YL123 - Roderick on Politics (Bonus)

This week, Brian and John talk about:

This show is hosted by Brian Heater.

This is a very special bonus episode of RiYL because the big principle of RiYL is that they do all episodes in person. Sitting down with somebody and looking at somebody in the eyes is a pretty important part, but Brian really wanted to catch up with John because it had been a while since they had spoken outside of e-mail and Twitter exchanges. The city council vote in the primaries had just happened and Brian really wanted to speak to John about that.

John running for office with best intentions (YL123)

This episode was recorded a couple of weeks after the results of the primary election had come in. It did take John a week just for the dust to settle and the week before the show he spent rejoining his old life that was still in progress. The idea that John could just run and win an honest campaign almost seemed like a grand experiment and when John first started campaigning, a lot of people asked him whether or not he was doing it as an art project or even as a goof. John didn't want it to be and it wouldn't be honest to run for office as a life experience, but he was legitimately running for office as an attempt to join the political world.

After having lost the primary election it was astonishing that as soon as the results came in and he did not win, he was immediately a civilian again. There was no processing happening and nobody said: ”You have to come in tomorrow to get your identity card clipped” or something. John walked out of the bar where he had his election night party and ”I guess tomorrow I will wake up and I won't have anything to do. I'm gonna go from having 18 hours a day of work to do to having zero hours of work to do.” Now that it has passed, there is really nothing he can do but think of it as a life experience. It is absolutely going to inform everything he does from now on and having done it changed his understanding quite a bit, but he didn't set out to do it as a joke or even as a lark. The intention was serious!

Being surprised by the depth of the process (YL123)

John was committed to the point that he didn't have a plan B in place in case the thing didn't work out, but he was assuming that it was going to work out, which was incredibly naive. Everything about his run was naive! People in the political class told him that, but he resented it and found it very cynical on their part because he believes that normal people should run for office and politics should be accessible to everybody. All of us should take that responsibility in hand at a certain point in our lives and when you have arrived at a place where you can run for office, more of us should. That alone would reform the political process.

What John didn't understand was how much like an iceberg the political process is. The visible portion is a small percentage of all the activity, all the vested groups, and all the interests that motivate and energize the process. John was looking at what he could see and was saying ”More people should get involved! Why does this process seem to only appeal to this certain strange type of person, why does it seem so dishonest to the rest of us, and why is it so intractable?” Once he jumped in, that whole period of six months or so was uncovering an understanding of how much more involved that community is every day.

John was the last person in his race to declare. The other three candidates had all declared that they were running by January 1st, but they really had been running for a year beforehand in the quiet, forging alliances, building relationships, and securing support from the thousands of interested parties. John didn't declare until the middle of April and from his view the election had barely begun. The newspapers weren't covering it yet, and nobody in town was even aware of it. Sure! Of course you throw your hat in and run for office and ”Let's put a campaign together and ramp it up!”

John was joining the Indianapolis 500 at mile 300 and everybody else not only had their own campaigns going already, but they already knew all the people they were going to be meeting. They knew a lot of them, they knew who they were, and they knew their expectations. During that whole period every day John walked through a door into a conference room full of people sitting around a table and he didn't know who they were or what they wanted from him and he was powered by a feeling that ”Well, all you have to do is be honest and sincere and that will produce good results!”

The party processes (YL123)

The same processes that are in place on a national level when you are running for President, Senate or Congress are in place on a city level. They are not just the same entities, but they are the same people because the Democratic and Republican parties are at one level fundamentally locally based organizations. Their entire pyramid is based on the independent legislative districts. Seattle has a half a dozen legislative districts and each one of those districts has a precinct and an Executive Board.

All you have to do to be a member of those groups is pay your dues, which are nominal, join the Democratic Party and start attending the Democratic Party meetings that are literally in your neighborhood. If you like Robert's Rules of Order and that kind of procedural meeting, and if you get to know the people in your meeting, you can run for Precinct Committee Officer (PCO) and chair the meeting or become a sergeant at arms.

