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.

Amendments in the 2016 Georgia Election – My Voting Recommendations

The amendments on the Georgia ballots always throw me. They’re worded so nicely and always sound like voting “Yes” would be an improvement over the status quo. So I decided this year to use this platform to show the results of my homework and make some official recommendations.

Amendment 1 – Recommend NO (reluctantly)

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?

In plain English, this is asking if the state should be allowed to take over failing school districts. This is the most difficult of the four to answer. On one hand, it sounds good for the state to be able to step in and make sure that corrupt local governments (like the one that’s getting cleaned up where I live in DeKalb), or racist or classist ones that are failing students of a particular ethnicity or in a particular financial situation, don’t compromise the education of the children. On the other hand, does the state have a plan to address the actual problem? I defer to the wisdom of my friend Rebekah Cohen Morris, who is a teacher and who thinks critically about the politics and mechanics of the education system at georgianeducator.org. Her post, “Not Just Another Article on School Takeover“, digs deep and concludes that the best vote is “No”. In particular, her argument about holistic services for children living in poverty resonates. Throwing out the teachers, for instance, or burying good teachers under paperwork doesn’t fix the fact that a child coming to school hungry or from a stressful home environment won’t be as ready to learn.

I’m genuinely conflicted about this one. I’m a product of DeKalb County Schools on the south side, and I know how unequal the school district was even then, with shiny, well-maintained schools in the then-predominantly white northern part of the county. The county needs intervention. I just don’t know if this is the one. We can’t let it lie here though with a NO vote, pressure has to be maintained on the counties that are failing to take other steps to resolve this and leading to targeted resolutions in the coming year.

Amendment 2 – Recommend YES

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow additional penalties for criminal cases in which a person is adjudged guilty of keeping a place of prostitution, pimping, pandering, pandering by compulsion, solicitation of sodomy, masturbation for hire, trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, or sexual exploitation of children and to allow assessments on adult establishments to fund the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund to pay for care and rehabilitative and social services for individuals in this state who have been or may be sexually exploited?

This measure funds the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children fund, which has already been created but required a funding mechanism. Some assembly members voted against it, but there appears to be no formal opposition or indication that this reaches beyond punishing offenders and taxing adult establishments more. I would recommend being mindful of how the Safe Harbor fund is used and funds disbursed over the coming years, but I see no reason to oppose.

Amendment 3 – Recommend NO

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to abolish the existing Judicial Qualifications Commission; require the General Assembly to create and provide by general law for the composition, manner of appointment, and governance of a new Judicial Qualifications Commission, with such commission having the power to discipline, remove, and cause involuntary retirement of judges; require the Judicial Qualifications Commission to have procedures that provide for due process of law and review by the Supreme Court of its advisory opinions; and allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to be open to the public in some manner?

This sounds good, right? Let’s make sure there’s a judicial oversight board. Here’s the catch: there already is one. The amendment abolishes the existing one, which is comprised of two judges, 3 members of the State Bar, and two non-members who are gubernatorial appointees. The new one would be created via laws of the General Assembly. This means effectively that the legislature gets to pick who oversees the judicial branch of Georgia government. This appears to me to be a clear violation of separation of powers, given that the current commission is already subject to confirmation by the State Senate. I see no urgent reason to change this, and many prominent Republicans, such as Josh McKoon, agree.

Amendment 4 – Recommend YES

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide that the proceeds of excise taxes on the sale of fireworks or consumer fireworks be dedicated to the funding of trauma care, firefighter equipping and training, and local public safety purposes?

This amendment actually arises from Senate Bill 350, which you will notice is the imposition of a 5% excise tax on fireworks. I have no personal objection to this, especially given that the tax will be used for problems that fireworks create. I’d like to see a bit more allocated to 911 and a bit less to firefighter training, as I think the more frequent problems will be 911 calls complaining about noise and trauma center visits due to injury, and I think actual fire-related issues will be less frequent. But no significant objection. If you hate all things tax, vote no. Otherwise, let the bottle rockets and M-80s cost a bit more if the money is going to stem any damage they cause.

