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If You Care About Keystone and Climate Change, Occupy Exxon

8:54 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

(image: cordlesscorey/flickr)

(image: cordlesscorey/flickr)

It seemed like the afterthought in the payroll tax cut extension fight, a small consolation prize to the Republicans on what should have been the easiest of bi-partisan votes. But the two-month clock is now ticking on whether Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s environmentally disastrous tar sands.

If we want him to make the right decision and deny the permit, maybe it’s time to Occupy Exxon, with creative protests at local Exxon/Mobil stations. Of course we need to keep pressuring Obama. The bill’s deadline precludes anything close to the kind of comprehensive environmental review that he called for after rallies and civil disobedience at the White House led him to delay approval for a year. But why not also go after the oil companies whose influence led the Republicans to hold the rest of the unemployment and payroll tax bill hostage to the fast-track requirement. Exxon/Mobil has long been the dirtiest of the dirty among these companies. This makes them a logical target.

In a week heralding news of melting Arctic methane beds, and a year of record global temperatures and billion-dollar weather-related disasters, demanding Keystone’s approval is a stunning exercise in denial. But that’s the deal that passed. So our challenge is not only to get Obama to reject the pipeline. We also want to make this raw power grab backfire on those who insisted on it by turning at least part of the national conversation back onto oil company greed.

The more we do this, the more political room we create for Obama both to block the pipeline and to act more forcefully on climate change in general. So just as Occupy Wall Street has got us talking about predatory banks, Occupying Exxon would get Americans thinking about destructive fossil fuel interests — whether they’re fighting for the pipeline, convincing the Republicans to block proposed cut-backs to their massive tax subsidies, or paying nothing in federal income taxes, as Exxon did as recently as 2009. Targeting Exxon links an issue most Americans may have barely heard of with a company known as an embodiment of greed. It also links Exxon’s lobbying for the pipeline with their long-time backing of climate change denial. Using strategies, scientists, and PR firms borrowed from the tobacco industry, Exxon contributed $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to groups denying human-caused climate change and spent over $55 million to lobbying, at a time when even BP and Shell were beginning to acknowledge the reality. Exxon claimed they’ve now cut this funding, but continue to back institutes and support politicians who promote denial. Read the rest of this entry →

Burying Your Victories: What if Obama Taxed the Rich But Never Told Anyone?

7:32 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

Did you know Obama’s health care bill contained a $20 billion a year tax on the richest Americans? I didn’t until I stumbled onto a mention of this the other day, although writing about politics is my life and I knew enough to be angry at the gutting of a national public option. I asked a dozen other friends, half of whom work in health care or health care policy and most of whom are fellow political junkies. None of them knew either. If those who follow these issues intensely don’t know about something that all of us would cheer as a step toward getting the wealthiest to pay their fair share, most American voters sure aren’t going to know either.

The tax supports Medicare and low-income health care subsidies. Beginning in 2013, it will bring in $210 billion over 10 years by charging households that make over $250,000 a year 3.8% on everything over that amount. The provision also applies to investment and dividend income, a key precedent toward ensuring that billionaires pay at least the same share of taxes as self-employed carpenters. It got some modest coverage when it passed, and accountants certainly know about it. But the rest of us don’t, and that makes me mad.

I don’t remember any point when Obama highlighted it, even as his base and the American public and his own base became steadily more demoralized from a sense that his administration was more willing to fight for Wall Street then Main Street. This doesn’t completely erase his caving on temporarily extending the Bush tax cuts. But it begins to cut the other way, requiring the top 1% (well actually the top 2%), to carry a bit more of their share. For most people, though, it might as well never have happened, because Obama neglected to tell them.

I don’t know why he hasn’t highlighted this success story. Maybe he considered it too wonkish. Maybe Rahm Emanuel convinced him that the issue was a political loser, though polls consistently support higher taxes on the wealthy. Maybe it’s Obama’s reluctance to take controversial stands. But if he wants to convince ordinary Americans that our fates are indeed tied together, he’d better start embracing those moments where his administration has actually made progress, while continuing to talk about how far we have to go. Since Occupy Wall Street, Obama’s started to speak out more forcefully, as in his powerful recent Teddy Roosevelt speech about America’s economic divides. Yet here’s an example, and I know there are others, where he’s actually required those at the top to start carrying a bit more of their fair share, yet said next to nothing to let the rest of us know. It’s long overdue that he begin.