It is all that 18th century community stuff! Those people interview all the candidates for public office and a lot of the people that end up running for public office come from those meetings. They are members of those groups, they get to know those people, they watch the candidates come through and at one point they decide they are going to run. It is a kind of farm team. Those district groups send their people up the chain to a county Democratic Party and a statewide Democratic Party. The National Party is just an aggregate of all these tiny little neighborhood-groups.

Running for office as an artist (YL123)

John came from the civilian world and everybody he has ever talked to agrees that it would be great if somebody from outside the process ran for office. Isn’t it cool to think that even a lightweight like Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger can run for office and win? It is kind of dumb, but it is also kind of great! Typically the outsiders running for office come from business or military backgrounds. They are not really outsiders, but they are company people. The oldest trope in American politics or in politics anywhere is that everybody is an outsider and calls themselves outsiders. Wouldn't it be great if an artist ran for public office? Talking about naive!

John waltzed in to the first Democratic Party meeting he had ever been to, stood up on the dais, and said ”Wouldn't it be great if an artist ran for public office? Well, that's what I'm doing!” He looked out at a room full of people and not a single one of them thought it was great that an artist was running for public office. It wasn't a thing that had occurred to them to want, and when they thought about it for a few seconds they realized they did not want it. They thought that running for public office was the thing that you did after you had spent a long time working as an operative in the Democratic Party. How could you otherwise possibly know the ins and outs and all the important business stuff?

Some people felt that John was cutting the line and a lot of people thought that he was a frivolous light-weighted art person who didn't have a serious background. They all want single issue candidates. Every candidate that is successful is a single issue candidate and John was not was a single issue candidate. He wanted to talk about everything and refused to coalesce his platform down into a few soundbite-y bullets, which also was regarded as naive, because day after day he would walk into places and was given one minute or two minutes to speak.

John was thinking about the city in a holistic fashion because you cannot resolve the housing crisis without also addressing the transportation crisis. The two things are linked! Building density in one part of the city but not building connective transportation is how gridlock is created and that housing isn't actually going to be affordable because the people who can afford to live there can't afford to travel. All of those issues have to be addressed systemically, but that doesn't play in a minute.

His campaign team and all his immediate initial experience discouraged him not only from talking about gondolas but about really systemic issues at all. Gondolas were a humorous way of addressing the fact that it is very hard to move around Seattle because it is a hilly region and none of their transportation solutions really addresses the fact that Seattle is built on nine hills. Cities around the world use gondolas as public transportation and we should consider it! John’s own friends and advisers were like ”Ah, X-nay on the gondola, ey!” and he was willing to not talk about that stuff immediately, but not being able to talk about housing and transportation as linked ideas was something he could not abide.

John had one minute to argue with another candidate who was saying ”The solution is rent control!”, but rent control is illegal and you might as well ask a Seattle City Council candidate whether they support an independent Palestine. They are definitely going to have an opinion on it, but it has no bearing on how to run the city of Seattle. Rent control was the policy de jure this season and in every meeting somebody gave him a minute to answer the question if he was in favor of rent control, but John needs more than a minute just to describe all the ways that rent control is illegal, let alone that it is bad policy.

Corruption and dishonesty (YL123)

No one ever comes up to you and says ”Listen, we need you to say the exact opposite of what you think and at this next meeting we need you to just lie through your teeth and in reward for that we are going to hand you a big bag of money” That is not how corruption enters into politics. Corruption enters into politics in this tiny tiny fashion where every day you are disincentivized from saying the truth because people all around you are saying ”Listen, nobody in this room wants to hear about it. They want to hear you say that you are going to protect union jobs or that you are considering rent control. They don't want to hear that you're against it. They just want to hear that you are considering it, even if that is a lie.”

Those are very small and very expedient white lies and they are mostly lies of omission because you just don't talk about the thing. If you allow that kind of thinking into your corpus and you start walking into places thinking ”Well, what can't I say here?”, that is how the political voice gets honed and pretty soon you are only saying the safest things, only saying things that are not going to bite you in the ass later, and you have introduced corruption into your system at that point.

