Soft Power: How to Make a Progressive Political Agenda Go Viral

Melissa Saenz Gordon and Glenn Robinson on starting Soft Power Vote, why voting in NY is so confusing, the impact you can have just by checking in on your peers, and how it’s easier to be civically engaged than you think.
Soft Power Vote Logo, designed by Glenn Robinson

This interview is part of Strange Futures, a column hosted by Willa Köerner of The Strange Foundation, which features artists and organizers who are actively creating transformation in this moment. In this conversation, Willa talked to Melissa Saenz Gordon and Glenn Robinson of Soft Power Vote to hear how they’re working to mobilize progressive, digital-native voters in the run up to November 3.


What is the idea behind Soft Power Vote? How did you start it?


There are three of us behind Soft Power Vote—myself, Yojaira Alvarez, and Glenn Robinson. We started meeting up at the beginning of this year. When I moved to New York City from San Francisco in 2017, I was surprised was surprised to see how different voting feels in NY versus California. In San Francisco, there are lots of voter guides available—not just from independent organizations, like the Pissed Off Voter Guide or Harvey Milk Democratic Club, but also from the state. Those guides share arguments for and against candidates and issues. I noticed right away that New York didn't really offer those kinds of guides, and so voting here felt far more confusing than I was used to.

As a way to counter my confusion, I started asking my friends how they were getting their information. Serendipitously, I bumped into my friend Yojaira at an art show. Yojaira is someone who I always admired as being politically savvy. She's always posting things on Instagram, like, "I'm happy to help make the voting process easier. If you have any questions, hit me up." So I pitched her the idea to create a voter guide for NYC, and she was down. Glenn was at the art show too, and he was just like, "I would love to help out." So we started meeting in January, and launched Soft Power in May, just before NY’s June primary.

Photo of Melissa Saenz Gordon.
Melissa Saenz Gordon
Yojaira Alvarez
Yojaira Alvarez

Why aren't there more voter guides available in NYC? I used to live in San Francisco too, and really depended on those guides as well.


Like California, New York is a Democratic-leaning state. But the Democrats in New York are, I would say, much more conservative. This is speculation, but I think they benefit from the fact that there's no comprehensive list of info about each candidate. They benefit from the fact that people don't know what's going on up in Albany, the State Capital. New York City and Albany have a sort of weird rivalry in that way. It's like a city-versus-state rivalry, which we’ve even seen playing out during the pandemic, in all the Cuomo vs. DeBlasio in-fighting. They don't ever seem to be on the same page, to everyone's detriment.

Bloomberg also really cracked down on a lot of activist activity after the Occupy movement in 2008. That destroyed a lot of the mutual-aid, voting-focused work of the past—including some voter guides that used to exist.


Politically, California feels like much more of an open book. New York’s political structure is a lot more opaque. This summer, the fight around NY’s 50-a law illuminated this. 50-a was a law that made it so that police, correctional officers, and fire department records were not publicly available. Over the summer, that law was finally repealed. But it’s just one example of how, historically, New York has tended to run things with less public access to information across the board.

As Soft Power Vote, we really want to make politics as easy to understand as possible. We want to demystify the intimidating aspects of getting involved, which are preventing a lot of our peers from feeling in the loop, and even voting.

As Soft Power Vote, we really want to make politics as easy to understand as possible. We want to demystify the intimidating aspects of getting involved, which are preventing a lot of our peers from feeling in the loop, and even voting. We're trying to tie in pop culture, art, and creativity—while also defining what a city council person does, and what a state assembly person does. [Laughs] Because, you know, every state is a little different. The ballot is so different in New York City than it is in San Francisco. Here, you can vote for the same candidate in two different party boxes. Before I voted here, I had never seen anything like that before. So I know if I was feeling confused by it, then I'm sure a lot of other people are feeling confused, too.


