10 Rules of Populist Power -- The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell
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Our response? We proposed a ballot measure of our own that would strictly curb Mercury’s profits. We started a boycott of Mercury Insurance. But the key to turning George Joseph around was an Internet video we made about him for the “Boycott Mercury” Web site. Robert Greenwald, a friend and the progressive movie director behind Iraq for Sale , Outfoxed, and Wal-Mart Movie , sent a film crew to shadow the octogenarian from his luxurious Hancock Park home to his office. The camera crew confronted Joseph about the initiative in his office garage. They asked why Mercury would want to charge African Americans who lived in low-income communities and poorer zip codes more money. An angry letter from civil rights leaders also appeared on his desk. Within about a week, Mercury had withdrawn the initiative. But not before calling my colleague and Prop 103 author Harvey Rosenfield.
Joseph told Harvey his wife had asked him why there had been a video camera at his home. When he explained, she said she also thought it was wrong for his company to charge customers based on their zip code. A few months later, Joseph resigned as Mercury’s CEO, though he retained his position as chairman of the board. New rules charging people based on how they drive, not where they live, finally took effect in 2008. California is the only state in the nation that forces insurers to base premiums on motorists’ driving record, how far they drive, and how many years of experience they have, and not on where they live.
Only a few people were involved; only a small number of actions were needed. Less yielded more—something that is often not the case with staging a mass demonstration or other Herculean labor of protest. For example, for almost a year a group of doctors called “Physicians Who Care” worked to organize massive protests against HMO medicine on “Rescue Healthcare Day.” The lead doctor bothered me nearly daily, and I kept warning him that the key to rescuing health care was what would happen the day after the protest. Nonetheless he continued to believe the outburst of physician energy would change everything. Of course, things didn’t change on their own the day after the protests. The doctor and his group quickly disappeared. I didn’t hear from him again for almost seven years. Just before the 2008 election he e-mailed to ask how he could raise questions about Senator McCain’s failure to disclose his health records. I pointed him to Robert Greenwald, who had already created a video on the topic and a petition signed by thousands of doctors calling for a release of those records. Greenwald started out with only a few doctors but ultimately grew the effort to include thousands, a popular online video, and a front-page New York Times story that turned McCain’s health into a campaign issue.
The question progressives must ask themselves is which small things and few people to target to turn things around.
Applying this to a national scale leads to some interesting options. Obama may not be the leader of the progressive movement, but it doesn’t mean the movement cannot make him move. And if you were going to target a few people for the greatest change, you probably wouldn’t have to look far. Progressives could demand a shake-up at the White House to oust Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The jobs of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers should also be on the chopping block. The strategy of these three men is largely responsible for the setbacks for progressives in health care, financial regulation, and climate change legislation.