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Mail Time!

Osita Nwanevu
9 min read
Mail Time!

Hey all. As you surely know, a very big thing’s happened in Congress since the last newsletter. You’ll probably see my take on that in an upcoming column. But today, it’s Mail Time. I asked for questions, and you definitely delivered. Let’s hop to it.

I got three questions from Annie. The first:

Any recommendations on what to do with previously conservative relatives who have not been very politically active, but are shocked by the January 6 hearings, mass shootings, Dobbs, and the increasingly visible and unavoidable truth of climate disaster? They are disgusted with the Republican Party, but I don't want to lose them to nihilism if they put too much hope in the Democrats. Small change has been most effective with them (e.g. stop using lawn chemicals, vote for Biden); I would like to see what I could convince them to do that would be effective in a small way. More nature exposure has also been good for them (both politically and health-wise).

It seems like they’re on the right track already! I’ve been encouraging people of all stripes ⁠to invest more time and attention in state and local politics. There’s probably a progressive issue campaign or two in their communities that they might take an interest in; if they’re into nature, see what environmental groups are active around them. All that’s going to be more fruitful and edifying than staying glued to cable news and focusing on the national Democratic Party, though you should encourage them to vote for Democrats in federal elections if they happen to live in swing states and districts.

The second:

Much simpler question: What is the term I've seen you use either here or on Twitter,  for when people polled think that the majority of other people hold some belief that they themselves don't hold?

I actually can’t remember a specific term for this right now, but there ought to be one. Any other readers have thoughts?

And the third:

What do you think about public social spaces and the effects that mass shootings, the COVID-19 pandemic, inequality and economic precariousness, and the internet/ubiquity of devices have on those spaces and on community organizing? Do you have any recommendations for academics, activists or journalists that have written about this?

Activists and organizers seem to have adapted to the pandemic pretty well as best as I can tell. Metro DC DSA’s Stomp Out Slumlords campaign published a brief in early 2020 that seems indicative of the ways groups have had to shift their strategizing and outreach:

Over the past three years, we've developed a number of relationships with tenant leaders and activists—under these conditions, just maintaining those is a big challenge. But it's an essential one if we want to retain the capacity of collective action once quarantine measures are lifted. One thing we do have going into this is a massive contact list. We're calling our contacts, trying to help tenants in the buildings we've organized to keep their community connected (and alive), but we're limited to what we can do at a distance. We're helping out with mutual aid campaigns, and reaching out to tenants we've contacted to see if they need anything or know anyone who does. We’re going to make sure that tenant leaders know about the emergency tenant protections we fought for and expanded eligibility for unemployment and other benefits, and we’re going to encourage them to tell friends and neighbors to keep their networks together.
One of the reasons we adopted our organizing model is that we think it's an efficient, direct way to influence decisionmakers. Under normal circumstances, we don't think public, city-wide petitions are very effective in that regard, but currently they're one of the only things we can do. (To be clear, we're very fond of petitions within a building for a variety of reasons). And for the moment, public petitions and calls are having some effect. Last week, we joined the DC Tenants Union in flooding councilmembers' and the mayor's phone lines with calls not only for an eviction moratorium, but to close the courts (which they don't have direct control over but can definitely pressure). To our surprise, the Council and 5 the Court quickly agreed.

While we’re not out of the woods with COVID yet, a lot of pre-pandemic activity has obviously resumed. But the larger question you’re asking is still important ⁠— COVID aside, we’re losing public spaces that have been conducive to political organizing. While I still think social media has been a net positive for politics and culture, leaving those spaces for the web does leave movements vulnerable to the caprices and machinations of corporations that don’t share their objectives and values. And even when activists do succeed in leveraging social media platforms ⁠— Occupy, Arab Spring, the Floyd protests, etc ⁠— progress after those rallying moments depends on the kind of sustained and intimate engagement that can only happen offline. I don’t think it’s mere romanticism to believe and insist on that.

A question from Greg:

Reading history books, it feels like a lot of events were preordained, determined by structural factors beyond any one person's control. Are there any interesting hypotheticals you think about, as far as moments in the past where things could have turned out substantially different?

This isn’t the most exciting example, but the one I think about the most often is Trump’s election. I think most political observers have come to see it as fated in some way. And while he was brought to power by a lot of longstanding factors I’ve written about, there were many, many ways he could have lost, beginning with the Republican primaries. We forget now that Trump only won about 45 percent of the primary vote altogether, and there was a stretch in March 2016 when he really could have been beaten if one or more of the remaining establishment candidates ⁠— Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich ⁠— had dropped out. But Republicans failed to do what the Democrats did to boost Biden in 2020; it was a simple collective action problem and they flunked it. Obviously, things worked out for them anyway. But I think the example illustrates that personalities and personal ambitions really do matter in history, though you can say too that personalities and ambitions are themselves historical formations, etc.

A question from Gabriel:

What is the best way to donate money or time to left wing causes for people living in liberal blue cities, ie Boston Sf etc.

I don’t think that there’s a single best way to give your time and money. But large liberal cities do face a set of shared, evergreen challenges  ⁠— housing, access to food, access to physical and mental health services, education, transit, policing, etc. ⁠— activists are always working on. Trawl the local papers and alt-weeklies and campaigns will pop up. You could also pop into established organizations like local DSA chapters to get plugged in.

