Netroots Rock Star Darcy Burner Reveals Winning Plan for Progressives
In the world of politics, conferences are tools with many uses: they gather the faithful under one roof, they educate and inculcate, and the best ones entertain. But there's a part of the conference apparatus that works only sporadically. It's the star-maker machinery, and yesterday it was operating on all cylinders as congressional candidate Darcy Burner of Washington State addressed the afternoon plenary with a presentation that did all of the above. In other words, I have seen the future of political rock stars, and her name is Darcy Burner.
Burner had the unenviable task of being the opening speaker for a keynote session that also featured senatorial candidates Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. The session, titled "2012 and the War on (and for) Women" was formatted to allow each candidate to make a speech, followed by a discussion moderated by the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel.
Where a standard-issue politician would have used that occasion to deliver her best version of her stump speech, Burner's remarks were, by turns, prescriptive and inspirational, accompanied by a PowerPoint that outlined a plan for winning not just elections, but hearts and minds.
Understanding the Game
Burner, a former software engineer, identified a recurring problem with progressive strategy in terms of her early career experience working for Lotus Corporation, whose products, she said, were superior to those of Microsoft and far more affordable. And Lotus executives thought those two things amounted to an ace in the hole. But Microsoft she, said played a completely different game -- the game of power. By getting a few major corporations to adopt Microsoft Office as their software, they made everyone who wanted to do business with those companies adopt their products, as well. Burner explained:
Microsoft won because they understood what the game really was. And I feel that a lot of the time, as Democrats, like, we're the Lotus of politics. We think that it's all about policy. It's all about feature set. And if we have the better policies, we will win. I am sorry to be the one to break this to all of you, but that's not true. At the end of the day, this is a game that is about power -- and the right wing understands that.
Burner went on to outline a plan for progressives that involves exercising six types of power, arguably the most important of which is what she called "cultural power." As an illustration of the potential use of cultural power in defeating the agents of the war on women, Burner asked every woman in the room who had had an abortion, and was willing to declare so publicly, to stand. And hundreds of women did.
Burner noted that they represented the one in three women who have had abortions. Then she asked everyone who is willing to stand with these women, to affirm their right to make that decision, to come to their feet. And the whole audience stood. "This is how we change the stories in people's heads...," she said. "We need to make it okay for women to come out about the choices we have made."
The Practical Application of Power
All told, the six forms of power Burner identified are these:
But she didn't stop there: as with her suggestion for a way to exercise moral power through amplifying the "coming out" stories of women who have had abortions, she had suggestions for practical applications of each kind of power. For economic power, she offered this very innovative suggestion, that jumps off from one of the oldest forms of resistance in the book: the boycott -- but this time with a technological twist.
She called on progressives to "start boycotting everything that feeds the Koch brothers' machine."
Drawing on her background as a self-described "geek," Burner suggested the creation of a smart-phone app by which people could scan the barcodes of products in the supermarket to identify products manufactured by Koch-owned companies, such as Georgia Pacific. (These include Brawny paper towels, Quilted Northern bath tissue, Dixie cups, Vanity Fair paper napkins, and a host of other consumer products AlterNet identified here.)
As an exercise of moral power, Burner called on the audience to "fight for something big."
"For the women's movement," she said, "it is high time we followed our great-grandmothers' lead, and pass the Equal Rights Amendment."
Most Americans -- some 80 percent -- "think the Constitution already provides equal rights for women," Burner said. So the ERA is no longer the controversial idea it once was, she said, but it is hugely symbolic.
As an example of how feminists and progressives might exercise the power of the courts and law enforcement, Burner called for an aggressive strategy of suing Fortune 50 companies for wage discrimination against women, as well as bringing shareholder lawsuits against such companies for placing investors at risk by continuing patterns of discrimination.
"We can exercise the court and police power and enforce the laws that we have fought for and won already to force the largest corporations in the world to do the right thing with respect to women," she said.
It's not every day that politician chooses to educate like-minded voters in the nuts-and-bolts way that Burner did at Netroots. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen anything like her presentation conducted by a candidate for political office After the session concluded, I caught up with Burner and asked her what moved her to take her 20 minutes on the Netroots stage and devote it not on the narrow appeal for votes and donations for which most politicians might use such a moment.
"[I]f we are actually going to advance the values that we as progressives are fighting for -- the reasons I got into politics to begin with -- I need to help us all understand how we can actually make that happen," Burner said. "I'm not in this [congressional race] because I want some pin, or because I want to ride the special elevator; I'm in this because there are things that we're fighting for that matter. And anything I can do to help us be more successful in this fight, I'm gonna do."
Note: AlterNet does not endorse political candidates.
Watch Darcy Burner's presentation to Netroots Nation at a panel about the "War on Women." She is introduced by Amanda Terkel of the Huffington Post.