Paul Loeb is author of Soul of a Citizen, with 130,000 copies in print including a newly updated second edition now being used in hundreds of schools to promote civic engagement. He’s also the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. See www.paulloeb.org To receive Paul’s articles directly www.paulloeb.org/subscribe.html .

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy the Neighborhoods

9:55 am in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

Occupy Suburbia! (Photo: shoa, flickr)

Occupy Suburbia! (Photo: shoa, flickr)

The Occupy movement has done something amazing, getting Americans to start questioning our economic divides. It’s created spaces for people to come together, voice their discontents and dreams, creatively challenge destructive greed. It’s created powerful political theater, engaged community, an alternative to silence and powerlessness.

But it also faces major challenges. I’m fine that this new public commons isn’t offering detailed platforms for change. We can find plenty in almost any Paul Krugman or Robert Kuttner column. Instead the movement has highlighted the destructive polarization of wealth while voicing what one young woman called “a cry for something better.” And that’s a major contribution. The movement and its allies now need to keep spreading this message to that majority of Americans who are sympathetic but have given up on the possibility of change. To reach those more resistant, who might respond if seriously engaged. To make the physical occupations not just ends in themselves, but bases where more and more people can participate, and find ways to publicly act. To keep momentum building even in the winter cold, and when media coverage fades. To find continuing ways for people to act without dissipating their energy in an array of fragmented efforts. And, although some participants would disagree, to become part of a broader movement that without muting its voice help bring about a better electoral outcome in 2012 than the disaster of 2010, when corporate interests prevailed again and again because those who would have rejected their lies stayed home.

One solution, which is beginning to happen, is for the movement to move to the neighborhoods, building on its existing efforts in hundreds of cities and towns. This doesn’t mean abandoning the current encampments. At their best they’ve created powerful new centers for conversation, reflection, and creative action. People talk, brainstorm ideas, make posters and banners, draw in the curious, including those just passing by. In Seattle, even tourists riding the amphibious tour buses broke into cheers as they drove past. Participants tell stories of lost jobs, medical bills, and student debt, putting a human face on how they and so many others have been made expendable by a country that seems to care only for the wealthiest. Self-organized committees plan creative tactics, handle donations of food, address medical needs, reach out to the media, create innovative art projects, clean the occupation grounds, and ensure physical security. Common meals become a form of communion. The gatherings also convey a sense of festival, inviting in those not yet involved with puppets colorful banners, drum circles radical marching bands, signs saying “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” and people dressed up as predatory billionaires, Lady Liberty and dollar spewing zombies who chant “I smell money, I smell money.” The spirit of play echoes the defiant folk and hip hop music of Tahir Square and the Gandhi meets Monty Python approaches of the Serbian youth movement Otpur, who helped train the initial Tahir Square occupiers.

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Praising the Hostage Takers: Will Obama Ever Hold the Republicans Accountable?

7:01 am in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

"Hostages"

"Hostages" by Matt Coates on flickr

Will Obama ever hold the Republicans accountable for their reckless and destructive actions? No matter how outrageous their demands, he keeps giving them legitimacy, first resisting, then compromising, then praising the result as bipartisanship. He’s forgotten the basic lesson of negotiation–you don’t hand everything over before you start, particularly to people who have utter contempt for your values and goals. He’s also forgotten the importance of fighting for your principles, so people have a reason to support you.

Obama’s almost pathological devotion to compromise started early in his presidency. Republicans and a handful of corporate-funded Democrats used the Senate filibuster to block action on issue after critical issue. Instead of calling them to account and marshalling public pressure against them, Obama responded as if their intransigence was reasonable, giving them instant political cover. He did this on health care, financial regulation, and attempts to pass a sufficiently large economic stimulus. On climate change, he tried to prove his reasonableness by allowing offshore oil drilling (just before the BP oil disaster) while securing not a single vote in return. Republican Lindsay Graham was planning to offer precisely this enticement to convince borderline Senators to support at least some price on carbon, and said Obama effectively killed the bill by leaving him with nothing to offer people Obama similarly refused to take a firm stand on ending the Bush tax cuts, which he could have simply let expire. He’s now retreating on the debt ceiling battle, saying he might have to sign off on a deal that cuts spending now a the vague promise of reforming taxes later. Read the rest of this entry →

Glued to the Weather Channel While the World Burns

2:41 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

Following the weather is beginning to feel like revisiting the Biblical plagues. Tornadoes rip through Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma — even Massachusetts. A million acres burn in Texas wildfires. The Army Corps of Engineers floods 135,000 acres of farmland and three million acres of bayou country to save Memphis and New Orleans. Earlier in the past year, a 2,000-mile storm dumped near-record snow from Texas to Maine, a fifth of Pakistan flooded, fires made Moscow’s air nearly unbreathable, and drought devastated China’s wheat crop. You’d think we’d suspect something’s grievously wrong.

