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Election Guide #1: There's really no reason to care
And that's exactly why we should!
This post is the first of what will be five guides to the upcoming municipal election. Rather than begin the series with a rundown of the candidates or endorsements or statistical analysis of past elections (all of which are coming), I want to start with an often overlooked question, as fundamental as it is difficult to answer: What’s the point?
People active in local politics are quick to repeat the tired cliche that “all politics are local” when this question is asked. It’s not an answer. Like most things people say in the municipal arena, it doesn’t mean anything at all. And for most people in local politics, that’s a feature, not a bug. The status quo was built on a disengaged and apathetic public. As much as the officials who comprise that status quo might publicly bemoan 10-15 percent voter turnout, they’re not trying to reach the other 85-90 percent. As long as the sliver of the population which actually votes also shares their material interests and keeps them in power, there’s simply no reason. This dynamic has calcified over decades to the point that it’s taken for granted that elections are won by the existing voter base in a handful of neighborhood that are more affluent and more white than the city on the whole. Coincidentally, the people in power also live in those neighborhoods, so decisions that benefit their voters also benefit themselves. Convenient!
Deep inequities are maintained and heightened by this feedback loop of active voters and successful candidates. Those who benefit from the nature of the loop are able to defend it with the pretense of representative democracy. “The will of the voters.” But the end result is the opposite of representation. The vast majority of residents are decidedly un-represented. They don’t see a reason to care because there is no reason for them to care.
So, to start my series of guides for the upcoming municipal election, I’m sharing an essay I’ve had sitting in the drafts since July. It seeks to answer that fundamental, pernicious question underpinning city politics: Why bother? What is the point? And how do you articulate that point clearly? And to do so, it gets pretty weird. This is not for everyone! But if it resonates, I’d love to hear how and why.
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First, a few quick updates on the Rewind front.
Don’t forget about the kick-off fundraiser event at Redemption Rock! We’re screening Rocky Horror Picture Show! Come on down. Next Wednesday, 6 p.m. start, 7 p.m. movie.
Also! Pleased to announce the Worcester Community Media Foundation / Rewind Video has received its first grant! The Greater Worcester Community Foundation awarded us a Nonprofit Effectiveness grant! Some of it is covering my tuition for the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at CUNY (a week into that and it’s going great!). The other half is going toward a number of software programs and such we need to effectively run a little video store and pay employees to work at it! Great news. Thank you so much, GWCF!!
Make sure you’re following Rewind on Instagram—next week, we’re going to have the store open for some limited hours depending on what our core group can pull off. More on that and other volunteer opportunities soon! For now, it would be great to see you all next week, especially at Redemption Rock on Sunday.
And make sure you check out Victor Infante’s recent write-up on the whole thing in Worcesteria! Nice story.
Now to the strangest thing (?) I’ve written.
Election Guide #1: There’s really no reason to care about City Hall and that’s exactly why we should
In July I wrote a post about crisis pregnancy centers and the policy failure of the city administration. It ended on a note of encouragement that sparked the germ of this essay I’m finally sharing. Here’s how that little note read:
We have a legitimate shot this year. We could be one of those progressive-controlled cities popping up around the country in recent years and set an example for a new way of local governance. We could start to try to undo the things that make Worcester provincial and miserable and stuck like every other city where people live because they can afford it. It is exciting to consider the possibilities. It’s the kind of energy that pulls people in for the right reasons. Let’s go!
The sentiment has become a sort of Worcester Sucks refrain over the years, making its way into various posts with slightly different wording in slightly different contexts. The underlying sentiment is that giving a shit is worth it. We’re in a position to do something legitimately remarkable here and we get closer all the time. There’s a real answer to “why bother?”
Though it’s the truth, it doesn’t always feel true. Often, the available evidence suggests otherwise. In that way, this is an appropriate week to revisit the idea. The Council meeting Tuesday was a master class in the punishment of caring.
For one, the Council finally voted to kill Thu Nguyen’s proposed crisis pregnancy center ordinance by a 7-4 margin. The only wrinkle is that it wasn’t an 8-3 vote. Councilor George Russell somewhat surprisingly stood with the progressive bloc on this one (Nguyen, Haxhiaj, King). Last July, when Nguyen put the ordinance on the agenda, they offered the City Council an opportunity to show they’re interested in real leadership by taking bold, clear action on an obvious problem. Instead, they did the very opposite. They spent more than a year squirming out of having to vote on it while accidentally showing they don’t oversee the city manager in a practical way.
On the same night that unfolding saga of incompetence came to an end, the Council also voted to support a resolution that supported Israel and (at best) ignored Palestine. That vote was 9-2, and came shortly after dozens of concerned residents asked them to just not take it, on the grounds it was unproductive and irresponsible. The resolution read “the City Council of the City of Worcester does hereby condemn the recent barbaric and inhuman taking of hostages in Israel, including a number of American citizens, and prays for their immediate and safe release and return to their loved ones.”
