 $95.45 0.03%

(Thanks to Ballotpedia and the NYT for the data.)

We see from the chart that the most efficient candidate was Karen Handel, at a mere $7.36 per vote, while the least efficient was Ron Slotin, the number two Democrat in the race, at $144.71 per vote. Across the election, a total of $49.61 per vote was spent on average.

What does this measure of efficiency tell us? First, it’s a reminder of how expensive marketing campaigns are. As I’ve said in the past, an election is a marketing campaign for a product that nobody wants. With all of that spending, they were only able to turn out a little under 200,000 of the about 500,000 eligible voters in the district. The turnout also represents a bit less than 60% of the turnout of the presidential election. Voter apathy is still high.

Second, it shows how much name recognition matters. Everyone knows the name Karen Handel, even if they don’t all know what she’s done. She’s been in public life for a long time, and even though her reputation isn’t pristine, she still was able to pull a significant number of votes simply because people knew who she was.

Third, it shows the advantage of incumbency. Judson Hill managed to get almost exactly the same numbers as Dan Moody with about a fifth of the spending. Both served in the State Senate in Georgia, but Hill as an incumbent was able to draw on his voter base in his Senate district to turn out solid numbers without having to spend nearly as much. He still wasn’t able to pull in the rest of the Congressional district, but with better fundraising, the story may have been different.

One additional note: A reader pointed out to me that there was a lot of PAC money spent on attack ads on Ossoff. When considering this, Republican efficiency numbers look a bit less impressive, as any anti-Ossoff ad helped one of the top 4 Republicans a bit. At least $2.2 million was spent on attack ads, and of course Democratic PACs and groups ran general GOTV efforts as well. All that adds up to even more money in an already budget-busting race, with lots more to come now that the core party spending can be unleashed on each side.

Fall in Love, or Fall in Line?

One of my neighbors, a thoughtful and regular voter, but not particularly politically oriented, was a bit disappointed by Ossoff when they saw him speak. They felt he was wooden and inexperienced. They did vote for him in the end, but they weren’t excited about it. I imagine a number of people felt the same way, but decided not to bother to vote.

I read somewhere recently in a thread on a progressive Facebook group a thought which I will paraphrase. The writer noted that Republicans tend to look for a reason to vote for a candidate, while Democrats tend to look for a reason not to vote for a candidate. While I am a firm believer in voting one’s conscience, I do think that Democrats in particular will have to exercise more pragmatism in general or open elections, and save their fire for party primaries where they can express more specific preferences among a slate of candidates who are all likely to advance mostly agreeable policy. The best is the enemy of the good, and waiting for a candidate with the perfect combination of skill to fend off Republican attacks, gravitas, charisma, and policy may leave us all waiting for a long time.

People who want to see more populist progressivism of the Sanders variety will also need to start showing up at their county Democratic Party meetings. I’m now a post holder for my state house district (something like an at-large precinct captain) [Ed. note: post holders’ duties include but are not limited to field operations and they are voting members of the county organization], and the slots were literally all open when I showed up to my first county party meeting in January. That was when I learned there is literally nothing in the way of me advancing an agenda I believe in that fits anywhere within the party’s big tent. People who grouse about corruption or anointed candidates or the like should take their complaints to the county party. You might discover that there’s a job for you to do to fix it.

Parting Thoughts

  • You can vote in the runoff even if you didn’t vote in the primary, so get out there June 20.
  • If you lean left, don’t grouse over your candidate losing or nitpick Ossoff, just vote for him and then hold him accountable as a constituent.
  • If you lean right, take a look at Handel’s willingness to be independent of Trump, the way that any member of Congress should exercise some independence from the Executive. Make sure she’s putting your district and not the party or the whims of the President first.
  • Regardless, figure out who among your friends didn’t vote. Ask them why. Don’t browbeat them, but try to figure out what would engage them. We get this ridiculous spending under control by caring enough to give some thought and effort to the one thing that can’t be bought — our votes.

 

On Reconciling Christian Principles with Government Programs

President Trump recently proposed a budget which makes a number of cuts to discretionary spending across government agencies. Liberal-leaning folks are predictably up in arms. Conservatives range from mild concern to relief that Trump is finally realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of “reduc[ing] [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” People on the left are wagging their fingers about the hypocrisy of professed Christians being so concerned about performance of programs designed simply to feed the poor and hungry. Conservatives answer with their standard retort that being Christian doesn’t mean you advocate that the government do everything. To them, it’s the job of churches and private citizens to step in and take care of the poor and needy. Who’s right?