But media coverage rarely connects the unfolding cataclysms with the global climate change that fuels them. We can’t guarantee that any specific disaster is caused by our warming atmosphere. The links are delayed and diffuse. But considered together, the escalating floods, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes fit all the predicted models. So do the extreme snowfalls and ice storms, as our heated atmosphere carries more water vapor. So why deem them isolated acts of God — instead of urgent warnings to change our course?

Scientists are more certain than ever, from the National Academy of Science and its counterparts in every other country to such “radical groups” as the American Chemical Society and American Statistical Society. But the media has buried their voices, giving near-equal “point/counterpoint” credence to a handful of deniers promoted by Exxon, the coal companies and the Koch brothers. Fox News’s managing editor even prohibited any reporting on global climate change that didn’t immediately then question the overwhelming scientific consensus. The escalating disasters dominate the news, but stripped of context. We’re given no perspective to reflect on their likely root causes.

Meanwhile, leading Republicans who once acknowledged the need to act, like Tim Pawlenty, disavow their previous stands like sinners begging forgiveness. A Tea Party Congress insists that they know better than do all the world’s scientists, dismissing decades of meticulous research as Ivory Tower elitism. Even Obama has fallen largely silent, as if he can’t afford an honest discussion.

As a result, too many Americans still don’t know what to believe. We can’t see, smell or taste the core emissions that create climate change. The industrial processes that create the crisis are so familiar we don’t even question them, no more than the air that we breathe. And if we’re not getting hammered by the weather, the world still seems normal, particularly on a lovely summer day. Plus we’re told that in the current economic crisis we can’t afford even to think about climate change or any other urgent environmental issue, even though the technologies that provide the necessary alternatives are precisely those our country will need to compete economically. Add in a culture of overload and distraction, and it’s easy to retreat into denial or self-defeating resignation. It’s as if half our population was diagnosed with life-threatening but treatable cancer — visited the world’s leading medical centers to confirm it — and then decided instead to heed forwarded emails that assure them that they can freely ignore the counsel of the doctors and simply do nothing.

The antidote to denial and the forces that promote it is courage. And as Egypt and Tunisia remind us, courage is contagious. We need to act and speak out in every conceivable way, and demand that our leaders do the same. We need to engage new allies, like religious evangelicals who’ve recently spoken out to defend “God’s creation,” from best-selling minister Rick Warren to highly conservative organizations like the Christian Coalition. We need to work with labor activists who link this ultimate issue with the renewal of American jobs. A recent BlueGreen Alliance conference, for instance, brought together leaders of major unions like the United Steel Workers, SEIU, Communications Workers of America, United Auto Workers, Laborers’ International, and American Federation of Teachers, with environmental groups like the Sierra Club, National Resource Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation and Union of Concerned Scientists, all speaking about the need to invest in an economy where both ordinary workers and the planet are respected. We need to join with these allies and others to voice our outrage at those risking our common future for greed. We need to find creative ways to do this until America’s political climate comes to grips with the changing climate of the earth. Here’s hoping the mounting disasters will finally teach us to turn off The Weather Channel and begin taking action.

Paul Loeb is author of Soul of a Citizen, with 130,000 copies in print including a newly updated second edition now being used in hundreds of schools to promote civic engagement. He’s also the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. See www.paulloeb.org To receive Paul’s articles directly www.paulloeb.org/subscribe.html

Three Cups of a Flawed Hero: The Limits of Greg Mortenson’s Model of Change

7:13 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

But even before the Krakauer revelations, I was wary of heralding Three Cups as a prime model for engagement. The same story of unimaginable individual heroism and sacrifice that drew people in could also leave them feeling insignificant in comparison. “Three Cups is an inspirational story,” readers would tell me. “But I can’t climb Himalayan mountains. I can’t go into an Afghan village and build a school from scratch. I can’t raise millions of dollars for projects halfway around the world. It would be great if I could be Greg Mortenson, but I’m not and can’t be, so the best I can do is support his good work.”

