I’m one of many writers who has offered a detailed critique of Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s politics. I also joined other men in speaking out about his views in Washington, DC. In addition to being wrong about civil rights legislation in Canada and elsewhere, Peterson’s individualistic worldview fails to address real-world problems of economic inequality and discrimination. Even when asked what public policies he might support to expand opportunities for young people today, he has little to offer other than his own self-help advice, which he’s codified in the best-selling 12 Rules for Life.
Progressives are dismissive of Peterson’s rules and self-help texts generally.
While reactions like this are funny, we shouldn’t be dismissive of self-help. Yes, it’s easy to make fun of rules like “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” or Peterson’s admonition that his fans clean their rooms. But people really do need advice in life. Not all of us have role models who can teach us things that a lot of better-off folks tend to take for granted or as signs of a good upbringing. And self-help books are among the most popular forms of non-fiction in America.
In his case, Peterson’s fan base is largely comprised of young, disaffected white men who are looking for an explanation as to why they’re not better off than their fathers and grandfathers. Peterson’s anti-civil-rights rhetoric encourages them to blame women and people of color for getting a bigger share of economic opportunities, which plays into what progressives leaders like Rev. Dr. Barber call “the trick.”
For progressives, solutions to inequality and discrimination are almost always based in policy prescriptions. But what do we have to share with people at a day-to-day individual level? Debunking Peterson and other members of the “Intellectual Dark Web” is not enough. Progressives need an alternative vision that makes sense to disaffected people and to ourselves.
America’s greatest civic institutions—our churches, our community halls, our unions halls and, yes, even our bowling allies—are in decline and we often don’t know our own neighbors. So many of us are isolated and in an economy that grinds us down, we barely have time to create the community and social bonds we need to thrive. A new generation is forging those communities on and offline. Some of it is strange and ugly. Some of it is inspiring. Our ability to build community is critical to thriving as individuals. As some self-help gurus have put it, we are the average of who we surround ourselves with. If we all grow and thrive together, we all grow as individuals, too.
Importantly, we have to connect individual actions—and the choices we make in our everyday lives—to broader political goals. Solving climate change, for instance, doesn’t just mean changing lightbulbs as an individual consumer. It means changing leaders as a voter and political actor. So we need to ground our advocacy in the day-to-day experiences we have in our communities. And that means seeing practical life advice as a form of mutual aid to our communities, in which we can offer a vision for what a more progressive life and a more progressive society could look like.
So here then, is my attempt to offer such a vision.
12 Rules for a Progressive Life
1. Know your geography
We’re all from somewhere, but understanding what that where is and grounding ourselves in the history of our society gives us a deeper sense of how our economics and sense of justice has changed over time.
My hometown of Forked River, New Jersey is part of the Great Coastal Plain. Lenni Lanape Indians passed through its shores. Patriots fought Revolutionary War skirmishes with Loyalists in nearby Waretown. The iron bogs flourished, then declined when mining opened up in Pennsylvania. The nuclear power plant is one of dozens that anchored local suburbs with well-funded schools. As the state’s cost living increased and unions lost power, we started shedding people and jobs. Opiate addiction stretches from those shores through Appalachia and the Industrial Midwest. The gutted factories and fallow farms create a geography of loss.
America is a settler colony and each band of settlers brought with them their own culture, their own values, and their own economics. We are their descendents, even those of us who can’t trace our blood lines to the colonists. We take on the character of our places, slowly, surely, because on a swiftly tilting planet, geography is still destiny.
One of America’s founding myths is that we can escape our history and start anew. But history is inescapable. It is living and breathing in us every day. I live in D.C. now. I’ve been to the quarry in Virginia where enslaved men cut the stones that made the monuments. More than 200 years later, few places in America feature the wealth disparity that we have here. The geography of old alleyway housing, old slave quarters, old plantation houses, is still alive. The working class black and white neighborhoods in Swampoodle and Southwest were cleared to make room for rail cars and interstates. Those scars are barely starting to heal.
