Five ways we can make government work for We the People in 2013
14 min read
Show up, pitch in, jump on, speak up, and link in
for nearly 13 years now, and while we offer a lot of information in our four pages, we often hear back from readers that they especially appreciate the smallest feature we include in each issue: The Do Something section. Lowdowners tend to be doers. You don’t merely want to stew over the economic, political, and cultural outrages that afflict our society, but to connect with others to take action, or at least to find more information about possible fixes.
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Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else. –Franklin D. Roosevelt
So here we are with a new year, a new mandate for Barack Obama to be more FDRish, a new and improved US Senate, a newly energized Progressive Caucus in the House– indeed, a renewed political opportunity for America to do something big. To borrow a line from Jon Dee Graham, one of Austin’s fine roots artists, in 2013 “we have another chance to get it right.”
Progressives clearly won last November. But how do we collect on those victories, turning them into progressive policies? This would not be our first post-election greased-pig chase-watching victory slip away as slick lobbyists, media establishmentarians, right-wing pigheads, and pusillanimous Democrats pervert the peoples progressive intent into another round of business as usual.
In my travels and conversations since the election, Ive been encouraged that grassroots people of all progressive stripes (populist, labor, liberal, environmental, women, civil libertarian, et al.) are well aware of the slipperiness of “victory” and want Washington to get it right this time. So over and over, Question #1 that I encounter is some variation of this: What should we do!?! How do we make Washington govern for all the people? What specific things can my group or I do now? How do we win what we won?
Thanks for asking. Here are five Lowdown suggestions for action. Think of these as a sort of Civic Action Catalogue, inviting you to choose any that suit you (i.e., that fit your temperament, personal level of activism, available time and energy, etc.). The point here is that every one of us can do something– and every bit helps.
#1 Show up
Simply being there matters. While progressives have shown up for elections in winning numbers, our movement then tends to fade politely into the shadows, leaving public officials (even those we put in office) free to ignore us and capitulate to ever-present, ever- insistent corporate interests. No more. Grassroots progressives– as individuals and through our groups– must get in the face of power and stay there.
This doesn’t require a trip to Washington. It can be done right where you live– in personal meetings, on the phone, via email and letters, through social media (tweet the twits!), on petitions, and any additional ways of communication that you and other creative people can invent. Hey, were citizens, voters, constituents– so we should not hesitate to request in-person appointments to chat with officials back home (these need not be confrontational), attend forums where they’ll be (local hearings, town hall sessions, speeches, meet & greets, parades, ribbon-cuttings, receptions, etc.). They generally post their public schedules on their websites. Go to their meetings, ask questions, or at least say hello, introduce yourself, and try to achieve this: MAKE THEM LEARN YOUR NAME.
Okay, you’re too busy to show up at all this stuff, but try one, then think of going to one every month or two. And you don’t have to go alone– get a family member, a couple of friends, a few members of the groups youre in to join you. Make it an excursion, rewarding yourselves with a nice glass of wine and some laughs afterward.
Then there are times (“in the course of human events,” as Jefferson put it) when citizens have to come together in big numbers to protest, to insist on being heard. Lobbyists are able to meet with officials in quiet rooms, but when were shut out, a higher form of patriotism demands that ordinary folks surround, say, a public officials district office or a high-dollar fundraising event to deliver a noisy message about the people’s needs.
This is especially necessary for officials who get a substantial or even majority vote from progressive constituencies… but still stiff us on such a major needs as increasing the minimum wage, overturning Citizens United, endorsing a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street speculators, and prohibiting the outrage of voter suppression. We have a right to expect them to respect our vote, and stand with us on the big issues. We’ve been too quiet, too indulgent with such office holders, and they won’t change until we start confronting them publicly.
Both in terms of having your own say and in demonstrating the strength of the grassroots numbers behind the policy changes we want, you and I are going to have to get noisier, more demonstrative, more out front in demanding that elected officials really pay heed to those who elected them. Lets make 2013 the year of reintroducing ourselves and our expectations to policymakers. At their every turn, we should be there, becoming a personal human presence (even an irritant) they cannot ignore.
Pragmatic citizenship. For help on getting in the face of power, check out these groups:
Take action on specific issues from Fixing the Filibuster to Reversing Citizens United to Joining the lobby corps
Ways to link up with Common Cause chapters in your state
Getting social with officials. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media tools are great for reaching out and touching the Powers That Be, especially since nearly all of their offices want to appear technologically au courant and open to the people. One who is a whiz with these new tools and a teacher of using them for grassroots citizen action is the Lowdowns own eminent Interweb Emissary, Deanna Zandt. You might want to know how to find the Twitter username of a congress critter, how to deliver peoples real-life stories to far-removed officials, or how you and others can stage a sit-in on your representatives Facebook pages. This is the kind of useful stuff that Ms. Zandt knows, and she posts free info and tips so you can know, too.