The Problem(s) with Trump’s Race Relations Narrative

If you were watching the US presidential debate last night, you know that there was a conversation on race relations. Because we’re uncomfortable telling the whole story, the conversation tends to be labored for both Democrats and Republicans. However, the Trumpian narrative, which is also repeated in various forms by conservatives who otherwise agree and disagree with him, is particularly problematic. Here are a few of the problems as I see them.

1. Some neighborhoods are rough, no question, but black and Latino people are by and large not living in hell.

A street in a neighborhood in predominantly-black South DeKalb County near Atlanta – not perfect, but not hell. This is basically where I grew up.

A street on the South Side of Chicago – also, not hell. This is near where a couple of my best friends grew up.

2. A focus on law and order rather than justice and safety implies that more, increasingly militarized policing and prosecution will reduce crime. On the contrary, policies like stop-and-frisk have been proven to be ineffective and increase distrust of police, which makes things harder when you need people to “start snitching”.

3. This focus on policing and prosecution seems to imply that there is an underlying lawlessness that is hard to explain without having to go to personal agency and morality. It doesn’t do anything to talk about the financial instability introduced by historically racialized housing and lending policies, as well as things like harsh sentencing for young offenders that make it harder to get jobs, or urban planning that isolates the poor from the jobs they’d be most likely to get, or even just the advantage of not having such a rough start and how that transfers to one’s children.

4. The fact that somebody, somewhere, or even several somebodies, were able to change their economic stratum does not mean that the system is fair and just. It means those people were superlative. We pat on the back those people who study nights and work days, who never sleep, who manage to make it work, and pooh-pooh those who collapse under the weight, not recognizing or bothering to imagine what we might have done under that pressure. The question: what do we do so that ordinary people working reasonably hard can make a living? Not be rich and live fat, but just live without continuous fear of imminent collapse?

5. Illegal immigrant gangs, which Trump mentioned, are not one of the major challenges we face as far as I’m aware in reducing crime in high-crime areas.

6. The focus on fixing poor and dangerous areas conveniently takes the focus off of the changes in policies and points of view that need to happen among people in power and who have greater wealth. It’s not the job of the people who are getting ground up in the gears of the awful machine to find a crowbar to throw in it. It’s the job of the creators and operators to find the off switch.

The 2016 Election – Voting Free from Fear

This 2016 presidential race is a hot one. The Democrats have a highly credentialed but not-well-liked candidate, viewed by many as a corrupt insider and untrustworthy. The Republicans have a consummate outsider, a businessman not afraid to toot his own horn, viewed by many as a bigoted authoritarian demagogue. In the outside lanes, we have a former state governor who many think is lacking substance in his platform, and a long-time environmentalist who some view as dangerously anti-science. And that’s not even counting the also-rans from the main parties that still have staunch support.

Your left-leaning friends will tell you that voting Clinton is the only way to stop Trump from becoming president and ending democracy as we know it. Your right-leaning Trump-loving friends will tell you that Clinton is too dangerous and corrupt to allow into the White House and that “[he] alone can fix” the problems in Washington. Your right-leaning friends who can’t stomach Trump will tell you that it’s time to get an alternate voice of the right into view by voting Libertarian.

I have made a pledge this election to stop acting from a place of fear. Some of my reasons won’t speak to everyone, but here’s how I think about it:

The Presidency Is The Tip of the Iceberg – We vote for a president hoping that he or she will singlehandedly change the country. The president has a significant impact on the direction of the country, but Congress decides what actually takes the force of law. The president can only set priorities and set the tone. Your senators and representatives have more impact on your daily life than the president, and your local politicians have more still.

We like simple answers, and we like rooting for a team. The presidential election cycle neatly satisfies both requirements, but it’s the mundane, unsexy city and state politics that determine our actual quality of life. For those of us who cannot accept the two primary choices, I have bad news. Unfortunately, you don’t get to sit back and watch someone else fix everything. The work falls to you. Attending zoning meetings, town halls, state assembly debates. Joining the school board and city council. The work falls to you to be a fully engaged citizen.

