The Morning After: what it means for social workers

This is NOT a conclusive analysis of every race from yesterday’s midterm election. It’s not even a post with links to the commentary flooding the Internet (although, if you’re in Kansas or Missouri, you can find it here.)

Honestly, after working the polls for 13 hours, I couldn’t stay up late enough to see all of the returns, and I think my brain is still wrapping around some of the results I have seen, anyway.

But I have seen enough to have some thoughts about what this election means for social workers, though, and I’d love to start a discussion with other politics watchers about what you think this all means, or will mean in the future, to the profession, to the causes we care about, and, most importantly, to those we have the honor to work alongside–our clients.

  • Much has been made of how the “Obama effect” that turned out so many young, ‘disaffected’ voters, including people of color, has “evaporated” in 2010. To that, I guess I’d say…of course it has. We’ve known for a long time that when the focus is on short-term Get Out the Vote, instead of building long-term relationships that help people who have previously been marginalized by society to weave political engagement into the fabric of their daily lives, through connection to organizations and issues that matter to them…that engagement evaporates. Social workers know how to do it better, and we have an obligation to make politics meaningful for those others only remember every two years.
  • People want change. And so do we. We know that framing is more than half the battle, and when it comes to talking about a vision for our country, social workers can tap into a growing desire for a new direction to talk about the problems we see in our communities, the types of strategies that could address them, and what working collectively to implement them would look like. After all, exit polls suggest that this was, more than anything, an election about people’s insecurities, about their fears that this economy won’t deliver the life they envision for their families. And social workers deal with fear and insecurity, and the injustice that creates them, all the time.
  • There is a hostility to government intervention in social problems that, to social workers who have seen what utter abdication of collective responsibility looks like, seems not only unwise but cruel. At the same time, those same polls I referenced above show a convergence of opinion about the greatest challenges facing our nation, some of the very challenges that we know only a powerful, wealthy entity is capable of taking on. What that dichotomy means to me, really, is the dynamic that I’ve seen dozens of times in advocacy and what, for me, is the central story of the past two years: we can mostly agree when it’s time to name problems, but the consensus falls apart when it’s time to choose solutions. I don’t have any words of wisdom to make the prospect of dealing with a Congress decidedly more hostile to social spending than the one we’ve had for the past four years. I wish I did. But I do believe that, if we can center on a discussion about the values that motivate us and the problems that plague us, then maybe we have a chance to take another running shot at this problem-solving exercise we call governance.
  • And, finally, in what is the ultimate glass-half-full assessment by someone who’s decidedly not that Pollyanna-ish, my 13 hours in the polling place reminded me that, really, this is a system that mostly works. I don’t mean that it works on the level of money in politics, which I continue to believe is a huge problem, or even the mechanics of how we do voter registration or how people learn about the issues. But I mean that, really, I think that last night’s results mostly reflect how people are really feeling right now, or at least a majority of the American public, and there’s something reassuring, in my democracy-loving soul, about seeing that reflected, even when I wish I wasn’t, personally, in the minority this time.

    So, social workers, are you spending a day doing self-care? How do you feel about last night’s results? More importantly, how do you feel about tomorrow?

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  • 4 responses to “The Morning After: what it means for social workers

    1. I don’t know that social workers *DO* know how to maintain communities. I was so impressed with Obama’s message two years ago–this campaign should be a “good” in and of itself, regardless of the outcome. It did that, short term, during and just after the election. In fact, at that time, I hosted a group of very diverse people, who worked together to let our legislators know how we felt about different issues. But we didn’t receive response from our legislators. It was disheartening, to say the least. As health care reform became imminent and Obama for America again asked us to take part in these community meetings, we were met with 1) legislators who had failed to take us seriously 10 months before and 2) the screaming of a whole bunch of people, who were very unwilling to hear our stories or points of view. And then, no public option. We had lost the very essence of what we wanted. Who wouldn’t give up? Keeping that community going for the 9 or 10 months we were active took an enormous amount of extra energy–for all of us. It was a beautiful thing while it lasted, but it was ancellary to our jobs, our families, and the many other things that consumed our days. So, my question: What should we have done differently? How do we communicate with those who disagree with us (eg, the Tea Party protesters), when dialogue seems impossible?

      • Thanks so much for sharing this, Jen. I agree that the 2008 campaign mobilized people in a deeper and more lasting way than we’ve seen in a generation, but I also think that much of the transition “pains” relate to how much more difficult (and just plain different) it is to sustain that engagement outside of an urgent electoral context than within it. And, of course, it was a “movement” that had greater staying power in some parts of the country than in others, so the experience locally, which I witnessed too, although not as intensely as you did, fell short of the tidal change that we heard about in other parts of the country. And, when I was writing about social workers maintaining that sense of engagement, I was really thinking more about within the context of our organizations, although, on reflection, I think you’re right–we have a lot to learn about how to build and sustain that energy there, too. In terms of what to do differently, I think the challenge is in figuring out how to operate within an environment of pragmatism (which is where this stuff all falls apart, which is what I meant when I referenced how we divide over policy solutions more than articulations of problems) while holding onto shared ideals. I don’t have THE answer in that, although I think that coming together initially in an electoral context makes that subsequent challenge more difficult. Not that that helps, in retrospect. And I don’t know that you do try to engage the hard-core opposition, really–there are enough people in that more undecided middle to keep us busy for a long time. I know that there’s this concern about “preaching to the choir”, but I think we keep those folks singing when we nurture those core relationships. Give me a call, Jen, if you want a verbal hug, or to talk through this any more.

    2. After looking at the newly elected Ks folks, I did feel exhausted and bewildered. Because although, it was great to see so many people at the polls (at least in my polling place), I wonder what message was being sent by the strong Republican vote. Not that KS isn’t usually a Republican leaning state, but that folks like Steve Six who has being doing a great job is defeated. And the large margin of Kobach’s win is troubling. Are folks that worried by voter fraud and the new insurance policies or is it just an anti-democratic stance?

      Definitely spent the day eating more chocolate than usual. And then tried to focus my energy on hope. Of course, then heard the news about Gov. Parkinson firing Brembly and was struggled again.

      I agree that people are worried about their families’ futures. And I do think most people are concerned about the lack of jobs and their smaller paychecks. And who can blame them. My husband discussed this very issue at a halloween party. He said many of the folks basically said “all I know is my paycheck is smaller and I’m working more hours and Obama is in office so its his and the other democrats’ fault.” Almost makes you think that perhaps it was good for the conservatives that Obama was elected and was left with this economic mess.

      In regards, to Jen’s reply: I think maintaining energy and momentum on a long term basis is difficult with any group. I know how you feel when legislators are ignoring you or listen and then vote differently than you discussed. Its so fustrating.
      Social workers are trained to work with groups and encourage clients to change. But it is difficult to communicate with those who aren’t interested in a civil discussion. Good question. But I’m glad you were part of that group and attempted to present your views and insights.

      • Lesa, Dennis McKinney’s defeat for Treasurer got me the most, really (besides the obvious–we have no real Secretary of State now)–he pulled his neighbors from tornado wreckage, for crying out loud! I agree that momentum and sustenance of organizing efforts are great challenges in any organizing effort. I was actually just reading a case study of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that you’d both probably really enjoy, and I have some ideas circulating in my mind about these same questions–what values, and what structures, and what leadership qualities make the difference? Lesa, I agree that people are bewildered and afraid in this economy, but, to me, there’s a real opportunity there, to articulate what ails us and how to move beyond it…it’s certainly not the first time that we’ve faced major, and nearly universal, hardship. I honestly think that Obama has been striving for that, and I wish I had the answer about how to strike that chord.

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