She reminds us that online organizing and communications are no different than offline: Have clear goals, offer good information and good stories of peoples experiences. Involve others from your community in a collective effortand try to have fun!
#2 Pitch in
Progressives are well known for being concerned with oodles of issues, each one backed by earnest champions who consider theirs THE most important in the myriad of important matters clamoring for public redress. Good– in the sense that everyone should fight for something, and peoples internal fervor is what drives any particular reform. So stick with your personal passion, BUT– let’s all accept the need for a little more strategic focus in the overall progressive cause.
There are a few overarching, structural issues that are worthy of having each of our groups and every individual pitch in a measure of their attention, time, energy, and resources, because winning the structural fight will strengthen all parts of the whole.
One of these huge, transcendent issues is the crushing power of corporate money to pervert our elections and subvert any hope of achieving a government of, by, and for the people. In practically every progressive struggle– from protecting the most basic rights of workers to getting serious about climate change, from assuring equal pay for women to making sure that everyone can vote easily and without harassment– we keep hitting this platinum wall of plutocratic cash that thwarts our progress. If we dont take down this wall, all of our efforts– and those of the next generations– will keep crashing into it.
As a Spanish dicho says: Big maladies require big remedies. Todays monstrous money malady is deadly to our peoples democratic authority, and the first step to remedying it is nothing less than overthrowing– by constitutional amendment— the Supreme Courts Citizens United dictate. Not easy to do, but it is doable and certainly deserves the involvement not only of all progressives, but also of all true conservatives.
Grassroots action. To the surprise of early naysayers, the grassroots push to reverse the Court is well underway and remarkably successful. More than two million people across the country have signed a petition demanding an amendment, more than 300 local governments and 11 states have passed resolutions supporting the cause, and in November, more than six million Americans voted on dozens of ballot initiatives calling for such an amendment, with some 75 percent of people responding with an emphatic Yes! Join activists in your area whore leading this historic campaign:
Public Citizen, a watchdog group has several ways for people to organize locally to help get corporate money out of elections:
After Novembers marvelous victories on dozens of state and local initiatives to repeal Citizens United, I suggested to a key player in the effort that he convene a Washington press conference to highlight the publics sweeping approval. Makes sense, he said, but none of the national media would show up.
This is ridiculous a damning failure by corporate news arbiters to do their most basic job. Their failure is fast becoming worse as mass media outlets from NBC to NPR literally shut out progressive reports and voices. This is allowing our public debate to be defined as a choice between the contrived wis- dom of corporate interests and the anti-government nuttiness of right-wing extremists.
Begging to get on media shows doesn’t work, so national and local groups alike should begin jumping on the owners, editors, and reporters who willfully exclude us and our legitimate stories.To start in your community, forge a media responsiveness coalition com- prised of as many excluded constituencies as readily possible, and begin making appointments with assign- ment editors, et al., to meet with the coalition. Politely (but firmly) make the case that you folks are not merely numerous, but are the core of the economic, political, and cultural life and spirit of the area and you want a new media relationship based on respect for that.
They’ll likely say,Sure. But start testing them right away with specific requests for coverage. If you get a decent response, praise it. If not, turn up the heat with public protests at their media offices and with exposes of their conflicts of interests, political biases, etc.
Likewise, we should press national labor, consumer organizations, enviro groups, and others to abandon their media meekness. Instead of just pounding Fox, Limbaugh, and other unhinged, small-audience yackety-yackers of the far right with whom we have zero influence, we should be jumping on the mass-market main- streamers who now have no fear of ignoring us, thus deliberately perverting our nations democratic discourse.
Minding the Media. Luckily, excellent groups with the expertise and experience to help guide you in your push for a modicum of media fairness already exist.
Hosts the investigative website www.ALECexposed.org
#4 Speak up
This is the political version of the ubiquitous lament of cell phone users: Can you hear me now? On a national level, progressive leaders should get louder this year in pressing for our boldest proposals for example, not merely a minimal hike in the corporate tax rate, but a new tax on each of the millions of Wall Street transactions churned out every day by high-flying global speculators. Such a Robin Hood Tax, which our country has used successfully in the past, could produce $350 billion a year in new public funds, countering for good the GOPs false claim that America is broke, with no money available to revitalize public education, essential infrastructure, etc.