You Can’t [Ever] Get [Exactly] What You Want – As my friend Rudi asserted in a discussion, no candidate will exactly match your beliefs. The only way to attempt to get exactly what you want is to run for office. Failing that, there’s a complex horse-trading that has to go on. We vote for a candidate that we know will come up short in one area so that we can get progress in two others. For those that like to choose litmus test issues, please understand two things. First, the current keeps moving regardless of whether you plant your feet in the riverbed. Your abstention does no work to change its course. Second, very few big issues get fixed by a single person, so the best your candidate can do is help you start to dam that river by using their louder voice to build a team to do it. And since even people in the same party don’t agree, it’s pretty hard to build that team.

Net-net, you should continue to advocate for the things you feel strongly about. But abstention due to a candidate being pro-choice, or gun friendly, or having ever uttered the words Black Lives Matter, accomplishes nothing. And voting a litmus test candidate in without doing the hard work of holding them accountable is even worse.

Don’t Panic, and Kill Your Television – News media gets their money from your attention. So like any intelligent system, our media has evolved to get as much of your attention as possible. This means sensationalism over substance and partisan reporting over measured facts and clearly delineated opinions. We all (and I count myself in this number) have to back up from the constant stream of shocking and sensational headlines along with the strident think pieces, and measure how we get our information, understanding what it’s there for. (I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about this a few months ago.) I pay The Economist to inform me, not entertain me, so they do it. They have a point of view, but they make no secret of it, and present multiple sides before asserting an opinion. This measured approach is how we have to learn to take all our information.

Where Is Your Hope? – Christians like to ask each other, “where do you place your hope?” This question is a reminder that we idolize and grant power to things that don’t necessarily deserve it. Christians believe in the sovereignty of a deity that transcends political races and tumultuous events. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t chaos in the world, or that bad things can’t happen if you believe hard enough; we all know that bad things happen to good people all the time. It does mean that I do my level best to help make a better world, and I have to rest in a belief that God will sort the rest out. As such, I can vote my conscience after having researched the candidates free from fear.

I don’t have to vote for Trump because of fear that Clinton will create a godless corrupt hellscape, and I don’t have to vote for Clinton because of a fear that Trump will replace our democracy with fascist cult of personality. I vote my principles, no doubt. However, what makes for good pastoral care or discipling doesn’t always make for good governance in a society with diverse beliefs, so someone’s purported “Christian-ness” is not relevant in and of itself. It only matters in terms of how they approach their life (as an example of consistency between belief and action) and policy. I’d be happy to have an atheist or Muslim or animist president who had a coherent and sensible slate of policy positions that produce a society closer to where I believe it should be.

I’ll say it more plainly. Evangelicals, this one is for you. Stop putting your hope for the realization of a more Christian-valued world in the presidency, and recognize that people who aren’t Christians have to live here too.  We are not called to create a Christian government or force people to share our values. We’re called to model a better society through our actions and treatment of each other and those not like us, and thus spread the Good News through love, not human law. Clinton’s Methodist church attendance or Trump’s recitation of “2 Corinthians” tells us nothing about what they actually believe or will do for issues Christians believe are important. Their policy platform, their substantive speeches, and actions while in office for those that have held office are a better view into that. So ask yourself, if you didn’t believe that one political party was inherently more “anointed”, more Christian, would you support the candidate at the helm based on what they said and did? Or would you look for someone else?


So, on to the question that no one asked: Who am I voting for?

I voted for Sanders in the primary. I wanted a more progressive agenda to be set for the Democratic Party, and I think he was successful in leading that charge. However, from where I stand today, I am endorsing Hillary Clinton. Here’s why.

She Knows The System and Has Experience – Trump asserts that “no one knows the system better than [him]”, but he has never held government office. Anyone who has seen the sausage made knows that government is a completely different animal, and many a man (and a few women) have tried to cut through with a business mindset only to discover it’s not quite so simple. Clinton has served as a US Senator, Secretary of State, and has something no candidate in history can boast: an 8 year internship for the Presidency as First Lady. You’d better believe that a woman with her intelligence and ambition observed as much of the conversations and processes as security and decorum allowed when her husband was president.

