How to Do Politics: The Political Capital Savings Plan
Get capital, do politics
This coming Sunday, March 26, will be the one-year anniversary of the first Foundations of New York class. A tremendous amount has happened in the intervening year, and now it’s time for Maximum New York to accelerate.
Stage 1 focused on sharpening my own political pedagogy, educating citizens in a concrete, useful manner, and networking these people together. There’s still more that needs to be done on these fronts, but it will be accomplished by…
Stage 2, which focuses on doing politics and achieving concrete wins, especially for MNY alumni. As you’ll see in the essay below, this can be taught technically and pursued deliberately.
As Maximum New York has grown, I’ve met a broad array of wonderfully kind, smart, ambitious people—exactly the kind we need in our city’s governing sphere—and the adjacent possible has grown more exciting and demanding than ever.
The essay that follows outlines the ideas that drive Stage 2. Read on.
How to Do Politics: The Political Capital Savings Plan
From the outside looking in
How do you gain political power1 if you’re starting from square zero?
There are plenty of people who look at the political realm, don’t like what they see, and then…do nothing (except complaining, maybe). There are many reasons why they do nothing2, but one is that they feel like they’re on the outside looking in, with no way to change that. They have no idea how to get started, no way to evaluate the effectiveness or validity of their path if they start attempting things, and no friends to help them.
What they could use is a guide that explains the process of building political power: how to do it, how to confirm that they’re doing it, and how to deploy it.
This is the first part of that guide.
Politics can resist such practical guides—it feels much squishier than various professional realms that have dedicated bootcamps, and from the outside it seems like there are no clear cut series of moves you can take, as you might to get a promotion. The realm of politics often seems shrouded in a melange of charisma, backroom dealing, dusty old philosophers you’ve only pretended to read, and intellectual dark matter; it can feel inaccessible to those who weren’t born into it, or granted access in a non-reproducible way.3
This intuition is wrong.
The accrual of political power can be taught technically, and executed with deliberate regularity. And there are better and worse methodologies, frameworks, models, and psychological postures that you can adopt to influence your success.
Let’s begin with an analogy to money, loans, and starting a business.
Political capital—what is it, how do you get it
If you want to start a new business, you need to get some money—save it, get investors, or get a loan. You can’t just tell people that you want to start a business and have it magically appear, fully formed. You certainly can’t demand that a stranger set up your business for you, for free.
Nonetheless, most people approach politics with a mindset almost exactly like this: they make demands and declarations to people at parties about preferred policies, and maybe they write an email to an official demanding their preferred policy. They want the political system4 to give them what they want, and they offer it nothing in return, not even a basic attempt to understand the system.
In some respects I understand the impulse to demand something for nothing in politics—it’s the model most people have absorbed through culture and fleeting acquaintances with activist organizations: the politics of complaint. This approach, when anthropomorphized, is a random person shouting “I pay your salary!” at a government employee. But, as most have experienced, this approach is often as unsatisfactory as it is a waste of time.
Now let’s return to the business analogy. If you want to start one, you need money—otherwise called capital.5 Everyone is somewhat familiar with how you might accumulate capital. You can work a job, ask for donations, sell things you own, invest, etc. We know that the more capital you have, the more you can potentially do, especially if you know how to judiciously deploy that capital.
The same is true of political capital. There are a basic set of things you can do to earn and save it, reap compounding interest returns on it, and more. You can then deploy it (or buy things with it) in a variety of ways; just as the small business owner deploys capital to build their business, you deploy your political capital to influence the political realm according to your priorities. As in business, so in politics: successful capital deployment breeds successful capital returns.
But political capital is not money (although each can be transmuted into the other). Political capital is relationships, specialized knowledge, community ties and visibility, and social proof of engagement.
If you want to start a business, you must turn yourself into a new pool of capital somehow. And if you want to get something done in the political realm, you must turn yourself into a new pool of political capital.
That means you must cultivate relationships, get specialized knowledge, grow ties to your local community, and have a record of working on political and civic issues you care about (which means you should do that work by yourself before there’s any capital reward in sight).
Political capital prerequisites
The next questions many will have are: how do I do those things? What is the most efficient way to do them? And then how do I spend my political capital?
To that I say: have patience. Accumulating political capital is usually a slow process, although it can get faster as you go along, as with money.
Your first move is to ask yourself these questions: “Do I know what the government is? Do I know what the law is? Do I know how the government makes law? Do I know who works with the government formally and informally to influence law?”
These are the equivalent questions to: “Do I know what a company is? Do I know what jobs are? Do I know how companies use jobs? Do I know what makes companies want to hire people for jobs?”