As usual, the answer requires a bit of nuanced thinking. Conservatives have a point about their Christian obligations not extending to an explicit call to fund government programs. Other than giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus himself says little about how we respond to government authority, though he says a lot about how we should individually behave. Paul says more, generally telling us that we should generally abide by the government’s rules and authority, even if we are encouraged to live in a socially countercultural way and not allow human law to subvert God’s law. Generally, the commands on how to live and treat people speak to individuals, not governments. So it is technically fair to say that there’s no call in the Bible to engage in aid through taxation or government programs.

That said, it requires a narrow interpretation of the Bible to assume then that government programs that execute Jesus’s mandates are inherently bad, or even just inherently worse than a church or individual doing the same. While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, why would God not be pleased about a government that distributes some of the taxes it collects for programs to help the poor or needy? Corruption is certainly found in government, but what is forgotten by many who prefer limited government is that government is ultimately just comprised of people, just like any institution. Churches and individual hearts are no less susceptible. In fact, churches have to be on special guard because of their perceived proximity to God’s desire for humanity.

Another challenge with the standard conservative Christian position on the role of government is that churches have both an inward-facing and outward-facing obligation. The churches may have mission that they engage in locally or far away, but a primary objective is the cultivation of spiritual life and community among their attendees. While it would be better if people gave more in general so that church coffers were overflowing and churches were able to step into the breach for the needy across the nation, that’s simply not the case for most churches. The churches that do have lots of money often struggle with the challenges Jesus warned us that money brings.

Also, the outward-facing missional work of a Christian church is usually tied to evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel. Conservative Protestant denominations tend to interpret this fairly literally, with telling the message being as important or more important than showing and patiently modeling in one’s life. So, then, what if a person refuses the Gospel? What if they don’t wish to come because they know that that’s what will be served with their soup and bread, or with the clothes they are given? I’m not encouraging anyone to shut their mouth about the Gospel. I’m just asking if the church expects that it can be effective at meeting all types of needs.

On top of all this, the Christian church is no longer hegemonic in America. By this I mean that it’s not the default, dominant framing for most citizens. As church membership declines and more people turn away from faith as it’s historically been understood, the weight on the shoulders of each remaining member increases. It simply isn’t reasonable to assume that the church can serve the needs of everyone.

Even if other people start chipping in out of pocket, we’ve already seen what that looks like. Go to GoFundMe and see which medical requests get funded and which don’t. Popular, well-connected, attractive people get more money than the unpopular, the undesirable, the forgotten. We give to people we care about or think we care about, dropping $25 here, $100 there, while we leave the masses of the invisible at the margins and mercy of government programs that we want to cut so that “real charity” can begin. Why do we think a post-tax world would look any different than GoFundMe writ large, with individuals and small shelters and nonprofits spending more time putting on a good face for well-heeled donors than servicing the needy?

This is the part where some would point out that the liberals or non-religious people out there should put their money where their mouth is and give a lot more to charity. The response: they do give, in the form of taxes. The government is able to achieve some economies of scale with the support programs it funds. Taxes are also a great way to get everyone to participate in programs that improve the state of the society as a whole rather than relying on the goodness of individual hearts. The concern often raised following this assertion is that too much government money is going to the undeserving. I always find the notion of being deserving of grace to be a funny thing to be promulgated by people whose entire faith is predicated on receiving a gift that they did not deserve.

Moreover, when we unpack the notion of an unworthy recipient of government largesse, we often find ourselves envisioning someone very different than ourselves, someone with a different style of dress, different way of speaking, different way of acting, possibly different complexion. Our biases have a way of working themselves into our decisions about who should get what, whether it’s our tax dollars our just our attention.

I consider myself fairly generous, but I hold too tightly to my money, forgetting that I’m only a steward. I don’t manage as well as I should. Why would I assume my neighbors would on average fare any better? I’m always in favor of examining places where we can cut spending waste, where private organizations can serve people more efficiently than government organizations, or where government organizations can be restructured to be made more nimble. What I am not in favor of is the replacement of tax dollars that are helping millions with a reliance on the kindness of each of our individual hearts and our willingness to cheerfully give. I fear that switching to that model will find us coming up painfully short, with a net increase in suffering, all so that we can be satisfied that someone isn’t getting what they don’t deserve.