At the local level, speaking up means making both your voice and the larger movements voice louder by creating new megaphones, alliances, and means of outreach. One is to update the old populist network of local speakers bureaus. High school and college speech coaches could volunteer to train cadres of knowledgeable, personable people to deliver talks on progressive issues. Corporate and right-wing outfits routinely dispatch speakers into our communities, and so should we. Venues and audiences abound, with many of them hungry to get interesting speakers, church groups of all denominations, union halls, students at every level, retiree groups, all sorts of clubs, civic organizations, book stores, and others.
Additionally, a speakers bureau can include an online network of blogs, Meetups, videos, internet radio discussions, etc. And dont forget the communicative power of group fun– including puppets, act-up events, parades, all sorts of artists, chefs, street magicians, comedians, and neighborhood festivals. Turn it all loose!
If a tree falls in the forest… Ramping up the decibel level is key to extending and energizing an effective progressive movement. Here are some of the groups offering how-to help on reaching out and spreading the punch of progressive voices:
National Nurses United: Unabashedly progressive and aggressive, this union knows how to think big, enlist allies, have fun, and get things done. It is the organization behind the Robin Hood Tax on financial speculators.
Wellstone Action Offers everything from candidate training to movement building projects to trainings on community organizing.
Public Interest Research Group: Consumer issues, government accountability, updating our transportation infrastructure, and getting money out of politics are just a handful of issues that PIRG has info on and action items for.
Public Leadership Institute has information on how to frame your debate and use the power of storytelling to make a compelling argument.
Working America has info on issues that matter to workaday folks. You can link up to groups in your state.
#5 Link in!
In recent times, the progressive cause has been severely weakened by a needless disconnect between our formidable force of grass-roots outsiders and our relatively small, insider-Washington-contingent of officeholders, policy wonks, strategists, and public interest lobbyists. The happy news is that this debilitating bifurcation is beginning to come together, chiefly because of a most welcome initiative by a reinvigorated Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Even before the last election, the CPC had become the largest caucus in Congress. The November outcomes will likely increase its numbers and, more importantly, strengthen its ability to become a cohesive and robust force for change with the addition of such do something progressives as Alan Grayson (Orlando), Mark Pocan (Madison), and Kyrsten Sinema (Phoenix). They should bolster the fresh start the caucus got two years ago when Reps. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis and Raul Grijalva of Tucson became co-chairs.
With several other members, the co-chairs have launched a concerted effort to link our outsider forces directly into their insider work. They’ve been meeting with various progressive policy advocates and grassroots activists in a joint effort to develop legislative proposals and strategies. The intention is to then maintain an ongoing, two-way channel of interaction, through which we outsiders help build public support for progressive legislative actions and the insiders help us build stronger local groups and coalitions.
This unified relationship is such a logical (even obvious) step that the fact were only now developing it makes my head whirl as if in demonic possession. But at last the movement seems to be discovering common sense, so we grassrooters need to do all we can to encourage it, including having the groups you work with let Ellison, Grijalva, and other caucus members know were all enthused and ready to team up.
Ive been asking the caucus to consider solidifying this relationship by literally coming outside to the countryside for a series of public hearings on Citizens United, the Robin Hood Tax, a $10/hour minimum wage and other major progressive proposals. If even three or four members at a time come directly to the people for such a hearing in any fair-sized city, local progressives would excitedly fill the hall.
The hearings would: (1) give tremendous exposure to issues/ proposals that local progressives support, but Washington callously ignores; (2) make the caucus a living, breathing presence to the grassroots movement, creating an affinity that no other congressional entity has; (3) energize and focus the movement by including on the days agenda some strategy sessions on how to expand the insider-outsider collaboration to achieve progressive policy victories; and (4) begin to make local people feel connected, relevant, and some- what empowered by… well, by connecting (in fact and in person) to lawmakers.
Lets Link! There are two ways to get information, link to, and urge on the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Its formal government website goes through the office of co-chairman Grijalva. There you can find its mission statement, a list of members, a wide array of policy proposals, and a contact form to be notified of future statements and actions.
A non-governmental group, Progressive Congress, is CPCs affiliated outreach organization. This website includes action items, projects the CPC is undertaking, and a sign-up page to stay informed and involved
While this entire issue of the Lowdown is a “Do Something” box, here’s one more that’s likely to be the best suggestion of all: Invent your own. Offer your specific ideas of steps people can take, both large and small, to put a little more progress in progressive. We’ve set up a “Progressive Ideas Bulletin Board” for you to post your own thoughts, as well as your comments on the thoughts of others. Please join us there: http://hightowerlowdownaction.tumblr.com/