Among the eligible candidates, I also think Clinton is the one who is most likely to put Supreme Court Justices, federal judges, and Cabinet members in place who will move the country closer to where I think it should go. Clinton’s politics are to the right of mine to be sure, but of the eligible candidates, she’s most likely to be able to engage in the negotiations required to get at least some of these candidates through a Congress that’s likely to continue to be hostile. Unlike Obama, I expect she’d have the full support and unity of the elected members of Congress from her party.

She’s Not Exceptionally Corrupt – That sounds like faint praise. However, given the chief objections to Clinton, this is important. The Clintons have been subject to scrutiny for decades. Everything she’s done or been near has been put under a microscope. To be fair, very few people who rise to the levels of power she has do so with clean hands. Ultimately, though, I’ve seen no evidence that she will bring a higher level of corruption to Washington than what already exists. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that this is going to be some new kind of administration, with unprecedented levels of corruption.

Third Parties are built from the Bottom Up – Bernie Sanders has an important vision. Gary Johnson is championing libertarian values that are a good check on the size of government. However, the presidency, while powerful, is a limited position, as I mentioned earlier. Both Sanders and especially Johnson presidencies would be marked with inter-branch gridlock. For a third party in particular, Democrats and Republicans would likely form awkward alliances to thwart policy suggestions that both disagree with. Even if not, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress still propose the laws. Without a strong popular mandate, a third-party or outsider president would have little ability to influence.

If you really want to see third parties get stronger, run for local office as a member of one. National offices are mostly filled from the benches of state assemblies and city halls. Your future Libertarian or Green champions of the future will have similar stories to the candidates we know and love (or hate): runs for local office followed by service to the state in some capacity followed by a run for a national seat.  Progressive “Berniecrats” (who would merge into the Green Party if it were more robust) and Libertarians have to have their eye on the 2036 election and start building their bench now. I actually hope they do; their voices are much needed and if the Republican Party devolves into a nationalist party with a whiff (or more) of white supremacy, more conventional conservatives will need a place to go to continue to raise their critically useful alternative points of view.


In closing, by all means, vote your conscience. Make sure your conscience, however, is fed from principled action, research, and realistic expectations of a candidate, and not fear. Conservatives who are against Trump should send a message to a party that is leaving them behind by voting for Johnson. Progressives who dislike Clinton are free to make another choice or no choice at all, though it’s not clear to me that Clinton would be more hostile to progressive values in practice than the other eligible candidates. Regardless, please do show up for your downticket races and local candidates and make choices there.

None of us are getting a pony, I’m afraid.

Dismantling the Awful Machine

I got into a conversation on Facebook on one of my pastor’s pages about some of the backlash from Jesse Williams’s speech at the BET Awards (transcript). The conversation was tense but mostly constructive, as people coming from different perspectives struggled to process how they felt about his call to action (and in some cases, inaction from people who he felt were not helpful to the process of achieving justice). For American evangelical audiences in particular, it’s hard for them to reconcile an individualistic view on worship and atonement with a notion of a corporate or collective sin that they do not view themselves as having participated in.

Someone in the thread asked a deceptively simple question:

“Can anyone answer the following question with real, applicable, easily understood solutions? How do we stop/fix racism? As a country/world?”

I made the questionable call to try to answer it. Here is my response, with a couple of edits for clarity.


I can only speak to America, as racial dynamics are pretty different in other parts of the world. I will also try to make this easily understood, but it’s not an easy problem.

I think we have to look at racism as both an individual possibility and a systemic reality. Every one of us carries bias. And yes, it is possible for nonwhites to be racist, it’s just less likely that that will matter to large groups of white people due to the relative lack of power. To work on that bias, as Christians, we have to turn that over to God along with all our other sins, and then act on that repentance with intentional action, by actually getting to know people who are not like us, racially or economically, and fighting our preconceptions every step of the way. This one is everyone’s responsibility.