 

 

Systemic Bias in Education – A Brief Case Study

I posted the following notes on an event in my life to my public Facebook page. What I found interesting, and sad, was the number of personal stories I heard from black high achievers that I knew in response. They had experienced the same thing (being kept from advanced opportunities) or worse (being threatened with being held back despite good performance) and only made it as far as they had because their parents were able to fight for them unrelentingly. I also heard other stories about children of other ethnicities experiencing other kinds of bias from their schools.

I think about this in more detail now because of the potential changes coming to our public education system. How do we ensure that implicit bias does not have a meaningful impact on outcomes of already disadvantaged groups?

I am helping a guardian (grandmother) of a black child I know through my father’s network of professional friends get him into a gifted program. The child scored in the 92nd percentile overall on a real and comprehensive IQ test (average in 1 out of 5, high average in 3 out of 5, and very high in 1) but there is some question by his school administrators about his ability to succeed in the program. He’s generally well-behaved and has no emotional or behavioral issues of which I am aware. What’s more, the program seems to have separable components to allow for more children, so he should qualify for at least one part based on his very high performance in one category.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the administrator taking the lay of the land and knowing the whole child. However, the problem comes in when we examine the standards in his state for gifted program access. The standards in most states indicate that “high potential” or “above average ability” be demonstrated without defining a test standard or performance percentile. This to me sounds like an administrator can pick and choose from among the top 10% or so of performers.

All that is fine until we bring in the body of knowledge around implicit bias. Imagine that an administrator, with no ill intent or conscious bias toward anyone, looks at a child like this one. The numbers are good, but they’re not perfect. Her gut tells her, “he doesn’t have the range.” Never mind that another child of a different ethnicity might have gotten by with a comparable score. The numbers were different. Maybe the percentile was lower but it was more even throughout. And that kid just had that thing, you know? It’s not personal and it’s definitely not racist.

Without undeniable numbers like 99th percentile, such a child as the one I’m helping gets denied opportunities for expansion and advancement. Because of historical bias, the child is often already starting at a disadvantage. As a result, it becomes that much harder for him to get a foothold and get ahead, and create something he can pass on to his next generation.

This is how systemic racism works without a single actual racist lifting a finger.

Which Bible Hero Are You?

No, this isn’t a Buzzfeed quiz.

I was talking with a Christian friend at breakfast the other day and he raised the point about how his Christian friends who are having problems always are likening themselves to Bible heroes. “This is my Gideon moment.” “I feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel right now.” That sort of thing. Even for those that don’t believe, historical stories with general applications are likely to be useful ways of putting problems into context.

The problem that he, and I, have seen, is that Christians often want to identify the story before the experience is over. Following the tradition of Christian writers and speakers I respect the most, I’ll use myself as an example. When I decided to prepare to run for Congress recently, I received the instruction to do so as a specific and direct call from God in a way that I had only heard a few calls in my life. In my fear, I likened myself to the prophets. I read the call of Jeremiah and was encouraged. “I’m like Jeremiah”, I thought. “God will put the words I need in my mouth and if He wills it, I will be given authority.”

Well, as my last post pointed out, I ended up not running. I wasn’t discouraged by this at all, but while talking about the experience with the friend I had breakfast with, I realized I actually felt something like I imagine Abraham did when he found out he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his son. Abraham brought his only son to a mountaintop to sacrifice him because he believed God told him to. He was stopped at the last moment by an angel and was given a ram to sacrifice instead. Obviously, running for Congress is not exactly the same as sacrificing a child (and, to my knowledge, child sacrifice is not yet required to pass legislation). However, I can relate to the idea of being given an incredibly difficult task, preparing for it because God said to, and then being relieved of having to do that task at the last moment.

If I had become too fixated on the Jeremiah analogy, I might have decided that God was going to raise me up, miraculously put hundreds of thousands of dollars at my disposal, and magic up my speeches so that I would win the hearts of the people in the face of a race that I had no statistical reason to place higher than fourth. In my fixation, I wouldn’t have heard the still, small voice telling me, “Well done. You may go.” when it became clear that I wouldn’t win this particular race at this particular time.

