I Ran for Office on a Basic Income Platform and So Should You

It’s customary, when talking about what inspired you to run for office to start with, “I never imagined I’d run for office.” Once we have grounded the reader or listener in false humility, we move on to a revelation that inspired the reluctant politician to fight for a better world. This formula, which you will hear again and again, is employed as often as it is because we, collectively, don’t like it when people seek power because they are personally ambitious. We suspect, rightly, that the powerseeker will make compromises to rise to a position and maintain their perch once there. Sometimes that’s fine — sometimes the external pressures of the job are what’s needed to keep people in line. Other times it does real, long term damage. Politicians are skittish creatures. They don’t like explaining or introducing new concepts. They would rather hit familiar talking points and deliver them in a cadence that triggers people to nod and applaud.

Which is why I ran for office. That is to say, I ran for office because the incentives of the elected official create certain blind spots in policymaking, especially around unusual ideas, long term problems, and policies that primarily benefit the disenfranchised. These are often the ideas we need most, even if they shock the system and inspire defensive reactions in the body politic. It’s not the most direct path to personal victory, but it’s a necessary piece of the puzzle for the political victories of a movement.

For the last few years, I have worked to advance the cause of universal basic income. The idea has been gaining traction, becoming a favorite topic of policy podcasts and economic thinkpieces. It’s an exciting time for the movement, as it goes from fledgling to limited test flights. For politicians, however, there is little reason to touch UBI. They imagine their rivals saying, “My opponent wants to explode the budget to give free money to drug dealers,” and they back away. No one will accuse them of cowardice for having no stated feelings (or negative feelings) about UBI. Better just to stick to jobs, healthcare, housing — issues where your party and your voters provide a fairly clear road map, at least when it comes to having something to say.

The problem is that politicians determine policy, and this causes stagnation on policies on which politicians fear departing from the status quo. Basic income is one of many examples: climate change, drug legalization, campaign finance reform, gun reform, even housing. Sometimes the status quo comes from voters, sometimes from interest groups, but either way the status quo is the safest political territory, even when the policy is outdated.

That’s why you should run for office on a basic income platform. Or if basic income isn’t your thing, swap in your thing, but I’m going to talk about basic income here, because that’s my thing. Here’s some advice on how to do that.

1. Be ready to talk about everything about the basic income.

This one is probably obvious, but you will get every question out there: how do you pay for it? What about inflation? Would you cut other services? What about drug addicts? What about the dignity of work? Won’t people quit their jobs? Won’t they drink it away? Won’t everyone move here to get free money? There are answers to these questions (this post has some of them), but the specifics will depend on you and your area.

2. Be ready to talk about everything other than the basic income.

As a candidate I participated in about ten candidate forums, all of which had the format of 1) opening statement 2) Q+A 3) (sometimes) closing statement. In all of those, I got zero basic income questions. This is in one of the most liberal districts in the country. If you can’t answer questions about healthcare, housing, climate change, and anything else you’ll have to deal with as an elected representative, people won’t take you seriously as a candidate and they probably shouldn’t. If you think the answer to all of those is basic income, you can make that case, but it’s a very hard case to make. I certainly mentioned, when I could do so credibly, that basic income would help deal with homelessness, stimulate the economy, allow a more diverse group to pursue entrepreneurship, avoid the stigma of our other social benefit programs, etc., but I would do so while laying out a broader context that included non-basic income solutions. If your only policy tool is basic income and you use that to solve every problem, you’ll be doing your candidacy and the movement a disservice.

3. Know your local issues.

This is a continuation of the last point, but deserves some special attention. As a basic income candidate, you are already a little bit of an alien. You can fight back against that by understanding the issues specific to your area. For example, a big issue in my district is the potential closure of a hospital. You can know everything about national issues and still have to start from scratch on local issues like that, but that’s what your voters care about, and it’s a basic requirement of the job of representing them to have a handle on that stuff.

4. Consider aiming lower.

If you’ve never held elected office before, there is a tension between the desire to follow a normal progression in politics (i.e. municipal committee → city council → lower state house), with the reality that a program like basic income makes the most sense at the federal level, then state, then county and city. The main reason for this is the size of the budgets. That said, it’s easy to underestimate how much you can do at the local level (especially when you think about how hard it is to accomplish anything at the upper levels). Maybe your city can’t implement a basic income, but you could find an income source for a small, universal dividend every six months. Perhaps you could provide universal banking services, eliminate conditions around existing social benefits, provide a one-time dividend for new parents, etc. These are achievable political goals that start to lay the groundwork for a basic income. If you can be an effective local official, you will have a good platform if you want to pursue higher office.

5. Know why you are doing this.

Winning and drawing attention to your issue will sometimes point toward different courses of action, and how you weight these two goals will affect how you campaign. My answer to this was that I was running to win, but would not compromise my emphasis on basic income to do so. I chose this middle path in part because I wanted the credibility of a candidate who is running to win. I was in a crowded field in a down-ballot race — if I projected that I wasn’t competing for votes, that would be all the reason people needed to ignore me. Your answer to this question will depend on your desires, your temperament, and your read on the electorate.

Running for office is far from the only way to advance a policy, but for issues that politicians would rather avoid, you can do a real service by breaking that seal and raising issues that others won’t. You’ll force your opponents to engage with the issue — two of mine publicly stated their support for the idea, due to my advocacy — and start a lot of conversations with and among voters. Among friends, I described my run as being the first person to get up on an empty dance floor. There’s no crowd for that person to hide in, but they make it easier for the next few people to start dancing, and before long people are joining in like it’s no big deal. I’m not actually the first politician to run with a basic income focus, and the fact that there’s even music to dance to is due to the labor and advocacy of many many people before me. Still, the party for politicians willing to talk about basic income hasn’t hit critical mass, but I’m hoping my run along with the collective action of so many others will make it easy for people like you — even if you never thought you’d run for office — to join.