I was super excited to get a chance to chat with Lauren Duca, the witty, outspoken and occasionally controversial author of How To Start A Revolution, an accessible guide to fostering greater political engagement that’s also a brilliant look at the present-day alienation of the American voter. We talked about her book, politics, David Sedaris and what she’s reading today, among other subjects.
Let’s talk about How To Start A Revolution, which was probably my favorite political book of the year. What made you decide that you needed to write a book to further the cause of progressive politics considering that you already do so much with your articles, TV appearances and tweets? Why was a book so attractive to you?
Lauren: I went through this political awakening with Trump’s election, and it suddenly made no sense to be writing about anything other than politics. Freelancing is such a difficult feast-or-famine struggle, and it’s hard to find regular work writing about politics in what is pretty obviously a boys’ club of expertise. So I figured I would shoot my shot and I put together a plan for researching and reporting kind of ten different angles for how we had gotten to the dumpster fire of Trump’s election. Basically, my ask was “please let me spend all my time on this and just let me pay my rent and healthcare.” The sample chapter of that book proposal was my piece, Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.
I’m really glad you decided to shoot your shot! How did How To Start A Revolution evolve from where the idea first germinated in your head?
When Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America took off in Teen Vogue, it started the conversation about disinformation coming out of the White House, but also whether or not young women care about politics. There was kind of this patronizing contemplation of that because just the idea of the article being in Teen Vogue was apparently very surprising to some old white men in media. I started to think about the ways in which young people’s political participation or lack thereof is framed as a matter of not caring. I had just undergone this political awakening and I knew that my experience wasn’t that I didn’t care before. I was socially justice minded and interested in the grand project of equality, but I just did not have the sense of agency and self-determination in terms of traditional politics. I felt as if government was something that was happening to me. That’s what became the foundation for unpacking the difference between alienation and apathy, and trying to provide pathways for people to have this “click” moment of understanding that we are the ones that must be doing the work of democracy. The fact that we’re not isn’t a matter of laziness but of a system that boxes out our voices and doesn’t invite us to the table, and then chastises us for not showing up.
I know you can’t see me just sitting here nodding my head, but it’s so true. [As an immigrant, I often wonder] why aren’t more Americans more engaged in the voting process, and not just young people, tho definitely young people. Reading your book and all the stuff about the political-industrial complex, I’m like “Oh my God. Of course!” As citizens, [we] have a vague idea of feeling alienated but having you put that into words so succinctly made everything (snaps fingers) click. And while How To Start A Revolution talks about how to help these people who want to become more politically engaged, do you have any thoughts on how we can reach young people who might be indifferent to politics because they’re still in the grip of the political-industrial complex’s manufactured alienation?
I think that the most critical way to click into political agency is to see concrete examples of people using their voice and affecting change, especially at the local level. Something I was really excited about in my research was Generation Citizen and the way that they’ve designed a program of action civics with democracy coaches training high school students for ten weeks, which is quite short and doesn’t require an expensive budget. It just relies on going through the steps of how do you cite a problem, find solutions and then pursue them. I think that a lot of what I was hearing in interviews of people who had undergone the awakening was this kind of fumbling to explain the state that came before. I felt similarly, where I almost couldn’t explain how I didn’t know what I didn’t know. One of my subjects said, “I understood that people could be going to town halls, but not that I should be doing that.” I think that the key to helping this click moment happen is as many concrete examples and ideally walking through the steps of it yourself. I tried to have the book operate on a couple of different levels and part of it is engineered to hopefully incite that click moment for someone who’s reading it and hasn’t had it yet. It’s hard, because how do you get someone to pick it up to begin with if they’re in that state? But I’m hoping that it can be handed to someone, they might consider it and it might be able to incite the awakening.
Gosh, that reminds me of how my dad would be like “You know, if you want to lead people, you need to lead by example,” and when I was a lot younger I was like “ugh” but as I get older, I’m all “oh, he was so right!” Just modeling right behavior for people is so important. Given that How To Start A Revolution is a practical guide, what has been the feedback so far from readers on the steps that you outline?
