Affecting political change: a suggestion

Lately I’ve been getting into some debates on Facebook about the nature of political change. My position in this discussion has always been that we have to avail ourselves of the tools given to us — free speech, right to vote, access to government officials, etc. — and use every means necessary to get what we want. For some people I’ve discussed this with, my opinion is incorrigible because it includes participating in the government that they loathe so much. My point of view is that we are governed whether we like it or not, so we might as well learn the rules better than those who govern and make the changes we can. My reasoning is that this has worked before: civil rights amendment, black suffrage, women’s suffrage, poll taxes, etc. Their reasoning is that since the government is corrupt, nothing will change, so why bother participating.

As an aside, this position aggravates me to no end. Here’s why. Imagine that 100 people are all stuck in a burning building and are told that the only way to get out is to build a machine on the bottom floor and that at least 75 people have to work on the machine in order to finish it in time. Immediately, 25 people start protesting those who started the fire and refuse to help build the machine. While that’s happening, 33 people head down to the first floor to start building the machine that will be able to break them out. We’re now left with 42 people to help build the machine. If they all helped, then the machine could be built and everyone could escape. Unfortunately, 25 of those people didn’t pay attention to the rules (to remedy this in reality, please read “The Federalist Papers” and “The United States Constitution” and take particular note of the flexible structure that is in place and how change can be affected both from within and without) and head up to the top floor to build their own machine. The result? Everyone dies. That’s why I hate the “protest is the only way to change things” line of thinking: it doesn’t address the problem in the way that creates a solution.

So let’s take a look at this “protest only” method. It’s usually run by a professional protester or activist who has done this kind of thing before. It’s well-organized and scripted, and always presents a particular vibe to outside observers. All of this is tightly controlled. The emphasis with this method is on volume and presence. From my experience in participating, reporting on, and monitoring these kinds of gatherings there is usually a unifying goal bringing a number of people together in one area for the purpose of visually showing how many people agree with one thing. In some cases the participants may not be clear on why they are all there (later adopters of the “Occupy” movement), but support whatever they feel is the purpose. There is also plenty of thematic signage, uniform chanting, and hard-to-understand bullhorn-based speeches. Flash mobs, flyers, community food locations, and distrust of all government sources are also common. In some cases these protests can become violent and dangerous. This depends on the purpose and location of the protest, of course, and more of these kinds of gatherings are peaceful. Civil Disobedience and ending revolution are all possible outcomes of this approach.

I have nothing against protesting and activism. There is a strength and passion to this method that cannot be denied. The media loves images of people with signs sharing their discontent, and quick sound bytes can be easily generated from the groups’ slogans and chants (“Hell no, we won’t go!” etc). If you want quick attention to a current issue, this is a great method. Many movements were started this way, and many more will be as well. The problem with this method is contained in its very DNA: what gathers in one place must eventually disperse or keep doing something new to maintain its energy. Entropy ensues. The message gets lost. This is the flash mob of social progress. Today’s issue is tomorrow’s trivia question. The movement that arose like wildfire fanned by the hot breath of mass media dies by the same group’s smothering blanket of public attention and advertising dollars. Revolutions eventually become the next target of protest — French Revolution, Russian Student Revolt — and the heroes of the picket lines — Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin — are just as quickly demonized by future revolutionaries.

Protest by itself as a method for changing policy doesn’t do anything. Protest is a means by which an issue gets noticed. Once that happens, there is still work to do in order to change policy. Our government is — like it or not — established by those who vote. And as such, the people in government are only beholden to those who voted for them, not the people in the park or street protesting. In fact, statistics are telling the government that those people don’t vote.

You want policy change? You contact your rep over and over again. You can even tell him you’ll be at the rally tomorrow, but you need to contact him. It doesn’t matter if you voted for him or not, you’re still beholden to his decisions. While your at it get everyone at your protest to contact their reps over and over again. If a representative’s constituents present an overwhelming — or even slightly-whelming — position, he has to listen if he wants to get elected again. And don’t give me that crap about corporations and bribery. If he doesn’t get votes, he won’t be there to get bribes. We’re still in control if we want to be.