In the same way, if we decide too soon who we are in the story, we restrict our ability to follow the path God has actually written for us. Sometimes the lesson is different than we think, or contains parts of multiple stories we know to form a new story. Sometimes the lesson is a simple idea (albeit a challenging implementation), such as patience, or trust. Our goal is to stay grounded and move in faith, one step at a time, knowing that at each step we will be given what we need. I emphasize the word need because what we need doesn’t always look like what we would like most, or what is most comfortable. In doing so, we let God tell us our own story.

So next time you’re searching the Bible to figure out who you are most like in this moment, ask God to help you to have patience and trust as He reveals the story He’s writing with you as the hero. The Biblical stories are a great source of wisdom and encouragement, but only time tells our story, and we cannot predict or optimize it by being more devout or well-read.

Things I Learned Preparing for a Run for Congress

I recently almost launched a candidacy for a US House seat in my district, Georgia’s Sixth. I live in Tom Price’s district and he’s about to go Trump’s cabinet to run the Department of Health and Human Services, which together with the Republican-led Congress, will eviscerate the ACA. I felt what I can only describe as a spiritual call to run this race. The call wasn’t to win, though I would do my level best. The call was to run. As frightened as I was, and as unprepared as I felt in my mind, I had to answer the call.

I talked to my wife first, and once she agreed that we could go on this journey, we began to pray. (Make no mistake, your spouse is your co-candidate from a public relations perspective, so they’d better be ready). I prayed specifically for God to take this desire from me if it were not for me. Instead, the next day, a friend told me about a great event happening in Nashville called The Arena Summit, a rapidly organized conference specifically designed to energize, mobilize, and equip millennial and late Gen-X progressive candidates to run for office. I made a boatload of fantastic connections from around the country and got some great encouragement, mentoring and training. Next, a good friend that I told stepped up to essentially become my campaign manager. He helped me organize, research policy and tighten message, and start to get media together.

I then launched a campaign on CrowdPAC, which is kind of a Kickstarter for campaigns. It lets you raise pledges that turn into real dollars if you file to run, but not if you decide to pull out as I ultimately did. Compliance with election law is probably second only to financial industry compliance for complexity, so having CrowdPAC in my corner to test without having to file all that paperwork helped me see if I had real traction. Thankfully I did, and my friends pledged about $11K toward my potential run, enough to pay filing fees, get initial media done, and get started. (Here’s my page.) It was clear that I was going to be given what I needed, both materially and otherwise.

As you can tell from the first sentence, I didn’t actually launch the candidacy. So what happened?

I was already facing what’s called a “jungle primary”, where Democrats and Republicans run on the same ballot and the top two finishers go to runoff, regardless of party. There were 3 Democrats in the race, one of whom (Sally Harrell) was to be the party’s unofficial choice. I was to be number 4, but then a guy named Jon Ossoff entered the race with 2 local Congressmen’s endorsements (one of whom was John Lewis) and $250,000 in commitments. I saw no path to victory through two establishment candidates.

None of that is super important though. Let’s talk about what I learned.

Elections Are Expensive – And It’s Not “Because Corruption”

We all know elections are expensive. We usually dismiss it and talk about the corrupting influence of money in politics, “buying a Congressman”, and so on. However, in researching this candidacy, I learned that there is a very simple reason why there’s so much money in politics. Advertising is expensive.

Imagine you just built the WonderWidget 3000. It’s something that people need, but they don’t know it yet. They complain about their SoSoSpindle 1994s but don’t ever bother to go to the store to change them out or even call in to the manufacturer to get repairs done. So now you’ve got to convince a large group (say, about 500,000 people) that they need to get up, go to the store, and pick up a WonderWidget 3000 right now. But it’s going to take 2 years for you to see if the WonderWidget will work better than the SoSoSpindle you already have. How do you do it?

A hell of a lot of advertising, that’s how. You send out mailers (even at 10 cents a piece per person, that’s $50,000 every time you mail them). You run TV ads in their market (hundreds of thousands). You send out WonderWidget reps to extol the virtues of the product. Maybe WonderWidget fans will work for free, but someone’s got to organize them, and that person has to be paid.