I’m going to talk next about some things I think white Americans should do, but that’s not to absolve other groups of responsibility. Consideration of and remedies for black or Latino underperformance are valid, but there are two assumptions made. First, it is assumed black and Latino people are not actively working on those issues because they’re busy blaming white people. Second, these issues are somehow made into a precondition for fixing racial injustice (as in, “if you had your stuff together, we could talk, but get your house in order first, buddy”). For the first, it’s untrue at best and insulting at worst to assume that black and Latino people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder aren’t fighting like hell to improve their lives. For the second, Christianity teaches us that cleaning up is not a precondition for grace or movement toward reconciliation with God, so why should we treat each other any differently?

It’s my opinion that white Americans in particular have to let go of the individual racial binary that plays out so often where you are either a) not racist or b) a Klansman. If a lot of well-meaning white people can get past the fact that having racism called out doesn’t mean someone thinks you personally are an evil idiot, that would make it a lot easier to listen and chew on the meat of what people like Williams are saying.

The other thing that well-meaning “post-racial” Americans have to consider is that a machine that has been continually built, improved, and tweaked until about 30-50 years ago to crush black bodies and souls and elevate white ones, even if it is turned off, leaves destruction in its wake that must be addressed. I would argue that the machine is not even turned off; it’s merely no longer manned with workers tasked to keep it running smoothly. We blithely ignore housing, social, and legal policies that actively destroyed black ability to acquire wealth up to 50 years ago (and in a few cases into the present decade, like redlining and disparate interest rates) and then shrug when a bad neighborhood continues to be bad. We chalk it up to a lack of moral fiber. No. This is what was intended by the creators of the machine, more or less.

An example of the headless machine in action is how white men have a disproportionate share of leadership positions at this point for no other reason than until recently, no one else was allowed to. There’s not a committee of white men actively holding the entire nation back. But there are committees that look at hardworking women and black people and other groups, and promote them more slowly or not at all. (My father saw this firsthand in the 2000s as an executive promoted much too late in his career when he was finally allowed in the room where evaluations were given and had to fight on behalf of others for fair treatment.) And there are people that follow their natural impulse to mentor younger versions of themselves, not realizing they’re ignoring bright young women or nonwhites who might be even better proteges.

So the problem, in summary comes down to, are you non-racist or anti-racist? Non-racist means you don’t go calling people names or discriminating. Anti-racist means you speak up when someone else does, and you try to actively dismantle the machine where possible by looking at places where passive bias or historical bias has led to present inequity. Non-racist is relatively easy, and many white people during the civil rights movement were non-racist. But they greeted their friends’ nasty remarks with nervous chuckles instead of disdain, or worse, inadvertently encouraged it. And when the lynching or riots came, they shook their heads and wondered why that happened, when these were such good people that didn’t act like that.

I know how hard it is to go from non-racist to anti-racist; I’m working on it in myself regarding gender. But that movement to anti-racism, to actively dismantle our biases and the machine, is the only way to full reconciliation in my opinion. It doesn’t mean you have to grovel and beg forgiveness at a black person’s feet. It just means you have to consider the possibility that if you’re not paying attention closely, you might look down and find a crank in your hand, turning the gears in an awful machine.

United Healthcare Pulls Out of Georgia – Thoughts on Health Care

United Healthcare is pulling out of the federal exchange in Georgia for 2017. You’ll see headlines about how this means Obamacare is on its last legs, or showing how overbearing progressive policies are bad for consumers. Healthinsurance.org has an article about the Georgia exchanges that has a bit more perspective. I would like to point out a few things about what this actually means in my opinion.

First, Georgia doesn’t have an exchange of its own. It opted to use the federal exchange provided for the states that refused to accept them. What’s more, Georgia actively created laws to prevent the creation of state-run marketplaces and make it harder for navigators to help people get coverage. In Georgia, a navigator must pass the same exam as insurance agents in order to be able to give advice to potential subscribers.