Later on somebody will come up to you and say ”Listen, the entire U.S. government is being controlled by an alien super government that lives under the North Pole in a special base, but you can't tell anybody!” and by that point you have been lying your whole career and you go ”Oh sure, of course! It is not that I'm lying, I'm just not telling people about it.” John has spent his whole adult life trying to be as candid as he could about himself, and as candid in his own work as he could be.

Partly that candor was as a defense mechanism because if everybody knows everything about him, then he will not be vulnerable to blackmail or to scorn. Nobody can point a finger at him and call him out for any secrets. His whole life John has been as candid as he could about his failings and his weaknesses. Suddenly he was in situations every day where he was unable to be candid, although he never allowed himself to actually embrace a lie. Even being constrained in his ability to speak absolutely candidly was a corruption that he felt very personally and it hurt.

Whether it was part of his self-invention or just intrinsic to his personality, John is not somebody who apologizes for an idea that he just had before he even says it. There are plenty of people who have an idea, but it scares them or they immediately set about trying to corral it and domesticate it. A lot of times an idea occurs to John and he does not only say it, but he puts conviction behind it. "What does this idea sound like if somebody says it with conviction?" A lot of times he says things that, even as he is saying them and hearing them aloud, he is going ”Oh, that doesn't really fly! If you connect it to the next logical jump from that, you are in a place where it is no good." That is how you work stuff out!

Most people don’t engage in that process at all. I you run the numbers on any ideology, if you say ”Here is Marxism, let's talk about it!”, it doesn't take long before you see the problems, which are always at the point where Marxism rubs up against somebody who doesn't want to practice Marxism, and you say: "Oh, Marxism works great as long as everybody practices it!" As soon as one person doesn't want to, then you either have to force that person to practice it or you have to acknowledge that this ideology isn't complete. It is the problem with all ideologies! It is why libertarianism sounds so great to libertarians because they haven't spoken the idea aloud and followed it down the road to encounter somebody who says ”Well great, but I don't practice that!” and in every case you are right into totalitarianism!

What is terrible and messy about democracy is that you have to let everybody do their thing, but there still has to be some common ground where all these different ideologies have some thread of commonality that allows them to work simultaneously. It requires that you throw ideas at the wall and say ”What would happen if we controlled the economy? What would happen if we had a state religion?” Throw it out there and see what works and what doesn't! The reason ideologies are successful is that they are complete systems within an enclosure and they require that people not throw the idea up and see what sticks.

Having to lose your first race (YL123)

John figured out right away was that he was entering into a film that was already in progress. All the Democratic activists, all the Socialists, all the unions, all the Chamber of Commerce people, everybody already had a dog in the race. The way that they assimilated John, or tried to assimilate him, was by saying ”Hey, welcome to the party! You are a very charming guy and you have a good voice and a good haircut. You could really do this! You can really make it here, son! Your ideas or whatever: Fine, that's good. We don't really need the candidate to have ideas of his own, but that's fine. Keep them to yourself! For the most part we have already decided what the ideas that we are looking for are.

Here are the Democratic Party ideas, here are the Socialist Party ideas, here are the platforms of the unions and the chambers and the various vested groups. Really what we want is somebody who can fashion a workable ideology from this grab bag of ideas that represents the coalition that is necessary to get elected. So your big ideas about not just gondolas but about culture or whatever are not really important, but what is nice is that you are a good speaker, you are a good dresser, and you have good hair.” John heard that so much: Good hair!

They immediately said John was probably going to lose his first race, which is that big of a deal because everybody loses their first race. What they were really interested in was ”Are you going to stick around? Are you going to join the team? Now that you have run and lost, the next thing you do is endorse somebody, you start coming to these meetings, you get to know all the people better, they get to know you better so they trust you more, and the next time you run you will have been doing the thing that all your opponents were already doing, which is running for office all the time. By the time you declare that you are running next time you will know who is in your camp and who is not and you will be ready to go.”