To my west, Robert E. Lee’s mansion overlooks the Potomac, surrounded by war dead, taken over by a Union general who knew it would be the final insult to the Confederate leader. To my east is another house on a hill looking over the Anacostia. It belonged to Fredrick Douglas, a former enslaved man who would work his whole life to liberate others, ensuring that the end of the Civil War would bring about not just a permanent end to slavery, but a guaranteeing of citizenship rights to former slaves.
Our history is so recent. The last Civil War veteran didn’t pass away until 1956. That’s not a typo. Your parents were probably born before the last Civil War veteran died.
America is constantly renewing itself, promising that we can live in an eternal present. We can’t. There is no dividing line between the past and the present. It’s all one timeline. Our present is our history, and it’s a history we make and remake every day. There’s no guilt that comes with understanding our past and in seeing the hard work and choices that went into improving our society and making it more just.
What can you do to learn more about your local history?
- Read up. Local libraries are the best place to go to learn about your city and neighborhood.
- Read American Nations by Colin Woodard to understand the patterns of settlement that still affect us today.
- Learn about your neighborhood. Find old property records. Learn about who built the houses, the places of business, and the places of worship where you live.
- Learn someone else’s history. Read oral histories from former enslaved people, from the women’s suffrage movement, from the Civil Rights era, from people who have lived and survived in authoritarian regimes. Cultivate deep empathy through history.
2. Understand your class
Americans like to pretend anyone can make it here. We celebrate the lucky few whose fortune and dedication catapult them from poverty to wealth. As the American novelist John Steinbeck put it, “…we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
I grew up working class. I went to college, moved to a city, and moved up a rung on the economic ladder. I’m middle class now. I’m wildly lucky because I graduated college right before the Great Recession. When I was born, the ladder was easier to climb. Now each rung has gotten steeper and steeper as more wealth has gone to the top 1%.
Social mobility — someone’s prospect of securing a better economic future than the one they grew up with — is down. And it’s not just the 1% that’s the problem. Increasingly, fewer people can buy their way into the top 10% of college-educated workers who are rapidly gentrifying urban areas all around the country.
And racial discrimination creates a double penalty. Wildly, a black man in the top 1% has as much of a chance of being incarcerated as a white man who makes $36,000 a year. The ongoing effects of discrimination in policing, housing, and voting rights has a measurable impact on our economic well-being. And the wealth gap between white families and black and Hispanic families has only grown.
The post-election debate about whether Democrats should focus on justice or economics never made sense to me. Our class identities and our racial identities aren’t in competition. They intersect, which is obvious to pretty much everyone outside the Beltway based on their lived experiences. And once you understand that history is recent and that we never finished Reconstruction, it’s easy to see that citizenship for former slaves never came with economic freedom or policies that placed value on their labor. Thankfully, America has a rich history of working class organizing and solidarity that includes white men, people of color, women and immigrants.
Rediscovering and extending that solidarity is important for progressives, personally and politically. When workers organize, they get a bigger share of society’s wealth.
We should proud of our labor history.
And we should recognize that today’s labor battles involve the same kind of struggles that should bring us together across all our identities.
Indeed, amid the teacher’s strikes in West Virginia, local politicians harkened back to the original “rednecks”: American-born and immigrant coal miners who fought the battle of Blair Mountain against their bosses in one of the most violent labor struggles in American history.
Labor activism doesn’t just benefit workers economically, it also expands their political power. One study found that anti-organizing laws reduced Democratic vote share by 3.5%.
The progressive policy solutions to address inequality are clear: restore the Voting Rights Act, let unions organize, increase taxes on the wealthy, provide free healthcare and college education, and invest in massive public infrastructure projects that pay workers good wages.
If that sounds radical, take a look at Franklin Roosevelt’s vision for a Second Bill of Rights from 1944:
The right to a useful and renumerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.
The right of every family to a decent home.
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
The right to a good education.
Of course, this is easy enough to say. How do we do it? And what role do individuals have in making this happen, especially if the solutions seem so big and so far away?