Second, according to this article, United Healthcare had less than 1K individual subscribers in Georgia, with most of their subscribers being in group plans. As such, it strikes me as disingenuous of United to paint their problem as being a gross profitability issue caused by ACA policy when in fact it probably was simply inconvenient for them to operate on such a small scale in the state. It is worth noting that their subsidiary Harken Health has signed up over 30,000 members in Atlanta and Chicago and will continue to remain on the exchanges. (Disclosure: I am subscribed to Harken and so far have been moderately satisfied with the insurance part and ecstatic about the primary and preventative care part).

Georgia has also opted out of Medicaid expansion, passing on billions in federal funding that would have created lucrative medical jobs and leaving nearly 300,000 Georgians earning too much to qualify for federal Medicaid, but too little to afford unsubsidized premiums. The principled stand is supposed to be that the program will ultimately cost Georgia too much money, but the data so far has not pointed to that. Instead, Georgia has opted to send federal tax dollars from their residents to provide health care to people in other states that did accept Medicaid expansion.

I find it interesting that the same politicians that favor deregulation and competition turn a blind eye to the mergers of the largest health care companies and pass red tape legislation to make it harder for an existing federal program to be successful. I have also not yet seen a credible alternative to ACA presented that would address the pre-ACA issues insurance companies had with refusing to pay for care and rapidly escalating premiums. What, then, is really motivating such staunch resistance to the simple question of how to get more people health insurance?

There’s an increasingly libertarian bent to arguments I hear from my conservative friends about the way things should be. The government is always bad at everything, and wants to take away your freedom at the point of a gun. Private companies have your best interests at heart because they’ll be motivated by a desire for profit and good reputation, and efficient markets will sweep away those that cannot provide the quality of service required for both. It is the responsibility of individuals to make optimal choices and protect themselves at all times, and the market can hold companies responsible for business done in bad faith.

This vision of how the world should work is attractive, especially if you believe that you are extraordinary. As much as I find libertarian ideals attractive, I find that when they hit the ground, there are some issues. Markets are great at what they do, but markets require open information. The American health care system is profoundly lacking in that, with dozens of prices for every item and procedure used, depending on who is ordering it and how it will be paid for. Try asking a provider how much anything costs. They couldn’t tell you if they wanted to, but most will answer, “I have no idea”.

Beyond the fact that the health care market is currently opaque, the myth of halcyon days of quality care before ACA took effect is false. Insurers were free to deny coverage to people due to diagnoses, culling the expensive cases and keeping the cheap ones, and there was no provider of last resort in most places. I was personally affected by this and had loved ones go without coverage for years until ACA took effect. I also paid for my own insurance out of pocket as an individual from 2003 to today, and I watched prices climb even faster than people complain about today. When the first ACA provisions took effect, my premium was cut by more than 50%.

At a deeper level, non-aggression and altruism are not natural human states, though it can be cultivated and encouraged in culture. I don’t think that removal of regulations automatically leads to Mad Max. However, given how companies try to take advantage of individuals as much as they can now even in the face of regulation and protection, I don’t see how removing regulations and protections would lead to less fraud. I also don’t believe that I’m so good at discernment and so popular or good at marketing that I could determine fraud, stop patronizing a business, and get enough others to do the same to shut a bad business down. Even if I dodge the bullet, someone else gets hit.

A more libertarian framework could work if people got serious about introducing competition enhancing measures along with the measures to unfetter corporations from regulations and limitations. We could use modern technology and new data aggregation and processing techniques to distribute more information in real time, keep everything visible and above board, keep private businesses a bit more honest. Frankly though, I’m busy enough trying to manage everything else in my life, and I don’t want to have to become an expert in health care administration and analysis just to go have my cough seen about.

Conservative politicians talk a libertarian game but are only interested in freeing corporations’ hands, assuming that in their benevolent interest in profit, they’ll do what’s best for consumers, and let the benefits trickle or rain down from the top. Until we can couple that with digestible, accessible information, and a media more interested in corruption than sensation, the net effect of deregulation will be continued massive profits for an oligopoly of companies and worse outcomes for consumers.

Injustice for All?

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll whisper “no.”