It seems to be a matter of (shyly) total engagement. It’s been starting to spread in a small way, but I think that the impact is that people will tell me that they’ve already changed major parts of their life or totally changed their behavior in relationship to politics and they’ll say “oh I started canvassing” or “I’m thinking of joining a political campaign for the first time.” I think [political engagement] can feel so out of grasp, but it feels that the place I have the most impact is with people who are interested but feel intimidated and need that extra push to model their own discipline of democracy. I’m excited ‘cause I’ve already seen that starting to happen.
That’s so heartwarming!
It totally is!
One of my colleagues wants to know if any of the three steps in Learn, Decide and Act, which is your blueprint for how to move forward, has seemed most difficult for your readers to grapple with, or if you have your own opinions on what that might be.
Well, I think the most difficult part of it is the Learn piece because so much of what keeps us in a state of alienation is that everything feels overwhelming and then there’s this [intimidating] projection of expertise. I think once you have empowered yourself with information, conviction of opinion and the urgency of action flows from there. But it really is that first step of empowering yourself with information and building out your regular media diet or making yourself an expert in the subject you want to be an expert in. What I try to tell people is to zero in on the thing you care about, the local issue or whatever it may be that’s resonating with you. Basically, go and do a school project on that thing for yourself! From there, you will feel much more confident to move through the world and act and raise your voice on that issue. Nobody knows everything all the time despite the fact that there seems to be some pretending to that effect.
Right? Just today, I was reading a bunch of stuff about the new White House Press Secretary saying that the Obama administration left notes wanting their successors to fail and it’s all like “why?!” This is such a blatant lie, but you know there are going to be people who believe this too. It’s so hard for people to try to figure out what is true and what isn’t any more, considering.
Definitely! Gaslighting means realizing that we need to create our own foundation of information. We’re in a moment where every individual person is living in a highly unique reality, based on the digital media they’re consuming alone. Having the initiative to be a critical thinker and to be mindful about your media diet and to ask questions not just of authority but of yourself is a lot of work, actually! We can’t just expect to be fed information. If we do, we’re not truly free, we’re just going through the motions.
That’s such good advice! Okay, I’m going to start asking about some general author things now. What is the first book or article you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”
I’ve had a lot of moments like that but I think one of the earliest writers that made me certain I wanted to write a book was David Sedaris, which is maybe unexpected. But I think it’s related because he’s extraordinarily funny and it’s important to me to have a sense of humor and use entertainment as part of my journalism. It really informed the kind of writer I am: I think it’s the journalist’s job to make the significant interesting. I think that the artistry of writing and the art of comedy are tools that should be used to bring the reader in and keep them interested. There’s a lot of ways of hooking people’s attention that are on display for nefarious ends — whether they’re for like marketing and capitalism, or recruitment for MRA crap — so I think it’s important to use it to empower people with the information that they need to participate as citizens. Still a huge Dave Sedaris fan to this day.
I absolutely agree that it’s important to use all the tools possible to draw people towards civic participation. So how did you learn to write? I know that’s a really open-ended question.
By writing for the paper, all lowercase literally, for Fordham University; it’s the alternative student newspaper. We had a lot of freedom and an irreverent aesthetic that was part of the publication. It really gave me a lot of space to explore and find my voice and be contemplating my worldview as I was finding it. I got to school and I knew that I wanted to write but I had no idea what that meant: [maybe] a book that could have been the “next great American novel”? From writing for the school paper, I saw that I wanted to write things that are true and to explore the world through my experience and expand from that. I think that the writer I am today was created on campus on Fordham.
Speaking of irreverent, you occasionally send funny, self-deprecating tweets about the author’s life, but in all seriousness, do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?