How does the left speak to young people, including disaffected young white men like the ones I grew up with, who are disillusioned and disenchanted by their economic prospects in a rapidly changing world? And can the left do it in a way that builds solidarity across class, gender, and racial lines? I think we can, especially since this emerging generation values justice more than any other before it.
- Organize. I still work with my hands, but I’m typing instead of stocking groceries. The first union I joined was the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Now I’m a member of the National Writers Union and the Campaign Workers Guild. This isn’t an option for everyone. In states and industries where unions can’t organize, workers have to find less formal ways of banding together, but we should always see our fellow workers as allies who share our class interests. (More on forming a union.)
- Understand that management is not your friend or family. Human resources departments often protect their institutions, not their workers. The boss doesn’t have to be your enemy, but understand where their incentives and interests rest. Don’t buy into corporate rhetoric that puts management’s interests ahead of yours.
- Be mercenary. It’s tough as hell to be a worker in America right now. If you have an opportunity to secure more wages, use that as negotiating leverage with your current employer. Your labor is valuable. Fight for it. Don’t feel like you’re taking. Feel like you’re getting what you’re worth.
3. Respect all labor
The overwhelming majority of us are workers. Everything we eat, everything we buy, everything we use was made by someone, somewhere. Without our labor, the world comes to a halt. Without our labor, nothing prospers. Without our labor, no boss, no magistrate, no king or president or tyrant has anything to rule over. We should be wildly, ludicrously proud of our work.
The great American writer Carl Sandburg wrote one of my favorite poems about us, from us:
I am the people — the mob — the crowd — the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns
Importantly, all work should be done with dignity. Too often, we think of labor organizing and worker solidarity as something that happens on factory floors. But it happens in hospitals, restaurants, and offices, too. And the work moms and dads do raising children is labor, too. So is the emotional labor the supportive people in our lives extend at work, in school, and in our homes.
That means all work has worth. That means no one should be denied a job based on who they are, whether they’re working class, black, an immigrant, or transgender. The second employers or landlords or major companies are allowed to discriminate against one of us, they can discriminate against all of us. This is what the March on Washington was about. So many of us remember Dr. King’s speech about his dream. But we forget that the march itself was organized around jobs and justice. They go hand-in-hand.
This respect should extend to labor that isn’t legal, too. Why should we discriminate against sex workers when it’s clear that no law or attempt at enforcing such a law will ever end their labor? Why should we punish people for buying and selling weed in one state but not another? What is the price to society of jailing people who are simply trying to find a place in the economy?
The labor we rule as legal and illegal has deadly consequences. Eric Garner, the black man who was choked to death by police in 2014, was being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. Why is that illegal? Because tobacco companies only want cigarettes to be sold in packs of 20. That ensures that people are more likely to stay addicted. Why should police have to enforce a law for tobacco companies at the expense of a man trying to make a living in a tough economy? It’s a good question and one we should be asking right alongside the actual incidents of police brutality. A holistic view of labor sees Garner’s death as a problem with who society polices—poor and working people, especially black people in gentrifying neighborhoods—not just a problem with a specific set of police officers.
So that’s deadly serious. But in our everyday lives, respecting labor can also be fun and fulfilling. We can celebrate the work we do and its worth and we can respect everyone’s labor.
- Appreciate where everything you buy and use comes from. When you can, buy from companies that respect their workers. Shop locally and support people who live and work in your neighborhood.
- Treat other workers, especially workers doing customer service with respect. When you see people disrespecting them, speak up and intervene. Working retail can often put people in the position of having to tolerate boorish behavior as well as straight up discrimination and harassment.
- If you serve on a jury, acquit people who are being charged with non-violent crimes like sex work and selling drugs. No matter what a judge or lawyer tells you, juries are well within their rights to acquit people of things they don’t think should be crimes in the first place.
- Sing songs about work. I grew up with Springsteen. Maybe you like Pete Seeger more. Billy Bragg has some great tunes, too. And working class punks like the Mischief Brew, Defiance Ohio and Ramshackle Glory speak deeply to the spirit of the dispossessed.
