A 12-Step Program for Regime Change
Each day, millions of frustrated Americans engage in discussions about how our country has gone off course and how ultraconservatives have taken over our government. As we put our hearts and souls into figuring out how to achieve regime change at home in November 2004, these conversations are growing in volume.
How we engage this election will speak volumes about the future of our country. Our passion in this political moment feels unprecedented. Yet, because we feel a lot of anxiety about all that's happened to our country since 9/11, we don't yet know our strength. We forget, for example, that the things we believe in -- equality, fairness, justice, dignity, and ultimately kindness and love -- inspired the greatest moral and political achievements of the 20th century: civil rights, women's equality, the right to organize, and the growth of the environmental movement. These values make our society strong and appealing to the rest of the world. We must protect and promote them in the 21st century as well.
Some of us have been discouraged by the increasingly conservative corporate media, which try to marginalize us. We become alarmed as our government ratchets up the fear quotient and we watch the irrational effect the scare tactics have. At these moments, we can forget to turn to each other for support.
But we must claim our power and overcome our doubts and fears -- as well as our bad habits. We need to feel proud and joyful, not just angry and defensive. We must work together, as one huge family, knowing that if we don't, we cannot win.
We must be united to fight for regime change at home, not just to prevent more bloodshed, empire building and cruel policies, but to protect virtually all the progress we've made over the past 40 years. Environmentalists alone cannot ensure clean air and water; union members alone cannot protect the right to organize; civil libertarians alone cannot defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; seniors on their own cannot protect Social Security; feminists alone cannot defend Roe v. Wade; and African-Americans and Latinos alone are not going to ensure fairness and equality and stop a wide range of cruel budget cuts.
But, by focusing on what we have in common -- the clear-cut goal of defeating Bush in 2004 -- we can all succeed. How important is this? It feels more important than anything we will do for a very long time.
To help us chart our course, what follows is a 12-step program to achieve regime change. As in all such efforts for change, we need to take an inventory of our strengths and our weaknesses, confront our bad habits and addictions, reach out to others, and recover our power.
Step #1: Recognize Our Strengths
Let's start with traditions that serve as our foundation. Social critic Colin Greer reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr.'s work evolved from his initial civil rights struggles into protecting poor people of all colors and then to insisting on peace in Vietnam. An overriding framework of concern linked all of these causes into one "Beloved Community." Greer notes how the values of progressive America inspire millions of people every day: health care advocates; members of environmental, civil rights and civil liberties groups; volunteers at food banks and women's shelters; people working for their children's education, and many more. As he says, "We have to communicate our history and our strength."
Progressives are potentially stronger now than at any time in the past 30 years. Breakthrough efforts like the fast-growing True Majority, and Move On, with its 1.3 million members, have significant capacity to reach and motivate new people. The MoveOn.org PAC can also raise large amounts of money. Millions of unaffiliated middle-class progressives are ripe for organizing. The Win Without War coalition, made up of 40 national membership groups, has committed itself to regime change with a major investment in media. Many increasingly sophisticated national organizations are already gathering and dedicating themselves to the work ahead, focusing on voter registration and education and Get Out the Vote (GOTV) strategies in key states.
In the battle ahead, we are unified. From progressive to moderate, virtually all of us agree that regime change is our common goal. Support for third party politics is invisible, even among those who voted for Nader in 2000.
We were part of a tremendous effort to halt the invasion of Iraq, supported by many tens of millions of people across the globe. Most of the world is with us, and for much more than a peace movement; for a movement for sanity, human values and the future.
We also need to tap into our deepest, most magnanimous courage to help us give up old habits and narrow agendas, and sacrifice more for the whole. One woman with a lot of courage is Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who at age 95 is still raising hell; just a few years ago she walked across the country to promote campaign finance reform. She recently reminded us of something profound. During the recent peace marches, despite the angry speeches and the losses to be suffered by so many, she said: "The people in the marches were joyful. Did you notice that? Did you feel it yourself? The best smiles I've seen in years." She went on to state that this time can also be "about something far deeper than the Bush attack du jour... Did you not hope, as a child, that one day it would be in your hands to save the world? Is it not indeed joyful to embark on a life of great meaning? Aren't we joyful for this moment, when all is at stake? We are, we are. And do not stand in the way of our joy."
