For progressive Democrats, activism always feels like an uphill climb. Because it is. (More)

Climbing the Hill, Part I: Gravity Sucks

This week Morning Feature looks at the final month of the 2014 midterm campaign. Today we acknowledge that, for progressive Democrats, grassroots activism feels like and is an uphill climb. Tomorrow we’ll look at attitudes and strategies that make the uphill climb easier. Saturday we’ll conclude with why it’s so important to climb this hill.

“You stop having fun and you stop being fun to be with”

A positive attitude goes a long way, but sometimes it actually helps to drop the brave public persona and be honest. Sooner or later, activism becomes exhausting:

It’s there physically in a lot of us. Our skin’s pale, there are bags under our eyes. We’re fatter or thinner than we habitually are, or were last time we were happy. We lose our tempers really, really fast. We talk to people with moderate politics as if they are evil or as if they are stupid.

We’ve all been there. Waking up in the morning feels like a chore, especially if the day’s plan involves canvassing or phone banking or other campaign work. Other activities that you usually enjoy feel flat and lifeless. Your conversations with friends have long silences. You’re sick of politics and sick of fundraising emails and sick of the news and sick of trying to stay positive and upbeat and engaged. You can’t for the election to be over – win or lose – just so it’s over.

It spreads to the people you know and love. Your spouse or partner or kids or friends avoid you, or avoid talking about news or politics around you, because they’re sick of being snapped at. As a pamphlet on “Sustainable Activism” puts it:

Basically life goes sour, you lose your spark, you stop having fun and you stop being fun to be with.

“Anything short of that….”

Maybe your spouse or partner or kids or friends tell you to take a break. As if. Don’t they realize you’re only halfway through your canvassing packet and you just got an email about another phone bank? Haven’t they heard about the latest poll? You know, the one at the start of the email that ends “We need you to make the difference!” right before the “Donate Now!” button. But you just donated two days ago and all you got was an automated “Thanks!” And an avalanche of emails asking for more more more….

And because you’re an activist – damn it – you can’t take a break:

But for the activists out there, our job is to confront specific issues without the luxury of flipping the channel. Our work, whether paid or volunteer, forces us to take on the wrongs in the world. After some time this can lead to frustration, mental and physical exhaustion, and even a sense that we are struggling without gain. Simply put, we suffer from activist burnout.

I was thinking the other day about this sense of burnout and did a Google search only to be stunned by the number of blogs and articles online that have touched on this subject. Angry Black–White Girl writes, “Being an activist for me has always come with the expectation [of] giving everything possible for the movement, and anything short of that being taken as a reflection that one is not truly ‘down for the cause.’”

“Disaster news … Conflict news”

And then there’s the news. It’s bad. I mean, really bad. ISIS. Ebola. Israel and Palestine. Russia and Ukraine. The Secret Service. Oh, and Republicans are still holding hearings on Benghazi. Plus cops shooting people almost every day.

You’d almost think the news media were all Republicans, although they’re not. But they are biased in favor of news that attracts viewers:

Although the size and scope of the American news media have changed dramatically since the 1980s, audience news interests and preferences have remained surprisingly static. Of the two major indices of interest that are the focus of this report – overall level of interest in news and preferences for various types of news – neither has changed very much.
The index reveals that Disaster News – reports about catastrophes, man-made or natural – garners the greatest interest. Money News – stories about employment, inflation, and prices, especially gasoline prices – ranks second overall. At the other end of the topic spectrum, Foreign News – news from abroad unlinked to the U.S. – engenders the least interest. Tabloid News – stories about entertainers, celebrities and personalities – does almost as poorly. Conflict News – stories about war, terrorism, and social violence – consistently elicits much more news attention than does Tabloid or even Political News.

As the Columbia Journalism Review’s Curtis Brainard summarized it:

The dip in public attention during the last decade of the twentieth century was likely the result of relative peace and economic prosperity in the United States, he wrote: “The ’80s were more ‘interesting’; the ’90s, less so; the ’00s have been most interesting so far.”

“The degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat”

And that’s good news for conservatives, because research shows conservatives are more likely to focus on threats:

Although political views have been thought to arise largely from individuals’ experiences, recent research suggests that they may have a biological basis. We present evidence that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

And more recent studies echo those findings. That threat-driven conservative worldview may have an evolutionary basis, as Chris Mooney explains:

In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets- centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns – would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.

The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. “One possibility,” they write, “is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene,” when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed.

“Maybe it is time for the political class to panic, too”

That carries through into how people see the world today, as evolutionary anthropologist Avi Tuschman explained in Our Political Nature:

If, as conservatives tend to believe, human nature is fundamentally competitive and self-interest prevails, then people live in a dangerous world. The “dangerous world” metaphor has long been associated with right-wing ideological views. In the last couple of centuries, though, this metaphor has taken the form of folk-Darwinism. University of Michigan philosopher Peter Railton has dubbed this worldview “your great-grandfather’s Social Darwinism,” in which “all creatures great and small [are] pitted against one another in a life-or-death struggle to survive and reproduce.

And the Washington Free Beacon’s Matt Continetti made exactly that case last week:

The system can withstand only so many shocks. For the last two years it has suffered nothing but blows, traumas, national and international concussions. The response by our government has been denial and delusion. But that has further alienated the public, and it won’t be long before things get really weird. Maybe it is time for the political class to panic, too.

The National Review’s Jim Geraghty jumped on the panic bandwagon

There are four possible explanations for Obama’s perpetual, “relax, there’s no real crisis here, we’ve got this” tone, no matter the circumstance…

— and concluded that either: (1) President Obama is incapable of seeing a crisis; (2) President Obama knows his poll numbers will collapse if he lets people know how awful things really are; (3) President Obama had a psychological breakdown; or, (4) He’s too wedded to previous positions to change his mind.

Well maybe … or (5) the world isn’t as falling-off-a-cliff-with-your-hair-on-fire dangerous as the media and conservatives think.

But when the world feels dangerous, more people watch the news. And, coincidentally, when the world feels dangerous, conservative policies seem more attractive. So the news acts like gravity, sucking progressives’ strength and energy as we slog up that long, steep hill, until we’re ready to just give up and let November 4th come and go because dammit we’ve been doing and doing and doing and we’re just worn out.

That exhaustion is real, and acknowledging it matters. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to get beyond it.


Happy Thursday!