Moe Bergman put it on the agenda (after Joe Petty last week filed it first then removed it under pressure). Kate Toomey signed onto it on the floor. Nguyen and Etel Haxhiaj spoke in passionate opposition making clear points. Bergman said he didn’t understand why it was controversial in a short and dispassionate comment.
After those two things, the Council went back to the regular business of talking about the unhoused like they’re being bused in from nearby towns maliciously, and using that as a justification to continue doing less than the bare minimum as the crisis worsens.
All that to say—it was heavy. I wanted to quit writing this newsletter that night and spent the following day in a depression hole, dwelling on the futility of caring about this place at all. In the background, the vague tapestry of violence in Gaza and the debate over whether the mass slaughter is a good thing or a bad thing hummed along.
I’m sure I’m not alone in needing a reminder that caring is worth it. That’s today’s thesis: The dismal overall state of the world and the feeling of hopelessness it inspires are precisely the reason to care about your municipal government. Because in that arena—indeed perhaps only in that arena—you aren’t helpless.
To look at the state of the world, there really isn’t a driver at the wheel and Rome is really burning. Raytheon will see its market value increase handsomely as the deterioration of the climate is made invisible on the TV by the more salacious spectacle of ongoing slaughter. There’s nothing to be done about it besides consume or create media, be it screaming at Fox News from a couch or holding a protest sign in the street. All we can do is protest and protests are, at the end of the day, media. Outside media, there’s no agency to be exercised that isn’t illegal and wouldn’t be met with cold violence by the well-heeled apparatus of state oppression chomping at the bit for it.
But in a small out-of-the-way thing like city politics, there’s real agency. You don’t have to assume effort will go unrewarded and hope will be squashed. It’s so small that no one would bother to really rig it like they did the federal judiciary or the Senate or even the Statehouse. Because it’s boring and provincial and can’t command the attention of more than 15 percent of registered voters in a given year, it’s vulnerable. There is a practical path toward having genuine agency in it. The City Council is a winnable thing.
A city hall that actually values residents over the market wouldn’t save the world or anything. Might not get anything all that special done. But the mere act of showing it’s possible is worthwhile. In a world where the engine of growth hums unchallenged–from the bipartisan consensus to fund unending proxy wars all the way down to the blank check developers expect from City Hall–it’s a necessary first step.
There is an organic movement of people in Worcester motivated to make political gains. The idea of controlling the City Council come November is very much on the table. There’s no better reflection of that reality than the “Progress Worcester” PAC which recently sprang up out of nowhere, funded by the Chamber of Commerce and local developers to attack the very idea of progress, with a fresh $50,000 to do so. Tim Murray wouldn’t be doing that if he wasn’t nervous.
But it isn’t a sure thing by any stretch. Success is contingent on the movement growing and coalescing around a sense of itself. It’s been a long, long time since any mass movement achieved anything. There’s good reason to be dismissive and jaded of the idea of mass movements, especially after the fleeting summer of Black Lives Matter quietly petered out without changing much of anything.
In this way, the Worcester movement’s strength is that it is not a mass movement. It is small and its goals are practical. No one is expecting a V for Vendetta moment. And over the past several decades, that sort of expectation has proven to be a reliable cause of death for movements around the world. (For more on this idea, I highly suggest the recent TrueAnon interview with Vincent Bevins about his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.)
To prevent the market from steering us straight toward heat death, the global commitment to infinite growth must be directly confronted and smashed. There’s a spell that needs breaking. It will take a collective action we currently can’t conceive. It feels impossible. Silly. But there is an opportunity to explore, on a local level, new organizing principles that may eventually scale. Before we can change the world, we need to show we can change something. So why not start with a City Hall?
We’re never going to see another Bernie Sanders in our lifetime. We witnessed how easily the Democratic Party squashed him and all the popular energy he channeled. He was our best shot and through him we learned we never had a shot. Made to feel foolish. A lesson in a long line of lessons about the futility of investing energy in hope of a better world. We learned not to expect the good thing happening. It just won’t. So why bother?
The case for not bothering is strong. A body of supporting evidence. The case for bothering is not. Absent a solid case, what are you left with? Do you lie? “No trust me this time it’s different.” The Obama approach. Quickly understood as fraudulent. Or do you approach it from the standpoint that it’s not worth it to care? It is pointless. “Why bother?” is the correct instinct. A more compelling case in that, I think: “Yes it’s all fucked to hell. Duh. No one’s stopping what’s coming. We aren’t going to save the world.” But resigning yourself to that hopelessness just sucks. Flatly fucking sucks. And it’s boring. Xanax boring.