Three Cups still presents an infinitely more hopeful message than that of detached cynicism. But the story, as Mortenson presents it, can easily buttress the myth that those who make change have to be almost superhuman, or saints. It can feed what I call the perfect standard trap, where people convince themselves that unless they’re some kind of unimaginably perfect hero, supremely eloquent, confident, and capable and of immaculate moral character, they’re not going to be able to make change. Stories of courage in seemingly impossible situations can inspire us to act in more modest ways, but the more their protagonists choices seem drawn in larger than life strokes, the harder it is to make this link. So while it’s not Mortenson’s fault that he’s lived his life in dramatic relief, there’s a limit on the lessons we can draw.

But Mortenson’s story, at least as he’s presented it, focuses so much on his own individual action and choices that everyone else appears to act most effectively as spear-carriers for his cause. As we learned from the amazing revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, institutional change, in contrast, requires common action, initiative, and voice, not just supporting the work of charismatic leaders. The story Mortenson presents leaves few ways for those it inspires to act, beyond raising money to promote his initiatives.

The arc of Mortenson’s fame also reminds me how much our culture enshrines lone entrepreneurs as the ultimate change agents, while displaying a commensurate disdain for those who’ve long worked in the trenches. We see this in international development, where businesspeople or celebrities receive massive publicity for their glamorous new projects, while groups like Oxfam or CARE that work year after year in local communities are left invisible in the shadows, or presented as dull, bureaucratic, and retrograde in comparison. We see the same thing with America’s educational debates, where those who talk glibly of solving poverty and inequality with the instant solutions of high stakes testing, charter schools, or eliminating the long-held rights of teachers receive massive attention, while the experiences of those who’ve actually spent 20 or 30 years in the classrooms are disdained and ignored. Sometimes fresh approaches can shake things up, and Mortenson’s focus on getting Pakistani and Afghan girls enrolled in school may well be one of those transformative ideas. But his books still feed the narrative that the best way to make change is to ignore pretty much anything that anyone else has been doing all along, and to charge ahead with your own Lone Ranger initiatives. So even before the Krakauer revelations, I believed that Mortenson’s books had their limits as models for how ordinary people can create social change.

Now we learn from Krakauer and 60 Minutes that key parts of the story were fabricated, or at least grossly embellished. There’s something profoundly disturbing in turning a Pakistani community that went out of their way to host him into narrative cannon fodder by presenting them as Taliban kidnappers. Or by apparently manufacturing the book’s powerful opening story about his stumbling into a Pakistani village half-dead and being nursed back to health by a community where he would build his first school. Or by profoundly exaggerating both how many schools his institute has helped build and the number where students actually ended up enrolling, as opposed to the institute funding empty buildings that ended up converted to storage sheds. When a foundation solicits the money of tens of thousands of donors by saying they’re using it to build schools, the majority of the money shouldn’t be going to promote a book.

I don’t know why Greg Mortenson decided to play fast and loose with the facts. Maybe he felt the actual story wasn’t dramatic and enticing enough to inspire people to care. Maybe he was distracted and overloaded, and left the writing to his co-author. Maybe he’d told the questionable stories so often he’d come to believe them. None of this erases his important work, or genuine humanitarian motives. Those of us who work for change all have our faults, and if we waited until we were impossibly perfect people we’d, never find the moment to act. But for all Mortenson’s valuable work, the gap between the worlds he purported to depict and the words through which he described them can’t help but undercut his message, because we no longer know which stories are real and which are not. Had he presented a more modest and accurate tale, where it was clearer that he was only one courageous human being among many, it might have actually presented more useful lessons to spur the action and involvement of others. Or maybe it would have sunk without a trace in the sea of distraction we call our culture, because we’re so primed to respond only to the larger than life. The risk now, though, is that the debunking of his work will feed cynical withdrawal from those who previously placed him on a pedestal. That would be a tragedy because we need their involvement if we’re to move toward the kind of more humane world that, for all Mortenson’s flaws, I believe he has still worked passionately to create.

