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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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When Frist finally sold the stock in September 2005, he did it just before the stock price tumbled, suggesting his family had given him an insider tip. A lot of eyes were watching by then. Frist was subpoenaed by the Justice Department and the SEC in an insider trading investigation of his well-timed sale. The investigation was made public two days after we sent another letter calling for an inquiry to the SEC and U.S. attorney. The record we had created years before, when it looked like we could not win the fight, was significant in the demise of Frist’s political career.

The scandal put an end to Frist’s presidential ambitions. His medical malpractice legislation, stained by the insider-trading allega­tion, never passed. The record, not the outcome of the initial battle, mattered most in the end.

Doing the right thing at the right time usually produces the right result in the end. The tension between progressives, who want their officials to stand on principle, and politicians, who want accomplish­ments before the next election, is constant and inevitable. It’s our job to urge the politicians to put what’s right over what’s convenient.

Rule 6: Keep It Human, Put People First

Never underestimate the power of one person’s story to change the world; indeed such stories may be the only thing that ever has. The sincere experiences of individuals who have suffered injustice are the best weapons against injustice. Winning campaigns are about the triumph of fundamental human truth, so real people with genuine stories are the best messengers of populist campaigns.

The language of the status quo is often statistical, actuarial, and data-based. This is not to say proponents of change don’t have science and statistics on their side. It’s just that opponents of change often base their objections on the hard, cold numbers that only accountants can muster and manipulate to show how they will bust budgets, bankrupt businesses, and break up families. My favorite example is tobacco companies’ argument against the Czech govern­ment’s smoking cessation plan. The industry’s actuarial study found that the country’s health care costs would skyrocket since people would live longer.

While it’s tempting to mix it up with scientists when you know you’re right, change-making campaigns typically mobilize the public and affect politics by sticking to the human case. Consider the medical patients’ wars in Washington, D.C., the classic arena where critical public policy battles with significant human consequences are too often fought over statistics and computer models. Powerful opponents use selective data to defuse change. So in the mid-1990s I pioneered a method to make sure Washington politicians looked patients in the eye before they took away their legal rights.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were engaged in a debate over whether victims of medical negligence should have limits on their rights to go to court and recover damages for malfeasance. Of course, the medical-insurance industry instigated that discussion. So we began our first “casualty of the day” campaign. In the pre-Internet world, fax machines were the cutting edge of communication. Every day for five months, every congressional representative, every sena­tor, and key members of the press received a fax with a picture and tragic story of a casualty of medical malpractice who needed his or her rights preserved. I knew the campaign was successful when the medical-insurance lobby’s public relations machine answered back with its own “medical miracle of the moment,” highlighting life-saving medical advances. As I commented at the time, the industry’s reaction was like Ford putting out a press release about every Pinto gas tank that didn’t explode.

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