On Election Day four years ago, I was canvassing in my home state of Washington, alternately knocking on doors for gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire and breaking to call Ohio and Florida. After three recounts, Gregoire won by 129 votes. I had no idea my state election was so close, but I did get three people who wouldn't have otherwise voted -- one forgot it was Election Day, one needed a ride to the polls, and a third didn't know how to turn in her absentee ballot. If you multiply my efforts by those of thousands of other volunteers, we clearly helped make the difference.
The same happened in 2006. During the election's final weeks, I spent about 30 hours calling through MoveOn's Call for Change program, contacting voters in Virginia, Missouri, Montana and other states with key Senate and Congressional races. Grabbing spare moments where I could, I dialed my way across the country, convincing maybe 20 people who wouldn't have otherwise to back the Democratic challengers. Some initially resisted, saying, "They're all the same. They're all corrupt," or "My vote won't matter so why bother." But I convinced them to vote, and added a few with Election Day reminders. Later I read that MoveOn had 120,000 volunteers. If each had half the impact of my efforts, that meant over a million votes, in a season when U.S. Senate seats swung on margins as close as Montana's 3,500 votes, Virginia's 9,000, Rhode Island's 29,000, or Missouri's 48,000. Our common efforts again tipped the balance.
It's easy to think of our individual election volunteering as insignificant. But when enough of us act even in small ways, we can have a powerful impact. Studies have found that if you talk to a dozen people by going door to door, you'll likely add at least one new voter for your candidate, a ratio that tends to hold true from local to federal elections, as long as you're working in reasonably receptive neighborhoods. Phone outreach can have a similar impact, though you need to talk with more people for a comparable result. Imagine what a few hundred more volunteers could have done to shift Florida's 537-vote official margin in 2000, even with all the Republican machinations.
Individual actions can be multiplied on both sides. In 2004 a friend was overseeing a cluster of Florida precincts for John Kerry. He'd exceeded his target for turnout and was feeling guardedly hopeful. Then a couple hundred people showed up en masse, many holding Bibles. They'd been mobilized by Los Angeles and Omaha phone banks, calling fundamentalist congregations. Those who called had every right to do so, and their efforts, alas, helped re-elect George Bush.
So why don't more of us participate, or participate more? Between now and the election, far too many of us will spend plenty of time reading political articles, blogs and polls, obsessing on the latest twists and turns in the headlines, and rooting for our candidate as if for a favorite sports team -- while doing relatively little to change the outcome. We can do more than be passive spectators.
Many of us live in states where the presidential race is largely settled. Still, the popular vote mandate will matter in terms of political leverage, and there are numerous close Senate, Congress and governor's races, not to mention important state ballot initiatives. Even if you don't live in Virginia or Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina or Pennsylvania, you can go to the campaign Web sites and find lists of people to call in key swing states, scripts through which to talk with them, and step-by-step explanations to walk you through the process. You really can do it from the comfort of your home or apartment -- or as part of a group phone bank, if the support makes it easier. Getting involved is more challenging in some states than others, but it is still an opportunity to affect the long arc of history at a potential key turning point.
Even in the ground zero battlegrounds, I've met people who passionately follow the contest, yet hold back from actively participating. When I was in Cleveland last week, a woman raised her hand and said, "I've been walking neighborhoods for Obama, but my friends don't want to join me, even though they care just as much about the election. They say they don't like rejection."
I asked if anyone in the audience enjoyed rejection. Surprisingly, no one did. But the woman who had canvassed said the time she spent was actually pretty decent. She got some butterflies at first -- it's always hard approaching strangers. But once she got into the swing, she enjoyed it. She even had some thoughtful conversations, once she left the necessary training wheels of the script.
Many of us also hesitate due to a standard of perfection: We feel we need to be totally eloquent or our efforts will be worthless. My retired neighbor considered calling for Obama, then worried that he wasn't as articulate and persuasive as he used to be, so he decided not to. But our efforts don't have to be perfect; they just have to be heartfelt, and we have to keep at them.
With Obama opening up a steadily increasing lead, it's easy for those of us to support him to get complacent. But this is a volatile electorate -- a little over a month ago, McCain led with his Sarah Palin bounce. So while the polls are encouraging, given the economic meltdown, attack ads, racial issues and potential voter intimidation and suppression, we'd be wise to view this as an election in which our actions really could determine the outcome.
