The election of President Donald Trump prompted one of the most profound groundswells of citizen action in recent memory. That action has taken many forms, including a flood of donations to progressive organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, and organized marches around the country on behalf of women, science, and climate. That civic reaction has rooted itself to politics too: Well ahead of the 2018 mid-terms, a slew of novice candidates for Congress are looking to unseat longtime incumbents in both Republican and Democratic strongholds.
Pacific Standard spoke with several of these political outsiders about their campaigns, including Brianna Wu, a Boston-based video game developer who is running against Stephen Lynch—a Democrat from Massachusetts' eighth congressional district since 2013. Lynch, once a staunch conservative on social issues, has become more progressive since his first run for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1994. But Wu believes his evolution on abortion and LGBT rights is just a ploy to maintain his seat, and that the Democratic party needs a new generation of voices in Washington.
Why did you decide to run now?
I think our political establishment really doesn’t have a clue just how upset women are about the outcome of this election. For me personally, hearing Trump make that comment about grabbing women made me deeply uncomfortable. And I think there's a real sense with ordinary Americans that we can't leave politics up to professional politicians any longer. There's an entire slate of people who never imagined themselves as politicians that are now compelled to run. That's certainly why I'm running. I enjoy my job, I love engineering, and I worked my entire life to get to this point in my career; it's personally a great sacrifice to take a step back from the company I've worked so hard to build, but at the same time I have to do something. This just cannot stand.
How would your background or experience help to improve Congress?
I think it's not good for any organization to have a monoculture. Something that really strikes me is that Congress is comprised of 44 percent lawyers. It's not that there's anything wrong with being a lawyer, but I think that Congress would really benefit from having people with different backgrounds. For me, as an engineer, I tend to be extremely pragmatic, and I have a strong preference for solutions that really get to the heart of the problem. It doesn't really matter where that idea comes from—right or left. People who come from the technology industry, they're not afraid to think big. When you look at Congress you see a body that is paralyzed with inaction.
What sort of action would you like to see more of?
I have long been immensely frustrated with the inadequacy of our tech policy here in the United States. There's the engineer side of me that really wants to update our cybersecurity, really wants to improve net neutrality, wants to widen access to information here in the U.S., and that's something our current Congress is really failing to do.
My experience with Gamergate makes me deeply concerned with the online culture toward women and the ways that our systems fail us. To this day I get death threats routinely, I get rape threats routinely. Somebody came by my house the other day and chucked a rock through my front window.
We have legislation that we plan to put forward: I want to put riders in the Federal Bureau of Investigation funding that will mandate the agency to allocate a certain number of FBI agents to respond to threats to people's lives online. I also intend to hold hearings on the tech industry and our culture of extreme sexism. In the '90s, Congress looked at the tech industry, and specifically the violent content the video game industry was putting out. Now I, like everyone else in the tech industry, do not want the government going through and telling us what we can and cannot make, but those hearings had an amazing effect on our industry. We formed the Entertainment Software Rating Board because of that, and we put forward a rating system that let consumers make informed choices about video games before they bought them. It's my hope that by holding hearings on this utterly broken culture in tech that they can finally clean their act up.
Right now Congress is only 20 percent women, and that really shows with the policy that Congress is putting out.
What are your complaints against Lynch?
I have been long frustrated with Lynch. You can read about his background and see that his antipathy toward gay people that first got him interested in politics. As a member of the Massachusetts House, he once tried to pass a bill that would have given people that committed hate crimes against gay people a "get out of jail free" card, if they could find any way to blame the gay person for provoking the attack. For me as a queer woman, that's very personal for me. That's part of it, but I think the bigger issue, beyond the social issues, is that Lynch is part of this Democratic Party problem that we have in the House. He's part of the same old broken system. You can look at the way that he votes—he's very timid, he keeps his head down, and he's just trying to go from election to election. He's not really putting really big ideas out there. Massachusetts is one of the most educated states in the entire country; we could be really leading the U.S. in clean energy, in fighting climate change. These are areas that would really bring jobs to district eight, which has been just destroyed by globalization.
What does the Democratic Party need to do moving forward?
The Democratic Party has gotten so used to blaming all of our problems on the Republicans that we have really forgotten what it means to have our own vision for the party. The Democratic Party has a real identity crisis, and it's really time for us to look at what the people are telling us. They are just beyond angry: Anger toward Wall Street has never been higher; anger toward large corporations has never been higher; anger toward Congress has never been higher. What the Democratic Party has done wrong is, rather than spend any time looking in the mirror about why people are so angry with us, we just kind of blame everything on Trump. I want to be crystal clear here: I am beyond opposed to Trump; he horrifies me on every single level. But I also realize that he won because he was able to make a fierce connection with a lot of ordinary Americans. And the Democrats need to do some soul searching and put forward the same.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.