Meanwhile giving a shit is actually fun and rewarding–especially when you don’t expect it to yield results. It’s not like Obama. There’s no naïveté. It is 100 percent pointless to give a shit. Nothing that happens in Worcester really matters. But it’s just as pointless to not give a shit. If it’s all the same either way, apathy and resignation are miserable states of mind whereas conviction and purpose are edifying. If you think about it like drugs, which is the only way we can think anymore (just kidding haha… unless?), resignation is a lousy drug while purpose is a good one. Purpose is fun. Plus, here in this little theater of city politics, racking up some real wins, however small, is actually possible. Wins! An even better drug.
So how do you win?
The political ideas and positions of left or “progressive” politics can’t be the draw. That very clearly doesn’t work. The people who know and care about policy are already reached. It’s just not enough people! Normal people do not care about “center/periphery” or whatever else. When you say “praxis” you sound weird. This whole newsletter is praxis but I would never say that in mixed company.
A wider draw, I think, is FOMO. Fear of missing out. That there’s something cool and fun going on. A party! And you’re invited! Come on down. This has gone pretty unexplored, likely because it sounds unserious. But is it? There is no text more compelling than the prospect of getting laid and having fun. The 1960s were the last real revolutionary moment in America and the 1960s were very horny years. We’ve forgotten this. Occupy Wall Street with orgies would have been a more dangerous Occupy Wall Street. Leaders in the 1960s like Angela Davis were dangerous because they were sexy. Occupy Wall Street didn’t have leaders, let alone sexy ones. And in retrospect it wasn’t all that dangerous. Surprise, surprise.
Of all the ways people are oppressed in the current moment, one of the most widely felt is also the least discussed: loneliness. The humming of an unfettered market via the global American empire produces extreme misery and inequality and violence. Academics invent new words for this. Most people accept and tolerate it so long as their material conditions are comfortable. But it also produces loneliness. It isolates. And there’s no material comfort that outmaneuvers the isolation. There is no private island that absolves emptiness. And there’s no way to talk about it. The loneliness exists outside the realm of “political issue,” despite its political nature. It is a private shame, felt collectively. How do you get at that? The shame of it?
Kathy I’m lost I said though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
A verse from America by Simon & Garfunkel. It’s everything. It’s the whole thing. Bernie used it in a commercial in 2016 I remember and it sent shivers of hope down my spine. It felt real, like there was some possibility. Now that Bernie is gone.
Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
And we’re still looking.
The academic word for this feeling is “atomization.” The great crime of academia is keeping those words to themselves. It should be popularly understood and the emptiness and aching of life in America is very much political. As such it is not forever. The America all have come to look for can be found. No one on the TV says this because there’s a fiduciary interest in not saying it.
A local movement focused on the politics of a tangible real-life community, like the one we have brewing here in Worcester, is uniquely well suited to combat this “atomization” head on. It connects people to their neighbors. It is rooted in a place. There are no celebrities and there is no spectacle. The belonging is real. It’s not a product. The joy is real. I can’t remember many moments more edifying than going down to Electric Haze after the 2021 results and joining in on the traditional Albanian dance Etel Haxhiaj was leading. That was real!
That should be the primary goal: belonging. Not elections, per se. But elections in service of the larger goal.
I really wish there was an easier way to talk about the election in these terms. It’s genuinely exciting. Has the possibility to become infectious. Literally “we don’t have to be miserable about where we live” is the message. “Giving a shit can be worth it in this one small specific context.” But we don’t have the vocabulary, really. The whole tradition is designed for individual personalities running on individual merits with individual campaign infrastructures trying to win over individual voters. Most of the city is written off as unreachable and candidates focus on a small part of the city where everyone’s white and owns a home and went to the same schools and votes for the people they know. It is considered naive to think an election can be won on turning out new voters. The way most campaigns are run, it is naive.
What’s not naive however is recognizing there’s a desperate need for belonging out there. That people have not been given a draw. And that the draw is not found in the wonky details but in the overall sense that there’s something cool happening and you’re welcome to be a part of it.
For someone who doesn’t pay attention to city politics and only interacts with the city government via tax bills, the “who the fuck are you and why should I care” barrier is impossible for an individual candidate. Really! Who cares! You’re either connected to the political class already or you have some other big base of social support and popularity. It is high school. The entrenched candidates have a clique and they are going to campaign on “divisiveness” and it’ll be catnip for the right wingers looking for someone to hate and the cable news liberals who’ve been conditioned to impulsively reject anything the people on the TV say “goes too far.” It is a nonsense message but it will be effective.
I worry that there will be an impulse among progressive candidates to argue they’re “not as divisive as others” when they get attacked. You can’t concede the validity of the insult! That’s losing automatically. “Hell yeah I’m divisive,” is the only route out of that. Reclaiming the word. Rallying around that. If the progressive candidates try to hash out where they stand relative to each other on the “divisive” scale, we’re doomed. The attack line worked.
