Monday, February 27, 2006

Avoiding Aspiring Politicians - César

I have often heard young people say that they “want to go into politics.” In fact, on more occasions than I can remember people have asked me whether I “want to go into politics.”

I’m fascinated by politics – electoral, legislative, personal, and all other kinds of politics. I know that when people talk about “going into politics” they refer only to electoral and legislative politics. Nonetheless, I prefer the definition of politics as a “process by which collective decisions are made within groups.”

Politics happens every day, everywhere, by all kinds of people. Unfortunately, the type of politics practiced by people who “want to go into politics” is the kind practiced in majestic buildings ornately furnished and filled with the trappings of power. Electoral and legislative politics are isolating, removing politicians from the stirrings of the world outside their privileged positions.

So why do some people “want to go into politics”? Who grows up wanting to go into politics?

Electoral and legislative politics should not be something one plans to enter; it shouldn’t be something that one sets down in her mental timeline as a marker of success to be reached by a certain age; it shouldn’t be something for which a person creates a multi-step plan to personally reach.

In Western nations, the role of the politician is not simply burdened with a great responsibility to serve one’s constituents. In the USA, as in other countries, the politician is handed a great deal of power, influence, and legitimacy. The enormity of the attributes with which we, as a nation, entrust our politicians requires that our politicians be capable of wisely wielding such privilege. Needless to say, even a cursory look at the ranks of our city councils, state houses, and Congress throughout the decades indicates that our politicians are often less than capable of wisely wielding their privilege.

I am immediately skeptical of anyone who admits to a desire to enter politics. Politics should only be entered to push a particular goal or set of goals. For example, Ron Dellums, the former Congressperson, was essentially drafted into running for city council by people with whom he was engaged in civil rights work because they wanted to move their goals from the streets onto the local decision making body. They thought that legislative politics was simply the best way to do that. Had there been a better option, they would have taken that path.

As a result, I can’t support someone seeking elected office who admits to having aspired to hold elected office for years prior to jumping into a race. A rush to enter elected office suggests a desire to embrace power rather than a desire to engage in the politics of democratic governance.

Aspiring To Be A Politician - Carlos

I'm one of those kids Cesar talks about who used to say that "I want to go into politics." I doubt that remains true today, but it was a dream; more than just a dream, it was something to aspire to. You see, although now I realize that politicos are regular people, like you and me, when Cesar and I were growing up, I viewed politicians in the same light as I viewed teachers, lawyers, doctors, and bankers. They were people who lived in nice neighborhoods, had good jobs, and were educated.

Growing up in the barrio we didn't see many politicos. They appeared on t.v. and we heard about them during election time. I'm not sure what they did, but I knew they were doing something, that if one day I worked hard enough, I could achieve. Right or wrong, that's what I thought.

A perfect example of a man who wanted to be a politico is Rafael Rodriguez. It must have been in 2000, when Rafael Rodriguez became the Mayor of El Cenizo, TX. El Cenizo is a small pueblo south of Laredo, TX. A bunch of raza, many w/o papers, live there. Mayor Rodriguez, a man who wanted to become a politician, became the mayor of the city and decided that he was going to hold his City Council meetings in Spanish.

Mayor Rodriguez had a dream, he became a politician, and ignited a controversy because he wanted to make sure that other residents of the town got involved in local politics. He used his power as a politico to bring politics to the people. He had a dream to become a politician and he made the most of it.

It's good to have a dream. Why not want to become a politician, a lawyer, a doctor, or a soldier? Why not.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Working Within What We Have - Carlos

I believe, that in order for people of color and other marginalized communities to get ahead, we have to work within the system. It's simple, during my days as a MEChistA, I realized that the reason we never got anything accomplished, was because nobody wanted to work with us (plus, everyone had strong personalities and were not afraid to voice their opinions - a good thing). After exploring more, I realized that it was better for me to branch out and work with community organizations who were using the system we have in place, to try to make a difference.

Here's the way I look at it. We have a couple of parties in place in this country. The Democratic Party, in my view, has always been more progressive in helping folks of color. However misguided that view may be, I believe it. I don't think they've done enough and I think Republicans have done less, but the Democratic party has helped us get some political clout.

