Why Campaigns Won’t Save Us
A Post-General Election Reflection by Jackie Le
It’s November 2nd. The general election. I clicked ‘Join’ on the Zoom link for my campaign’s thank-you event at 6:30pm on a Tuesday school night. Everyone wore a small smile, but I could see the exhaustion evident in their brows even through the screen. Our adult staff, along with the youth team and supporters, offered their parting words of encouragement to our candidate, Shukri Olow, and the campaign. The meeting was comforting; it felt like a warm group hug.
8pm hits. The light from my district laptop was brighter than the sky outside. It’s a difficult change from the warm nights of summer when I first started canvassing to now being back to school in the fall. The results were in. Frantically refreshing the results’ website I’d already opened in the morning, I summoned the energy I used for clicking on that Zoom link to type “king county election results” into the Google search bar.
I had opened Pandora's box. I started to scroll down using my thumbs, which felt heavy with anxiety. I looked forward to the day I could witness my neighbor’s walk of shame as they hurriedly yanked out their Bruce Harrell and Ann Davison signs for months. No such luck. I stared at the margin between Shukri and who she challenged, my eyes tracing each digit of the counted votes. I tried to calm myself. Progressive voters vote later. These are not the final results. I scrolled down further. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, Nikkita, Lorena, Joe. All of whom had less votes than who they ran against. The thought of our definitely-not-progressive opponents having extravagant election parties while the only closure I was left with at that moment was our loss exactly enumerated on the King County elections website made me livid. I went through the five stages of grief during the three days leading up to the finalized results.
On that last day, I began to mourn. I called friends. I texted numerous group chats. I wrote “Seattle election results” as a thorn of the week for my AP Environmental Science class’ warmup. I took longer (and hotter) showers than usual. l couldn’t help imagining what our win would feel like, look like, or be like. I cheered when I saw posts of progressives who won, and I forced myself to refrain from checking the social media of elected candidates I didn’t support. I was homesick. I found a family in a campaign that has since ended.
The first Saturday after the election was the first I haven’t canvassed in 4 months. I can only describe it as feeling incomplete - a feeling further heightened by the election results themselves. I attribute the lessened mobility in my body to a significant decrease in my steps for the day. My screen time is no longer dominated by MiniVAN. Using that empty block of time I now had for things other than canvassing felt unsettling.
I mean, two losing campaigns in a row. A blow first dealt in August, another for good measure in November. Back-to-back. Ouch. Where is the change I fought so hard for? Is it tangible from the days and nights I’ve canvassed in the heat and rain? Or, should I, and we, care less about elections?
Hear me out.
Right now, campaign work is - at the very least - incredibly draining.
Expending all of our energy for a campaign we are ideologically connected to + a tight deadline + labor with emotional attachment + insecurity of employment post-election = burnout
In addition to burnout, there are two results that can play out:
A progressive win. It eventually gets diluted as the candidate enters the electoral system and less change happens than we had previously anticipated because most policies won’t be policies if they challenge the system where they are allowed to exist in the first place. We’re still burnt out because we’ve had our limits pushed during the campaign, and energy can’t be fully replenished with a win.
A progressive loss. This is realistically more likely given how electoralism is still part of the establishment, how progressives aren’t funded by corporate donors (except for the self-proclaimed “progressives”), etc. With this comes an intense grieving period and strain on mental and emotional health. Our happiness is often tied to whether our candidate gets through, and we tend to place the blame on ourselves as not worthwhile if our candidate doesn’t make it through.
Either way, these outcomes place an immense amount of stress on campaign organizers after the amount of energy they’ve rapidly expended. And we’re still unemployed for the holidays.
Not winning does not discount the incredible work youth teams have done (that some have elected amazing candidates with!). Even without our candidates being elected, I know that my youth teams have accomplished major things. The youth team for Dr. Shukri Olow’s campaign, a King County Council candidate in District 5 and South King County challenging an 8-year incumbent to be the first Black woman elected to a county council in Washington state, was run by mostly South King County BIPOC youth who were paid a living wage as the backbone of our campaign’s canvassing efforts and given equal leverage in campaign decision making. We knocked on over 15,000 doors and connected with more than 30,000 voters over the course of several months. Compensating a whole team of BIPOC youth in campaigns is already something incredibly monumental, and, in my opinion, as worthwhile as electing one BIPOC progressive candidate into office. We’ve set a precedent for future campaigns to follow in our footsteps and filled the ballot with progressives from even the more rural counties in Washington.
The Andrew Grant Houston youth team was one of the first to be unionized with IUPAT 116, and paid leads a living wage of $18/hr, as well as transitional pay post-election. We helped create a campaign that allowed a millennial, queer, Black, Latino, architect newcomer to the electoral system to be competitive in Seattle’s mayoral race. Ace, with a $0 net worth, was the first candidate to reach the $400,000 fundraising cap out of more than a dozen other candidates. Despite not making it past the primary, we set the foundation for other Seattle progressive candidates to build their platforms. Many former AGH youth team members merged into other youth teams where the candidates did make it past, and ensured that the campaign fight didn’t end until the election did.
Many progressives still got elected despite progressive losses in Seattle. The Bothell Youth Team elected the entire Bothell slate of Bothell City Council candidates consisting of Jenne Alderks, a queer parent of autistic children, Han Tran, a Vietnamese-American refugee, and Rami al-Kabra, a Muslim Palestinian refugee, who all ran on a platform of racial, housing, economic, and climate justice that is backed by their education and experience in advocacy, business, engineering, and policy. Their win is a clear testament to how we are more powerful as a collective.
And we didn’t see just youth-elected candidates, but young candidates themselves. Josh Binda, a 22-year-old Liberian American social justice activist was elected to the Lynnwood City Council, making him the youngest BIPOC elected official in Washington state. Mohammed Abdi, now a Tukwila City Councilman, is a 24-year-old Somali community leader, making history as the youngest elected Somali official in Washington’s history. Port Commissioners 31-year-old Hamdi Mohammed and 33-year-old Toshiko Grace Hasegawa have been elected to their positions after running against 53-year-old Stephanie Bowman and 64-year-old Peter Steinbrueck.
Every single one of us will go on to create change post-election. Voting happens twice a year. There is organizing to be done every single day. There is always food, funds, and knowledge to distribute. Start small. Local, community impact will always be larger than on a state, or national level. And even if we are angry about the election results we fought hard to match our favor, that does not mean we stop organizing.
So: what would happen if we spent the energy we used for change outside of electoralism?
We would have way less burnout. Doing smaller increments of still impactful work means we aren’t taxing our physical and mental selves to meet a set deadline in a small span of time. We can adjust what we contribute depending on our current emotional and monetary means.
Our change would have much more of an impact. Trying to organize within a system that limits change, especially anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, abolitionist change, doesn’t work, or works much less effectively.
So, let this election be a lesson for all of us. You didn’t have to work on a campaign to be disheartened.
Even though we should lessen the importance of electoralism, youth should still be compensated for their significant role in driving laws left and securing their place in the media. When youth organize electorally now, it builds a pathway for us to hold office later as adults. Better than that, we are given the agency to make change now. We need autonomy to have an impact. If we’re limited by working without compensation, our capacity to actually impact policy lessens. Youth are the ones being the most impacted by legislation because of the years we’ll live later, so those legislative decisions should center youth.
We should continue fighting for change, but with the countless people next to us, instead of with the few people above us. Campaigns might not save us, but community will.