-Rorschach, “Watchmen”

One of the most insidious legacies of racism in our country is unequally applied justice. Poor black and Latino neighborhoods are overpoliced. “Respectable” black people with no criminal record have a fear of police, and most have stories about themselves or a friend getting unduly pulled over and/or poorly treated, or worse. Many white people find these stories hard to believe because they are so out of line with their own experience. In the places they’ve been, police have often been helpful protectors, occasionally even looking the other way for minor infractions.

I have lately been watching the reaction to Otto Warmbier‘s case. As a tourist in North Korea (pause to let that sink in), he attempted to steal a banner to bring home as a souvenir for which he would be rewarded. The North Korean government caught him, arrested him, and sentenced him to 15 years in their prisons. There is now an outcry to seek clemency and bring him home.

I have also seen the coverage of a recently discovered heroin epidemic here in Atlanta. The episodes of reporting are given sympathetic titles like “We All Make Mistakes” and “Please Understand”. (Seriously, go look. I’m not making this up.) The photos of victims of the epidemic are shown to humanize them, show what good kids they were before something unknown drove them into the path of addiction.

Many of my black friends have greeted these stories with snorts of derision. As black Americans, we know all too well what a mandatory minimum sentence can do, turning a youthful error into a lifetime’s failure. We have seen drugs destroy our communities in the 70s and 80s while the rest of America looks on and wags their finger, whispering under their breath, “I knew it.” or “Just say no. How hard is that?” Even now, as traffic stops turn into homicides, we see characters defamed and radicalized. Where were the cries for mercy then? Where was the humanization? Can you even imagine West Baltimore, Chicago, or South Central Los Angeles getting that kind of careful, loving analysis?

I have no objection to telling the truth. Whether Warmbier’s case warrants mercy is irrelevant to the point that he took the world to be his playground and thought that the privileges he enjoys in this country were transferrable to what is possibly the most dangerous country for Americans in the entire world. The circumstances that led the kids in affluent suburbs to use heroin neither fall neatly in the bucket of personal responsibility nor in that of externalities. That said, I grow concerned on two fronts.

I don’t want my heart to grow hard. If a white person, or any other human, is hard done by by the police, or has a hard experience that tears them apart, I want to feel compassion for them where they are. I see case after case of black injustice though, and I find the same thoughts entering my mind as those I see from my peers. “Well, I guess they’ll see now.” “Welcome to reality.”

At a more philosophical level, I am concerned that our desire to see the shoe on the other foot will lead to a tolerance for injustice. As we fight for people we know and love personally, who look like us and face the same struggles, we must never forget that our goal is to intersectionally end injustice wherever it lives. I shouldn’t want for them what I know people that look like me get. We shouldn’t want that for anyone.

I won’t deny, there is a grim satisfaction to see someone find out a truth the hard way when you know they wouldn’t believe you if you told them in advance. However, those of us who are coming from any non-dominant axes of privilege have to find an extra measure of grace to see us through, and to always see what the privileged and comfortable let themselves be blinded to. What’s worse for us, we have to see it and dispense said grace to everyone.

This is an area where I find Christian theology, properly applied, very helpful. The notion of the Imago Dei, that each human being is an image bearer of God, helps us apply this lens of grace to everyone, even those who by their actions or by our judgment may seem to be the least deserving. This is a bewildering concept to those who do not believe; how could [insert evil person from history here] be an image bearer of God? One answer: the same way a dirty and cracked mirror is still a mirror.

I also find the teachings of Jesus to be useful to help remind me. Jesus was clear about overturning systems of injustice or rules that sought to preserve comfort and ease of a few at the expense of many. Jesus went to those who, by conventional wisdom, were the least deserving, and pulled them closest to him. Then he called us to do the same.

I don’t want to take Rorschach’s stance. More accurately, I don’t want to want it. I see the wave of detritus frothing like a disaster movie, the unclean and unclaimed legacy of discriminations and denials. I see it in this election cycle threatening to choke us, set us back decades. As the authoritarian cavalcade reaches into the lives of those it was designed to protect, I want to reply to their “Save us!” with an icy “No.” But as a person who believes what Jesus said, I’m called to try to find the balance between calling out the unevenly applied care and caring for the wronged, even when they might have wronged me given the chance.

I am still figuring that one out.