10 Rules of Populist Power -- The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell
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The following is an excerpt from Jamie Court's new book, The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws, and Get the Change We Voted For(Chelsea Green, 2010).
Turning the tables on a powerful opponent revolves around a few core principles. By understanding what works and what hasn’t for change makers, an informed public can better stake its claim to change. In fact, there are ten simple rules that can help an awakened public see and seize the outside opportunities for creating changes that the vast majority of Americans believe in.
Rule 1: Forcing Opponents to Make Mistakes Is the Goal of Effective Advocacy for Change; Promoting Issues Is Not Enough
Any major change in public policy requires a shift in the balance of power. A big opponent with a self-interest in the status quo stands in the way of the popularly sought reform, or that reform would have happened already. When the powerful opponents of change make egregious mistakes, they vastly amplify the value and force of our campaigns by proving the point we cannot demonstrate on our own: our opponents’ values are out of touch with the public’s.
Every campaign for real change must (1) define an opponent; (2) be waged to trip up the opponent; and (3) be ready to create change from the opponent’s mistakes.
Consider how Congress finally banned so-called drive-through deliveries when HMOs tried to save some money by discharging newborns and their mothers from the hospital as early as eight hours after birth. The practice caught Congress’s eye only after a Kaiser HMO bureaucrat got a little too cute in a memo written to staff at the HMO’s flagship Sunset Boulevard hospital in Los Angeles. A whistleblower gave me the memo, titled “Positive Thoughts Regarding the Eight Hour Discharge.” Among the “reasons” given for hospital staff to explain the hasty departure to new moms were “hospital food is not tasty” and “better bonding with siblings at home.” Our exposure of the memo to the media became big news and was soon the subject of congressional hearings. Not only were the HMOs slighting motherhood, but data showed that newborns discharged early were twice as likely to end up in the emergency room with problems that proved to be expensive.
HMO executives were confronted with their penny-wise, pound-foolish policy. The rare glimpse into the cynical attitude of an HMO administration, coupled with exposures about mothers thrown out of the hospital before they learned to breast-feed, drove a Newt Gingrich–controlled Congress to require that newborns and their mothers not be discharged from the hospital any sooner than forty-eight hours without their consent. Congress rarely acts quickly, but when it does it’s because there is little doubt what the public wants and that those who oppose the public’s interest, like HMOs, cannot be trusted because they are so out of step. Only our opponents’ mistakes can demonstrate so clearly why things need to change.
When opponents of new financial privacy protections claimed our privacy was not at risk, I proved the point in a novel way. I bought the Social Security numbers of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other cabinet officials on the Internet for $26. When California legislation to protect financial privacy stalled in the statehouse, I decided to up the ante. I easily and legally bought the Social Security numbers of all the state legislators who opposed the legislation or refused to vote on it. Then I put up their partial Social Security numbers on the Internet along with the partial Social Security number of Governor Gray Davis. The politicians went ballistic. They called on the California Highway Patrol and attorney general to investigate and prosecute me. Their hot reaction to a risk to their personal privacy proved my point. It allowed me to turn the media spotlight they created onto their own failure to be concerned about the privacy of the public at large. The legislators drew attention to their own hypocrisy. Later that year, the California financial privacy protection legislation was revived, passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Davis.