Paul Loeb is author of Soul of a Citizen, with 130,000 copies in print including a newly updated second edition now being used in hundreds of schools to promote civic engagement. He’s also the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. See www.paulloeb.org To receive Paul’s articles directly www.paulloeb.org/subscribe.html

Go to Wisconsin, President Obama

5:40 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

Dear President Obama,

I’m glad you’ve opposed the attacks on Wisconsin’s public workers, but you need to do more. You need to go there and speak out, or at least speak out again and more strongly, because Americans need to understand what’s at stake, and those who are standing up there and elsewhere need to see you standing beside them. If you speak out powerfully enough, you might not only help stop Scott Walker’s raw power grab and the similar actions of Walker’s compatriots in other states. You might even help revive the long-demoralized spirits of those whose volunteer efforts carried you to the presidency.

You could talk, if you went, about the value to America of the teachers, nurses, firefighters, crisis counselors, and other public sector workers who are under attack, and of the hypocrisy of a governor whose corporate tax breaks launched this supposed fiscal crisis to begin with. You could make clear the stakes for all of us–that if Walker or other Republican governors can end the ability of public workers to join together for a common voice, ordinary citizens will end up with far less power to shape the course of our democracy, and predatory corporate interests will have even more. You can talk in your in style. You can be calm and reflective. You don’t have to scream. But you have to show the American public and your discouraged supporters just how high the stakes are. You have to do your best to draw the line.

You actually promised to speak out in just such a situation on the 2007 campaign trail, explaining, eloquently “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself; I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody’s in their corner.”

Now it’s time to redeem that promise. It’s time to put on those shoes and stand with those who are speaking out in a way that can make the choices clear to the distracted and overloaded Americans watching from the sidelines. That doesn’t mean you’ll own the protests or should. Participants have led with their courage, and you need to make clear that you’re not telling them what to do or hijacking their moment, but standing in solidarity and encouraging all Americans to speak out and participate on these critical issues.
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Seeking Republican Patriots: How Reining in Anonymous Attack Ads Can Help Save Our Democracy

8:03 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

Does Olympia Snowe really want to be the target of waves of anonymous attack ads in support of some conservative primary challenger? Wouldn’t a retiring George Voinovich prefer to leave some shards of our democracy off-limits to being sold to the highest bidder? Could John McCain remember why McCain-Feingold was once of his proudest legacies and acknowledge how profoundly the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision damaged everything he was trying to do to safeguard American democracy?

To prevent the deluge of anonymous political ads we’ve just witnessed, the Democrats crafted the DISCLOSE Act, which required that organizations involved in electoral campaigning (including both corporations and unions) at least reveal the identities of prime major donors, while barring foreign corporations, major government contractors and financial bailout recipients from making electoral expenditures. Although 92 percent of the public supports disclosure of campaign contribution sources, Republicans unanimously filibustered the bill and it fell one vote short of passage. But if the Democrats make it a priority in the remaining Senate term, they have a chance of achieving its goals. To do so will require reaching out with every conceivable political and moral argument to potential Republican supporters, while mobilizing public sentiment to demand the common sense requirement that if you try to buy an election, you have to at least put your name on your ads.

Before November, Republicans opposed checking the deluge of anonymous campaign contributions due to narrow self-interest. They may continue to do so, even though for years they thundered in favor of transparency as an alternative to campaign finance reform or public financing. “We ought to have full disclosure,” said John Boehner in 2007, “full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Since Citizens United opened the floodgates for organized money to pour into elections without the slightest check, Republican leaders and their key allies have done everything possible to foster anonymous and untraceable attacks from the shadows.

Yet I suspect that more than a few Republican Senators have their doubts about this process. Do Senators like Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Mark Kirk really want to open themselves up to unlimited anonymous attack ads, where they can’t even turn the mud potential primary opponents will be slinging into a potential electoral liability? Embracing these anonymous interests should contradict the basic conservative value of taking responsibility for one’s actions, replacing it with an ethic that values only the consolidation of power. Given that these Senators will face significantly Democratic electorates in the future, do they really want to cast their lot with the most predatory financial interests in America? If they do stand up to make these attacks more difficult, this not only protects themselves against being targets, but stakes out ground that can win support from moderate Republicans, independents, and Democrats. Reining in anonymous attack ads from institutions like the bailed-out banks or foreign corporations should also resonate with those elements of the Tea Party and the conservative religious community who even as they mistrust Obama, equally mistrust the financial interests that have left America’s economy in its current troubled plight.

