Progressives who want real change should run for office in rural America—like I did

Protest alone is not enough.
Protest alone is not enough.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Four and a half years ago, my wife and I relocated to Nehalem, a city on Oregon coast. We chose this place for its natural beauty. The stunning beaches and sublime forests were an immediate solace after the collapse of Occupy Wall Street, the movement I had helped start while working as an editor at Adbusters magazine.

Now estranged from the magazine and its visionary founder, who had been my mentor and close collaborator for a decade, Chiara and I found ourselves in rural America. Moving to this tiny city of just 280 residents wound up showing me a potential solution to the problems plaguing contemporary protest: running for local office.

Contemporary movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, along with massive protests like January’s Women’s March, have inspired people around the world. But too often, exciting movements fizzle out—in large part because protestors do not have the political power to change the systems they critique. It’s become clear to me that in order for protest movements to have a concrete impact, they need transform into a force capable of winning elections across the country. Protest alone is not enough; the best way to give power to popular assemblies is to capture sovereignty through the electoral process.

Four years went by in Nehalem, and Chiara and I had a son. Then I was approached by long-time residents concerned about the water quality in the town. They wanted help protecting our coastal forests and watersheds. I came to the conclusion that the only way to achieve positive change on this issue would be to gain control of our city councils.

I announced my candidacy for mayor of Nehalem five months before the November 2016 elections—and in doing so, I broke the central taboo of rural electoral politics. Out here, elections are typically uncontested, and the “good ol’ boys” are in control by default. What happened next was a wake-up call—one that showed me just what social-justice activists are up against.

Imagining a direct democracy

Before I relate what happened, allow me to say a word about what I was trying to achieve. I disagree with the American progressive electoral strategy that emphasizes idealized, individual candidates. Instead, I believe the best way to make positive change in politics is to create a series of micro social movements: neighborhood assemblies that can make political decisions together that impact their lives. We don’t need representatives who we trust to make good decisions for us because they’re good people; we need delegates who will defer to the movement on big decisions. And so when I speak of an electoral social movement, I imagine a fundamental shift in the decision-making process, away from the corruptions of representative democracy and toward democracy’s earlier forms.

I’m an activist, not a politician: I’m trying to spark a movement that spreads to city after city in the way that Occupy spread to 82 countries. So in my campaign for mayor, I proposed that Nehalem voters form a People’s Association: a forum open to all local residents that would meet prior to each city-council meeting to discuss what the city council and mayor should do. I promised that, if elected, I would abide by the decisions of the Nehalem People’s Association. I hoped that a majority of city-council members would make the same pledge to carry out the wishes of their neighbors. My goal was to give residents clear decision-making power over their local government. If it could work in Nehalem, it could work in dozens of rural cities across Oregon, Washington, and California. 

A nativist backlash

Some residents loved the idea, but others were highly opposed. The opposition created a nativist group called Keep Nehalem Nehalem, portraying me as a disruptive outsider. A majority of city-council members wore T-shirts with the slogan to council meetings. They spread false rumors about me, reporting that I was a Satanist (yes, an actual Satanist) employed by billionaire investor George Soros. By the time I even heard one of these rumors, everyone else had heard it twice. People who were thought to be allies of the People’s Association faced social isolation and bullying on Facebook. A resident was quoted in the only local newspaper making a racist death threat against me.

I hadn’t expected to encounter nativist rhetoric in Nehalem, which is one of the last places to be settled in the US, back in 1899. My undergraduate alma mater, Swarthmore College, is older than Nehalem. And many of the people who claimed to be keeping Nehalem Nehalem didn’t have long family legacies here either. But in a microcosm of the factors that shaped the US election, hyperbole and xenophobia proved to be powerful forces.

The crux of the conflict emerged at the first meeting of the People’s Association. I sent a letter to every Nehalem voter inviting them to attend. The room was packed with dozens of people from Nehalem and two neighboring cities, including city-council members, leading local-business owners, and local residents.

The theme of the gathering was Nehalem’s next 100 years. Participants spoke about their aspirations for the community—and one of the most persistent themes was the problem of change.

Like many rural communities across the US, Nehalem is changing economically and culturally. A persistent housing crisis means that local businesses are often unable to find housing for potential employees. Meanwhile, many houses are empty 50 weeks a year because of second homeowners living in metropolises. A burgeoning creative class is renovating the downtown, despite resistance from the older businesses.

That day, the room was divided between people who felt hopeful about the future of our tiny town and people who were afraid. Many, many people expressed a desire to define the features of Nehalem that we love so we could stay true to those elements while also introducing positive changes that could improve our daily lives. But the tone in the room was loud and aggressive. I realized the town was at a crossroads. We could try to foster the elements that we all loved, or we could let fear keep us chained.

The way forward

Ultimately, I lost the election, 139 votes to 36. But I remain convinced that winning elections in rural communities and giving power to the people is not only possible, but one of the most viable new directions for social movements.

I see two paths forward. Here is my advice for both:

The first path would be for the idea of a People’s Association to take root in a rural city, introduced, perhaps, by a long-time resident. The challenge here is that most people will face social pressures from people they’ve known for a long time, even if they personally agree with the movement. That said, the voting booth is a private space, and people are still able to vote their conscience. It is not inconceivable that the correct activist tactics could quietly garner a movement that holds a majority of votes in a rural city. This achievement could trigger the movement to spread to neighboring cities.

The second way would be to encourage emigration to rural communities. Right now, only people who live within roughly 90 houses in Nehalem’s narrowly defined city limits are allowed to run for city council and mayor or vote in city elections. The city excludes people who live in mobile homes and residential trailers and includes newer, wealthier developments. One sympathetic Berkeley or New York City homeowner could easily sell their residence and buy four or five homes in Nehalem. This path would be an acceleration of a rural culture war—a struggle to define the rural lifestyle in the 21st century.

Some might condemn this tactic as an unfair attempt by outsiders to reshape rural culture. But it is worth noting that “rural” is simply a census designation meaning “territory, population, and housing units not classified as urban.” If rural only means “not urban”—technically, a community less than 2,500 people—then it is an open canvas for reimagining how we live together. And as Alec MacGillis wrote in the New York Times last year, suggesting that liberals move away from coastal cities and into Republican-leaning areas, “By segregating themselves in narrow slices of the country, Democrats have also made it harder to make their own case. They are forever preaching to the converted, while their social distance also leaves them unprepared for what’s coming from the other end of the spectrum.” If progressives are serious about changing the way US politics work, we need to seek out places that don’t feel comfortable.