The first several times John heard that he was shocked because ”What are you talking about? I'm running for office right now! I'm working 18 hours a day to learn all this stuff and to do a good job and to get up to speed and you are telling me that this is just a trial run and that I am going to do this again two years from now and if I lose that I am going to do it again two years after that and keep doing it until I win?”, but that is precisely the way that this system is designed. It was a shocker more than anything! Now in the aftermath that shock is wearing off and John starts to see that of course that is how any group of people wants to assimilate newcomers.

Whenever a totally novel kind of band comes along and is starting out, a lot of people will say ”You guys are great and all you need to do is take a picture standing up against a brick wall smoking cigarettes because that is what bands do.” The rare band makes it through that with their uniqueness intact and everybody jumps on board. The idea of what a band is changes for a little bit and everybody is like ”Wow, now bands wear leather jackets! Who would have thought of that?” or Vampire Weekend: ”Now bands wear pink sweaters knitted around the necks!”, but that is not actually new, The Talking Heads already did that, there is really nothing new under the sun.

What happens is that those bands, even the most radical, off-beat, crazy cool bands get a manager, a lawyer and an agent. They are corralled, domesticated and defanged and put into the music business. They either become a successful component of the music business or the music business decides that they can't work with them and they get bumped no matter how interesting they are. There are very few exceptions and Prince is an example of somebody who continued to be at war with the music business, but 90% of what Prince did was in accordance with normal practices. He went on tour, he collected money, he sold records, he wore fancy costumes, he played stadiums, he had a lighting guy, a monitor guy, and a guitar tech. He was not reinventing the wheel, he was just arguing with people at Warner Brothers, but he was an example of somebody who we think of as a completely independent spirit.

Any group that you try to join as an outsider wants to make you an insider right away. If you don't become an insider you don't have a chance. John felt very alien in that world, not that people weren't friendly and not that they didn't ultimately want to support him, but it is not a world where the candidate is the idea-generator and that should not have been a surprise to him if he had looked at the candidates. How is Rick Perry a successful politician? He's a very dumb person, but he got great hair. Why aren’t smart people candidates? It sounds ridiculous to say it now, but the reason is that the policy is already written by the operatives and the candidate is just the receiver. He carries the ball into the end zone. The candidate needs to portray conviction, but actual conviction and actual ideas are superfluous. If you can portray conviction then you can be a success.

Will John run again? (YL123)

There are surely people who run for office who don't take on as big a job as Seattle city council person. John’s lack of knowledge is embarrassing now. At the time he started running he felt like he had a pretty good knowledge. Of all the people he knew he was very politically engaged at the level of ideas. What he did not understand was that he was not engaged at the level of operations. The embarrassment about John’s naiveté is primarily that he didn't realize that the job itself is almost 100% operations and that is the shocker.

John thought that the political jobs got more important as they trended toward bigger entities. The mayor of Seattle was a smaller job in John’s imagination than a state legislator, who was operating at the state level in a legislative body. The Seattle mayor was an administrator of a town, but to work at the state legislature you would be part of operating the state. Well, that is laughable to John now. The mayor of the city of Seattle is an enormous job, an incredibly important job, a powerful job, and a desirable job for a politician, because you get to go home to your own bed every night and you are in charge of every aspect of the operations of a city, which is too many operations to name.

A state legislator on the other hand is really a part time job. You go to the state capital periodically and you deliberate with a bunch of hicks and dingelings, you have no real power outside of a coalition, you paid a token amount and to be a state legislator is really an entry level job. To be a mayor is the culmination of a career. The Seattle city council people earn $120.000 a year whereas somebody on the Washington State Legislature earns $28.000 a year. The U.S. House of Representatives is somewhat equivalent and you would probably not make much more than $120.000 a year either. To be in the U.S. House of Representatives you would have to fly back and forth to Washington D.C., you would have to keep some kind of apartment in Washington, in a lot of respects it is a much worse job.

