Women: Seize power

Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, 1972 meeting of the National Women's Political Caucus
Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, 1972 meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus

“We’re not in this for power,” he said. The man was a staffer at a multi­-million member nonprofit organization, and we were sitting in a planning meeting for a cross-­movement political action.

“Why the hell not,” I didn’t say.

“Why would you be working professionally for a political organization, planning political actions, and seeking to represent your members’ expressed political interests, if you aren’t interested in accumulating political power,” I also didn’t say.

It wasn’t the last time I heard something like that from people on the left. Some fellow travelers seem to despise even talking about taking power, and that’s a problem.

What I’d like you to do, if you’re a feminist, is to think concretely about being in this fight for the power. Not empowerment, or agency, or any other sort of change in your personal feelings about the material facts of your life. I want you to think about getting the kind of power that allows you to work with other women to improve the material facts of all our lives and society.

It’s one thing to be aware enough of anti­-woman laws to be angry about them, and another to be able to dictate what the laws affecting our lives will be.

Feminism will “win” ­­when its precepts are law and those laws are followed by the justice system in the way they were intended. That’s power. Accept no substitutes.

It’s hard to get that kind of power, and, in spite of some notable wins, there still isn’t a truly feminist nation anywhere on earth. What would we need to get there?

I’m going to talk about US national politics specifically, but I think this would translate to other contexts. I want to talk about scale and power in a complex democracy. To nudge a deeper conversation about what it means to build a movement that would be big enough to have a major impact on national politics.

So, there are about 322 million people in the US. About 126 million of them voted in our last presidential election in 2012. It’ll be more this time, but take it as a minimum that if you want to change the country at the national level, expect to need to motivate over 65 million likely voters.

That 2012 election cost $7 billion, by the way. That’s the cost of a media and organizing circus that gets 126 million people to show up and mark a ballot.

The last midterm congressional elections in 2014 cost about half that, at $3.7 billion, and represented the contributions of fewer than 670,000 people.

It’s hard to find even 100,000 people who’ll give you money, but how much direct support would you really need?

There’s been research done on the subject. Happily, peaceful changes of power are more effective than violent ones, and require less of the population’s direct support to manage. Let’s presume that we are, in fact, talking solely about nonviolent actions.

With the support of 3.5 to five per cent of the population, you have a shot at effecting a peaceful change of government.

Three and a half to five percent of the US population is about 11.25 to 16 million people. Let’s say we need a minimum of about 12 million people, to round off.

There’s already a left­-leaning organization in the US that’s roughly that big in terms of directly organized support: the Democratic Party. Peaceful changes of government are their mission, and they succeed against the opposition a middling amount of the time.

Not to get carried away with a model, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) also has about as many members as this calculation says you need, but they’re organized at the local level mostly for the purpose of affecting workplaces. The success of strategic, conservative attacks on unions at the state level helps make the point that although we can enjoy playing with these numbers, there isn’t a magic formula for winning in politics that will work every time, against everyone.

In 2014, the last big year for ballot initiatives, the average cost of a gathering a single signature was $2.27. So if you want 10,000 good contacts ­­and assume there will be spoilage or error, so pay for 13,000,­­ that will cost around $30,000.

An in­-person, paid signature-gathering effort to make contact with roughly 12 million potential supporters would cost about 30 million dollars. But how many times have you followed up with an organization whose petition you signed one time on the street?

Say you want more contact information to stay in touch. Asking for more information cuts responses and increases costs. You’ll need a data management plan to keep track of it all. Not everyone is going to want to hear from you again, or they’ll move, or change their email, etc. If it takes an optimistic 10 contact names to get one new enthusiastic supporter, your in­-person contact effort balloons from costing 30 million to 300 million dollars.

If you had the money to gather names in record time, it would still take years to turn that into a political program your members felt engaged in and connected to.