Step #2: Acknowledge What We Are Powerless to Change
We can't change the fact that September 11 happened and fundamentally transformed the nature of American politics. We need to face the reality of our defeat in trying to stop the attack on Iraq. We never stood a chance. The rules have changed. We were playing by the old rules, advocating for inspections and multilateralism, thinking that politics is about negotiation and listening to constituencies. Now it's about raw power, and we need to exercise our own power in the campaign to defeat Bush. The conservatives effectively established new rules of engagement: Anything goes; be as radical and as unreasonable as you can get away with; play the fear card; and count on the corporate media to carry the message. Conservatives got away with invading Iraq, and the only way to stop them is to defeat them in the election of 2004.
The conservatives have invested enough money particularly by wealthy right-wingers in think tanks and communications over the past 40 years to reach the point where, according to the New York Times, they believe that they have initiated "an era of dominance" -- despite the fact that significant majorities oppose their positions. We can't change the fact that the conservatives are likely to raise half a billion dollars to support the Bush candidacy; or that the corporate media, especially radio networks and television networks like Fox and NBC/General Electric, will work hard to get Bush reelected.
If we are to succeed, we must recognize some important truths. Politically, the "facts" will not set us free, and issues alone will not win us elections. The other side thinks very differently than we do. Forty percent of the U.S. population will accept virtually anything that Bush and Co. say. Most of these people get all their news from television. This 40 percent of the population will never agree with us, and there is nothing we can do about it. They will not change, nor will they see the light. They are the fundamentalists of America, the religious shock troops, the millions of fearful, and the conservative wealthy who fund and fuel the current conservative efforts at hegemony.
It's not easy to write off 100 million people. In our own stubborn way, we liberals and progressives think everyone can change.
If you don't accept the depth of this conservative hold on 40 percent of the population, read "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," by University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff. The book explains how conservatives think profoundly differently than progressives and why white males vote against their economic interests. It also offers insights into how we might frame our own issues.
Still, none of the things we can't change matter as much as what we can do, by educating, mobilizing, motivating, sacrificing, sharing and setting good examples. We will use plain old people power to rise up and regain balance in our country. We have the numbers, we have the truth, and we have the vision for a better world. We need the confidence, the discipline, and the smarts to pull it off.
Step #3: Communicate Our Vision
To be successful in American politics, we need undecided voters to come over to our side. We must communicate a positive vision of the future. Most Americans like to be on the winning team, so we need winning ideas and stars who can carry the message forward. Going negative doesn't help. When we attack the conservative frame, we actually reinforce their messages. We need our message.
A strong vision would draw on the deep history and powerful metaphor of people working together to make this country strong, to protect ourselves and one another, to care about the health and safety of all our people.
Giving one example of a big picture vision is Granny D: "We are the people who believe in a world of environmental beauty, of happiness and not exploitation, of justice and not oppression and torture. A world safe for children. Government budgets that invest in our smart babies, not smart bombs. We believe in international law and cooperative action."
Step #4: Confront Our Weaknesses
To be honest with ourselves, we have to confront our seeming compulsion to repeat the same strategies, no matter how many times they fail. We specialize in large single-issue membership organizations. We pride ourselves on our unswerving dedication to myriad idealistic issues. Our organizations at times become little more than self-perpetuating efforts to secure funding dollars.
This may sound harsh. Many of these issues are important in their own way, but now, with so much at stake, the many do not add up to the whole.
Moving forward requires acknowledging what's not serving us. Single-issue politics is the Achilles' heel of progressive Democrats. Conservatives understand that individual issues need to be linked to an overall moral and ethical perspective. As George Lakoff explains, "They fit the issues together, develop conservative value-based language, and then highjack American virtues like freedom and compassion and give them conservative definitions...Progressives in contrast are hampered by the plethora of issues, rather than the overarching value perspective that rationalizes the polices."
The longstanding approach of "letting a thousands flowers bloom" has not added up. Battles on hundreds of fronts, competing for attention and funding, will not bring us political power. Too many voices often cancel each other out, and the confusing cacophony can send people away. We have to rethink change and appreciate that by gaining political clout our issues have a better chance of winning.
Step #5: Practice Being Realistic
A big behavioral change for many will be diving into electoral politics. Many of us have viewed elections as tainted, trivial or hopelessly uncool. We may have preferred the detachment of the cynical or the purity of issue advocacy. After decades of attacking the political system as hopelessly corrupted by campaign financing, we regard politics as dirty and impervious to change. But alas, despite its enormous flaws, it is the only system we've got.