Most of us reading this essay will vote. And maybe most of our friends will as well. But in a politically divided nation, victory may well go to the side that turns out the greatest numbers of more marginal supporters, including those who are newly registered and uncertain about the process, or who doubt their vote will matter. Particularly when reaching out to those who haven't traditionally voted, getting people to the polls isn't something that can be done by just running more ads. We have to make the phone calls, knock on the doors, and remind people as many times as necessary of the differences between the candidates and the impact they could make with their vote. This election may well be won with presence and persistence. It might just be in our hands.
Commentators are talking, and rightly so, about how young voters are flocking to Barack Obama. Their overwhelming support gave Obama his Iowa margin, kept him just a few points behind in New Hampshire and Nevada, and contributed to his massive South Carolina victory. Young voters haven't always turned out historically, but they're responding to Obama's message, and together with his equally massive support from African-Americans and strong appeal to independents, their passionate enthusiasm could help him expand the Democratic base enough not only to win in November, but to win decisively.
Obama also offers the chance to make this new generation part of an enduring Democratic coalition -- because once young voters support a particular party a few times in a row, they're likely to gravitate toward that party for the rest of their lives.
That so many young Obama supporters are turning out to rally, volunteer and vote suggests that he might be one of those watershed candidates who really can bring a new generation into politics and help shape their long-term loyalties, permanently enlarging the Democratic share of the electorate. But because of Hillary Clinton's attacks on Obama, she risks destroying this shift just as it's beginning to emerge.
Look at the historical patterns: Studies from the past 50 years find that party loyalties tend to form early -- for Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. It was true for the FDR generation, for those who came of age during the anti-war activism of the late Vietnam era, and with the young adults who helped cascade Reagan into office and whose compatriots have remained more conservative ever since.
Major historical events like wars and economic depressions can shift this. So can political scandals and personal crises and conversions. Systematic organizing efforts can also shift voters' worldview and context, particularly for those politically detached, which is one reason unions matter so much. Still, some major patterns get set early on, and that's likely to keep being true.
Generations need several elections to cement the pattern. The votes of 18- to 29-year-olds started shifting back in the Clinton years. Young voters gave Clinton an initial 9 point margin and increased it the next round, but their turnout dropped from the highest since 18-year-olds got the vote to the lowest in the same period. In 2000, Gore led Bush among this group buy 3 percent, with Ralph Nader bleeding off another 5 percent. Led by increases in young African-American and Latino voters, they were the only generation to favor Kerry, and did so by a ten percent margin.
These shifts accelerated in 2006. Fueled by the Bush administration's myriad disasters, young voters played a critical role, supporting Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans by a massive 60 percent to 38 percent difference. They did so in every region of the country, from a three to one split in the East to a three point margin in the South. They provided the critical margin for Sens. Tester, Webb and McCaskill, and fed the victories of the four other victorious challengers. Had it been up to young Americans alone, the Democrats would have also won Senate campaigns in Tennessee, Arizona and Nevada; Ned Lamont would have defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, and a slew of additional House seats would have changed hands. The Democrats would have elected Senators from 26 states, with Republicans carrying just four.
The passion of young people for Obama's campaign is fueled by the Iraq war, an uncertain economy, major concerns about the environment and global warming, and the religious right's attacks on sexuality. But more than anything it's also fueled by Obama's eloquent insistence that change is possible and that ordinary citizens can play a key role. It's fueled by the sense that Obama's personal story anticipates the story of an America that moves beyond its divisions and tackles our fundamental problems. This group also seems to resist the idea that a presidency can simply be handed down like a dynastic succession.
Participating in numbers we haven't seen in decades, these new voters fervently want Obama to win. They're reaching out to enlist their peers and volunteering to help reach others. They can be a powerful force to help him prevail.
