You might be an uncool bundle of nerves today, and that's OK
...but there will be work to do tomorrow
Starting today, The White Pages is joining an Actually Good Online Community, one not shaped by the whims of a vainglorious billionaire weirdo. A lot of you are already familiar with Lyz Lenz’s newsletter “Men Yell At Me” (if you’re not, please do yourself a favor and subscribe— Lyz is one of the most talented writers/journalists in the game). For a few months now, Lyz has hosted a community for her subscribers called Flyover Politics (on Discord). I’ve been a member for a while and it is one of my favorite places online— it’s a chill, smart and funny community that has its roots in Midwestern politics and culture but is super welcoming to folks who don’t live in Caseys/Kwik Trip country. Obviously, there is a ton of overlap with the kind of questions we’re interested here (namely: longing for a more just world and knowing what to bring to a potluck). Starting today, The White Pages is jumping on board as well. I think it’s a truly great match. While I have been toying with the idea of leaning into Substack’s new “thread/chat” feature (and even started a couple threads for paid subscribers) this feels a lot better (for reasons that are probably long and boring but that I’m happy to share if you’re super curious).
Flyover Politics is currently for paid subscribers of The White Pages and Men Yell At Me. There are more logistics of course (What is Discord? How do I sign up? How do I find the White Pages specific discussions… all of which I will be answering in a separate email to paid subscribers in a few hours).
That’s all to say, if you’ve been wondering “when would be a good time for me to become a paid White Pages subscriber?” I gotta say… today’s a pretty good day. Personally, it’s where I’m going to be hanging out tonight to talk election stuff (including but not limited to: trading tips on what local races we’re watching, sharing picture of snacks we’re eating and beverages we’re drinking and power ranking the various be-khakied men pointing at interactive maps).
[Oh and, as always, if all this “subscriber stuff” sounds exciting but you’re tight on money or you’re a Barnraisers alum or a past donor… just email me and I’ll comp you: firstname.lastname@example.org].
I suppose I could try to affect an air of disaffected nonchalance. I could try to pretend that I was cool and collected the morning after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. I could try to convince you that I am immune to the emotions of American electoral politics.
Fortunately, I’m a bad liar, so we can skip all that.
I was a mess the morning after Trump was elected! And I wasn’t just a mess, I was that specific of mess— the urban-dwelling, college-degree-holding White person kind of mess; the eminently mockable kind of mess; the #resistance kind of mess; the “how dare White people say they’re shocked? Don’t they know this is always who our country has been?” kind of a mess.
And you know what? I stand by it! My wife was nine months pregnant with our second child! It was an emotional moment! And I’m well-versed enough in left-wing politics to know the critique I should have leveled at myself— about corporate control of both parties and Obama being the deporter and drone-striker in chief, and how Trump’s sin was merely that he was a more uncouth continuation of the broader project of American Empire. But I woke up on November 9th and my wife— who had been convinced our child would be born at any minute— instead told me “I don’t think this baby’s ready to come out now” and I knew she was right. I sent and received some highly emotional (and truth be told, extremely sweaty and uncool) texts and then got up and went to work and helped coach teachers who didn’t know how to respond to their undocumented students’ very real fears and damnit it did feel urgent, it didn’t just feel like vibes, it wasn’t all in my head.
This isn’t a piece about whether elections have consequences or not. Yes, the American electoral system is a contest between “the candidates that might help make the system less cruel” vs. “the candidates that will definitely help make the system more cruel.” That doesn’t mean that this is all a meaningless shell-game. We all know that. Elections happen and justices get appointed to various Federal benches and just like that, millions of Americans with uteruses are under attack. Elections happen and bills are voted upon and all of a sudden there are tax breaks for real-life Monopoly men and millions of others get poorer. Elections happen and the cops get new piles of money for tanks and tear gas and misconduct settlements and millions of other people aren’t any safer. Did you vote? I sincerely hope you voted.
That’s to say, if you’re stressed out about the results of today’s mid-term elections, you’re not wrong! Imperfect choices are still choices. It’s not just a question of vibes. It’s not just a question of whether or not politicians are pandering to the college-educated urban team or the non-college-educated rural team. More cruelty is always worse than less cruelty.