Most people can give rough answers to the jobs questions—but they have no idea about their government equivalents. So before jumping into politics, give yourself the basic knowledge you need to successfully pursue political capital accumulation and deployment.
“But plenty of people don’t formally study the government, and they get things done in politics just fine!” you might say.
In a world where almost no one is formally trained in government, almost by definition everyone in politics will achieve things without being trained. But ad hoc learning in politics6 burns most people out, and if it doesn’t do that it likely just deterrs them from starting at all. With deliberate training, you can have success where there would previously be none. And if you train formally, you’ll be able to move faster than those who begin with the ad hoc path.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where there is little to no formal training on government. That’s why I do it. But let’s assume you take my class, or otherwise bring yourself up to a basic understanding of government and law (some activist groups do an OK job of this in a narrow sense)—this means you get to the point where you no longer feel lost and overwhelmed, and where you feel like you can navigate the political realm independently.
If you get to that point, you’ll have a decent idea of where to start doing the work necessary to accumulate political capital. You’ll also find that you’ve already gotten a seed amount of it just by educating yourself.
A political capital savings plan
Of course, you should start with small, achievable goals. If your starting goal is “get enough political capital to change the constitution,” you will fail. That’s too big, although it’s OK to have in the back of your head. Your starting goal needs to be something you can directly influence. You must walk before you can run.7
Here’s an example of what that would look like if, say, you wanted to change how basketball court signups worked in your part of New York City (I’m not going to explain what the entities are I mention here; this is an example of why you need to learn about your system before diving in—otherwise you won’t know what you’re looking at):
Make a blog where you outline the problem you want to work on, what you hope the solution to be, and some people you hope to discuss the issue with. Be friendly and inquisitive, not hostile or demanding.
Write this blog for at least a month, sharing it with your friends, and emailing a few posts to your community board parks committee, your city council member, and your representative at the Partnership for Parks. Set a goal of 20 subscribers by the end of the month.
Don’t just write about the problem. Write about the solution, especially if that solution has been implemented somewhere else. Write about interesting history and tell cool stories (my local park has regular basketball players who bring their own neon green nets, for example).
After you’ve been writing steadily for a month, start collecting media if you haven’t already. Pictures, videos, and more from yourself and others. This content will mirror your written content—the problem, the solutions, the cool stories. Share these as well. Let another month pass.
By this point, if you’ve been consistent, there’s a good chance you now have regular contacts in the Parks Department, your community board, with staffers in your city council member’s office, and possibly within other local civic orgs you never knew existed.
This process is pretty replicable, assuming you know how to be polite, patient, and kind. Within 1-3 months, you’ll suddenly find yourself with relationships across government—that is to say, political capital. It might not be enough to achieve your goals, but it’s a great start, and there is a far wider menu of things to do than what I just listed.
If you don’t have an explicit goal yet, but you still want to start your political capital savings plan, your goal will be “explore deliberately.” Writing online about what interests you is always a good way to do this, but as in the example above, the correct approach is to satisfy your interest and curiosity at regular intervals, not leave it in the form of some sweeping question that can only be answered after a decade of research.
As you explore and gather up small wins, you find out more about the real political world. You’ll actually learn about what systemic constraints current political actors perceive and react against, and they will almost always be surprising. Good thing you followed this political capital savings plan and learned those things, otherwise you would just be some crank from the public making demands without realizing how they ignored relevant constraints!
Further: once you gain political capital for one purpose, you’ll realize that those relationships (etc) can be deployed for other political goals. Just because you got your start in one area, doesn’t mean that political capital can’t be redeployed in another domain.
Even further: as with political capital, as with many things: it’s easy to overestimate what you can get done in the short term—but easy to vastly underestimate what can be done in the medium and long terms.
The to-do list above can go on at length, but it is no mystery. And now imagine if you were doing this with friends—it would be much more fun, and you’d likely make more connections, i.e,. get more capital. The political system responds well to people who demonstrate that they care about things, and it does not respond well to people who do no work and just make demands.
This is kind of beautiful. The system enforces a “put up or shut up” rule.
You go to war with the army you have
People often only care about “getting involved” when it’s too late. They read on social media that some policy is going before a legislature somewhere, and they become alarmed. They don’t really know what the proposed law is in detail, and they probably don’t know exactly what still needs to be done before it becomes enforceable. But they want to do something now.
The vibes are desperate.
If you find yourself in this situation, you need to confront a tough reality.
