First a note to our many readers in the U.S. Northeast, you have all our best wishes for weathering the extreme storm that has battered over you the past two days. Stay safe and recover quickly. I will see some of you next week in New York.
Meanwhile, with the U.S. Presidential election now less than a week away, this issue of the Democracy Center newsletter offers a brief reflection on one of the recent “war of words” between the two candidates and what it means for the ‘real democracy’ that must begin, regardless of the outcome, on November 7th.
The Democracy Center
Real Democracy Begins After the Ballots are Counted
Each day in the U.S. the Presidential election brings a new round of tit-for-tats between the Obama and Romney campaigns that last for a few hours and are soon scrapped in favor of a new round of charges and counter charges. But one, which came in mid-September, is worth looking at a little closer for something fundamental it tells us about democracy, not just in the U.S. but everywhere.
President Obama was being interviewed on the important Spanish language network, Univision, and was asked what he had learned from his nearly four years in the Presidency.
I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected. And that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done.
It took little time for his opponent, Mr. Romney, to quickly pounce in reply:
The President today threw in the white flag of surrender again. He said he can’t change Washington from inside. He can only change it from outside. Well, we’re going to give him that chance in November. He’s going outside.
It has become very easy to believe that democracy is nothing more than that tiny window that opens up every two years or so in which our only role as citizens is to choose which parties and candidates we will give the authority of government. After which our job is to listen to the results, hope for the best, and wait for our next crack at democracy the next time around.
But that is not how real democracy works at all. For more than forty years now I have worked in the political process: as a campaign worker, legislative staff, public interest lobbyist, organizer, and trainer of citizen activists on five continents. By the time you read this I will be in Senegal leading a training for UNICEF children’s advocates across Western and Central Africa. If there is one key thing I have learned it is this: Politicians, in every kind of country and every kind of political system, spend their days doing political math. Those who possess political authority want to hang onto that authority and they pay careful attention to the political winds around them. Citizen democracy is about impacting that political math.
This is what President Obama means when he talks about change from the outside, and he is right. Take for example the issue of U.S. health care reform. The citizen-impelled winds behind that reform did not begin with Obama’s election four years ago. They began in the 1930s and 1940s and took more than two decades to deliver Medicare in the early 1960s. Then they died down for a time and picked up again when reform activists in the mid-1980s (especially in California and Massachusetts) began to demand action on the combined crises of the uninsured, and health insurance companies dumping those with insurance just when they needed their coverage most. It was those citizen winds that made health reform the major initiative of President Clinton’s first term, that forced Romney himself to address the issue when he was Governor, and that laid the ground work for what has become known as ObamaCare.
Here is a fact that is universal and politically bipartisan: Politicians take the actions that they believe in only if they also believe it is politically safe for them to do so, and politicians will take actions they don’t believe in if they believe their career depends on it. Exceptions to the rule, often noble, are also rare.
When I teach advocacy – here in Senegal, or in California or New York or in Vietnam – what I teach people is how to put themselves into the minds of the political authorities they seek to move, and to develop a strategy from the ‘outside’ that speaks to the realities of the ‘inside’. You want a California Senator to vote to reduce class size? Make sure she knows PTA parents are watching her vote. You want the government of Vietnam to tell Nestlé to stop marketing infant formula to women who can’t afford it and don’t need it? Get the right Communist Party officials on your side by showing them data about the health impacts at stake.
This year the Democracy Center marks twenty years of working face-to-face, supporting and teaching thousands of citizen advocates across the U.S., Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. Across issues as diverse as climate change and immigrant rights, and across political systems as different as the California Capitol and local action in Uganda and Bolivia, the questions that drive the winds of citizen action are much the same: What do you want? Who do you need to move? Who do you need as allies? How do you need to talk about your issue? What are your options for action and how will they work?
President Obama is right. Political change always comes from the outside. That is where citizen democracy lives and where it must thrive, with expression protected by law and fueled by a sense of strategy at least as keen as the professional tacticians that operate on the inside. That is what the Democracy Center’s work has been about for two decades. We’ll be taking our advocacy trainings on the road at home in the U.S. in early 2013 – stay tuned for more on that soon. Meanwhile, have a look at our free citizen advocacy library here.
Elections matter, let’s be clear about that. But regardless of who wins in the U.S. next Tuesday, citizen democracy begins again anew on Wednesday morning. The outcome depends on a good deal more than simply who occupies the White House.
Did you miss?…
Some great examples of grassroots action in our newly published series ‘Getting Action on Climate‘