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10 Rules of Populist Power -- The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell

This excerpt from Jamie Court's new book offers ten simple rules that can help an awakened public see and seize the outside opportunities for creating change.

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Candidates already know how to win elections based on clearly expressed moral sentiments. Here are some of the ones that brought Obama to the White House:

• Health care should be accessible and affordable so that medical bills bankrupt no one.

• Americans must end dependence on the petroleum economy and stop gasoline prices from destroying our economy.

• Lobbyists and special interest groups shouldn’t control Washington, D.C.

Republican senator Scott Brown, who foiled many of Obama’s ambitions on the president’s one-year anniversary in office, was remembered for this sentiment during the campaign: “This isn’t Ted Kennedy’s seat. It’s the people’s seat.”

During campaigns, candidates have opponents to hold them accountable for such sentiments, but, after elections, too many inter­est groups are afraid to hold officials to their campaign pledges for fear of losing access. There’s no more fertile ground for outsiders who seek to hold elected officials accountable to a platform of change than the field of the candidates’ own words on the campaign trail. This was the tactic, for example, that finally forced Arnold Schwarzenegger to redefine special interests to include corporations that were giving him money. Even allies have to be reminded of the sentiments they espouse in order to keep them to reasonable time­lines for taking action. One moral sentiment Americans agree with is politicians shouldn’t forget their promises after taking office.

Rule 4: Forget Sun Tzu: The Bigger the Fight, the Better the Odds; Fight Even If You Cannot Win Today, and Someday You’ll Win without a Fight

Politics may be the art of the possible, but often “realism” or, as Hillary Clinton put it, “reality-based politics” undermines the possibility of genuine political change based on an outside game. By “outside game,” I mean the notion that forces outside the Washington Beltway can move the insiders, based on the power of public opinion. Politicians tend not to believe or put much hope in the outside game unless the public’s sentiment is a clear and present danger for them. Rousing public opinion begins with a strategy to invite conflict.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the classic strategy manual for poli­tics, business, and military conflict. The Chinese general argues that if your forces are unequal to your opponent’s, you should avoid conflict. That may be true for classical warfare, but in the game of populist change, be it a fight with a government agency or a Fortune 500 company, the odds are always unequal. Engaging a fight with a more powerful opponent on an issue that may not seem winnable at the moment is essential because confrontation creates opportunities for your opponent to make mistakes and creates a public record of the battle. Look for the big fight if you want the big payoff, even if you lose some battles.

When our consumer group first took on the HMOs’ cost-cutting practices, many of our allies said they were too strong and we would alienate a potential force for universal health care by trying to bring them under control. But we changed their worst abuses by exposing and confronting them.

When he went to the California ballot with insurance reform Prop 103 in 1988, Harvey Rosenfield had to deal with angering allies who claimed he could never beat the property-insurance industry’s money. Consumer groups and trial lawyers wanted to avert a ballot war and cut a deal with insurance companies, who ulti­mately put their own anti-consumer agenda on the ballot to confuse voters. Harvey wouldn’t back down, even though he had raised no significant money to spend on a campaign. Insurers spent over $60 million against Harvey’s landmark ballot measure and on making the case for their own, and that turned out to be their downfall. The companies so saturated the airwaves with television advertisements against Prop 103 that the public realized insurers were against the measure. That convinced 51 percent of voters to support the ballot measure, because it was the real-deal insurance reform. You have to love populist jujitsu.

 
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