You can’t buy things you don’t have enough money for. And you can’t influence politics with political capital you don’t have. If the first time you want to enter the political realm is when the big vote is about to happen, know that you’re also entering politics at its most capital intensive. And you have none. If you wanted to influence what’s going on, you needed to have been accumulating political capital for a while, according to a longer range plan.8
As Athens said to Melos: the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.9
So here: the wealthy (in political capital) do what they can, the broke suffer what they must.
Do not despair though! If you’re at the beginning of your political capital savings plan, there are always things you can do. They won’t, by themselves, do much (you’re broke, remember), but enough people acting in concert does move the needle in politics if done well enough. But “how to deploy political capital the best way when you’re broke” is a separate post—but one with a well-defined, well-tested sequence of steps. The best advice here is to not be broke as quickly as possible if you really care about certain political outcomes.10
If you want to influence political decisions, here are your first two steps:
Learn about the political system. Can you draw a diagram of your government and basic flows of hard and soft power between all of its parts? Do you know all of its basic parts? Do you know the names of political actors and what they’re doing?
Map out your political capital savings plan, whether you’re starting with a specific project or deliberate exploration. Execute, ideally with friends!
These two things are really most of what you’ll ever need to do. You’ll keep learning and get better at understanding the government and accumulating political capital as you work at it.
If you’re not willing to do these things, especially the second, consider that you’re not in a position to take politics seriously. You probably won’t get the results you want, and you will probably be frustrated if you try.
Getting politically engaged is not easy, but it is straightforward. You can learn how to do it.
Politics: the process of social rule-making. You have politics in your friend groups (which make norms), governments (which make laws), workplaces (which make employee handbooks), and more. All of these overlap in various respects. Power: the ability to translate will into consequence.
From the chapter “Borrowed vs. Owned Power” from Great Founder Theory, by Samo Burja (2020, manuscript): “Power is the ability to realize your will, to affect the world in ways you desire, to achieve your goals. Power always has a source. Borrowed power is power that has been given to you and can be taken away by someone else. It usually takes the form of an office or title. Owned power is power that cannot easily be taken away. The major sources of owned power are resources, skills, personal relationships, and knowledge.”
As I wrote in Atlantis on the Hudson, a broad explanation is that we’ve lost powerful social technology. This is why even the rich and well-resourced are often as helpless as anyone else: “In the face of these truly extraordinary circumstances, the vast majority of New Yorkers, especially those with intellect, money, and time to spare, do nothing. They don’t try to learn the source of the problems, and they assume they’d be unable to fix the source if they discovered it. They just vaguely blame city hall, take the punches on the chin, and move along. Why is that? I think it’s profoundly strange behavior.”
The problem is that there are not good political teachers. Good teachers would explain that, while some elements of politics depend on arbitrary chance and unalterable personal characteristics, much more is within our control to cultivate and influence, if only we are taught correctly. Politics only seems accessible because there are not good teachers to reveal the methods of access. The same problem runs rampant in music and strength training—people assume success in either comes down only to “genetics” or “innate talent.” Those have some influence, obviously. But most people are capable of achieving good success regardless of their biology, if only they had a good teacher.
Here “the political system” means hired, elected, and appointed government officials, in addition to the vast world of activists, policy organizations, and more that are integrated into the government.
In economics “capital” has a very specific meaning that can overlap with, but is technically distinct from, money. I draw no such distinction here; economists please stand down.
The best ad hoc training is having a government job yourself, especially as some kind of legislative staffer. But even these jobs are woefully inadequate in a variety of respects, even though they will give you a good grounding in status quo procedure and practice. Further: there aren’t that many of them, and you can’t just go get one if you want to learn how the government works.
There are exceptions to this. You can make a lot of money quickly, and you can accumulate political capital quickly. In both cases you might need luck, and the ability to take advantage of novel affordances.
As I wrote about trash collection: “Let’s say you pick up a stretch of sidewalk. It’s pristine, beautiful, and looks exactly the way you’ve always wanted. You go up to your apartment and come back down an hour later to get a coffee—only to find that there is new litter on your sidewalk.
Many people will feel extremely mad and frustrated, and their prior feelings of elation will slingshot down into nihilism and despair: ‘Why do I even bother?? Why does nobody care?? [rage]’
Here’s what I say to these people: did you really expect your sidewalk to stay clean after your pickup? Did you do what’s required to keep it perpetually clean? If your answer to either is ‘yes,’ you’re engaging in delusion. Of course one trash pickup won’t achieve either of those things, but that’s OK. Your one cleanup is a vital step toward the longer-term goal of installing a trash system that keeps litter off the ground (a mixture of trash cans, volunteers, social norms, and business partnerships). You can achieve your long-term goal—just keep taking the next step.”