When I was in the underground do-it-yourself music scene as a young person, I noticed something. A seven-inch vinyl recorded by young people in their basements that sold a few thousand copies had more of a cultural impact than some pop music packaged and marketed for mass consumption. Can anyone argue that the cultural impact of Hardcore punk legends Bad Brain’s first recording is dwarfed by the multi-platnum debut of New Kids on the Block simply because it sold less? Could one argue that Eric B and Rakim’s seminal record “Paid in Full” is less of a cultural intervention because it never achieved platinum status in the 80’s the way Vanilla Ice did in the 90’s?
There is a huge gulf between the cultural impact of music as an artform and the metrics attached to music as a business. In this sense, politics has a lot in common with Boy Bands and limited-press punk records. Politics is a venue for popular social expression, but in our country, politics is also a business. A big one. In 2018, people spent $5.7 billion dollars on federal elections alone. That number will be even higher in 2020.
That money goes through a lot of hands to a lot of places. Candidates, PACs, and political organizations like the Working Families Party spend money on digital ads, mailers, lawn signs, rallies, research, staff, and all the other countless voter contact, communications and logistical needs of rigorous political work.
But the vast majority of it is spent on television, and those television ads are produced and placed by a legion of political consultants. And that’s a real problem for those of us who want to build durable power for a bold, transformative vision of America.
It’s no mystery as to why consultants favor television. Many make a commission off of ad buys, they have an incentive to drive candidates towards expensive broadcast ads. That’s despite the fact that the latest social science research tell us that television ads have a negligible impact at best on getting voters to come out. At the same time, the tactic that has been scientifically proven to work best—having personal conversations with voters at their door and other meaningful voter contact—gets short shrift again and again.
Worse, because for-profit consultants go where the profit is, they are uniquely susceptible to establishment and institutional pressure. Last year, the DCCC announced it wouldn’t contract with consultants who worked for insurgent congressional candidates. The goal was clear: to freeze out support for standout insurgent candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. The DCCC’s bet was that they were so large, and moved so much money, that no consultants would dare cross them. One sharp political strategist, Monica Klein at Seneca Strategies, penned an op-ed about the cynical move if you want to read more.
Most importantly, a political industry anchored by consultants who flit from candidate to candidate (and extract resources as they go) contributes to a candidate-focused politics that distracts us from building durable power.
In America, we too often treat political campaigns like Broadway shows, where you work intensively for a string of months, or even a year or two, on a single project and then strike the set when it’s over. There is quite literally nothing of value left behind the day after Election Day. That’s exactly the wrong approach.
Think about all the work that goes into a political campaign. All those voters contacted. All the volunteers mobilized. All that energy and creativity and hard work and passion. The deep emotional connections made and the people in the community that must shed doubt and cynicism to give their time and money to a movement they believe in with all their hearts. It all disappears. At most, voter information gathered is sold to the next campaign, and the cycle starts anew.
What if we diverted some of the dollars that go to advertisements to political education and training? To recruiting young people into our movement? What if we invested in people instead of ad buys?
What does investing in people look like? It means investing in long-term capacity building. In cadre. Cadre’s an old left-wing word for energized, trained, disciplined activists. The far-right understands its value. Sociologist Theda Skocpol estimates that, at the very height of the Tea Party, that movement had just about 160,000 activists in the country. Now they’ve got Turning Point USA and the Proud Boys and Blexit bringing new people into their reactionary movements. What is our answer to that?
If you want an example of why our current political model sells us short, look no further than Wisconsin in 2018. Wisconsin was one of the biggest pickups for Democrats in the midterm cycle. We beat the union-busting Scott Walker, and elected educator Tony Evers and former WFP national committee member Mandela Barnes. But within weeks of our big wins in Michigan and Wisconsin, the right used the lame duck session to strip Evers of key powers that their Republican predecessors had enjoyed. A few months later, Republicans won a statewide contest for a hugely important Supreme Court seat—legally protecting that power-grab.
Imagine if some of the millions spent on beating Scott Walker hadn’t just gone to TV ads or to temporary campaigns, but to building durable power in the form of cadre? What if we’d invested early, and in programs that left something behind after the radio, digital, and television ads have aired and the paid canvassing was done?
In the aftermath of our big win in Wisconsin, we needed a base of individuals who owned that win and were prepared to defend and build upon it. Imagine if that cadre of volunteer organizers, the evangelical foot soldiers of solidarity, were doing every day what no broadcast text, direct mail, or digital ad can ever do: speaking as a loved and trusted member of a community about why our politics will make a better future for the people they care about.
With adequate resources for local organizations to maintain robust volunteer programs after November 2018, perhaps we could have fought back against Republican’s anti-democratic power grab, or at least avoided the disastrous outcome in the state Supreme Court election months later.
The New Democratic Party of Canada—think of them as the Working Families Party on the other side of the border—has long argued that it takes just 1% of the eligible voters in a district to dominate any electoral contest. At the local level you barely need even that.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s a magic number of organized people that will pave the way to power. Or that there isn’t a place for television, radio, or digital ads. Campaigns should use all the tools in their toolbox, including well placed, thoughtful ads. But “all tools” should include the fundamentals—our people. Because the sad reality is, millions of dollars raised and spent the last election cycle and in 2020 will go to the profit margin of electoral mercenaries. Imagine if just a fraction of all those millions went to skills training, political education, and support of our base. There would be a sea change in our politics.
Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens District Attorney recently reaffirmed this lesson. Tiffany is a public defender who ran on a platform of transformational criminal justice reform. She was massively outspent by the same powerful Queens political machine that went up against AOC. But the WFP, the Democratic Socialists of America, Make the Road Action, VOCAL-NY, Community Voices Heard, and so many others provided a massive volunteer army of canvassers, phone-bankers, and texters. This David and Goliath race is in recount, and the margin is just a handful of votes.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, that election underscored that organized people really can beat organized money. It follows that if we truly want to build the America we all deserve, to beat back corporate power and the reactionary right, we need to put more of what money we have into organizing people for the long fight ahead: state by state, city by city, and block by block.
That’s all to say: a little more underground punk in our politics could go a long way.
Maurice Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party. He was a leading strategist within the Movement for Black Lives, and the lead singer in the hardcore band Cipher.