[Laughs] My writing regimen is usually to drink 32 ounces of iced coffee and hit a bong. Very strict! And then eat some weird snack. I eat red cabbage sometimes.
I have powdered peanut butter!
[Laughs] Yeah, I draw the line at powdered peanut butter, that’s a little much for me.
[Laughs] Just snorting powdered peanut butter
That cannot be good for your nasal cavity!
Nooo. In all honesty, writing this book involved so much time alone with my brain, and that became very difficult and hard, to transition in and out of being in solitude, trying to interact with the world and be social. There’s this anxiety of wanting to be working on the project at all times that definitely has diminishing returns. It almost feels to me like the discipline has to do also with taking time for your brain to reinflate and figuring out how to enjoy your life when you’re not thinking about the thing and writing about the thing. I did not get that balance right for a very long time, working on this one. I’m planning to write more books and things will hopefully be different next time around
Speaking of next time around, what can you tell us about your next project?
Over the process of writing How To Start A Revolution, I went through a lot of different awakenings. The political awakening I had with Trump’s election catapulted me to this public figuredom which is such a high pressure state of being! It really forced me to figure out who I am and what I care about and what hills I’m going to die on, and to figure out how to deal with the pressure of attacks and harassment. I’ve been on a pretty intense journey of finding God and coming out and working with plant medicine. At the crux of it all has been this work of fixing my brain. I was really miserable before and I hated myself and thought about killing myself all the time. I’ve done a lot of work to find self-validation and self-love and a form of dynamic ever-evolving self-actualization. I’m hoping to put that journey into book form with the goal of an expanded version of the mission of How To Start A Revolution, to allow people to facilitate the work of being free and living fully in every possible way. I found that while I was working on all of this, I had to build this spiritual and mental health discipline that has made being alive a much better thing. Sharing that journey and hopefully creating something that I think especially young women will resonate with in getting free of the prisons of being cruel to ourselves and warping ourselves to fit these scripts and patterns that we never thought to write for ourselves.
That’s very awesome! I’m looking forward to reading it.
It’s called Ego In Retreat, tentatively.
That sounds like a promising title! Switching from writing to reading, what are you reading at the moment?
Right now, I am reading Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. I think he’s an incredibly important thinker, especially in this moment with the mainstream interrogation of the presence of billionaires in social change that is only surface level. I’m only partway in but it feels like it should be required reading for the entire country ahead of 2020.
I don’t think I’ve heard of that book! Thank you for the recommendation. Are there any other authors or new books that have you excited?
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey [on the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal] is probably next on my list. I’m endlessly in awe and thankful for their reporting and the way that it paved the way for #MeToo. I’m excited to read the behind the scenes take on all that.
That looks fantastic, as well. I just have one more question: Tell us why you love How To Start A Revolution!
[Laughs] I love my own book because…
[Laughs] This is basically just a free space for you to tell us what’s awesome about it.
I love that How To Start A Revolution insists on everyone having a right and duty to political conversation. It peels back the bizarre secret rules that keep us from raising our voices. I wish that I would have had this book when I was in high school so I could have gotten a head start on fucking shit up.
Creatively, of course.
Creatively, yes! I have started on tearing down the white supremacist partiarchy and building an equitable public power but yeah, I was not on that fully in high school. [Laughs]
Thanks for this really great conversation! I’m really glad you took the time to do this with us.
Yes! Thank you so much! I’m so glad that we caught each other. And if you know of anyone who would be interested in me talking about it, or any other way to spread the word, [while] I’m thinking about the book, I’m more thinking about my mission, which is getting as many young people as possible empowered ahead of 2020. I’m going to spend the next year doing that but I’m starting to find that book promotion is exhausting and weird, and I’ve clicked out of thinking about it like that and thought I just need to go and spread the mission of this thing in whatever form. So I’ll be out here screaming till the next presidential election!
Check out more of Lauren Duca’s thoughts at these author links:
How To Start A Revolution was published September 24th 2019 and is available from all good booksellers.