4. Don’t compromise your morals
Compromise is a regular part of life. We compromise with our partners, our kids, our bosses. But we should never compromise our morality.
Too often, we think about politics purely in terms of the positions people take and where we fit in relative to our peers. As a result, we think it’s noble or smart to be in the middle to see all sides of an argument. But we’re perfectly capable of seeing and understanding all sides of an argument while stridently advocating for progressive changes to our political system.
Lee Carter, a social democrat who was elected to the Virginia state legislature in 2017 put this well. In his mind, there is a simple, moral case for universal healthcare for everyone. But Virginia was not debating that at the moment. Instead, the legislature was debating whether to expand Medicaid coverage to more people. As Carter put it, expanding Medicaid is the compromise position he’s willing to take. That’s the political reality in front of him this year and he’s able to support it while also talking about how much further he wants the state to go in the future.
There’s always a push to compromise in our politics, but we should never value compromise itself as an ideological goal. Political disagreements are a permanent feature of a democracy. They do not end. Political actors work over decades and centuries to reshape the laws that govern our society.
As media critic Adam Johnson puts it, “ideology is simply pragmatism over a longer time table.” In that sense, Carter’s position is pragmatic. Win what you can now and keep building power to win more in the future. This isn’t unreasonable. It’s the only way to get to a place where we can adopt universal healthcare and the types of policies Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for after World War II.
- Don’t feel pressured to find common ground with people who disagree with you. You can disagree without being disagreeable and without compromising your beliefs.
- Examine the consequences of bad politics. If a friend expresses anti-immigrant sentiment, ask them about the real-world results of that sentiment, including tearing families apart.
- Talk about our shared values as workers who hate discrimination. Progressive values and policies are wildly popular. Stick to your guns and don’t feel like you have to hold back to avoid disagreement.
5. Pick your battles
Time, energy, and attention are limited resources. No one can work 100 hours a week for long, despite what tech bro CEOs might say about how hard they grind. We have to pick our battles, and the type of organizing we choose to do and how political it feels for us and the outside world is a deeply personal choice. But we should all do something, even if it’s just once a week.
A big part of my job since the 2016 election has been helping people plug in to movements where they can make a difference, especially scientists. Political activism isn’t always marching, lobbying, or knocking doors. For instance, some researchers feel like the best way they can contribute is mentoring others. This might not seem like a political act, but it definitely is. Ecologist Terry McGlynn has written about what happens when his relatively well-off neighbors ask him to help their kids with a science project. He explains that he has to use his limited mentorship time on people who don’t enjoy the same advantages they have. That’s a little thing, but it’s a choice that adds up over time and it’s one that’s grounded in awareness about class, race and gender discrimination in science.
Finding the types of political work that make us satisfied is important. And it can change over time. My challenge to progressives is to pick something! Don’t buy into excuses about problems being too big. Don’t throw your hands up in frustration because you don’t like where Democratic politicians or national advocacy groups are at. And don’t just donate to causes and leave it at that. Participate in the movements that are bringing about change.
- Charitable work: Providing food to the hungry, home to the homeless, education to the illiterate. Cleaning up a park. Legal aid for women fighting abusers. Growing vegetables for a food bank in your front yard.
- Direct action: Immigrants are being rounded up by ICE all over the country. Local teams are organizing rapid response programs to document raids and try to prevent people from being physically harmed and having their civil rights violated. Student activists just got a grocery chain to stop donating to pro-NRA politicians by hosting “die ins” at their store.
- Electoral activism: This is my go-to. Knock on doors, talk to voters, and raise money for progressive candidates who will pass progressive policies. Grassroots volunteers are the heart and soul of campaigns and the work you put in during off-year elections can be especially impactful.
- Institutional change: Making our society work better means making agencies, companies and universities do better, too. I serve on the advisory board of 500 Women Scientists, a science justice advocacy group that’s making major strides in preventing discrimination and harassment in science. Even without a formal organization to work with, pushing for better policies at our schools, our workplaces, and places of business is a big way we can help.
