Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Now What? Organize to Pressure Congress

November 7, 2012 3:25 p.m. -- Note: The latest blog entry, November 8, 2012, regarding the failed proposal for a bond issue-funded new Johnson County Justice Center, is embedded at the beginning of the October 15 blog entry on that subject (which also contains the Press-Citizen op ed column): "Prisons: The Costs and Challenges of Crime," and can be found there.

"When the People Lead, the Leaders Will Follow"
-- Mahatma Gandhi (attributed, but no source)
"The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self- government. That’s the principle we were founded on."
-- President Barack Obama, "Election Night Speech," Chicago, November 6, 2012
(And, from 2008: "This victory . . . is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change. . . . It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice." President Barack Obama, "Victory Speech," Chicago, November 4, 2008.)

President Obama won re-election. The morning after the night before, how are you feeling about that? Joyous? Depressed? Ho, hum?

Regardless of your answer, we all have a lot of work to do.

The Challenges
  • We're still not dealing meaningfully with climate change.

  • We still have troops in 150 countries, the remnants of two wars, and a Defense Department budget that's greater than the military expenditures of the next ten largest countries' combined.

  • Unemployment. Meager growth. Rotting infrastructure.

  • We're paying more, and getting less, for increasing healthcare costs that produce life expectancy and infant mortality stats near the bottom of the industrialized world.

  • We get similar comparative results for our K-12 educational expenditures.

  • Those most responsible for our economic difficulties haven't been prosecuted, nor have their successors been effectively restrained from personally profiting by creating the same disaster all over again.

  • Taxes have been driven down to levels that require us to put our ongoing expenses on a credit card. This creates annual deficits in the $1 trillion range, which have accumulated into a national debt of $16 trillion. We're quickly coming to the place in the road where Congress last kicked the can, the so-called "fiscal cliff" of program cuts and tax increases that most concede will be disastrous if we don't change course.
  • You undoubtedly have many more challenges you could add to this list.

    Impediments to Solutions

    My point is not that "it's hopeless; we're doomed." Quite the contrary. Solutions for each of these, and more, can be created and proposed with the application of reason, rational analysis, and the use of science, data and best practices. Solutions are not "easy," but they are possible. That's not our problem.

    The problem is Washington gridlock, and the money and lobbying power of special interests. The problem has been that one party controls the House and has the capacity to prevent action in the Senate -- and that it chooses to use this power to obstruct any proposals from the White House that might contribute to President Obama serving more than one term.

    That goal is no longer available. President Obama has been elected to a second term, and the Constitution prevents his being elected to a third. But continuing obstruction may still be perceived as an attractive way to maintain that party's House and Senate control. Nothing said so far suggests the likelihood of any change in party strategy. With so many of the obstructionists coming from safe districts, meaningful challenges to their longevity only come from primaries in which they are attacked from the right for not being conservative enough. Intransigence may be seen by their constituents as a virtue.

    A Possible Strategy

    There's an anecdote regarding President Franklin Roosevelt's response to advocates of various progressive ideas. He would listen, and then tell them, in effect, “I agree with you. Now you go out there and make me do it” -– at least with Frances Perkins (Social Security) and A. Philip Randolph (civil rights legislation), and probably many more. His point, of course, was a variant of the old adage, “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” It’s very difficult to pass legislation over the opposition of the special interests without overwhelming popular awareness, involvement and support.

    One of those efforts to "make him do it," was "Cox's Army." "In January 1932, Cox led a march of 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed 'Cox's Army,' on Washington, D.C, the largest demonstration to [that] date in the nation's capital. He hoped the action would stir Congress to start a public works program and to increase the inheritance tax tax to 70%." "James Renshaw Cox,"

    I have been, and remain, hopeful that Senator Obama, as president, will follow President Roosevelt's example. I base this on a conversation I had with Obama in April 2007, his experience as a community organizer, his 50-state-strategy during the 2008 primary, and his millions of ground troops, contributors and email addressees in 2012.

    Marches on Washington, and other creative and peaceful demonstrations are still effective. But the Internet and mobile networks can be even faster, cheaper and more effective to organize -- as we saw during "the Arab spring." "Asmaa Mahfouz: Democracy's Heroine." There are Web pages, blogs, email, text messages, Skype video conversations, Tweets, Facebook, and the possibility of "circulating" petitions online to pick up thousands of signatures in the course of a day. Those who might be unwilling or unable to take three or four days off from work to travel to Washington, are often able to take 15 seconds to sign an online petition.

    When a president can't legislate, he can at least educate. "Legislating, Educating: Obama as Community Organizer."

    If President Obama was willing, able, and comfortable doing so, he might pick one to a half-dozen things he wants to accomplish during the next four years that will require some measure of Congressional support, pick one at a time, and tour the country as if back in campaign mode -- focusing on the states and districts of those elected officials who are providing the most opposition. He, and preexisting organizations with some coordination, could email those officials' constituents likely to support the proposal, who could then engage in demonstrations, phone, mail, and email communications focused on the official.

    This is the way defense contractors, and other large manufacturers, do it with their suppliers and customers, and it ought to be at least somewhat effective for the rest of us.

    I wish it were otherwise, but it's not. Executive branch agencies, and so-called "independent regulatory commissions," tend to be covered by a pro-industry trade press, rather than general media. The congressional committees that determine the agencies' appropriations, legislation, and oversight tend to be made up of elected officials who come from areas impacted by those industries, and whose campaigns are funded by them. The agencies' employees are wined and dined by representatives of the industry. (In the case of the agency responsible for monitoring BP prior to the Gulf oil spill, it turned out the employees were literally sleeping with industry representatives.) And industry representatives often have easier access to the supervising cabinet officers and White House staff than the agency heads themselves.

    As The Smothers Brothers' head writer Mason Williams once said, "You can't fight the system from within, because the system is from within." It's one of those observations that rings true even though you can't quite figure out what it means. The point is simply that with the pressures on, and from within, Washington, it is not likely that any one individual can do much to change that one-industry town's institutional behavior -- even if that one person is the President of the United States.

    If not "any one individual," then who? The initially small group created by that individual, one that expands into a larger group, whether one thousand or one million, that's who. For dozens of examples see the "List of protest marches on Washington, D.C.," As Margaret Mead put it, "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." "Margaret Mead,

    Yesterday was Barak Obama's "last hurrah." At this point he's just running for the history books. For four years he's tried Mr. Nice Guy. He's tried executive orders. If he has a better option than Community Organizer-in-Chief, educating and then legislating -- with our help -- let us know what it is and we'll join him in that effort.

    But Washington, as it is, cannot save us. We have to save ourselves. The list of crises is just growing longer each day. "Mr. President, please lead, follow, or get out of the way." Here we come.

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    Barbara Bryan said...


    John Neff said...

    There is grassroots gridlock on the budget. Everyone that is paying attention knows that expenditures have to be reduced and revenues increased and the problem will take from five to ten years to fix.

    We are all waiting around to see who the first person will be to take a swan dive into the cesspool.

    Nick said...

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