But if Hillary Clinton is nominated, this momentum will likely crumble. The young women and men who've been flooding the Democratic primaries and caucuses will feel betrayed by a candidate who's just finished doing her best to destroy the person they've invested their hopes in. And as a result, they may simply stay home. It's not just that Hillary is running against Obama. That would be fine. It's that she and Bill and their surrogates have relentlessly assaulted Obama's character, in a scorched-earth style worthy of Karl Rove. I've devoted an entire article to documenting just a fraction of these instances: her lying about his record on critical Iraq and Iran votes, and his votes on abortion choice; her unleashing surrogates like civil rights activist turned Wal-Mart pitchman Andy Young to explain how Obama really wasn't black enough, or Black Entertainment Television CEO Robert Johnson (a virulently anti-union corporate head who's backed Bush on issues like the estate tax and privatizing Social Security) to refer to Obama's youthful cocaine use, with Clinton standing next to him at a South Carolina rally. When Hillary says Obama has no right to build up "false hopes," and Bill calls Obama's vision of history "a fairy tale," how can Obama's young supporters not feel attacked in their own hope and dreams? Had Clinton run a less-harsh campaign, like that of John Edwards, she might expect to inherit Obama's passionate young voters -- and volunteers. But given the virulence of her attacks, I just can't see them suddenly turning on a dime and enthusiastically supporting her.
Young voters are historically the least likely to participate. The failure of the Democrats to stop Bush's Iraq war has already made many cynical. Obama has reversed this cynicism, but if Clinton crushes the dreams of his supporters, a great many will stay home in disgust. Or, if they do end up voting, they certainly won't work to turn out their peers. As a friend said of his community college students, "The most active ones in my class say they won't even vote for her if she's nominated."
The same is true, of course, of African-American voters. The Clinton campaign's attempts to cage Obama in a racial box (for instance by Bill Clinton's dismissing his massive South Carolina victory as just an echo of Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 campaigns) could have an equally disastrous impact on African-American turnout if Hillary Clinton is the nominee come November. Clinton also risks the defection of people who fit neither demographic but are simply so furious at her support for Bush's Iraq and Iran policies and her massive corporate ties that they simply cannot let themselves vote for her. I get those responses every time I write on the subject. Taken together, if these groups stay home (and Republicans mobilized by Hillary-hatred turn out), it's easy to see how a candidate like John McCain could transform a prime Democratic opportunity into yet another needless defeat.
If the youth vote affected only the upcoming election, the stakes would be massive. But it's worse yet because Clinton's nomination would likely shift the future votes of a generation. If I thought Barack Obama were simply an empty suit, I'd be skeptical too. Like any political leader, he has his weaknesses. I wish he'd deferred less to the senior Senate leadership on issues like Iraq. But then I look at his record engaging and bringing together once-powerless individuals and communities, speaking out against the war and linking our healthcare crisis to his mother dying of cancer while her insurance company tried to throw her off its rolls. I value his stress on empowering ordinary citizens to act. I see enough actions of courage and vision to suggest his presidency might just be able to equal the sum of his powerful words. Then I look at Clinton and wonder why she's fighting so fiercely against her fellow Democrats after doing so little to fight Bush's destructive policies when he was riding high in the polls. I think this is part of what the young voters sense too and why their hopes have soared with Obama's campaign. If we dash them now, we may be paying for this choice for far longer than the next four years.
I just got my Visa bill for my final election donations -- all those click-and-donate appeals in my email box and on the Web. I gave more than I thought I had, more than I'd intended to spend, and more than I'd ever given before. You make enough $25 to $50 contributions, and soon you're talking real money, a tenth of my annual income.
But I feel just fine about my giving -- doing my part to help Democrats in close races, even if they ultimately went the other way. However, what doesn't please me, in fact disturbs me immensely, is discovering that Hillary Clinton raised $52 million dollars for her Senate campaign and allied leadership PAC, HILLPAC. She spent $36 million of it on a race that she could have won staying home in her pajamas, not spending a dime. Now she's sitting on a $13.5-million-dollar war chest, which she'll roll over to her presidential campaign.
I know political money is hard to raise, particularly with the new contribution limits, and that some of Hillary's spending went to build a grassroots donors' list that she'll tap in the future. But according to the wonderful site of the Center for Responsive Politics, the entire Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised only $107 million, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign $103 million. Hillary spent a third as much as either of these, more than any candidate in America, for a race that was never in doubt. She did distribute $2.5 million to various Democratic institutions and candidates, but imagine if she'd transferred $20 million into the dozen Congressional campaigns that Democrats lost by margins as close as a few hundred votes. Or into Harold Ford's Senatorial campaign, to close the gap between the $10 million spent by Ford and the $15 million that Republican Bob Corker spent.