You can, of course, cut costs through volunteer efforts. As a former Jehovah’s Witness, I know it’s possible to do all­ year, all­ volunteer, in person canvasses. But realistically, you aren’t going to get all your members to put in 20 hours each, every month because they’re afraid of what Brother Smith thinks. You don’t want that, anyway. Trust me. Neither does Brother Smith, who left to run a boutique fashion business.

Luckily, you don’t have to build your own political­ party-sized group from scratch if you can either join someone else’s efforts or simply build a sufficiently large coalition to nudge another group’s policy and leadership selection efforts. This is a less expensive (but still complex) task.

Remember though, that any organizations large enough to influence a few percentage points of the population took years of work and negotiation to get there. Wanting them to change overnight because you have a new idea — one they might have even tried — isn’t a democratic practice itself. Convincing other people to agree with you is time consuming, but the alternative is neither democratic nor representative.

Then there’s national representation. California, my home state, has a population of 39 million people. That’s over a 10th of the total US population — bigger than all of Canada, which has only around 35 million citizens. All those Californians get two Senators. North Dakota has fewer than 800,000 people, and also gets two Senators. There’s nothing “equal” about both states having two Senators out of 100, but it’s what we have.

So national politics is also about location. Four million supporters in California would make a big impact on state politics, but their federal influence wouldn’t extend much past the limits of the California congressional delegation. If you got your desired 12 million US supporters all in California, your national reach would still be small.

If you get a candidate you like in the office of the presidency, it takes 2.6 million people to run the executive branch. Aside from White House staff and part-­time appointments, a new president will appoint about 3,000 people to manage those employees in line with the policies of the new administration.

Do you know 3,000 people qualified to run a government for a nation of 322 million? This is a considerable and challenging problem, which requires a network standing ready with recommendations.

Can’t just anyone do those jobs? No.

When the Coalition Provisional Authority was in charge of Iraq, ideologues with no relevant experience were chosen to run the stock exchange, the national budget, the health care system, and set up new cellular service. It was a disaster.

In a twist that became clear recently, dismissing the whole Iraqi government, right down to the military and police force is part of why ISIS/Daesh exists.

In two decades, Iraq has gone from being a modern, multicultural nation with an oppressive but functional government, to being a permanent civil war venue that’s worse in almost every way.

The intricacy and density of modern, industrialized society is too great to safely smash a bunch of stuff and hope everyone rises to the occasion.

Aside from the presidency and Congress, there are over 500,000 elected officials in the United States. If you’re stumped finding 3,000 appointees for the executive branch, try coming up candidates for those positions, or inspiring that many people to run for them under your banner.

No one personally knows 500,000 people who want to run for office. That’s what political parties are for.

There are the courts. You can pass great laws and they must still be carried out. In the US, rape laws may be carried out by judges who have appalling views on rape or an alarming degree of sympathy for rapists. It’s clear that sexual violence won’t be ended by showing up every two to four years to vote mainly for federal officeholders.

Fixing only one aspect of society, like the US criminal justice system is a task beyond the reach of any single elected office, as are many other institutions that affect women.

None of these issues are unsolvable, though dialogue can’t do the whole job.

Where’s your supporter list? What’s your outreach plan? How will you get cooperation from other groups? These are questions that should be in the back of everyone’s mind when people talk about movements.

Building for effective, long-­term change is hard — if it weren’t, everyone would do it. But they don’t. I haven’t. Though the people who instituted the laws we live by managed to organize successive networks of mutual support that competed to create our current social framework, so it is possible.

All that would be easier, you might think, if someone handed you a million dollars to go do whatever you want. But they won’t. If anyone hands you a million dollars, it will be to do whatever they want. And the 62 people with half the world’s wealth aren’t going to help us storm their castles.

I’d like to see more people who are committed to the liberation of women from male oppression, and who have an interest in institution building, go out and build more institutions from the movements they’re part of. Join them, start them, nurture them. Learn from the many ways in which movements can and do go wrong, or are thinking about reorganizing, and try again.

Natasha Chart is an online organizer and feminist living in the United States.

Natasha Chart

Natasha Chart is an online organizer and feminist living in the United States. She does not recant her heresy.