However, rallying around “divisive” as a good thing—synonymous with “I actually give a shit and don’t feel bad about it”—and that’s a combo move. The attack doesn’t work and the opponent has to come up with something better. And they’re pretty dumb. They might not be able to.
This brings us to a central problem in the general state of the nascent little left-wing movement we got here. There’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of personal connections and a lot of mutual assistance and encouragement that fuels it. But there isn’t a formal organization. There’s a shared set of politics and beliefs and goals but there isn’t the organizational infrastructure or vocabulary to clearly define it as its own free-standing power center.
Thu and Etel wouldn’t have won without it. Robyn Kennedy wouldn’t have beat Joe Petty without it. It’s a real thing, and it’s running a lot of council candidates this year. But it doesn’t have a name! It doesn’t have a brand. There’s nothing to pull the uninitiated in.
I really feel like there needs to be a person who steps up to declare the center of the circle, give the thing a name and center the movement unabashedly as a movement.
One of the issues I see everywhere in everything and struggle to really express is this “atomization”—how we’re increasingly interacting with each other and perceiving ourselves as individual autonomous actors in a sort of competitive market. It rewards ambition first and foremost and there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s not any worse an identity generator than nationalism or religion or anything race-based. But I think it creates an exceptionally large hole in people that’s difficult to recognize and even harder to fill. It’s not like everyone is struggling to find a community and an identity in that community and a sense of value and worth to a collective. People find it all the time. I found it pretty early through local music scenes. I had some bad years that sense of purpose and value tugged me through. That’s a boring story though. Most people find it. The real violence of atomization is it lets people fall through the cracks.
In the atomized world, it’s on the individual to find a community. Consumer choice! If you don’t find it, there’s no safety net. Say what you will about location-based communities of old, but there were people around you who cared about you and checked in on you.
You can hide from that on the Internet in a way you couldn’t in a village-type situation. You’re free to explore the deepest depths of social disaffection. You can find an identity in it. Incel. Doomer. Poster. Whatever. Social media has a clear profit incentive to facilitate disaffection from real community so as to suck people into the parasocial communities they host and maintain. Get a reward structure in there to make it feel juuuust enough like real belonging. There is a certain colonization of social ties happening. Rent is being extracted from the very bonds we form with people.
However real those bonds may be, they’re also generating profit. That’s unprecedented I think. There’s a lot of ways in history that capital has been extracted but pulling profit from the human impulse to make a friend has gotta be new. Profit-motivated fake friendships are old news of course. That’s not it. There are people on Twitter I consider genuine friends and I’ve only ever interacted with them there. That’s where we meet up. Every time we interact as friends on the app we generate profit for strangers. We are “users” supplying “engagement” no matter what we’re doing on there. It is actually extremely fucked up that a place where we kindle real meaningful friendships could disappear tomorrow at the whim of the market and there’d be nothing for it. Say what you want about nomadic tribes or farmer villages or the city neighborhoods around factories, the terrain on which people formed their communities was not going to just up and disappear. That problem is unique to our time.
That’s a rambling way to say that an unknowable amount of people in this atomized world have a gnawing sense that they lack purpose or meaning or direction and don’t know how to channel it and aren’t provided a vocabulary to express it. There’s probably a ton of those kinds of people in Worcester and places like it. No one is moving to Worcester to pursue their dreams. Anyone who’s found belonging in this place was either born here or stumbled into it. It’s the sort of place we expect to be miserable about living in. Resigned to accept it for what it is.
I really, really think there is a lane here in Worcester to lay down a unique template: a combination of left-wing movement politics, a weak and provincial municipal government, a clear vision and simple goals, and on top of all that, an identity rooted in pride for where you live and a post-ironic idea that giving a shit is actually fun and cool. In an identity rooted in a subversive critique (doomerism is wack actually) and the prospect of belonging to a real community that exists in a real physical space, there is potential to directly confront the atomization itself. In a small way, but a concrete way. Repeatable. Sustainable.
A local government can be a vehicle by which a movement demonstrates that giving a shit leads to tangible results and real accomplishment.
Even just that is, unfortunately, rare and remarkable. But you have to start somewhere.
Odds and ends
Weird one huh? Again, lemme know what you think.
In the coming weeks we will get into more standard election guides about eThisach of the specific races and candidates in the detail they require! But this felt like a useful framework before getting into any of that.
And the only way I can keep crankin’ out these posts is by paid subscriptions!
Shouts out to my wonderful girlfriend Katie for making me this writing desk getup in her spare room!
So fresh and so clean.
Ok that’s enough for today. Wait one more thing: This is such a good song.