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Beyond Voting: Collective Political Engagement

By Maggie Nipps


If there’s one thing that unites most college students, it’s crippling debt. We scramble to pay for a college education that is priced like a luxury, even though it’s a necessity in most job fields.

So it’s no surprise that the lecture “How Capitalism is Designed to Kill (Most of) You” had a massive turnout in a college town like Iowa City. The talk was a part of Witching Hour Festival. Shawn Sebastian, a community organizer and director of the Fed Up campaign, hosted the talk at the community library.

Illustration by Kenzi Rayelle

Illustration by Kenzi Rayelle

This was not “totally rad alternatives to dying under the bootheels of capitalism,” as he put it, but rather a short exploration of the large systematic problems in our current economic system.

Comparing the issue of our economic system to a vast and expansive field, Sebastian said “it would be great to go acre by acre exploring every blade of grass,” but there are not enough hours in a day to investigate it with that level of depth.

Despite this limitation, Sebastian jumped headfirst into the matter at hand, beginning with the 2008 recession. 11.1 trillion dollars in household wealth were destroyed, leaving many Americans struggling to put food on the table and find stable jobs. Sebastian argues we should have done what we did in the new deal. However, the combination of a new democratic president and a republican congress meant that comprehensive legislation to fix the problem was not passed. The Federal Reserve, the primary economic policy maker in the United States, stepped in and dropped the federal interest rates to 0, leading to more loans, more purchases, more money in the economy, and therefore more jobs. Despite the fact that this is great for the working class, this goes directly against policies that benefit the 1 percent, who make money off of high-interest rates and therefore higher unemployment.

Photo by Hanna Cushing

Photo by Hanna Cushing

Nonetheless, the unemployment rates began to drop from 10 percent overall to 6 percent. Many people, legislators and citizens alike, had become complacent and decided this was good enough. But Sebastian and other community organizers decided the country was far from it. One of the biggest problems with these statistics is that they hide the large racial disparity in unemployment. When overall unemployment was 10 percent, black unemployment was at 20 percent. When overall unemployment was 6 percent, black unemployment was at 12 percent, which is greater than the percent of the total population unemployed at the height of the recession. Sebastian’s group Fed Up began to lobby the Federal Reserve to make more changes, targeting even the members of the reserve who were furthest left. This helped to push the Overton Window left and force greater changes to be made. This lead to unemployment dropping to 3.17 percent – the lowest it’s been since 1969. Although the lowest point of unemployment was reached during the Trump regime, this has been a long time coming. As Sebastian put it, “Trump got on the toboggan right at the bottom,” pointing to a graph of the decline of unemployment.

Despite this new low in unemployment, the audience agreed that it doesn’t feel like we’re living in a better economic era. Although more people are employed, the jobs available aren’t necessarily lucrative or sustainable. Productivity, or the amount of money workers make for their employers, has steadily gone up for decades, but worker’s wages have flatlined. This means while we have been working more, we’ve been making less in comparison, with the disparity filtering into the rich’s pockets. Currently, one in five jobs are occupations where the median income is below the poverty line. The retail industry has the largest number of workers in the United States, and often times these jobs don’t have consistent hours or pay, leaving people unsure of how they will pay their bills. Even though unemployment has gone down, levels of poverty have gone up along with the number of children who require free or reduced lunches in schools.

If jobs aren’t paying a livable wage, it’s easy to wonder why people don’t just leave theirs to find a better one. After all, if there is less unemployment, that must mean more jobs have been created, right? Although there has been some job creation, the variation of options is incredibly limited. As companies like Amazon and Walmart gain more money, they put other companies out of business, leaving large corporations without competition. Sebastian explains that “your wage is the lowest possible amount your boss can get away with paying you.” If a business has competitors that pay higher wages, that forces them to raise wages to compete. But if there’s little to no competition, wages stagnate. Although Iowa has the second lowest unemployment in the nation, we also have some of the highest corporate concentration. Agriculture is an important industry in the Midwest, and also one of the most monopolized industries, leaving many Iowans with few options for employment.

Because of this, “the 1 percent gets more than ever, and we get less than ever.”

So what can we do? Sebastian argues that the most important thing we can do is collectively organize. “The only thing that goes up against organized money is organized people,” Sebastian claimed. For decades, unions have been able to pass legislation for worker rights. If it weren’t for them, “children would be in factories right now.” Although it’s easy to despair, we have the power to organize together and lobby for greater changes. As of this Saturday, October 13, there are 448 days until the first caucus for the presidential election, and Iowa has incredible power to sway how the general electorate votes. Besides merely voting for candidates that we think could represent our interests, we need to force candidates to represent us. It’s a matter of votes versus money, and we’ll need to organize as a unified force to go against the amount of corporate money in politics. This isn’t an insane pipe dream – some candidates are already coming out in support of a “Green New Deal” to provide better jobs while working towards environmental reform. Universal healthcare is on candidates’ radars and can become a reality if we work towards it. “You don’t vote for a savior,” he said. “You want to vote for someone who you want to negotiate against.”

Not only can we foster community by learning and discussing ideas, but Sebastian motivated the crowd to think about ways in which we can work together on a national level to evoke change that benefits us. The political landscape we live in is full of division, hopelessness, and frustration, but Sebastian reminded us that we do hold power, and we’re in a position to use it if we can work together towards a common good. He concluded with this thought:

“It’s uncomfortable to say you have that power, but other people are using that power. If you don’t hold that power, they will.”


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