That doesn’t mean, however, that some of your relationship to this election isn’t going to be about your own emotions— that you will conflate your own heightened stress levels with a belief that the most vulnerable among us must be significantly more at risk. Like all analyses driven by both empathy and ego, you will be a little bit right and a little bit wrong. And that will be true regardless of where you fall along the lines of intersecting power and privilege, but will be even more the case for those of us who are the least under direct threat. That week after Trump was elected, I was thinking about undocumented students who needed answers as to whether they would be deported or not. But there was a zeal with which I jumped into action that, if I’m being totally honest, was mostly inspired by a need to project the raw emotion I felt when my pregnant wife told me that she was stressed and it felt like Trump had just brought the war home to my household specifically.
That more personal fear was unfounded. Our soon-to-be-born daughter was fine. She waited a little while longer than we expected. Our anxiety was thrown into a fury, and that was real. But she was fine. There is a metaphor about privilege there, as well as one about all our tendency to make ourselves the main character.
Do you remember those first few months— from Trump’s election through his initial first 100 days? We were so frenetic! We were so self-important! The collective White Liberal We wore safety pins to say that we were safe and then we heard that we weren’t supposed to wear safety pins because that was dumb and we were saviors so we yelled loudly at other, imagined White people who were wearing their safety pins worse than us. We really did all that, huh? It was confusing. There were marches every weekend. People made jokes about how we were going to protests instead of brunch now and other people made fun of the kind of person who would say that. We were supposed to watch the news nonstop, lest we need to run out to our nearest firehouse and ring the fascism alarm. Many among us got into election conspiracy theories, something we’ve now memory-holed because it makes it easier to judge the other team for doing the same more recently. I forgive us. There isn’t a good blueprint for taking it all very seriously without being too much of a weirdo.
We were caring and that was good, but we were also clumsy and showing off for one another. Some of the things we did were helpful. Others were unnecessary. The worst things that ended up happening— for the bulk of the Trump administration— were the same worst things that happen in any Republican administration. Trump didn’t sign a “dictator for life” decree or send every dissenter to Alaska: He appointed a metric ton of draconian Federalist society judges and gave rich people a bunch of money. You could say that January 6th was eventually worse and distinct, but even that could be considered as one more in a long line of moments where American democracy was strip-mined for White minority rule.
My point here is that there is an election today and anybody who is telling you that it makes no difference at all is (at least in part) affecting a cool-but-inaccurate pose. But it’s important to understand the actual, non-romanticized stakes, the ones not defined by panicked Super-PAC text messages. We live in a country that, on the whole, is more cruel than it is kind. Elections determine whether we will spend the next few years fighting tooth-and-nail to make things less cruel (because the party in power is the one that might listen) or if we have to do the work of caring for those for whom our country is about to get significantly crueler. That’s all. Always. And of course, as somebody with a heart for justice, it’s totally appropriate to root for the kinder of the two outcomes! But whatever happens, in any election, the work is the same:
You build and strengthen networks of care— focused on those most threatened by the current system, but inclusive of everybody.
You engage in long-term political work that changes rather than reinforces our current political calculus.
Some of the actions taken in that whirl-of-a-few-months after Trump was elected fell into that category, but much of it didn’t. When Trump issued that “Muslim ban,” my Facebook posts about how immigrants were welcome here probably didn’t do much besides provide a salve for my emotions. Lawyers working pro-bono on immigration cases probably did more. Communities banding together to become welcoming landing spots probably did even more.
By the same token, people in coastal states sending postcards to unknown swing state voters likely didn’t do much to change any future electoral calculus. I got a lot of those postcards, and my response to all of them was the same— I authentically hoped that it made the people writing them feel less alone, even though I knew they weren’t actually moving the needle in my state What did swing elections was when volunteers in progressive metro areas built long-term relationships with voters in swing-y or conservative districts not far from them. It’s when they started canvassing and volunteering and showing up at community events years before an election. That’s harder and less gratifying than postcards though.
To be clear, I’m not against doing things as a salve for our own emotions. Our own emotions are real. I sincerely loved the postcard writers; it made me happy to get their mail. I just knew they were doing it for themselves, mostly. Which, again, is fine! It’s easy to conflate it all, though, to find our cozy little political rabbit den and burrow down in there and tell ourselves that, because we feel better at the end, it must also be the best way to make a difference.
I actually think we’re getting better at this (by that I mean the royal progressive we). The pandemic and the police and prison abolition movements have inspired so many of us to rethink politics as less of an act of emotional righteousness than the art of human compassion. It’s very good that you can find a mutual aid group just about anywhere these days. It’s very good that the pandemic has inspired thousands of people to know their neighbors, including their unhorsed neighbors. It’s very good that the reproductive justice movement, has, in this moment of crisis, leaned into its roots as a collective care and emergency support network. It’s very good that twenty-something baristas and warehouse workers are leading the new labor movement. We’re doing better, you all. We really are. Let’s keep building on that.