6. Use your power
We all have power. Our physical presence necessitates a response from others, whether it’s a friend and ally or a target of our activism. Some of us have more power than others. I’m a white guy. I have a college degree and a platform based on more than 10 years of advocacy work in DC. I’ve worked with people less powerful than me and wildly more powerful than me. I’ve helped win a local election for a friend who unseated a multi-decade incumbent. I watched climate legislation pass in California. I watched it die in DC.
How we use our power is important. Last year, I blew the whistle on an organization that was treating volunteers unfairly and failing to deal with discrimination. I’ve physically blocked Trump supporters from charging into a line of people half their size as part of direct actions around Trump’s Inauguration. I’ve stood with Black Lives Matter protestors who showed up to a Trump rally, knowing my white body can help protect their black bodies from the militia members and police.
Often, progressives talk about this as “privilege” and I think that’s a useful way for activists to describe it. But a lot of the people I grew up with would laugh at the idea that they are privileged, especially when they think about how much they’ve lost compared to their fathers and grandfathers. Instead, I think more about how we use our power. Even if our power has been diminished, it is ours. We can use it. We can grow it, together.
- Think about power in your community. Who’s in charge and why? How do they keep power? Who do they answer to? For a university administrator, it might be a board. But it’s also students, faculty, donors and parents. Read about power and how to affect change.
- Build your power. Keep educating yourself about history, economics, and politics. Pick up books from the library about advocacy, non-profits and self-improvement. Challenge yourself to try new forms of activism and charitable work.
- Work with allies. Find people in your community who share your values. Talk to them about the changes you want to see and find ways to work together.
- Run for something. There are thousands of elected offices out there, from school boards to state houses. You’re more qualified than you realize to run and people who run for office often become leaders in their communities even if they don’t win their first time out there.
7. Empathize widely and specifically
Political rhetoric often involves stating something generally even if it has no specific meaning. For instance, it’s easy for a member of Congress to say they support immigration reform without lifting a finger to do anything about it.
But failing to address immigration reform has real consequences. People are being deported. Families are being torn apart.
Similarly, it’s easy to be against the ephemeral concept of “big government,” but it turns out individual programs — from Social Security to space flight to universal healthcare — are quite popular. If you take away people’s healthcare, they suffer and die. It’s that simple and a politics that ignores the consequences of policy is no good for anyone.
This is why right wingers love having cultural arguments about respect and privilege and what’s an appropriate way to agree or disagree in civil society. Their policy ideas suck because they hurt people.
At the most extreme, white nationalists indulge in outright sophistry to make their views heard. They demand that their free speech rights be respected, even as one of their own literally mowed down protestors with his car. And when we actually interrogate their speech, they aren’t just arguing for respect for white identity, they’re arguing for the expulsion of millions of non-whites from America. That’s genocide and there’s no need to treat such a view with patience or respect. It should be condemned loudly. The New York Times should not profile Tony the Grocery Store Nazi in an attempt to sympathize with him when the reality is that Tony’s ideology would lead to immense human suffering. Instead, we should sympathize with the people who are harmed by white nationalist ideology.
- Don’t get distracted by bullshit cultural arguments. Think about how much time and energy we’ve spent debating whether the NFL players protest is appropriate instead of debating how to address the police brutality that’s being protested.
- Don’t confuse disagreement with disrespect. Respect for someone’s views has to be earned, not granted. If someone can’t convince you their views are right, you can still respect them as a person and want the best for them in life, but you don’t have to pretend that their conspiracy theory about where Obama was born deserves anything except ridicule. For progressives, everyone deserves healthcare, housing and food, even people whose views we find abhorrent.
- Don’t try to persuade the unpersuadable. Uncle Bob’s Fox News habit means that any time you spent “convincing” him of your point of view is going to be wasted as your point is drowned out by hours and hours of right wing propaganda. Instead, focus on people who agree with you, but who could be more active.
