How can you make a difference in the American political system? Bernie Sanders supporters are having preemptively defeatist arguments about this, about whether Sanders voters should swallow their principles and support Hillary Clinton in the general election, or sit back and let the Republican nominee win, in the hopes of shocking Democrats to move left.
It’s silly to be worrying about the end game, given that not one state has voted or caucused yet. What if Sanders wins the nomination? (What if Donald Trump wins the other nomination?) More importantly, though, if you want to expand the range of possibilities in American politics, you should not be thinking about how to most effectively throw your presidential ballot into the sea of 130,000,000 general election ballots. You should be running for office, now.
Bernie Sanders is not up on stage contesting the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination because he spent the last 40 years contriving the most meaningful ways to cast a protest vote. He is up there because he ran for office.
You can run for office, too. Yes, you. Why not? Why worry about how to send a message as a passive consumer of politics, when you can be an active participant? Democracy isn’t people arguing about how best to vote between foreordained options. Democracy is people running for office. You are a person.
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election next year. You may have noticed that Congress is largely controlled by idiots, hacks, and crooks. Are these the people you want representing you? What if you represented yourself?
This message is not at all restricted to the true believers in Bernie Sanders. Maybe you find Bernie Sanders’ record on gun control or racial injustice inadequate. If you think nobody is talking about the issues that truly matter to you, why not get up on the stump and talk about them yourself?
Please do not mistake this for some sort of ironic Modest Proposal. I tried suggesting running for office to someone who lives in the Midwest and spends a lot of time lamenting the state of politics and political discourse on Twitter. He assumed I was being sarcastic. This is not a sarcastic position. His congressional representative, if I read the map right, is a destructive creep. And no one has even filed to run against him yet.
Is anyone running against your current representative? Find your district on Ballotpedia and check. If not, why aren’t you? If you live in Alabama, Arkansas, or Illinois, it’s already too late. But in the other 47, you’ve still got a chance. Check your deadline.
Texas and Ohio are coming up next Monday and Wednesday, respectively. There are 22 seats listed in Texas with no Democratic challenger and 10 with no Republican. In Ohio, there are 12 seats with no Democratic challenger and 4 with no Republican.
If you’re in Texas and want to go for it, it’s admittedly a little tight. You’ll need to come up with $3,125 or with 500 signatures before 6 p.m. Monday. For Ohio, you need $85 in filing fees and 50 signatures. That’s not impossible.
Otherwise, for other states, you have till after New Year’s, at least. Look up the requirements. Think about how you would go about meeting them. Every two years, 435 people are able to do it and to win office.
Perhaps you think you’re unelectable. You can’t be less electable than Bernie Sanders was in 1972, when he put himself up for the United States Senate and got 1,571 votes, or one vote for every 29 votes the winner got. He went on to lose three more statewide races, for Senate and for governor of Vermont, without ever getting more than 6.1 percent of the vote.
Then he lowered his sights and got elected mayor of Burlington, by a 10-vote margin. Four straight terms as mayor, accompanied by more failed bids for higher office, left his electoral record at 4 wins and 6 losses. And now here he is, on a 10-election winning streak, giving lengthy speeches about democratic socialism on the national stage.
So it takes persistence. It takes the willingness to lose. It takes money—a winning Congressional campaign costs, on average, more than a million dollars. But before it takes any of those things, it takes the willingness to run.
Why don’t I do this myself? I’m in the set of people who’ve surrendered their political power by moving to a big city, and in the subset of those people who’ve surrendered it twice over by joining a profession that regards direct political activity as an unethical source of bias in the work of indirect political activity. Meanwhile, the house I grew up in sits in a corner of a district represented by a ninny who’s best known for jumping in from his rural Maryland seat to block the voters of Washington, D.C., from decriminalizing marijuana. This is embarrassing.
As it happens, he will be facing a challenge in 2016—not yet from any Democrat or independent, according to the Ballotpedia listing, but from his libertarian flank in the Republican primary, because he interfered with other people’s pot reform. This is what happens on the right. Libertarians, creationists, tax rejectors, or nativists don’t spend their time arguing about the hypothetical disposition of their general-election ballots. When someone does something they disagree with, they run against them.
This is part of the reason that Congress is such a hideous and dysfunctional collection of crackpots at the moment. Far-right activists went ahead and launched insane doomed Congressional campaigns for themselves, and some of them won. Even more of them won local offices. They are reshaping the country right now. You could almost certainly shape it into something better, if you tried.