Author Jonathan Schell says, "Elections are a fabulous tool for bringing about change -- if you use them! You have to infuse them with your energy. There's something tautological about rejecting elections. It's like an admission of defeat. It's very bad to admit defeat when you're in a movement. It's a big mistake. You should try to win. You may fail; there's no victory guaranteed in this world, in life. But you should aim to win and really change things."
When we opt out of campaigns, the political consultants and media buyers take over. These guys just add to the nasty image of politics, particularly with their multi-million dollar hit ads, often designed to turn people off voting altogether and leave them confused, discouraged and disgusted.
We'll also need to sacrifice some of our purity. As Granny D put it, "Politics is about winning. For us, it is about winning to save lives and raise people up from poverty and illness and loneliness and injustice."
Finally, we need to shake our frequent paralysis regarding public educational activity of non-profits. The outrageously partisan behavior of Pat Robertson's and other conservative groups operating as tax exempt ultimately prevailed in the courts. Still, many liberal foundations and their grantees remain gun-shy about aggressive public education.
Some estimate that just a top group of the largest liberal non-profit organizations has as much as $2 billion dollars in operating budgets. Although tax laws prohibit organizations from advocating for specific candidates, they can still do a lot of public education offering workable models and far different approaches to current domestic and foreign policies. And staff are free to be partisan on their own time.
Step #6: Stop Squabbling and Make Amends
You may have heard the joke: What's a progressive firing squad? Answer: A circle.
Enough! Or, as progressive leader and communications guy Dan Carol says: "Kumbaya dammit. There are ways to stand for principles without fighting over crumbs. Start with everyone sharing their vision of what they want and need ... and check your passive aggressiveness at the door. Let's not forget that the perfect is the enemy of the good."
It is time to declare an amnesty. If South Africa can have a reconciliation, why not progressives? Let us join our competitors and our former enemies in new collaborations toward victory.
Step #7: Think Strategically
If you have read this far, you are probably part of the core Democratic vote. Not enough of us have been active in Democratic Party politics or elections. Let's make that history.
Make no mistake; we are not a majority. Clinton won the '92 presidential race with 43 percent of the vote (with Perot in the race against Bob Dole). We hover around 40 percent of the electorate. The conservatives and Republicans are also close to 40 percent. To become a majority, we need to reach swing voters. Electoral College rules mean that the Democratic candidate could win the popular vote by a million votes in 2004 and still lose the election. We need to win a couple of red states while hanging on to the blue states Gore won in 2000.
Do you know which states are red? Which are swing states? Which voters are swing voters? It's time to get strategic! Below is a list. If you live in a swing state, get to work; if you don't live in a swing state, start visiting and finding all your friends and relatives who are in one.
Swing State Line Up:
The Blues: In 2000, Al Gore really won 10 states by less than 6%: Florida (which was given to the Republicans by the Supreme Court); New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon (by less than 1%); Minnesota (by 2.5%); and Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine and Washington (by about 5%).
The Reds: George W. Bush won eight states by less than 6.5% (not counting Florida), five of those by less than 5%: New Hampshire (which he won by only 7,200 votes, or 1.3%); Ohio, Nevada and Missouri (by about 3.5%); Tennessee (4%); Arkansas (5.5%); Arizona and West Virginia (about 6.5%).
Step #8: Deal With the Politics of Fear
Fear is the subtext of American politics. The Republicans know that fearful people tend to vote conservative, so generating and exploiting fear will be high on their agenda. Expect every kind of Republican surprise: Code Reds, new acts of terrorism, invasions of other countries, the sudden capture of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. There may be dirty tricks in this election.
Even though some of us don't feel it acutely, fear is a fundamental issue in America. It's no accident that we have more than 11,000 gun deaths a year while neighboring Canada has far fewer with as many guns per capita. America just passed the 2 million mark in the number of people incarcerated in prisons. While violent crime goes down, the presentation of violent crime in the media escalates.
Generating fear of "the other" is a staple of Republican politics. Only united can we can fight it. But this isn't simple and requires a lot of discussion, thought and creative ideas. The main point is to acknowledge that fear is on people's minds and not trivialize or deny it. The antidote to fear is joy and courage. It is mutual support and protection and a clear, forthright policy on national security. Progressive values are about protecting our families, our communities, making our lives safe and fulfilling. But we're not interested, as the Bush administration insists is necessary, in trading freedom for security. As Move On's Wes Boyd notes: "Luckily, Americans are made of sterner stuff and we'll continue to protect freedom and it will make us strong."