- Don’t police other people’s tone or downplay when someone is hurt because of discrimination. Middle class and wealthy people are taught to value peace and civility over health and economic well-being. It’s okay for people to be angry and make strong points, especially people who suffer from discrimination. Back them up, especially to your more powerful peers.
8. State your motivations
Too often, progressives ground their arguments in the policies they seek without taking a step back and asking WHY those policies matter. Policy frameworks come with embedded moral arguments and our desire to fight for justice-based, moral outcomes is rooted in our personal history and views. Examining them makes us stronger communicators and better leaders.
I believe strongly based on our history that government policy can reduce and end human suffering. I think every human has equal worth and should have equal rights under the law. I want to live in a democracy. Vast concentrations of wealth and power in a diminishing number of mega-corporations is inconsistent with democratic life.
I’m a utilitarian at heart: I want the most good for the most number of people. And I’m a democracy advocate. I want everyone to have a voice and a system that works for all of us, not just a privileged few or the nerds like me who can sit around thinking about politics all day.
I want human civilization to survive climate change and nuclear annihilation. I believe technology is simultaneously liberating and devastating and that governments can limit the use of technology to reduce human suffering and increase human well-being.
My politics are humanist. We only have one planet. We only have evidence of one species that can grasp its place in the universe. As Carl Sagan wrote in response to seeing Earth from a very great distance:
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Other people are motivated to do good work because of a sense of duty to country, of service to their fellow people. Others are motivated by religious sentiment, something progressives too often ignore: as one state legislator put it at a meeting last year, we let conservatives take god from us. But God belongs to everyone, certainly in the sense that we have a moral duty to speak up against injustice.
Finally, political judgments are often made entirely based on what we think someone’s motivations are. Often, it’s the entire story. And in the absence of explaining our own motivations, audiences make one up for us.
- Never be afraid of making a moral argument. There’s nothing icky about morality. Technocratic politics tends to focus on numbers, results, and outcomes. But each of those numbers has a beating human heart behind it. Political questions are inherently moral.
- Examine your own motivations and biases and share them with others. We all have different perspectives that should be celebrated. One of my political allies shares my wildly anti-authoritarian tendencies and talking about the lived experiences that led us there has helped me identify the same streak in other allies.
- Listen to great speeches and study the moral arguments leaders make. Some of my favorites are FDR’s Fireside Chats, where he calmly explained the stakes of the policies under debate and the moral crisis of the Great Depression. Martin Luther King Jr. also explained rights and morality in ways that connected back to people’s every day experiences and our shared human dignity. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks often about the moral and economic choices we face as a society and the people we are leaving behind. And Rev. Dr. Barber can set even the coldest wonk hearts on fire.
9. Secure yourself so that you may secure others
Franklin Roosevelt described four freedoms that are necessary for democratic life: freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Our society has yet to provide these freedoms to us. So we must provide them ourselves. 39% of Americans are one emergency away from poverty. That’s not freedom, it’s serfdom.
I grew up with subsidized school lunches and one parent who was very bad with money. We did the books together when I was a teenager and I saw how crippling debt could be. It’s helped me stay out of it. Most of the people I went to college with were richer than me. Their conspicuous consumption seemed vapid and I was shocked at how much time people could waste by focusing on frivolous things while our whole lives were in front of us.
One of the most obvious but overlooked features of our politics is that poor people don’t vote. Who has the inclination or the time to go to a polling place on a Tuesday when you’re working two jobs and picking your kids up from school? Every day can be a struggle for working people. As a result, our politics is tilted toward the middle and upper classes. Put another way: enhancing economic security would mean electing more leaders who would enhance economic security.
- Budget and save money. Even a little money. The economy is stacked against working people, so when there’s an opportunity to get ahead, take it and save.
- Figure out what “fuck you money” is for you and yours. This can be the bus ticket and the two weeks of lodging and food you need to escape abuse. It can be the ability to walk off a job and find new work. It’s the freedom to say that you refuse to do something immoral on the job.