Can you talk about the strategy behind Soft Power Vote, and how you’re getting people engaged? You’re mostly using Instagram to spread your voter guides and other info, right?


Yeah. The idea behind Soft Power is that we’re checking in on our community and holding our peers accountable. And since we're millennials, Instagram felt like the best place to do that. Why would we want a website that asked them to go elsewhere for the information we’re providing? The idea is, let’s speak to voters in the exact same place that they're already spending their time. Soft Power is a social media-first, digital-native project.

Glenn is really the brains behind the design of the graphics, and we collaborate on the text. To come up with the content, we like to think about the guiding question of, “When you're in line to cast a vote, what do you need to know? What are the answers?” [Laughs] Not to say we’re trying to steamroll people into one “correct” answer, but if you trust our politics, we think you can trust our decisions around voting recommendations.

With the Black Lives Matter movement accelerating over the summer, there were so many resources that were shared—so many spreadsheets and infographics with big-picture ideas about how to be a better ally, you know? And how to be a better citizen, and a more engaged person in society. But I think a lot of people struggle with knowing how to apply those principles to civic engagement.

To make it easier for people, we put all of our decision-making criteria in a detailed spreadsheet, so that if anyone has any questions as to why we’re suggesting certain ways of voting, you can look and see the breakdown of how we made our decisions. We just want to make it as easy as possible, because it’s a lot to ask everyone to do all this research on their own. So, we did that research for you. And if you have any questions, you can hit us up. In June, a lot of people did send us messages. People even pushed back on some of our voting suggestions, which was actually really cool. With Soft Power Vote, we're not saying that there’s only one right “answer.” We’re just providing an option. It's a way to attract people and give them an access point towards progressive action.

We just want to make it as easy as possible, because it’s a lot to ask everyone to do all this research on their own. So, we did that research for you. And if you have any questions, you can hit us up.

At Soft Power we collaborate fully and inspire each other with ideas for the visuals and the text, which is really cool. We like the idea of using pop culture references, and the aesthetics of online culture, to give people information that keeps them engaged and pushing for change. That also speaks to “Soft Power” as a name. It was a term to imply cultural leverage, and the idea of convincing people to do things through cultural influence rather than through “hard power,” which would be something more aggressive and direct, like the military.


One thing that’s exciting to me about Soft Power is how you’re elevating down-ballot candidates and issues. This November, we’re not just voting for president—we’re voting for many things that have cascading effects across the board. How have you been able to get people engaged with less visible issues and candidates?


Something that I've been thinking about a lot is how pushing to flip the senate to the Democrats is almost more important than the presidential race. No matter who’s president, Mitch McConnell will still be able to do what he’s doing now, which is dangerous even under a Biden administration. So, we need to get people engaged beyond the presidential race.

We led an event to send postcards to voters of color in swing states, urging them to vote early. Democrat Jaime Harrison is going against Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, and Democrat Amy McGrath is in a close race with Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Getting people engaged to help turn out the vote in these kinds of races can really create transformative change in this country. It’s not just about Biden vs. Trump—there are so many other things to latch onto and feel really empowered to work on, whereas thinking about the presidential race can sometimes feel so nebulous and overwhelming.


For someone who wants to latch onto some of these more impactful ways to get involved in the upcoming election, what do you suggest?


Like anything you do in your life, it's way easier when you do it with other people. What we're trying to do is illuminate all the networks that exist to help people get involved. We want to show people that there are exciting candidates on the ballot, at least at the local level. And there are exciting ways to get involved that are not intimidating. The first step is just checking in on your community, and on your family. A lot of New Yorkers are from other states, and maybe have family in swing states. Those are really difficult conversations to have, but those are the ones that we really should be having.

Overall, there's no harm in getting a little bit more involved. What it comes down to is taking the initiative to learn a little bit more about how this stuff works. Maybe you start by throwing five bucks to someone's campaign who you're inspired by. I try not to always use Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an example, but use her success as a model for what’s possible when young people get engaged, you know? She's 31 years old—she's one of our peers. She started by getting a little bit involved in local politics, which led to her running for office.