A question from Devin:

This question is broad, but I'd appreciate your thoughts: to what extent do you think the Democratic Party leadership's support of "centrists" in the style of Manchin and Gottheimer is expedient, arising from a sincere belief that they are winners for their respective electorates, and to what extent do you think its support of them is ideological, arising from a desire to defend them or suppress progressives even at risk of losing elections to Republicans?
The question may seem moot for reasons tied to the debate over "popularism": even if the support is sincere, it may represent a failure of imagination regarding what their electorate wants or could be persuaded to want, which would be its own serious problem. Even so, I ask because whenever this topic comes up in arguments, I never know quite what to say. The anti-popularist "these people seem to want centrism, but they might want progressivism if we take a risk and try to pitch it!" angle seems utopian, which only frames centrism as hard-nosed realism. I think a position so corrupt and planet-destructive is more likely to be cynical and self-serving. But a more fine-grained interpretation regarding which centrists do seem key to the party and why might help me to make that case to those who say "Democrats want to win, and it's just good strategy to support centrists."

This is a question I ask myself a lot, and I’ve been giving it even more thought lately as I’m working on a review essay about the party that should be out in the fall. I don’t think there’s a general answer that applies to the party as a whole, really. Some Dems are strategically cautious but genuinely liberal or progressive as a matter of personal politics. And others are sincere moderates and conservatives ⁠— in some cases because they’re personally affluent. And I do think some moderate and conservative Democrats have preferred the prospect of Republican governance to progressive control of the party. In his book on the rise of the New Democrats, for instance, Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, suggests that Republicans taking control of Congress in 1994 was a net positive because it forced Democrats to hew to the center. A post-election memo he wrote to Clinton:

Ironically, I wrote, the election could save his presidency and that he needed to see it as an opportunity to get his presidency off to a much-needed fresh start. After two years in office and despite a record for which he deserved more credit, too many voters still didn’t know who he was and what he stood for. For too many voters, his presidency was defined by gays in the military, big government health care, and his personal character as defined by both his private behavior and public indecision. “That may not be fair,” I wrote, “but it’s a reality, and it’s critical that you change it. I believe you can.”

That kind of thinking might be diminishing now post-Trump, but I think there’s a lot of evidence ⁠— evidence I dismissed when I was closer to the center myself ⁠— that top Democrats really do hate the party's left flank.

Still, Democrats of all stripes ⁠— and really politicians in general ⁠— do genuinely overestimate the conservatism of the electorate. There have been a few studies on this. Eric Levitz for NYMag in 2018:

In 2013, researchers from Northwestern University and Stanford found that state legislators throughout the U.S. wildly overestimated the conservatism of their constituents. Republicans were more liable to have a deluded sense of how many of their voters’ wanted to abolish the welfare state, but even Democrats had a tendency to look at their blue districts and see purple or red: On average, legislators from both parties underestimated the level of support for universal health care in their districts by more than 15 percentage points.
Now, a new study finds that members of Congress also believe that they represent staunchly conservative electorates that do not actually exist.
In August 2016, political scientists from the University of California and Columbia sent a survey to every House and Senate office’s top legislative staffers — which is to say, to the wonks who, in the paper’s phrasing, are responsible for “connecting the preferences of constituents with Members of Congress.” In it, they asked the policy professionals to estimate their constituents’ level of support for repealing Obamacare, regulating carbon dioxide, making a $305 billion investment in infrastructure, mandating universal background checks for firearm purchases, and raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour.
[...] The study finds, predictably, that staffers have a tendency to project their own policy views onto the public. But, with the notable exception of Obamacare repeal, Democratic aides ostensibly assumed that voters’ views were to the right of their own.

The 2016 study found too, unsurprisingly, that staffers that met with big business groups were less accurate in estimating the views of their constituents than staffers that met with labor unions and other more progressive interest groups. As I’ve written many times before, I don’t think it’s quite right to assume that there’s a massive, ready-made constituency for left-wing policy in this country that’s just waiting to be awakened by Democratic leaders. But it’s not good that Democratic politicians underrate how liberal many voters already are on certain issues.

And finally, a question from Jack:

I don't know if this is the proper place to ask this question, so please forgive me if not. I'm a huge fan of your writing. In particular I think the way you write is so clear and precise. Do you have any resources you recommend for improving one's writing? Was there anything that helped you develop your voice? I understand there's a good chance the answer is "no," but I just thought I'd ask.

Thanks for reading! It’s a fine question, but one I don’t have a great answer for, unfortunately. I don’t know how to write all that well yet, but much of the progress I’ve made recently has been in paring my language down. Precision matters more than the ten dollar word. And the sentences from others I’ve always admired the most work because they’re rhythmically interesting or because they focus an idea to a sharp point.

I don’t think there’s a better way to improve one’s own voice than trying to understand how other writers use theirs. Make a list of some you really respect; read them attentively and at length. Before long, you might notice certain habits and tics that help you understand how they construct sentences and paragraphs. The point isn’t to ape them but to familiarize yourself with the mechanics of what they’re doing. Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style is also very helpful on this front. If you’re specifically trying to improve your clarity, I’d recommend reading lots of Didion. That’s worked for me, anyway.

Thanks for the great questions! You can send more in for next month to

A Song

“Djuru” ⁠— Amadou & Mariam (2008)