- Seek financial independence. Get off the treadmill if you’re in a broken industry. Reject the idea that you have to work full time into your 60s or 70s as you inflate your lifestyle. Build wealth and create something new with it for your community.
10. Stay healthy
It’s harder to fight for change when your mind and body feel weak. Staying healthy is a fundamental part of political activism, as well as good thing generally.
But it’s not easy. Our food system is broken, putting cheap, unhealthy calories at our disposal instead of fresh food. Because our agricultural system treats food as a commodity, our diets are just as easily commodified. The cheap grain that feeds the cows and gets turned into ethanol fuel also becomes 127 brands of cereal and 37 flavors of Oreo.
I grew up eating a lot of Hot Pockets. An embarrassing number, actually, a habit that extended well into college. The good news is that bad food is cheap. The bad news is that it’s bad food. Changing my diet over time has involved learning to cook, expanding my palate, buying eggs in bulk at Costco, and avoiding heavily marketed, but unnecessary dietary supplements like protein powder.
I also struggled to find any exercise I enjoyed doing. My youth sports were WWF-style backyard wrestling and heavy rounds of Magic: the Gathering. Once I had an office job, I needed to find more ways to move. Cycling for transport helped. But I never took to running and found cardio boring. I kept trying new things, though, and eventually settled on weight lifting. I could track my progress and the movements themselves were simple, but challenging. Eventually, I bought a squat rack so I could work out at home, which was not just convenient, but saved me tons of money in avoided gym fees.
Most lifestyle advice I’ve run into on the way has been overly prescriptive. We commodify diet and exercise advice, too, after all. But people who take a coaching approach to this advice have been invaluable, including writers and podcasters like James Clear and Darya Rose.
So here are some things to consider in developing your own healthy lifestyle:
- Join Community Supported Agriculture systems (CSAs) and food co-ops. You get fresh produce delivered to your home or to a local business, often far cheaper than what you can buy at the grocery store, and you get to support local farms.
- Sign up for delivery services that save produce from the waste heap. Services like Hungry Harvest deliver food to your door so you have fresh produce every week for mega-cheap.
- Learn how to cook for yourself and your family. Develop a sense of how full certain foods make you and how many calories they really pack.
- Host pot lucks and BBQs to bring communities together. Food is probably the most unifying thing in the world. Breaking bread together builds community, helps you meet your neighbors, and develops bonds of mutual aid that make us stronger.
- Exercise regularly. Move at least a little bit every day and find an exercise program you can follow and keep improving on. Don’t get stagnant.
11. Keep improving
You will fail. You will disappoint your allies, especially those who have less power than you. Admit fault. Talk about it. Listen. Ask how you can do better.
Our leaders will fail us, too. Campaigns lose. Legislative sessions end without bills getting passed. We suffer setbacks. But failures are learning opportunities. They represent chances to reflect and look back and avoid mistakes in the future. Advocates can lose for decades before they finally win, but when they do, those wins can be permanent.
One of the first campaigns I worked on was to improve fuel economy standards under the George W. Bush administration. Seeing advocates who had spent a decade struggling on this issue finally win was something I’ll never forget. When wonks cry in joy and relief, you know some good public policy finally made it through.
Losses suck. But the lessons I took away from 2016 are ones I’ll never forget, including how hard it was to get the median student excited to vote that year. Enthusiasm gaps are crushing in politics and if you’re not out in the streets talking to strangers, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking your peer groups are representative. Since the election, I’ve done more to center volunteers and the work volunteers do for movements in my labor. If we’re serving and growing with the people who show up to our movements, we can win.
- Celebrate wins like crazy. Spread the word, document it as a case study, write it up and share it online so other activists can learn from you. Dance in the streets.
- Be open about failures. Help others succeed by avoiding where you fell down. Don’t be defensive about what went wrong. None of this is easy, but it can be rewarding.
- Keep learning new things and stay out of your comfort zone. If you don’t do something new with your advocacy each year, you’re not growing as an advocate. New things are hard. That’s what learning feels like and it’s great. This is especially true as new digital platforms roll out each year.