Step #9: Examine Our Privilege and Embrace Diversity
This step is particularly aimed at those of us in the social change business. Are we too aloof from the grittiness of electoral politics and face-to-face organizing and talking with people who don't agree with us? Most of the millions of people who make up the leadership and rank and file of non-profits and foundations are highly educated, have health insurance and many have family support. Even when we have risen from the working class, we have the privilege of networks and access to mentors and support.
When the economy gets worse, when Medicare and Medicaid are cut, when the minimum wage is stuck way below the living wage, when tax breaks go to the rich, most of us remain untouched. In some cases, we actually benefit from political crises; our organizations can raise more money. But poor people and many people of color have no such luxuries. They can't criticize elections as a distraction on the road to political change, as a prominent peace leader did recently. They have to deal with the political reality.
Diversity is a fundamental progressive value, just like fairness and protection of families. Our hybridness is a strength. The mix of our skills, talents, experiences, histories and colors makes us much more than the sum of our parts and imbues us with the power to defeat the more homogeneous and rigid conservatives.
We also need to keep in mind that many of our brilliant and exciting current efforts are white and middle class. We learned from the 2002 primary elections that ignoring the base and running to the middle will lose elections, as minority voters stayed home in droves and resources didn't make it into their communities. Hopefully 2002 was the aberration, and the powerful voter registering and organizing work that was done in Florida (e.g., that won that state for Gore, until the Supreme Court decided otherwise) will be the model across the country. African Americans were far ahead of other groups in opposing the invasion of Iraq, and the rapidly growing Latino population is very concerned about the impact of war budgets and tax cuts on services their communities desperately need. Minority communities represent the strongest element in the quest for regime change. It is crucial that diversity issues be addressed at the beginning of any broad-based planning for 2004, and not as an afterthought.
Step #10: Create an Independent Power, Not Reliant on Parties or Candidates
To help us win in 2004, how about organizing a progressive electoral movement that becomes a force in the election by not picking one of the candidates in the primaries? Instead we'll raise money, develop an active base nationwide and effectively target key swing states. We earn our credibility by working while the primaries are underway, building an infrastructure that is ready to roll the last four months of the campaign on behalf of whomever the Democrats nominate.
All the Democratic candidates are superior to George W. Bush; even Joe Lieberman, the guy progressives love to hate. Domestically, all these candidates believe in fundamental values and issues that if framed effectively can appeal to a wide cross-section of Democrats and swing voters. These are themes, values and positions that Bush clearly does not support. In addition, a forceful progressive presence will help keep candidates on message, give them backbone on issues, and balance the inevitable challenges from the media and the conservative Democrats when candidates take strong populist positions. Of course many progressives will support candidates closest to them on key issues. But no matter who gets nominated, we need to get the nominee elected.
It would be a bold move to quickly organize and grow a large-scale independent campaign for regime change at home. Let's call it the "Independent Force." It would counter the stereotypes that progressives can't work together and that partnerships don't travel well across race, class and issue lines. If key leadership groups bought in, such a formation could, by effectively using the Internet, number five million and be well funded with $10 million by next summer. No, that wouldn't be enough. Yet, big organizations and coalitions of insiders wielding large amounts of money may not be the best way to engage the rank and file.
A regime change movement would: a) ensure an organizational infrastructure, especially in swing states, to help elect the Democratic nominee; b) coordinate and articulate a clear vision of the values and principles generally shared by all the Democratic candidates and strongly desired by millions of independent and progressive Democrats; and c) create a way for the progressive and activist universe to exercise political influence after the election. It would hold the Democratic nominee accountable during the election (and hopefully afterward). It would create effective new ways to work together in the event of Bush's reelection.
Progressives need to be a vigilant counterweight to the bad habits of Beltway thinking, potential big organization in-fighting, and the influence of some of the Democratic Party's wealthy donors. Ingrained attitudes that take the base of voters for granted, depend on negative campaigning, run to the middle, instead of standing for issues clearly and firmly, have led to failure in the past, but not this time if we succeed.
