Politics for Software Engineers, Part 1

What's the one thing you can do?

This is part 1 in a series titled "Politics for Software Engineers." Subscribe now so you don't miss future installments.

"What's the one thing I can do to have the most impact?"

Every time I meet a tech person interested in getting involved in local politics they ask me this same question. Before I can answer that (and I will in the final installment of this series), you must first understand what politics is, how power works, and how change is made.

Politics is everything

Politics is everything. It is government institutions, yes, but it's also the fabric of our society. It is how we interact with each other, how much we trust each other, and how we resolve conflicts peacefully. It is how social mores are set (and changed), how we keep schools running, and how we respond to natural disasters. It is the entirety of our culture.

I want to disabuse you of the idea that politics is something you can simply ignore. Politics happens all around you, and to you, at all times. Choosing to ignore politics is itself a political act — you're choosing to hand over control of our society to someone else. When the people in charge are doing a good job, then this is a reasonable calculus. One could argue that "ignoring politics" is the basis of lower-case "r" republicanism: periodically elect leaders and let them make decisions for you. (This is your regular reminder that the US is a Republic, not a Democracy.)

Indeed, I think liberal republicanism is the ideal! You shouldn't have to constantly pay attention and vote on every little decision. But ignoring the details of government does not mean ignoring the politics of it. Bad politics begets bad government, and bad government is self-sustaining.

Politics is for power

I have learned that the way to think about my own power as a citizen is not that I’m one out of 130 million votes, but that I can get more than one vote if I convince other people how they should vote or advocate. I have learned that some people out there have a thousand times the voting power that I have not because they are rich or perpetrators of fraud, but because they have earned the respect of their neighbors. I am in awe of that power. I think that I crave that power. If I care about my political values, how could I not crave that power?

- Eitan Hersh, Politics Is for Power

It sounds dirty, but it's true: politics is for power. Any time you lament the state of our streets or the dysfunction of City Hall, what you are really saying is "I’m unhappy with the people that hold power, and I want the power to reshape the world." There is no point in dabbling in politics if you are not seeking to grow your own power or the power of your allies.

Learning this lesson has taken me well over ten years, two failed campaigns, and countless wasted hours making useless software tools. In my career as a software engineer, I have been trained to find and implement solutions to problems — any issues that stand in the way are navigated by talking through technical tradeoffs with other contributors and product management. There is usually a correct or a correct-enough solution that all parties agree to.

Politics doesn't work like this. Political decisions are made by the guy who takes people out on his boat and has been around for thirty years shouting "We only use bubble sort here!" and everyone just going along with it. It doesn't matter if you're right — it matters if you have influence and if people like you.

This bears repeating: it doesn't matter if you are right, it only matters if you have influence.

What started as a simple belief that the people in power were obviously wrong turned into the humbling realization that nothing that I knew to be correct could be done without playing the game and building power.

Building power

There are some people whose political power starts and ends with tweeting. Those people are utterly unserious and you should ignore them. You know who they are: they just tweet complaints, or they're "just asking questions" and they never ask you to take action. Not volunteering, not calling your representative, nothing but being angry online. They may have influence but they do not have power.

Among the political actors in the city who hold real power, there is no clear correlation between their public image and their actual influence. I use twitter to build my reputation and grow my reach, but the vast majority of my political activity happens behind the scenes. I do a *lot* that I never talk about publicly. Twitter allows me to amplify my voice and gain influence, but I gain power by doing hard work for people that ask for it.

Software engineers do not understand how to build power. We all make the same mistake: we ask "what's the one thing" we can do. If we get an answer, 90% of the time we don't deliver because we think it isn't actually that important (that's likely true!). If we do deliver, then we see what we've built didn't make meaningful change and we stop showing up. We balk at going door-to-door talking to voters because, surely that isn't the best use of our time?

Power is built by showing up, repeatedly, and doing what people ask you to do. It could be hand-addressing envelopes, helping to set up for an event, making phone calls, or, sure, even building the occasional website. What matters is that you come to be seen as a reliable and hard-working volunteer. When powerful people see that, they start handing you power.

Future installments of this series will cover: How to wield power, blockchain voting, direct democracy, why your app won't fix government, measuring success and failure, debugging in production, and how elections work and are won. Subscribe now so you don't miss any!