12. Build movements that take turns
Progressives can be uncomfortable with power and leadership. Most of us are anti-authoritarian by nature, so there’s a disconnect between movements and movement building and a political system that’s unduly focused on leaders and campaigns.
Instead of thinking about singular leaders, we need to think about how movements change and lead in society and how we all participate in them together. I’m someone who admires Franklin Roosevelt a great deal. But he could not have been a great leader without a great labor movement pushing him to do more for workers. And Social Security wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for well-organized activists pushing for revolving pension funds. Their radical solution freaked out Washington so badly, Social Security was passed as a kind of compromise system.
The Occupy Wall Street organizers talked about having “leaderful” movements rather than “leaderless” ones. They’ve also written about how even in “leaderless” movements, “ad hocracies” of people who have the time and energy functionally run things. But I think there’s a much simpler way to describe this: we need leaders who take turns.
At the individual level, that might mean taking turns speaking up in meetings so no one worker gets a reputation for being difficult with the bosses. That’s a deliberate strategy to demonstrate solidarity and make sure no single worker is punished by management.
At a political coalition level, it can mean having an open conversation about who runs a meeting, who pays for space, who leads a march, or who speaks at a press conference. Organizing and politics aren’t one-off, zero-sum games, they’re infinitely long games that give us lots of time to take turns so everyone can grow as leaders.
For people in leadership positions, this means identifying deeply not with our funders or our fellow CEOs and directors, but with volunteers, activists, and voters who do the work every day. It also means identifying with the people who aren’t at the table but could be in a more just society.
It’s embodying the famous line from Eugune Debs at his sedition trial:
“…years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
In this sense, a well-lived life is not one measured by our own success, but on what we did to help others succeed.
At the March for Black Women last year, Bré Anne Campbell, a black trans woman, described movements as buckets nested within one another. She argued that the multiple forms of discrimination she faced meant that her bucket was at the center of our shared movement. Your bucket can not begin to be filled, she said, until mine is overflowing. And I thought that was a beautiful way of measuring society’s progress. It also stuck with me because too often we see movements as being in competition with one another instead of complementing one another.
Rev. Dr. Barber has similarly called for “moral fusion” among progressive movements to win. That means putting aside our differences and recognizing the shared moral crisis of inequailty and discrimination we face, not just in our economy but in our democracy.
- Ground your advocacy in shared morality. Start with what’s right and work backwards from there to talk about strategy and tactics.
- Raise up other people’s voices. Work with people and groups who deserve a bigger voice. If your issue is climate change, for instance, understand that we have to address environmental injustices generally to address the global level of injustice climate change represents. That means working directly with affected communities and helping them lead the movement.
- Take turns in meetings, with funding and with one another. Our movements can’t be zero sum. We have to share resources and responsibility with each other to win.
- Show up to other people’s fights and they’ll show up to yours. People who are being deported can’t show up to fight for justice on their own. We have to show up for them first.
- If you’re in a leadership position, spend more than half your time helping others lead. Be a mentor and help other people grow. That’s how movements expand their influence and power.
- Stay humble. No single person wins. Political change happens when we all work together.
The political is personal
Conservatism, at its best, offers a robust case for individual rights. But in a world where the rich can buy elections and companies know more about me than I know about myself, individualism too often sounds like an excuse for being selfish and downplaying other people’s suffering. It’s hard to argue for a politics that stops at individualism in a world of such disparate power relationships. It’s doubly and quintuply hard to make that argument if you’re discriminated against based on your class, your race your gender, your creed, your nationality, and who you love.
On the other hand, progressives are quick to offer policy solutions to all of the above while neglecting the role that individuals play in shaping our society and our politics. We need to address both. If a policy of justice is moral, then we must seek morality and justice in our own lives, too.
In his last speech, Dr. King exhorted civil rights activists to join boycotts and stand with striking workers. King’s radicalism was deeply personal and political because it was moral:
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.
That kind of dangerous unselfishness doesn’t just improve our own lives: it can change the world.