Case in point: PIPA/SOPA became a massive issue started online. All of those people posting in forums, blacking out sites, creating comics also did something else: they called their representatives. The sponsor of PIPA pulled the bill. He pulled the bill he wrote because people from his district told him to. In the case of SOPA there’s still work to do, but the vote was delayed indefinitely as a direct result of the voting public contacting their representatives.

Counter-case in point: Scott Brown (R MA) was elected to the US Senate by a majority of voters during a low-turnout election. Republicans knew that in order to try and block the health insurance reform bill, Martha Coakley would need to lose. They turned out in droves, while the democrats from a democratic state assumed victory and stayed away — even though a bulk of them would have been participating in cheering for the health insurance reform. Brown won and voted no. Voter turnout had a direct impact on the process in Washington, DC.

There is nothing wrong with protesting, but going around insisting that it’s the only way to affect change in government is absurd at best and dangerous at worst. Apathy is what your opponents bank on. They assume that if you’re in a picket line, you’re not at the polls. Unfortunately that’s more often than not the case. How about surprising the bastards and doing both? Here’s why: effectiveness at the polls is achieved through mass participation. Protesting gets people’s attention, voting tells the system what they want. If we can use both together, then that’s something that could finally tip the scales in our favor.

As an example, let’s look at China and Iran. Protests in those countries have made the news, changed our minds about the nature of social media, gave us some shocking imagery, and maybe inspired some of us along the way. However, little in the way of progress can be reported as a direct result of those protests. Why? Because there’s no recourse for those protesting to directly control the actions of government. Because that’s what voting is: a group of people coming together to express their approval or dissent with issues and people. It only works if we all do it.

In closing, I’d like to point out that a vote-based system of government is very grass roots and egalitarian in nature. It requires broad communication of issues and ideas as well as coordination of efforts and people across social and financial divides. In short, voting en masse is a grass roots, people-powered method of governing. I’m constantly told, though, that the representative democracy we have is selfish and doesn’t account for a greater good. It’s pretty obvious to me that unless we all work together, the building’s going to burn down and we’re all going to die. How’s that for greater good?

Grazing in the grass roots

I had an opportunity to participate in a small part of what is becoming a large movement in support of the “Move to Amend” campaign to adopt an amendment to the United States Constitution that declares in no uncertain terms that corporations are not people. The local group here is comprised of a handful of passionate and determined men and women — veterans of progressive campaigns and protests all — who want nothing more than the elimination of corporate control over elected officials. I couldn’t agree more with the aims of this group. There’s obviously a corruption, and it can be readily traced back to lobbying, corporate interests, and campaign donations. All of which needs to stop and control of elected officials needs to be returned to the voters for whom they serve. So while I support the movement and its aims, I feel that there are talking points that are not being addressed in the public discourse that are an essential part of deciding if this movement is worth supporting.

Firstly, there are two versions of the amendment: the version I linked above, and the one penned by Senator Bernie Sanders here [PDF]. They are actually quite different from each other, and address different points of concerns. The MtA version attempts to establish that a) all corporations are not people, that b) money is specifically not speech and b) neither a nor b apply to the press. Bernie’s version states simply that for-profit corporations would no longer be allowed to participate — through financial means — in the electoral process. These are two fundamentally different statements and to put our support behind a “non-corporate-personhood” movement would seem to imply that they are both the same. Which to choose, which to choose. I will address the specific wordings of each in a later post, but suffice it to say that we have to either merge them or pick one to support or all of our efforts are for naught. For the sake of this post, let’s assume that we’ve settled on a compromise version of the two that includes proper wording addressing the MtA points.

The second talking point is the question of what will happen if the amendment succeeds. It seems like a simple question because we tend to see the success and lack thereof as a binary result. On the one hand corporations are removed from matters of free speech, their money is kept out of politics, and people will regain control of their representatives. Without this amendment, we imagine a country where more money means more speech, where politicians make decisions based on who their largest donors are, where the voting public is unwittingly duped into electing a puppet of some foreign power. I submit however that it is not so cut and dried as it would seem.

For instance, in the case of success will the corruption we’re railing against be cured? Will this amendment keep corporations from establishing some kind of legalized slush fund through which individuals can send donations or pay for campaigns on behalf of the corporation? Will this amendment keep corporations from providing ever-increasing funds to lobbyists and directly influence law making after the election process? Will this amendment in fact make elected officials more subservient to their constituents and less so to their donors? It’s reasonable to assume given the specificity of the language and purpose that the answer to all these questions is no. Let’s suppose, though, we live in a country where the press is free, money is not the same as speech (which means it can be regulated far more than just through time, manner, and place), and corporations are not covered under the Bill of Rights.