It would have been nice had some of these Senators had tackled the problem before the election, instead of just supporting their team. Now, with a bit more space to reflect, they may well wonder whether handing over our elections to competing teams of billionaires is really the best idea. And if they do choose to align themselves with these interests, it’s a prime stand for which voters can hold them accountable.

It’s also possible that some retiring Republican Senators will have qualms about turning over our electoral future to the likes of BP, Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs, United Health Care and Exxon (not to mention foreign governments, corporations, and sovereign wealth funds). For the first time in years, they won’t have to always listen to their contributors, just their own convictions. I’m thinking of people like George Voinovich, George LeMieux, or Bob Bennett. Since it only takes two Republican votes, including the newly seated Mark Kirk, perhaps one of the other saner Republican Senators might respond, like Lindsay Graham, Dick Lugar, Lisa Murkowski, or even John McCain.

But to get two of these votes, the Democrats are going to have to push, with every political and personal appeal that they can think of. Obama will have to push as well, and grassroots groups both nationally and in the states represented by potentially receptive Senators. It’s going to be far easier to do this before the new Senate gets in, because the newly elected Republicans are so vastly beholden to the interests who helped buy their seats. So no matter how demoralized we may be, and too many of us are despairing, we need to spell out the stakes as clearly as possible and make clear that we can either keep working for Lincoln’s dream of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” We can’t afford to allow that dream to perish by handing over our common future over to those whose dollars can elect whichever politicians they think will most likely do their bidding, or defeat those of either party who oppose them. If we believe the core of our democracy is worth preserving, we have to give this issue our best shot.

Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times newly updated after 100,000 copies in print), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. For more information or to subscribe to Paul Loeb’s articles see www.paulloeb.org/ To sign up on Facebook visit Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks .

Ten Reasons Why I’m Spending This Election Day On the Phones

8:19 am in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

I admit it. 2008 was a whole lot more fun. We were riding a wave of change. We had the political momentum. We reached into states and districts we thought we could win and turned them with our energy and commitment. If felt like we just might be launching a period like that of FDR or the peak of the Great Society and Civil Rights movement, when America really would move forward, when hope and history, in the words of Seamus Heaney, would finally rhyme.

Now our hopes are chastened or worse, and we’re struggling to hold back a Republican tide. Yet if we could just bring all the likely non-voters to the polls we’d actually win, which means the volunteering that we do today can matter as much or more as that of two years ago. Here are ten reasons why I’m going to spend my entire day on the phones today, from when the polls open in Pennsylvania and Illinois to when they close in Washington and Alaska. I’ve listed how to act below, and I hope you’ll join me with whatever time you have:

1. Today’s races are incredibly close, with a half dozen toss-ups in the Senate and 30 in the House. They’re going to be decided by turnout.

2. Our volunteer efforts matter. I got at least three people to vote in a 2004 Washington State governor’s race where my candidate, Christine Gregoire, defeated a dangerous right winger by 133 votes. With 50 fewer volunteers, Gregoire would have lost. If a few more Democratic volunteers had stayed home, Minnesota would have Norm Coleman instead of Al Franken as its Senator. I want to make sure we’re on the right side of those kinds of margins this round.

3. Our phone calls and door-knocking do matter. Studies suggest that if you talk to a dozen voters face to face you’ll get another vote for your side. The same with 20 phone calls. If enough of us participate, this can tip today’s elections again and again.

4. I’m angry that the most predatory corporations in America are trying to buy what’s left of our democracy. I’m angry that a Bush Supreme Court made this possible and that not one Republican voted for the bill, the DISCLOSE Act, that would at least have required them to put their names on their ads. When I get angry I act. Getting on the phones is the best way I can.

5. Change is a long haul process, sometimes a battle of inches. Unless we’re giving up forever, the results of today will open up or close off possibilities for the next six years, or more, and set the tone for the next Presidential election. Even if the landscape going forward is going to be less hospitable than it’s been, the more we can do today, the better our prospects for long-term change.