That’s essentially what any campaign looks like. You are the WonderWidget: beautiful and powerful, but unproven. The incumbent (or the incumbent way of thinking) is the SoSoSpindle: not that great, but running in people’s homes right now. So just like with a product, you have to convince people that they have to go out of their way to acquire a new product, stop using the old one, and use the new one long enough to see the differences, which may not be obvious because they aren’t always paying attention anyway. That takes advertising dollars, and that’s what a lot of the campaign’s spend is, not anything shadier or more nefarious than that.

Raising Money Is Time Consuming. . . 

So how do we get the money to run these ad campaigns and pay the teams? In a Federal race, individuals can only give $2,700 per candidate per election. There are loopholes, such as primaries and runoffs being counted as separate elections, but the rule generally holds. Besides, except for the very well off or very politically committed, most people won’t be able to afford giving out money in $2,700, non-tax-deductible chunks. Political Action Committees (PACs) can give a bit more, $5,000 per year total per candidate, but they can’t collect donations from corporations or unions. Super PACs can raise and spend as much as they like from whomever they like as long as they disclose their donors periodically and do not coordinate with candidate’s campaigns.

In general, if you see an ad for a candidate, it’s from the candidate’s campaign paid for out of raised dollars. If you see an ad against a candidate that doesn’t mention the favored opponent’s name or about an issue, it’s probably a SuperPAC. Parties get to spend a pretty substantial amount of money too on behalf of a candidate, but they only do that in general elections; the purpose of primaries is for candidates to demonstrate strength in internecine combat.

Given the advertising requirements above, a typical Congressional seat requires about $2,000,000 in fund raising. That’s two million dollars, raised every two years, entirely from individuals and PACs. (Senate seats are closer to ten million, but can be a lot more depending on the size of the state). If you assume your average committed person is giving out maybe $100 to their favorite candidate, that’s 20,000 donors that you’d need. In practice, there are quite a few large donors and PACs out there. Even so, it’d still take 400 PACs or 740 donors maxing out to hit the target just for a House seat.

This means a lot of time spent on the phone. In the campaign world, they call it “call time”, and your average candidate will do 30-50 hours a week of it. On the phone, calling up everyone they’ve ever met, and asking them for as much money as they can stomach giving. As I’ve learned to say, “The path to Congress runs through a windowless room.” And by the way, that doesn’t stop when they reach office. They have to find time in between all that legislating and representing to raise two million more for the next race.

. . . But Money Is Your Voice

As I alluded to earlier, most people don’t care about your WonderWidget. They don’t even really care about their SoSoSpindle. So given the fundraising realities I outlined above, what is a candidate to do? If you had a choice of calling up a bunch of rich people and asking them for money a thousand dollars at a time or calling up a bunch of middle-class people and asking them for money 20 dollars at a time, which would you choose? The unfortunate side effect of this is that you end up spending a lot of your time and energy around richer people who have different concerns and problems than the average constituent. To paraphrase Jason Kander‘s speech at the Arena Summit, “You spend a lot of time around people that America has been really, really good to.”

The influence of the rich on elections is an emergent phenomenon. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s mathematics. If every person of voting age committed to a) voting hell or high water, and b) donating $20 to their favorite candidate in each general election, you’d see ten million new dollars entering a typical House race every time, and candidates could take most of those 30-50 hours they spend dialing for dollars and go out and actually talk to people living with the results of current policy. I am not advocating for public financing of elections as a tax. I am advocating for public participation in elections as a civic duty, and that means with a few dollars out of all of our pockets as well.

Political Parties Matter

We often pick on the Democratic or Republican Parties for being sclerotic, locked in old ways of thinking, or corrupt. At the ground level though, parties do significant work, engaging motivated constituents, talking with local community organizations and alliances, building consensus. And they do this quiet, unglamorous work, over years, in large part so candidates don’t have to. The end result is that the party workers have relationships with key influencers in communities around the country, and they bring those relationships to bear for party-approved candidates. Some county and state organizations have problems too and need to be reworked, no doubt. But that’s not an indictment of the party system, that’s an identification of a specific problem that needs to be fixed.

I was going to run as an outside candidate in the Democratic Party. This meant that no county organizations would back me. No unions or community groups that worked closely with the party would say a word or lift a finger to help. No state assembly members would lend their voice to my cause. This meant that the only chance I had was to convince the people individually, which takes a lot more time, and more money.