As a project, Soft Power Vote feels like a model for what you can accomplish in under a year, just as a group of three engaged people. It honestly feels like you’ve created a huge impact with a ton of positive ripple effects.


We're trying to keep people from being overwhelmed and frustrated, so they can realize that getting politically engaged is actually easier to do than they thought. Like, it is fucking overwhelming right now. But when you start to investigate the options and just let yourself get a little bit invested, you find out that making a difference is a lot simpler than it first seems.

We're trying to keep people from being overwhelmed and frustrated, so they can realize that getting politically engaged is actually easier to do than they thought.

With the voter guide we created back in June, we honestly didn't really know what to expect, or what the response would be. We knew our friends were into the idea, and we knew we were into it, but we didn’t have huge expectations. Then our guide borderline went viral—at least on a small scale on Instagram. We kept track of the stats, too. We saw people using it and sharing it every day in the lead-up to the primary.

So, we've had a lot of positive feedback for what we've already done, which has been awesome. It feels like we’ve filled a hole, and people are really grateful for the information we’re providing.


The actual guide we created was shared almost 20,000 times. And some of these races are determined by under one hundred votes, you know? Some of these races were determined by super small margins, which goes to show that especially on a local level, your vote really matters. [Laughs] It really does!


While it seems intimidating to start something like Soft Power, you just jumped in and made a big impact. But it's not like you were professionally trained in how to make a voter guide. [Laughs] I think people imagine that getting politically involved, or starting something like Soft Power, needs to be this whole official thing. But in reality, if there’s a hole and you can fill it, it’s not that hard to just get in there and start making an impact.


Totally. Also, from doing this, we found an entire network of other people that were motivated enough to try to start a thing on their own, too. We ended up all becoming a network together, and sharing each other's stuff, and alerting each other to various things, too. That’s a really cool outcome of having like-minded people doing stuff independently. At the end of the day it comes down to the fact that we all want the US and New York City to be great. That's the goal. So if we’re all trying to make that happen, let's join forces and share information and cross-promote and amplify.


Another thing I want to emphasize is that a lot of the people who were running in the June primary were around our age. They're digital natives, so they’re seeing our posts on Twitter, and they're seeing our voter guide. They're also noticing how many people are sharing it, and noticing that folks are getting organized. And while I definitely saw some people asking, “What makes these Soft Power people credible to be talking about politics? What gives them the right to make this voter guide?” To me it just felt like, that is exactly why we're doing this. Everyone is a political being in this society. We're all civic participants. We have every right to be doing this, you know? Just like you don't need to go to art school to be an artist, you don't need to be a poli-sci major to be an active participant in our community.


Do you have any words of wisdom for people getting anxious about the November election? Perhaps key things for them to keep in mind, or things they can do besides (obviously) voting?


We're really pushing for folks to vote early also. Even if you're going to vote by mail or absentee ballot, submit that early. USPS is going through some, you know, transitions. They're saying you should give it a two-week margin in order for your ballot to arrive in time. So keep that in mind!

Also, spend a little time getting to know the elected officials that represent you. I get exhausted hearing my peers and my family complain over and over again about the same thing, all while not being motivated enough to do anything about it. I want people to remember that our elected officials represent us. They literally get paid to represent me and you, you know? Make them work for what you want, because they're definitely working for some people. You know, they're definitely prioritizing the values of some folks who are getting in there and making their opinions heard.

You can start by doing some research about who your city council person is, who your district leader is, who your state rep is, and who your senators are. Then, if you have an issue, call them up. Make them work for you!

Residents of NYC can use Soft Power Vote’s General Election Voter Guide to help make informed voting choices in this year’s election. You can also follow Soft Power Vote on Instagram to find more helpful tips for engaged citizens.

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