When Culture Eats Politics for Breakfast
How the Biden administration is hoping #WeCanDoThis will be a harbinger not just for COVID-19 vaccinations but for its larger project of rebuilding America.
The premise of The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s 2020 book, is that for a significant span of the 20th century, American public life was increasingly characterized by a “we are all in this together spirit” and a culture of community rather than individualism. Economic equality rose over the first six and a half decades of the century, albeit not equitably for women or racial minorities, but the overall trend was positive. Then, starting around 1970, the trend reversed, and for the last 50 years we’ve been living through what observers like Paul Krugman and Tim Noah have labeled the Great Divergence, a great resorting of who wins and loses that has valued self-interest over social obligation and resulted in the greatest concentration of wealth seen in our lifetimes.
The question of our time is whether we can shift the zeitgeist again, away from Putnam and Garrett call the “I” culture that has dominated public life since the 1970s and back towards a “we” culture of collective vision and purpose. Business management guru Peter Drucker once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” to convey how an organization’s internal culture often stymies the best plans of mice and men, and I’ve always been a fan of the corollary: Culture eats politics for breakfast, too. Culture shapes how we think and behave. It informs our sense of what is right. The deep effects of culture on the making of common sense is why there’s been a mini-boom in the political organizing world in recent years around the concept of “narrative change.”
We are in the middle of a pivotal moment for America. It’s not just that the last four years were pervaded by the most selfish and venal administration in memory. Democratic administrations too, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, also embraced neo-liberal notions the centered “I” solutions like letting the market run rampant and imposing “personal responsibility” on poor mothers with children over “we” solutions like higher taxes or tougher antitrust enforcement. The Biden administration is on a different track.
Last week, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy unveiled the launched of the COVID-19 Community Corps with a virtual welcome event steered and cheered by Vice President Kamala Harris. The effort is focused on the biggest and most pressing problem facing the country, which is getting enough people vaccinated as fast as possible to both avert a fourth big wave of infections and to also set the country firmly on a path toward reopening. It was interesting to see who Harris and Murthy brought out to represent the key sectors of civil society that they’ve been enlisting in the “We Can Do This” campaign as trusted messengers who can hopefully convince their fellow Americans of the need to get vaccinated and save lives.
First up was Dr. Reed Tuxon, a former public health commissioner for Washington DC, who is a co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID, who described how their outreach efforts had helped shift vaccination hesitancy in the Black community from 70% last fall to just 28% now. (Overall vaccine hesitancy has dropped nationwide from 32% expressing doubts in January to 25% in late March.) Neil Bradley of the US Chamber of Commerce talked about their “Rally for Recovery” program that has signed up 400 businesses that employ 4 million workers, promising them time off to get vaccinated. Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU, talked about how their 2 million members were being engaged. Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau, pledged the involvement of their 6 million members. And Hyepin Im, head of the FACE, the Faith and Community Empowerment coalition, said they had 35,000 leaders in their database that they were working with.
The full list of COVID-19 Community Corps member organizations and individual leaders is probably one of the most substantial collection of grass-tops leadership that the US government has convened in a long time. In addition to key public health and medical groups, labor, veterans, faith communities, rural and agriculture interest groups, LGBTQ+ groups, native and tribal groups, Latino, Black and AAPI institutions, most of the American sports entertainment world--baseball, soccer, football, NASCAR, the PGA and even professional wrestling’s leading industry groups are all on board. Curiously, Hollywood is notably absent beyond the inclusion of the actor’s union (perhaps someone in the White House is aware how polarizing Hollywood celebrities have become?), but so too are civic sectors like colleges and university associations, librarians, and consumer groups.
If there is a “we” culture that can be rebuilt in America, this is (most of) the infrastructure that could build it. In her remarks, Vice President Harris clearly signaled that she hopes that this initiative might be the harbinger of a bigger wave of public engagement, one that could “accelerate” and “leap frog” broader improvements in the provision of public health. But judging from the usage of the hashtag “#WeCanDoThis” on social media, we still have a long way to go. The “I” culture of American consumerism, the individualism of American lifestyles, our physical isolation in gated communities and subdivisions, the decline of membership in faith and civic organizations, the random violence of American gun culture—all of these social constructs of our lived experience tend to make us more distrustful, more inward looking and less confident about our collective ability to work together. So what happens with the #WeCanDoThis campaign will be a bellwhether.
-Related: If you need a reminder of how different things could be with national leadership that took the pandemic seriously from the start, watch this short side-by-side comparison of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and the UK’s Boris Johnson.
Tech and Organizing
-If you are looking to advertise next to YouTube videos using phrases like Black power and Black Lives Matter, Google’s algorithm won’t show you any, but if you search for White power and White Lives Matter, it will show you millions, The Markup’s Leon Yin and Aaron Sankin report. After being alerted to the comparison, Google responded by blocking some hate terms but also by adding more social justice terms to its blocklist, including antiracism, “say their names” and “Black is beautiful.”
-DoorDash delivery workers are trying to develop the collective muscle to raise their pay by organizing a 40,000-person Facebook group called #DeclineNow to encourage each other to reject delivery requests that pay too poorly, Brody Ford reports for Bloomberg Businessweek. When one driver declines a delivery, the platform will offer it to another for slightly more money. Dave Levy and Nikos Kanelopoulos, the founders, first met as Uber drivers and have hosted get-together of fellow gig workers to compare notes. They are urging members of #DeclineNow to reject any delivery that doesn’t pay at least $7, more than double the current rate of $3.
-Attend: Organizing 2.0, the long-running premier skills training conference for organizers, communicators, techies and activists, is coming up April 16-17. I attended last year’s virtual convening and it was excellent. Register now.
This is Civic Tech
-Waldo Jacquith and Robin Carnahan have written a fascinating report for the Beeck Center on how government agencies quietly have been building and sharing software, often by forming nonprofit cooperatives to steward the work.
-Okta, the security company, has made $1.6 million in new grants for its Nonprofit Technology Initiative, benefiting groups like Fast Forward, TechSoup, Simply Secure and fellows including Amy Sample Ward of NTEN.
-Geoffrey Fowler of The Washington Post does a deep dive into the usability and privacy issues with New York’s digital “vaccine passport” with the help of civic technologists Albert Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Noel Hidalgo of BetaNYC and Cyd Harrell, author of A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide.