Friday, October 24, 2003

Remember: The Tortoise Won

My friend Mike Taht notes that it's time to register for the California primaries, and urges politically-minded bloggers to do so.

    For a mere 990 dollars - or 1500 signatures - anyone can run in the primaries for assembly under the flag of any party. For 3000 signatures you can run for state senate. Both are fairly high paying jobs, if you care about that part, and the money you donate to your own campaign is tax deductable (I think) - so why not run for one of these positions? Make a difference!

    Want to fix your state government? Run for state office! Want to change the democratic party? Run from within! Same for the Republicans? Run from within! Can't stand those parties? Run as an independent!

Respectfully, I think he's wrong. Getting involved in the political process is a great thing, but people who come out of nowhere with no political background or connections and randomly decide to pay a filing fee and put their names on the ballot very, very rarely win. Pursuing that as a means to political influence is like buying lottery tickets instead of putting your money in an interest-bearing account: You've got an infinitesimal chance of a big payoff, versus a certainty of a small payoff. You might wind up with an influential job (which, by the way, it's your oath-sworn duty to do as well as you can for at least two years; no slacking off if you lose interest, so you'd better be sure it's your passion). But more likely you'll get nothing, unless you have the support of a well-organized political network that's willing to work hard on your behalf--and to get that you need to pay your dues first, or at least have celebrity and/or big money going for you.

On the other hand, instead of running fruitlessly for office, you could just pay those dues. Don't try to enlist as a colonel--start out as a private. Pick out one of those local political networks that you agree with more often than not, or a statewide or national candidate you want to work for (I'll just put in a plug for my man Howard here), and get involved as a low-level volunteer grunt. Go to meetings and listen. Learn how the system works. Volunteer to bring the coffee and treats. Help out. Walk precincts. Stuff envelopes. Make phone calls. Hand out flyers and buttons at public events. Pretty soon, the like-minded politically active people in your community all know your name and your face, and you get opportunities to introduce your ideas into the mix. These being exactly the people that the local candidates and officeholders need to help them win elections, pretty soon you'll have opportunities to meet those folks, too, and they too will learn your name and face, and listen respectfully when you talk. Your friends and neighbors, knowing that you've actually met some of the candidates and might have some inkling about what they're like and where the bodies are buried, start asking you for a bit of advice on how to vote, and then, baby, you have arrived.

Maybe eventually you've paid enough dues that someone floats your name as a candidate, too. But long before that, you will have gained some measure of political influence in your community. Not a lot--but more than none. More than you'd have gotten by running as a crank candidate in a system you haven't really taken the time to learn about from the inside.

I'm just doing the merest fragment of this kind of volunteer work in the local Dean campaign, but already I find myself connected to local politics in ways I never was before. Next week, I'm attending a reception for my Assemblyman, to which I'm certain I would not, last year, have been invited. It's a small thing, but it's a step up from nothing. And these small things are what representative democracy is made of.

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