In this new country, the government is allowed to regulate the flow of money that supports individuals who are trying to speak because money is not speech and — given the precedent of Citizens United — could not legally be used for speech. If an individual is seeking a grant from the government or a government-funded agency, that grant could be denied if the money was going to be used to perform “speech”. Could a corporation rent a hall in town to present a documentary or educational film? What are we limiting by saying money is not protected speech?

Corporations in our new country would also no longer be covered by the Bill of Rights because of our new amendment. The government would be able to freely seize, shut down, censure, or otherwise inhibit the activities of any corporation regardless of due process, etc. This could be Monsanto, or your local church (a not-for-profit corporation). The Bill of Rights is what keeps the government from doing that. If it no longer applies to corporations, they are removed from its protections. Extending this a bit further, would a work-around be that corporate rules are changed so that they can be represented by a person? Can the chairman of the board work on behalf of the corporation, but still be protected by our new amendment and the Bill of Rights? It’s not unreasonable to believe so since this has not come up as a point of discussion.

Hyperbole aside, are these likely events? Given the history of government behavior when given the latitude for that behavior, it is safe to assume that we are not outside the realm of possibility. England, Italy, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, and the United States all have glaring histories that show how their government behaves when given the right mixture of latitude, reason, and will. Could this amendment provide or be a catalyst for that kind of mixture? It’s possible given what laws are passed afterwards and how desperate certain parties are. While the future is never certain nor predictable, we can safely say that there are unforeseen circumstances that are worse than what we face now.

Lastly, we’re presented with a state of affairs where our chosen version of the amendment doesn’t pass. What if what we’re left with is a post-2009 world where corporations spending money on campaigns is a form of speech, where they can create Superpacs and support a candidate? What is our recourse to such a world? In fact, it is the same as it is in our fictional future-world above: people and their level of determination to change government through the electoral process — which is on a basic level inviolate and sacred if handled in the correct way.

No matter how much money is thrown into a campaign, how muddled a message may get, people have the ability to find their way to the truth of things if they are determined enough. the Federal Election Commission publishes all donations a candidate receives. Corporate board members can be looked up. Individual’s associations can be researched. Who paid how much to whom is a question that in the age of Google, govtrack.us, and Wikipedia is not terribly difficult to answer. Public libraries provide Internet access, free magazines and newspapers. In other words, the methodology for dealing with corruption is as powerful as the citizenry’s desire to use it.

* * * *

While I support the idea that corporations are not people, and while I support the idea that money on the scale of the millions and millions of dollars we’re seeing should not be in politics, I support the amendment movement with caution. Whether the amendment succeeds or fails, there are outcomes that are unforeseen. This is because the problem is not a question of corporate personhood, campaign donations, or lobbying. The problem is that the majority of those who are currently in government are not governing well. The only sure way to deal with such a thing is through the willingness of the governed public to take control of their own destinies.

What we’re left with after all the dust clears are some basic tenets that have always been true about our country and are mentioned numerous times in the “Federalist Papers”. The first is that participation in government is a requirement of all voting age citizens. It is not a privilege, nor a right, but a responsibility of each governed citizen who is able to participate. The second is that when the citizenry do not participate, government is pulled from their hands by factions: religious, business, cultish, political. The nature of the faction doesn’t matter, what matters is that a minority (say 33%) becomes a majority as fewer and fewer people participate.

Simplified, I think my argument for supporting the move for a constitutional amendment could be written like this:

  1. Factions are anathema to a government that is meant to represent the entirety of the governed (Federalist Papers)
  2. Corporations are a faction that harms government (Assumption)
  3. The amendment is an attempt at limiting the powers of corporations (ibid.)
  4. Therefore, supporting the amendment helps limit the power of factions (1,3)
  5. Therefore, it is reasonable to support the amendment (4)

Reasonably speaking, then, should we support the amendment movement? Given that in either a passed or failed scenario, we are still relying on the citizenry to vote, participate, and ensure corporations don’t take over elections anymore than they have then yes, but only in understanding that it’s not the solution to all of the problems of government. In other words, support or not, the problems plaguing our government are not going to go away with the success or failure of this amendment. Since there’s no real way to tell if it will do more harm than good, it’s not unreasonable to support it, but it also may not lead the country to the solution that is expected.