Hindsight's always easy, but by late summer it was clear that the Democrats had a huge opportunity and were scrambling for the funds to respond to it. A few more ads would almost certainly have tipped the balance for some of the under-funded candidates who came heartbreakingly close. That's why so many of us were digging deep to contribute, and then digging deeper, even when it hurt. Evidently Hillary had other priorities.
When Bill Clinton first surfaced as a leading Presidential contender, I asked a mutual friend what he thought. "He's smart," said my friend. "He reads good books. He wants to do the right thing." Then he paused and said, "But he won't go to the mat for anything except his own political future." To me, that was Bill's core flaw (even more than his pursuit of Monica Lewinsky). Hillary seems to share Bill's hunger for power. You can always rationalize dubious choices by the good you'll do when you gain just a little more clout, and I'm sure she truly believes her candidacy will benefit the United States. But she had a chance to make a major difference in this critical election -- and she blew it.
Hillary is far from the only Democrat vulnerable to the charge of hoarding scarce resources: As of mid-October, John Kerry with $13.8 million in his campaign account, and Evan Bayh had $10.6 million. But Kerry transferred over $3.5 million to Democratic candidates and used his networks to raise almost $10 million more. Between his inept 2004 campaign and the damage done by his foot-in-the-mouth military joke-telling, I don't want him as a Presidential candidate; but compared to what Hillary transferred from five times the resources, Kerry at least dug deeper to help. I have even more respect for potential contenders like John Edwards and Wesley Clark, who campaigned throughout the country to support Democratic candidates, but did relatively little fundraising for their own campaign committees and PACs, mostly to maintain basic infrastructure. Their top priority was to help other Democrats to win this 2006 election
I'm sure Hillary would say she did all she could, and then some, and she definitely lent major star power to the campaigns and fundraising efforts of many worthy candidates. But I think about all the ordinary citizens who gave more time and money than anyone would have expected and as a result made a critical difference. In comparison, Hillary falls short. The money she spent may have gained her a few extra points of electoral margin in a race she won by 36 points, and buttressed her already massive frontrunner status. But it did nothing to increase the Democratic victory. Those of us at the grassroots aren't going to stop volunteering and donating merely because some of our most prominent political leaders fall short. But it's a measure of their character that I hope we'll remember when the Presidential primaries begin.
This is Ralph Nader's core case in announcing his 2004 presidential candidacy. Yes, Nader has a legal right to run. He also has a legal right to donate $100,000 to the Republican Party and become a Bush Pioneer, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea.
So much of Nader's career has been built on reminding us of our common ties. It's wrong, he's argued, for companies to make unsafe cars, pollute our air or pillage shared resources. Actions have consequences, he's pointed out with persistence and eloquence.
Now, he's taking the opposite tack, fixating on his own absolute right to do whatever he chooses, while branding those who've argued against his running as contemptuous censors, who "want to block the American people from having more choices and voices." This argument would seem familiar coming from an Exxon executive. Coming from Ralph Nader, it marks a fundamental shift from an ethic of responsibility to one of damn the consequences, no matter how much populist precedent he tries to dress it up with.
The reasons to defeat Bush escalate daily. The administration enacts regressive tax cuts; wages pre-emptive wars and lies about their justification; hacks away at civil liberties and appoints hard-right judges to shut down challenges; and undermines the union movement. The Bush administration attacks root structures of democracy by disenfranchising tens of thousands of Florida voters, redistricting dozens of Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan Congressional seats in raw power grabs, and jamming Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire. It brands those who oppose it as allies of terrorism.
That doesn't even count global warming, which (as sources from Fortune Magazine to the New York Times and a Pentagon study have recently warned) now brings the potential for melting polar ice caps to shutting down the Gulf Stream and plunging Europe and northeastern North America into a man-made ice age.
