Now that the election is over, I can speak more candidly about my own candidacy, and how the amateur punditry of the blogosphere consistently fails to distinguish the substance from the ritual of politics. It is, in fact, a classic error, involving the distinction between substantive and functional rationality, between pursuing a rational goal and pursuing a goal rationally. Though some may misinterpret this post as an “apology” for a “failed” candidacy, its real purpose is to point the way toward a political discourse that looks beyond the horse race and remains cognizant of the ultimate purpose of politics: Not to run a race better than others, but to stop running in circles altogether, and actually move toward a destination, whether quickly or slowly.

Substantive rationality must always take priority over functional rationality: We must always first ensure that the goals we are pursuing are the most rational goals possible, before ensuring that we are pursuing them in the most rational ways possible. Sometimes the answer is obvious, such as in how best to use my candidacy (explained below). Sometimes it’s more complex, and involves more weighing out of costs and benefits, with less certain results.

For instance, would it have been more rational for the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats during the past two years to pass as much progressive legislation as they could while they had the chance, or more rational to try to move forward in a way which might be more sustainable? How much political capital should be invested in trying to make marginal deep structural improvements, and how much in trying to make immediate legislative improvements?

Regardless of whether a simple or a complex calculation, we must always examine both our goals, and our means of pursuing them. And we must consider both long-term and short-term goals, and how the balance struck between them affects the means by which we pursue them.

My candidacy for the Colorado House of Representatives this year provides a good example of what I’m talking about, and of the institutionalized pressures to focus on functional rationality at the expense of substantive rationality, to perform the rituals of electoral politics faithfully even if it is not the most useful thing to do.

When I agreed to run, I knew that I was running in a district that no Democrat had won in almost half a century (and even then, before redistricting made it even harder), and whose numbers of registered Democrats, Republicans, and Independents were far worse than any of the seats formerly considered “safe Republican seats” that Democrats managed to orchestrate surprise victories in (generally with the help of funding from a well-organized netrork of 527’s targeting the most winnable races). I also soon realized that even the core Democrats in my district, for the most part, were resigned to losing, and were strongly disinclined to invest any significant amount of time or money in what they perceived to be an impossible task. Finally, it became increasingly clear that 2010 wasn’t going to be a year in which a Democrat could buck those odds and overcome those obstacles.

The Jefferson County political blog Jeffco Pols (off-shoot of Colorado Pols), wrote of my candidacy that “few candidates have done less.” I responded with the following:

Respectfully, I’m going to add my completion of your statement, without which it is not quite correct: “Few candidates have done less fundraising….” In a context broader than the one to which you limit yourself, (yours) is a dramatically inaccurate statement.What I’ve done a lot of is communicating with constituents, discussing public policy issues, learning about and analyzing public policy issues, and actually working on public policy issues (currently on braiding and blending funding streams for children and families in need, as well as lobbying Jeffco Schools to implement a robust school-community partnership). I manned booths the entire weekends at Jeffco Rodeo and Fair, and Summerset, with a political toss game and “good citizens maze” that I created for kids, talking with constituents, and have walked my district as much as I have been able to. I also founded and preside over a local community organization.

Prior to and during all of that, I’ve spent my life studying social institutional dynamics and public policy issues, with the ultimate end of affecting them for the better….

I used my candidacy in what I considered the best way it could be used to advance the progressive agenda. That’s what I intended to do, and that’s what I did, with a great investment of time and effort. I did not run to engage in a ritual devoid of a realistic calculation of what I could accomplish and how best to accomplish it; I ran to have what effect I could have. And my choices were based on that calculation.

I’ve attended numerous events in which I can talk with constituents, interest groups, and those who are involved in public policy formation, was on Mike Zinna’s television and radio political talk shows (exposure that few if any first time, long-shot state house candidates manage to get), on a Spanish language radio political talk show, had three feature spreads in The Columbine Courier, and a few op-eds in the Denver Post….

Voters should vote for whom they consider most qualified to legislate, not whom they consider to have done the best job marketing himself, or who they think  (between two candidates in the general election) has the best chance of winning. I encourage the voters in my district to make their own decision based on an assessment of the relative talents and qualities of the candidates, and not have it made for them by the self-annointed gate-keepers of democracy.

Following Jeffco Pols repetition of their insistence that none of that is relevant, I continued:

What I did was to state clearly what I have done a lot of, for what purpose, a purpose directly related to running for office, though not limited to winning an election….

You say “few candidates have done less,” and I say, “well, it depends on what kind of ‘doing’ you want to emphasize….” You want to emphasize what wins elections, and I want to emphasize what serves the public interest….