Step #11: Use and Trust Independent Media
The Republican-controlled FCC has decided to make media more conservative, more corporate and more concentrated. Given the media system we have already, that's hard to swallow. Now we'll have more nightmares like Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 stations and is infamous for dumbing down radio and organizing pro-war rallies.
But even before this latest stage, the "Fox effect" pushed news coverage to the right. Rupert Murdoch's pending purchase of Direct TV exponentially increases the power of conservative TV. This is all wrong and unacceptable, but by everyone's estimation, changing the media system is a long-term struggle. The corporate media system is likely to get worse as far as the eye can see.
We don't have time to wait. Yes, we should work the contradictions in corporate media as best we can, since the media system needs a semblance of objectivity to be credible enough to make their profits. But also we need to use our own independent media system, which, with the help of the Internet, has grown tremendously, risen in quality and reaches many more people than ever before. AlterNet.org, where I work, Common Dreams, Tom Paine.com, the Nation, Salon, Pacific News Service and many more (including WireTapmag.org, the feisty youth site), are powerful daily information sources. When added up, the independent media often do much more than the corporate media in presenting details and diversity of voices.
It is important to have alternative perspectives and viable options in play. Michael Moore, progressive media's superstar, has shown that it's possible to reach millions with a very strong populist message. (Moore's next film is in the works and will calculate the tremendous loss of political freedom since 9/11 while tracing the relationship of the bin Laden and Bush families, all in time for the 2004 election.) But there are dozens of other voices also reaching millions, because the Internet makes it possible to amplify radio shows, columns, speeches and great journalism every day.
Many of us have become "connectors," zipping the best ideas, analysis and personal voices around the web so we all know what Robert Scheer, Arianna Huffington, Molly Ivins, Arundhati Roy, Amy Goodman and numerous others are writing, thinking and saying. Worldlink TV and FreeSpeech TV, our only progressive TV networks, are improving everyday. (Sure, you have to get a satellite dish to watch them, but you'll also get "The Sopranos," so why not?)
When Greg Palast was asked how his current "alternative ' book became a bestseller, he told the interviewer the alternative press needs to change its name: "It reaches more people than the mainstream."
Step #12: Make a Commitment
Activist Harriet Barlow has started talking to friends about the "5 percent" plan. If you are really serious about defeating Bush, she says, commit 5 percent of your income and 5 percent of your time to the cause; more if you can afford it. And start now. Many others are in tune with Barlow. If you can, why not vacation or even temporarily relocate to key swing states like Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada, especially if you are from there or have family or friends there? Dedicate a portion of your time to what will be the most important election of our lives. If idealistic young people can travel to Iraq and Palestine, why not to Kansas City, Cleveland, Pittsburg or Jacksonville?
Dropping everything and moving to a swing state may seem extreme, but there are many steps along the way. One thing we need to do is get together and talk about what's at stake and give each other encouragement. Regime Change house parties, salons and picnics can become the rage. Progressive leaders travel all the time and are aching for invitations -- give them a call, especially if you are in a swing state. Plan on facilitating an exchange of ideas and information, not just hosting a speech. We need more interaction and voices, fewer speeches.
Many organizations with people on the ground, such as ACORN, NAACP, Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters, Rock The Vote and Win Without War and their affiliates will have local efforts going across the country. Check out their websites, volunteer, send them money if you can.
Tom Paine.com, True Majority and Peace Action have organized a register voters for peace campaign, and the Swing State Project is recruiting volunteers nationwide now. Working For Change is one of the best places on the web to read about and take part in political actions. Get on their list.
It is good to remember that change often isn't linear. Dramatic events can short-circuit everything we think we know. Unexpected combinations of circumstances and planning have erupted in major historic events -- 9/11 of course, but also the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ending of apartheid, the feminist and environmentalist revolutions -- that all shocked the political world when they emerged.
But nothing takes the place of organizing. Progressives, as Robert Borosage underscores in a recent The Nation, have just begun to build the independent capacity to drive energy into the political debate. Our think tanks will provide ammunition for our efforts. As we join our web-based communicators like Move on, Working Assets and True Majority, we help build their strength to broaden the base. Now is the time to draw the line. We need to dedicate ourselves to the task ahead fully, without ambivalence, minimizing squabbling, knowing we are right. The future of our families and our globe is in our hands.
Don Hazen is the executive director of the Independent Media Institute (IMI). This article was written independently of AlterNet. The opinions expressed in this article in no way reflect the positions of IMI or AlterNet.