Why people leave town: thoughts on the Hugo nominations
|A genuinely hilarious video (although perhaps not for the reasons intended), attributed to Vox Day.|
I live in a small town, and have spent the last ten years or so involved in small town politics. I've learned a few lessons, some the hard way. Science fiction is a small town, and in this year's Hugo nominations — the awards voted on by members of World Science Fiction Convention — I'm seeing unfortunate echoes of the way local politics can be gamed and hijacked by a small but determined group.
Back in the oughts, my town of Portsmouth became one of the first battlegrounds for the anti-tax crowd in Rhode Island; proto-Tea Partiers before there was such a thing. In 2006, the local "Concerned Citizens" group managed to use a procedural technique — a referendum on the local budget colloquially referred to as a "tent meeting" — to slash the budget for Portsmouth's schools and town in what was the index year for all subsequent tax levy increases. By rallying ten percent of the town's electorate, they were able to override budgets crafted by the duly elected School Committee and Town Council.
In local politics, you learn that angry people show up to vote. And it's far easier to drum up an angry mob than to communicate nuanced positions on issues.
Folks in a small town expect local government to handle things without a lot of drama. They vote for people on the Council and School Committee without necessarily a whole lot of thought about party affiliation; it's not like national politics. You may know this gal from church, or that guy coached your kid's Little League team. There's a general sense that the people running for office all have the town's best interests at heart — I mean, they're stepping up to do a several-year stint for very little pay. That assumption of good will works to an attacker's advantage.
Local elections can be swung by a few hundred votes. If you can get a core group of even 50 people riled up about an issue — in local politics, taxes are always handy (as are sewers and arsenic) and each of them reaches out to their network, you've got enough votes to change the leadership of a Council or School Committee. Not that those people, once elected, will necessarily show a lot of interest in post-partisan governance (or even, in some cases, serving out their term). They are more interested in advancing an agenda, and they will take hold of the levers of local control for a couple of years and run things into the ditch. (I say this, admittedly, as a one-time candidate for school committee who got my ass handed to me by a couple of the darlings of the anti-tax faction, so, obviously, I am biased.)
The parallels to science fiction fandom should hopefully be obvious. Worldcon is effectively a small town, albeit a temporary and peripatetic one, as it re-creates itself in a new host city every year. The same attacker's advantages accrue in voting for the convention's awards. The total number of ballots cast for Hugo nominations this year, 2,122, is the kind of number you see in a small town election. That's the kind of number you can swing with the torch-and-pitchfork crowd. Get a few hundred folks riled up about an issue — and it can be as illusory as arsenic in a landfill — and they wield an influence all out of proportion to their actual numbers, because the people of good will may not even be aware of their activities and the strength of the majority is diluted.
These are the kinds of things that can make people throw up their hands and figuratively leave town by abandoning local politics. Some people — even those who are well-intentioned — see a false equivalence and blame "both" sides.
It doesn't have to be that way.
The cynics (λυπημένος κυνικός) may win in the short term. They have absolutely scored a major victory, both in the composition of the Hugo nominations and the amount of ink and angst generated over their actions. But they underestimate the true power of small-town politics: regression to the mean. There are many more citizens than cynics, and their votes can not be gamed. The collective notion of the genre has been moving, inexorably, in the direction of more progressive, inclusive science fiction. Those of us who share that vision need to speak out, generate recognition among the majority of people of good will, and show up at the polls. That's how you overcome reactionary extremists. That's how you turn things around in local politics.
In case you're so inclined, you can get a supporting membership to Worldcon here and vote on the Hugos.