6. I have my own mixed feelings about how the Democrats played their hand. But compared to the Republicans it’s not even close. And I value the victories we’ve won, like covering 32 million people in the health care bill and preventing insurance companies from dropping you when you have cancer because of childhood acne. Or taking money away from the banks to fund the best student financial aid bill since the Pell Grants. Or putting more money into alternative energy than any administration in history. Or having Elizabeth Warren oversee a new consumer financial protection agency, and being able to appoint two decent Supreme Court Justices. I want to see these victories extended, and not rolled back. Whatever we do today will help.

7. There are Democrats running who I really admire, like Russ Feingold, Joe Sestak, Alexi Giannoulias, Patty Murray, and the no longer so long-shot candidacy of Scott McAdams, plus dozens of good at-risk House candidates. I don’t want to see them needlessly go down because I was too timid or too demoralized to make a few phone calls.

8. The Republicans running in this election are frightening in the degree they want to turn our country over to the most destructive corporations on the planet. They’re also running on a fundamental denial of reality, from their winking and nodding as their base is energized by “birther” and “secret Muslim” lies to denying the human role in global climate change. I don’t want to give them a single extra seat to exercise their destructive power.

9. “Send the Democrats a message” by staying home or voting third party has time and again moved the country to the right. It’s particularly dangerous when the alternative is turning your country over to candidates funded and selected by Exxon, the coal companies and the Koch brothers. I want to be on the phones to help those considering walking into this trap to avoid it.

10. It’s tempting to spend every spare moment watching the projected results, but that changes nothing. Whatever the results, at the end of the day, I want to be able to say I did what I could. That doesn’t happen by passively watching and hoping. It happens by doing the best we can, in circumstances that aren’t always ideal. That’s what I’m trying to do today and I hope you’ll join me.

You can call through Obama’s Organizing for America, through MoveOn, or through Democracy in America. For local races, progressive groups have developed powerful tailored ballot guides. Even if you just have a few hours calling the West Coast at the end of the day, you owe it to yourself and to the country to do what you can, knowing that you can never predict the difference it could make.

Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (St Martin’s Press, April 2010), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. See www.paulloeb.org

The Party of Non-Voters — Why Our Election Day Volunteering Matters More Than Ever

2:34 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

The Pew Research Center just released an immensely valuable poll, contrasting those who intend to vote this round, with those who will likely stay home. Among all adults the Democrats or those who leaned Democrat had a 50 to 39 margin, and Obama had a three point plus in job approval. But among those likely to head to the polls, Republicans were up four points. The difference was among non-voters, where the Democrats led by a staggering 24 points, except that these people were likely to stay home. They were overwhelmingly younger and poorer, less white, the core of the base that carried Obama and the Democrats to victory just two year ago. They approved of the job Obama was doing by 16 points, so this wasn’t a progressive backlash. They just didn’t feel the urgency of turning out, or they hadn’t been asked enough to do so. Another Pew survey documented what was actually a one point Democratic preference among voters overall. But this was dwarfed by exceptionally high rates of Republican participation, and Democrats who were far more disengaged.

That’s the picture. It’s bad news for the Democrats and bad news for the country, given the degree of the current Republican detachment from reality. But it doesn’t have to be the final verdict, precisely because these are people who would vote Democrat if they only got to the polls, which means it’s up to the rest of us to convince them. We don’t have to change their minds. We just have to get them to participate. Thirty percent of voters who lean Democratic have received live phone calls, which means seventy percent have not. The Democratic campaigns have the coordinated voter files, so reaching most people is doable. The question is whether there will be enough volunteers to complete the task. That’s where we come in, whether we can spend an hour or all day. You can call from anywhere, simply by registering and logging in. You don’t need to even leave your home. Or if you do want to participate in the final door-to-door push, that can be even more helpful. But the challenge is do to something, knowing that it could tip the difference in race after vulnerable race.

Six years ago, as I’ve written, I spent election day knocking on doors in Washington State and turned out three additional voters. One had forgotten about the election. Another needed a ride. A third didn’t know how to submit his absentee ballot. My candidate won the governor’s race by 133 votes, over a right-wing Republican who’s now running neck and neck with the once seemingly unbeatable Senator Patty Murray. I didn’t get those votes by any particular eloquence or skill, just by showing up. Any other volunteer would have had the same results. But had I and 50 other volunteers stayed home that day, we’d have lost. The stakes are as high or higher today, and the outcome in race after close race could still depend on what we do. Whether we step up or not is up to us.
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Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (St Martin’s Press, April 2010), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. See www.paulloeb.org.