There is surely somebody who runs for office the first time and they run for Director of the county water board out in the country, but everybody in the county knows who they are because their dad was from there and they also got famous as a rodeo star. They didn't really have a challenger and their first campaign for office was fun, invigorating and life-affirming. They run again as the incumbent, they win a second time and they decide to run for county council. They have some experience behind they and their challenger turned out was involved in a dogfighting ring. There are surely plenty of people who get elected to public office that way and by the time they run for something substantial they are already vested and they feel like it is fun for them and good. John bit off a lot in running for Seattle City Council his first ever try and he is still drawing his conclusions from that.

John feels actually physically relieved of a tremendous amount of anxiety and panic. It is no fun to lose, particularly not in a very visible race. It would be one thing if John had showed up and had just been outgunned by intellectuals, if the other candidates across the board in the Seattle City Council race had been Rhodes Scholars and they had just been hitting him with some space science that he couldn't match. That is the standard of achievement of John’s world of arts and of letters: You are impressed by somebody’s sense of humor or by their ability to connect wide-ranging ideas, or in podcasting somebody with the ability to talk for an hour and be interesting. These are harder to quantify skills, but they are real.

It was disappointing that John was beaten in the Seattle City Council race, a lot of really smart people also lost in other races for other seats, and almost universally the winners were good at the technical aspects of collecting votes, putting together enough endorsements and coalitions of people and telling them what they wanted to hear and getting votes. None of the people who made it through at any level of the city council race were what you would describe as the most compelling people, but they were the best politicians. In a lot of ways they were truly great politicians and John has tremendous admiration for them, he just sees now that the job description of being a good politician is not what he thought it was. That is the biggest education for him.

For the kind of person John is, for the kind of contribution he wants to make to civic life and to American life, the job he is put here to do is not that job. It is at the level of generating and talking about ideas, toying with them, taking the hit for the bad ones, really pressing on with the good ones, and having a healthy sense of humor about it all. None of those are advantages for a candidate. We still need all that in public life and it all needs to be in the world of ideas we are considering, but the way we run people for office, the expectation we have of them and the way the system is designed, it is always going to favor a different set of skills than that.

John’s dad (YL123)

John’s dad was a terrible politician and he knew it, but it was also a different time. John’s uncle Jack was mayor of Anchorage in the 1970s and when John told him that he was running for city council he called John and said ”Oh my God! Don't do that! It is terrible, you will hate it!” Also John’s mom said he was going to hate this, but he ignored them because he didn't understand what he was doing. The people close to him who did understand what he was doing weren't able to articulate to him why he shouldn't do it. It never comes up in conversation that the world of ideas orbits around the political world and that we are not very effective in understanding that those worlds are divorced from one another.

There are a lot better ways to enact good ideas than to pass laws. The world of laws and lawmakers has expanded and does now fill all of the space in our imagination of how we get things done, how we improve our lives, and how we change things. We imagine that we accomplish change by passing laws, by making different laws, or by changing the laws, but laws are really the least effective way of effecting change in most cases. Although laws are very important, we should limit what they are and we should recognize that they have a limited effectiveness in most cases. We should focus our attention on the situations where they can be effective, but a lot of what we ask laws and lawmakers to do isn't their realm and we should invest in other institutions and other methods of achieving that.

The social justice movement on Twitter is talking less about laws and more about the power of collective shame. There is an unwillingness to accept the status quo and an insistence that people reflect a little bit more. It is an example of a crowd-driven social change that is not based in the world of laws. While we do resist some bad laws, we are mostly resisting bad precedents and bad culture, and we are doing it with culture. We focus a lot of attention on law and lawmakers because they fulfill the need for someone being in charge who can make change from authority and who can force bad people to change. Nobody wants government to force them to change, but we definitely want government to make the bad people change. It is a lazy mentality because it is much easier to pass a law than it is to convince somebody to make that change on their own.

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