Will Worser make it Better? What can we do to help?

Becky O'Malley
Friday July 21, 2017 - 07:13:00 PM

UPDATE on JULY 28: The news today is just too weird to comment on this afternoon. I'll wait to have a go at it until the weekend, so I can publish other people's good new pieces promptly.

It’s hard for me to go anywhere these days, or to read anything serious, or to watch anything comic , without hearing the echo of one of the few Russian phrases that I still remember, Что делать?- What is to be done?

Its first incarnation was a novel by the Russian Utopian Socialist Nikolai Chernyshevsky, described by Wikipedia as advocating “the creation of small socialist cooperatives based on the Russian peasant commune, but oriented toward industrial production.” The name was later used by Tolstoy, who did not admire the earlier author, and then by Lenin, who did.

That would explain why my friend who grew up on one of the famous Petaluma chicken farms, part of a settlement which seems to have been organized sort of on the Chernyshevsky model , remembers one of her mother’s political aphorisms as being “the worser the better.” That slogan, in the more grammatical form “the worse the better”, is attributed to Chernyshevsky, and we hope it’s apt, don’t we? Because it certainly gets worser every day, and What is to Be Done to make it better, indeed, is the question of the day. 

My latest hope is the path promoted by Steve Phillips, articulated most recently by him on Thursday’s New York Times op-ed page under the title of The Democratic Party’s Billion-Dollar Mistake. His point is simple:

“With its obsessive focus on wooing voters who supported Donald Trump, [the party] is neglecting the cornerstone of its coalition and failing to take the steps necessary to win back the House of Representatives and state houses in 2018.” 

I am oh-so-fed-up with breast-beating by Democrats who want to woo back the sulky working class white guys who voted for Donald Trump. I don’t want to hear another word about how to make nice with racists. 

Phillips’ thesis, first articulated in his 2016 book Brown is the New White, is simple and backed-up by plenty of data. Folks, we don’t need those guys. If people of color and their existing White allies would all turn out to vote in 2018, we’d have it nailed. 

He goes on: ”Civic engagement experts have found that an effective canvassing and mobilization program costs about $50 per infrequent voter who actually casts a ballot. 

“By that metric, it would cost $47.6 million to get enough infrequent voters to the polls in the 28 congressional districts that will determine which party holds the House. In the six battleground-state contests for governors, the cost to bring out the necessary number of infrequent voters is $42.1 million.” 

I participated a bit in a Berkeley effort to raise money for the campaign of Jon Ossoff in the Atlanta suburbs, which I now regret. The man spent a bloody fortune ($23 million or so, half of what Phillips says should be enough to win the country for Congress) trying to convert Republicans and reform racists, but (of course) he lost anyway. 

So what is to be done? Phillips has started a group called Democracy in Color which is dedicated to rallying and uniting the natural supporters of progressive policies, Brown voters and some White allies . You can see the group’s proposals online in an excellent June 2017 report called Return of the Majority, replete with maps and charts and lists of places to go and people to work with. Based on my own experience with electoral politics going back now more than a half century, I think they’re right. 

Here in California alone there are at least seven districts which have a good possibility of swinging left, going from red to blue, in fact, sans metaphor, of electing some sort of Democrat to Congress. At this point some readers, some even of my friends, will undoubtedly start nattering on about how such candidates might not support the same health care scheme they themselves would prefer…or perhaps would endorse cap-and-trade instead of local environmental control…or once said something nice about TPP…or, or,or…. 

At this point in history, all I can say is “get over it!” Unless, of course, you are determined to carry “the worser the better” to an apocalyptic conclusion, perhaps one caused by climate collapse. 

Recently I spent some time with women of my all-too-certain age or even older, seasoned veterans of successful participation in real politics who are anxious do what they can to clean up the mess we find ourselves in. One observed wryly that every time something dreadful happens, someone she knows starts a new organization, perhaps one with a new URL and its own logo. 

In today’s NY Times, David Brooks (with whom we never used to agree) makes this observation: 

“Sure, Donald Trump is a boob, but that doesn’t explain why Republicans can’t govern from Capitol Hill. The answer is that we’re living at a time when the prospects for the middle class are in sharp decline. And Republicans offer nothing but negativity, detachment, absence and an ax.” 


Per Steve Phillips, our job is to spread the word, to persuade current and potential voters that they can act to change this trajectory. It’s time for that simple game plan, the one which takes advantage of what we’ve learned from past experience and applies it to current reality. 

What my friends and I agreed to do is to work on documenting in understandable language just how the Republicans are supporting policies which will harm the public, both grandparents like us and our children and grandchildren. We especially envision creating special programs to educate old people like us at senior centers and the like about how bad things might get if we don’t change Congress in 2018. 

We plan to make a definitive list of the California and Nevada congressional districts where we might be able to help the local people work for the change they need, by sitting at voter registration tables or making phone calls or whatever they want us to do. We intend to research the organizations already active in these places (Indivisible and Swing Left were mentioned) and figure out which are most effective. 

And of course, there’s always, within reason, raising and spending money. But it would be a very good idea to consult the Democracy in Color website to learn which organizations they think show “proven track records of conducting effective and accountable voter registration and mobilization work”, rather than just sending checks to the Democratic National Committee to buy more of those expensive television ads which don’t get results. There’s no point in encouraging the DNC to continue their billion dollar boondoggle when smarter spending would produce better results, is there? 

We have a lot of work ahead of us, should we choose to accept it. Now is the time to start.