You’ll notice that I’ve said all of this without any mention as to whether or not democracy is at stake in this election cycle. It likely is. I’m writing this in Wisconsin, after all. We could be on the cusp of delivering the Governorship and an electoral supermajority to a crew that has pledged to create the conditions for permanent conservative rule. I don’t want that, here or anywhere. I’m rooting against it with all my heart.
And, if that worst case scenario comes to pass, the work remains the same: Root for everybody— including those who voted against you— to live lives free of isolation and insecurity and violence. Build and cultivate care networks that move that sentiment from a passing nicety to an active muscle-building reality. Do “political” work, but ask yourself whether it is just strengthening your existing networks or actually pushing a different kind of political reality. Wherever the political map falls, take a deep look at it. Look at where the cause of justice and care is losing, particularly closest to you. Build relationships in those places before it’s too late for the next cycle. If you need to, do the things that make yourself feel better— writing jeremiads online and complaining with like-minded friends and listening to podcasts that validate your opinion— but be clear as you do so that you’re doing that for you.
If you are a White person, don’t waste a lot of time being impressed with yourself for how much better and more enlightened you are because you voted the right way and other White people voted the wrong way. None of our annual posts about how “White Women Chose White Supremacy Again” or “I’m so embarrassed by White voters” are helping build a better world. There will be plenty of White people who you will be tempted to judge when the dust clears. Ask yourself instead, who is served by any of that? What networks of care are strengthened? What future electoral map is challenged?
Your first reaction may be that you don’t know where to start. Or, it might be to define your parameters of where to start in a way that is comfortable and easy. I understand that, and yet…
I actually believe that many of you do know where to start and that you’re ready for something a bit more challenging than what you’ve settled for in the past. If you truly feel lost and directionless, I’d love to lend a hand (it’s what I do! and no, I don’t charge for it—my email is at the end of this piece). I’m sure others in your life would as well.
Oh, and finally: if you are too slow to start or get in your own head or make mistakes, try not to throw good emotions after bad. Truth be told, I’m feeling some regrets this election cycle; while I have written multiple times about a candidate I love who is trying to shift the political calculus in a rural part of Wisconsin, I never actually drove the couple hours west to knock on doors for her. I should have gone weeks ago, but I didn’t and all of a sudden it was the final weekend and I made one Hail Mary pitch to my children (including that now-five-year-old whose birth was once delayed by Trump-based stress) to come canvassing with me and, well, you already know how that went (I even promised them screen time in the car!). I am chagrined but I am also aware that the work does not disappear and holding onto past shame doesn’t help anybody.
I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight. I never do. I’m old enough to have experienced a few elections that have made me literally run out into the streets and scream for joy. I’ve had a good number that have left me confused and wanting and yes, I’ve had at least one that fried my brain so much that I thought my own child was at risk when she wasn’t. The patterns have always been the same, though. The good elections have eventually been slightly more disappointing than I had hoped they’d be. The bad elections were indeed quite bad, but often in the banal way that systems of oppression normally maintain themselves.
In each case, the work I should have been doing afterwards was always the same:
Build and sustain direct networks of care.
Organize so that years down the line, we’re ready to push so much further.
Oh, and one more thing…
Reach out when you need help. Even to strangers. Even to people from whom you haven’t asked for help before. Even to polemical memoirists whose newsletters you sometimes read on the Internet. If this work was easy, if it could be done alone, we’d live in a world already transformed.
I mean it…
If you don’t know where to plug in to build communities of care and/or change the electoral calculus, email me… email@example.com. I am more than happy to help out, not asking for anything in return. It’s my job!
This week’s song of the week:
“Nothing Was Delivered” by The Byrds. The Wikipedia article for this song claims it is either about American politics or a failed drug deal. I feel like I could write that on the Wikipedia entries for a lot of songs and you couldn’t dispute it. Either way, the song’s advice is the same: “take care of your health and get plenty of rest.”
This week’s White Pages Community Discussion:
We won’t have a new subscribers’ only discussion this week as I’m spending my time getting the Discord up and running. Instead, paid subscribers should look forward to an email invitation for the Discord the next few hours. Come hang out!
Don’t worry though, We’ll still keep the community discussions going on Wednesdays, just as we always have. Oh, and if you want to see a good one— last week’s, which was about “actually good places on the Internet” was just a gift that kept on giving.
And also, excited to hang out with everyone on discord!
Sending y'all americans fortitude; I, personally, am an uncool bundle of nerves for entirely unrelated reasons