However, I am a strong proponent of not only two parties, but three, four, or as many as we need. For instance, when Jose Angel Gutierrez and the Raza Unida Party came around, they were working within the system, albeit on the outskirts. The movement led to changes.

Now, as we face and extremely conservative movement, we must join forces to make sure that our progressive ideals and principles are not displaces, for lack of unity. I can't ask everyone to be part of the Demorcatic Party, because I'm not even a member, but I do ask people to find a cause and work within our establish system to make change. Now, sometimes, we have to go outside the lines, but for now, if we want to make any changes in the political system, we have to work with what we've got.

If we want water for the Colonias, we have to lobby. If we want health insurance for our kids, we have to vote. If we want to stop the War, we have to get this President out. That's the way I see it.

Working Within the System is Good, but Not Nearly Enough - César Responds

I think Carlos and I agree on this one. Working within the electoral system is important; it’s critical; it’s absolutely necessary. To paraphrase José Angel Gutiérrez when asked why La Raza Unida decided to take over the elected positions in Crystal City, Texas: the government is the best source of money for us to do the things we were already trying to do but didn’t have enough money to do.

Yes, it’s that simple. Governments have a steady source of revenue via taxes and a lawful right to do with that money just about whatever they damn well please. I’ve worked in non-governmental organizations (NGOs, the label that the rest of the world uses to describe what we know as “non-profits”) enough to know that money is generally the biggest obstacle. And when it’s not the biggest obstacle it’s right near the top of the list. Even if there’s enough money this year for what we want to do the question always arises, what about next year or five years from now? So yes, I think we need to take over the government. In fact, I think we need to do more – we need to become the government.

Do I think the Democratic Party is the key for people of color or poor people to get political power? Absolutely not.

Carlos’ premise that Democrats have always been “more progressive in helping folks of color” isn’t entirely accurate.

Thinking back to the days of Lincoln it was the Republicans who helped pass the Reconstruction Amendments to the constitution. Then there are the days of Strom Thurmond who still holds the record for the Senate’s longest filibuster. As a Democrat, he tried to stop passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 by speaking for over 24 hours! Eventually he realized he was human and stopped. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, signed the bill into law. Let’s not forget that it was Bill Clinton who signed the 1996 Death Penalty and Anti-terrorism Act that expanded the list of federal crimes punishable by the death penalty beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (well, beyond mine). There’s no question that the people who are most often killed by the government are poor people and people of color. I suppose I should also mention that spending half a trillion dollars on needless wars takes that money from social programs that poor people and people of color throughout the country desperately need. And the Democrats, like the Whigs who mouthed off against the war against México in 1845, keep dumping more money right along with the Republicans. The list goes on and on, but I’ll stop there.

While I agree that the Democratic Party in the last 40 years has been less willing to vilify poor people and people of color, I would not put my trust in them. In fact, I wouldn’t put my trust in any political party – not even La Raza Unida, the Green Party, or anyone else no matter how much I like their platform.

Electoral politics is inherently limited. It can only accomplish so much given the constraints imposed by our electoral and legislative processes. Whether that’s good or bad is a different conversation. For there to be truly significant positive change in the lives of poor people there has to be a broad-based popular social movement pressuring legislators. Poor people, by definition, will never have the money to buy politicians and elections like rich people do. We can’t en masse max out our political contribution limit, buy TV and radio air time, or pay for snazzy media consultants. No, not even MoveOn can do this. However, we can outnumber the people who have more money and worse politics than us.

But organizing work doesn’t happen inside a political party or around an election. It happens at the community level on a daily basis. It happens by constructing sustainable institutions that empower people on an individual level. A community comprised of individuals who are confident enough to speak out, make demands, and organized enough to create the world they want to live in, even if on a small and temporary scale, is a community that stops taking crap from other people. A chain of such communities would not be beholden to any political party. Nonetheless, it would wield political power because it could mobilize people to vote and when voting didn’t work it could mobilize people to take things into their own hands.

So, yeah, don’t drop out of the electoral process, but also don’t rely on that slow, costly, and entrenched process to fix our problems