Elections are over; what’s the score?

The 2010 mid-term elections are complete. I’ve always hated that term: “mid-term”. I don’t like that the election cycle is defined by the president’s time in office. It somehow dumbs-down the legislative elections in the same way that a mid-term exam might not be worth as much as the final when in fact the legislative elections are worth much more.

This is the election cycle that has the potential to drive and shape policy, most accurately voice the will of the voters, and generally set direction for the country in terms of what is likely to be debated. It’s a huge deal. I prefer we go with the term “general elections” and “presidential elections”.

The democrats finished badly — though not as badly as some had said — and it looks like we’re in for an interesting and corruption-filled two years before we try and fix this. I can’t believe you all voted for republicans. What were you thinking? Do you seriously think we’re better off with the same people who supported Bush for eight years? Really?! Why do you think we’re in the mess we’re in. The debt, unemployment, financial crisis, wars, pollution: all of them were inherited by the current administration. Left as a legacy by Bush.

So that’s the national picture, and I’m unpleased. While I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a democrat, I’m certainly not in the fold of the current republicans. Locally, things look a bit better.

My county district voted back in our long-standing representative at the state level — Lucy Leriche — over a former schoolmate of mine, Nicole Ling. I had to learn quickly about the two, and found out that Leriche would be my choice. For one, she’s experienced and has actually accomplished stuff. Secondly, she can spell her position. Thirdly, she’s not republican and doesn’t seem to let religion or morality interfere with her political work. I’m happy there. I don’t know that much about our state senators, but I will find out.

As the dust settles, I’ll be posting data on the turnout and who voted for whom. We’ll see exactly how many people have just decided upon fate for the rest of us, eh?

Vote your Voice!

If you’ve come by these pages a lot, you’ll know that I’ve spent a good deal of time discussing various points on the state of our republic here in the U.S. Throughout, I have always maintained that a stronger voter turnout could go a long way towards correcting some of the trends we’ve been seeing magnified lately: corporatization of government, disenfranchisement, increased lobbyist control, career politicians. I truly believe with the utmost optimism that those ills of our government can be either corrected or slowed if more citizens would just vote in every election.

Why do I believe this? Because that’s how our system works. The more people who vote, the more government truly represents the voice of our entire country as opposed to just a few sects of angry factions.

I created a group called Vote Your Voice in order to try and spread my optimism on these issues.  The sole purpose of the group is to spread the word that increased voting numbers are tantamount to an improved government.

It’s going to be a tough road and one that will require all of us involved to maintain a spirit of possibility and optimism in the face of naysayers, ne’er-do-wells, and counter-arguments. I will do my part by continuing to be loud, optimistic, and paint pictures of the voting numbers so that the disparities can be seen. What I’m asking for is your support.

Join the group over on Facebook, participate in the commentary discussions on the website, or just get your own circle of influence to go vote whenever the opportunity arises.

Voting is not a privilege. It’s not a right. Voting is a duty of all U.S. citizens and should be taken seriously.

Voting accomplished, conscience muddy

Well, I voted. I braved the rain, the cold slush, and all of everything else today to cast my vote for the person who I feel is less likely to destroy our country in the future. Neither Martha Coakley nor Scott Brown appealed to me as an ideal candidate for a state senator. Joe Kennedy just was never an option for me.

So given the field, Coakley was it. If anything, I hope that replacing a democrat with a democrat does less damage than the other way around, because I’m sure it won’t do as much good as I want it to.

All three of the candidates claimed to be the answer to the “status quo”. And they are, depending on what you define as “status quo”. My definition is such that nothing short of a complete changing of the guard on capital hill can provide the answer. The only way to get our country back on track is to remove every politician on the take from office and then remove all lobbyists. The only way is to change the platforms of both major parties. To allow third parties a fair chance at winning. To get the citizenry of this country to participate in the process and reduce the power of factions.

Will either Brown or Coakley help us accomplish any of that? Probably not. I figured, though, that a former attorney general is far less bribeable than a man who posed for Playgirl, so she was the safer bet for me.