To you, politics is the competition to win elections. To me, politics is the effort to have a positive influence on the world….

You equate working on developing a robust community-school partnership in Jefferson County, and working to create more effective delivery of services to children and families, and working to create a better understanding of some of the social and economic challenges that face us, (with) “driving up and down I-25,” because, to you, if I prioritize serving the public interest, using my candidacy as a platform from which to do so, rather than marginally decreasing the overwhelming odds against me in an election I had almost no chance of winning…, that is tantamount to “doing nothing.” To me, it is the most rational strategy to make some marginal improvement in the quality of our shared existence. And that, not the ritual of electoral politics, is the real goal.

There are activities a candidate can engage in that only have value, vis-a-vis the ultimate goal of improving the human condition, if the candidate wins, and other activities that have some value vis-a-vis that goal win or lose. The more improbable an electoral victory is in the candidate’s particular jurisdiction at that particular time, the more rational it is to shift the balance of investment of time and energy toward those activities that have value win or lose, such as persuasive substantive communication, community organizing, and actual policy work. Those are the activities I have emphasized, and have done so with energy and commitment. Mathematically, it looks like this:

Let’s say the goal is to produce as many units of X (public welfare) as possible. And let’s say there are various means of contributing to it: W (winning an election); O (community organizing); R (public policy research); and P (effective persuasive communication).

Let’s say that there are 10 units of time to spend on all of these means (since time is finite, this just means dividing however much can be spent on political activities by 10). Let’s say that W produces 100 units of X if successfully completed, and zero if not. Let’s say that there are four ways to contribute to the success of W: M (raising money), C (canvassing), and E (attending events). Let’s say for every unit of time spent doing M, the odds of success in W go up 4%; for every unit of time spent doing C, the odds go up 2%; and for every unit of E, the odds go up 1%.

Let’s say that each unit of time spent doing O produces 3 units of X, each unit of time spent doing R produces 5 units of X, and each unit of time spent doing P produces 4 units of X. But let’s say that when a candidate spends a unit of time doing O, it also counts as a unit doing C; and when he spends a unit of time doing P, it also counts as a unit doing E. And let’s say that no more than 4 units of time can usefully be spent on any one of O, R, or P.

Under these circumstances (which roughly reflect reality), the most rational way to maximize production of X is to run for office, and distribute your activities among C (O), E (P), and R, completely ignoring M. In other words, to do exactly what I’m doing. (The expected value of each time unit of M is 4 units of X; of O, P, and R as a non-candidate 3, 4, and 5 units of X, respectively; while the value of each time unit of O, P, and R as a candidate is 5 units of X). The issue becomes a little more complicated if by running you are displacing someone else who might have run instead, who wouldn’t have been able or willing to do O, R, or P in lieu of running for office. But that’s not the case in HD28 (no one else wanted to run, and I have always offered to step aside for anyone who did).

The value in this model that is probably least realistic is the 4% rise in probability of X per unit of M, suggesting that full time fund raising would have given me a 40% chance of winning the election. In reality, nothing would have given me a 40% chance of winning. I inflated the chances of winning in order to make it a closer calculation; in reality, it wasn’t a close call at all. The best way for me to contribute to the public interest was to be a candidate who spent my time doing things other than those that would have maximized my (inevitably slim) chances of winning.

Recognizing this allowed me not to sacrifice the real objective to the “goal displacement” of over-emphasis on trying to accomplish an intermediate goal.

(I want to emphasize, though, that many circumstances have already changed, and will continue to change, the odds of my winning in 2012, if I decide to run again. I will start out with more name recognition, with a bit of a foundation to work with, competing for an open seat, in a different political climate. If, with the assistance of others, I determine that my district’s seat in the Colorado House of Representatives is winnable in 2012, I will do everything in my power to win it).

As we all work together, here in South Jeffco and the Denver metropolitan area, throughout Colorado, in the United States, and around the world, to improve the quality of life for all people, now and in the future, we will have to balance many considerations: What should be the distribution across the spectrum of the most local to the most global of our concerns and our efforts? What should be the distribution across the spectrum of the most short-term to the most long-term goals? What should be the distribution across the spectrum of the most superficial (and therefore, generally, most tractable) challenges to the most deeply structural (and therefore, generally, most intractable)?

These issues of balancing the focus of efforts across levels and across time, combined with the necessity of negotiating conflicting interests and ideologies, and the complexity of the natural, technological, and social institutional systems we are working with, together define the dimensions of our on-going political challenge. Understanding this, and understanding it with ever increasing clarity and precision, is part of what it takes to meet that challenge most effectively.

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