My platform wasn’t 100% aligned with the Democrats, and there are a lot of Republicans in my district who, as one said, would see “Chick-Fil-A open on Sunday before I vote for a Democrat” (for those outside of the area, that’s a very Atlanta way of saying “when pigs fly”). So why didn’t I run as an Independent?

Third Parties Are Hard

I could run as an Independent and have a better shot of winning some moderates. However, remember all the money I talked about from above? Remember all the relationships? Even as an outside Democrat, if I showed popular appeal and fundraising ability, the party could switch to back me. However, as an Independent, I’d better have my own cash. Few traditional Democratic donors would switch to back me. The party would offer no assistance, and depending on my stances, could actively campaign against me.

And let’s say I won as an Independent. I beat the odds!  I changed the political system in America! Right?  Nope. In 2018, I’d have to run against a Democrat and a Republican, then beat the stronger one in a runoff since none of us would likely get 50% of the vote. And you’d better believe that both parties would pour national dollars into that runoff.

If you’re Bloomberg or even just ordinary rich, these kinds of things aren’t necessarily a problem; you can write your own checks until the candidate-specific momentum builds. If you’re a normal candidate, you have to raise in spite of that. Rinse and repeat until you have so much individual respect that they give up 3 or 4 terms later, if you can last that long.

So how do we build a useful third party? It’s really hard for two reasons.

First, that unglamorous work that parties do has to be done, and you can’t speed it up. You have to build the alliances with key influencers one by one. You have to run local candidates, then state assembly candidates. You can’t start at the presidency, and even federal offices are hard.

Second, the tents of the two parties are really broad. Any message that’s resonant with more than a few people will get co-opted. The Tea Party was an insurgent movement that was essentially a third party. (Don’t get caught up in the astroturf versus grassroots debate; the point is that it was a threat to both Democrats and Republicans.) Their ideas got co-opted by the Republicans and pulled the entire party closer to that way of thinking. One could argue that the Republican Party is in fact now the Tea Party by another name. But there are still just two major parties. And the same would happen if Sanders/Warren progressivism animates the left into sustained action. The Democratic Party would co-opt and adjust and become a Progressive Party by another name.

I learned a lot of more boring but important minutia about the mechanics of campaigning, but I’ll spare you that. Here’s the big takeaway:

You Are Still In Charge!

No matter how much money you raise, the election authorities don’t count dollars. They count votes. Turnout is dismal, around 50-60% for Presidential elections, and as low as 5-10% for special elections or local. This means that you’re letting a couple hundred people in some cases decide your local tax rate, or whether a new park gets built, or what your school is going to change. The decisions that impact your life are deeply local, and the only thing between you and the world you want is you taking the time to research the issues a bit and vote.

You don’t have to be a policy wonk. Just show up at your town hall meetings and ask questions. Heck, just call the office of your city councillors and ask for an appointment. Failing that, ask one of those motivated party operatives to explain a local issue to you in simpler terms. There are people that know these things inside and out, either for love or for money, and they can help you become an informed voter without you changing your life.

If I learned one thing from making a serious exploration of political candidacy, it’s that our apathy is why things are not where we want them to be. I’m more inspired than ever to be engaged, to understand the issues from multiple angles, and to be a voter that participates with both my consistent presence and dollars. And, as my friend pointed out, the more voters that are present, the fewer dollars are needed to advertise and raise awareness.

For my friends who like to talk about corruption at every level of government and “politricks”, stop it. Seriously. Your active discouragement is destroying our country. When people stop believing in the power of the vote and the power of their personal voice, that’s when those who seek personal gain at your expense win. Commit to one political event per quarter. Commit to showing up at every. single. election. And commit to getting a strong handle on one local issue a year, whether it’s your local school, the millage rate, the police department’s record, or whatever.

One last thing. Democrat or Republican, stop voting blindly with your party. Get an understanding of what your “hills to die on” are, and what doesn’t actually matter in your daily life. When candidates know they have to work with an informed electorate and no votes are promised, that’s when you see moves to sanity rather than toward what gets the few motivated voters frothing at the mouth the most.

I’m more inspired and hopeful about what America and our democratic process can still do than I could have possibly been if I had stayed on the sidelines. My journey isn’t for all of us to take. There are no shortcuts though, everyone. It’s on each of us to make the commitment. Spend just one hour a month understanding your local landscape and what can be changed. Twelve hours of your attention in the entire year would change our country permanently.