How can Nader know this and still run? He says he'll raise the otherwise buried hard issues. He says he'll bring disenchanted citizens back into politics. He offers Byzantine explanations of how he'll actually help defeat George Bush by raising fresh subjects and approaches, opening up "a second front of voters against the regime," and offering an alternative for moderate Republicans. But he can raise the issues on his own, as he has throughout his life. He can do it without critiques of the "two-party duopoly" that may discourage some for voting for the Democratic nominee. He can do it without offering the illusion that a purely symbolic vote will do anything to get Bush out of office.
Nader seems to have forgotten his own historical contribution to a different, more hopeful path, where he encouraged thousands of citizens to join in challenging illegitimate actions of power. He once recognized that progressive politics gathers its strength from the breadth of citizen movements. Now he acts with an almost messianic fervor, a Lone Ranger intent on holding onto his own moral purity whatever the pleas of his compatriots. By denying the real choices we face, he betrays the best of his legacy.
Will Nader's candidacy ultimately matter? Maybe not. Many of his supporters have bolted. He may not get on the ballot in every state. But if the 2004 election is as close as it was in 2000, his candidacy could still have a devastating impact. The Nader vote made the difference in New Hampshire and Florida, and his support in states like Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, New Mexico and even California forced Al Gore to divert time, money and resources away from other close races he might well have otherwise won.
Assuming the admittedly flawed John Kerry becomes the Democratic nominee, progressives do not have to support him blindly. We can work to unite historically separated progressive movements and keep raising core issues no matter who's elected in November. But this election we're faced with as critical a choice and challenge as we've experienced in our lifetime. It's too bad that by prizing his own righteousness over the risks of his actions, Ralph Nader has just made that challenge a little bit harder.
Paul Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time."
The ad in the airline magazine shows a young boy on a swing, the backdrop for an interactive pager being held by a man's hands. "Maybe you don't have to send an e-mail right now," says BellSouth's ad for their interactive paging service. "But isn't it cool that you can?" The ad, with its headline of work@lifespeed, celebrates a world where our jobs engulf our every waking moment.
It's not just our workplaces. Our lives in general seem faster, more complicated, more at the mercy of distant powers and principalities. We have less time for our families, and less room to ask where we want to go as a society and as a planet. The very pace of environmental crises, global economic shifts and the threats of war and terrorism make it harder to address them. If we're to act effectively as engaged citizens, we're going to have to slow down our lives, our culture, and a world that seems to be careening out of control.
People talk of these pressures wherever I go. "I'd like to be more involved in my community," they say, "to take a stand on important issues. "But I just don't have the time." I hear this from low-wage workers holding two jobs to make ends meet, from professionals working late nights and weekends, for students beleaguered by outside jobs and debt. It's true for all of us stretched between escalating workplace demands and a sense that we'll never catch up on everything else we have to do, much less change a culture that keeps us scrambling, like an Alice in Wonderland world, simply to keep from falling further behind.
The pace and length of the working week were once the central issues in the labor movement. In 1791, carpenters struck for the ten-hour day, challenging employers who paid flat daily wages during the long summer shifts and then switched to piecework during the shorter winter days. A movement to make this a universal standard grew throughout the nineteenth century, in response to the 70-hour weeks of America's new industrial enterprises. By the 1860s, the labor movement made the eight-hour day its central focus, with marches, rallies, and related political campaigns. A hundred thousand New York City workers, mostly in the building trades, struck and won this right in 1872, followed by other workers, industry by industry, like the printers in 1906 and the steelworkers in 1923. Finally, in 1940, Roosevelt instituted the universal 40-hour week, with mandatory overtime when employers exceeded it. The workers who won these changes fought for time with their families, but also for time to educate themselves and act as citizens. And then the debate over the pace and speed of life quietly stopped.
As Harvard economist Juliet Schor has examined, Americans' working hours have been steadily increasing for the past 30 years. Between 1969 and 1987 alone, paid employment by the average American worker jumped by over 160 hours per year, or the equivalent of an entire extra month on the job. We now work the equivalent of nearly nine weeks more a year than our European counterparts. This burden threatens to expand even more as Congressional Republicans push to end the deterrent of overtime pay in sector after sector of the workforce. That doesn't count employers simply breaking the law -- like the Wal-Mart managers now being sued in 28 states for allegedly forcing employees to punch out after an eight-hour day, and then continue working for no pay at all.
The increase of work hours complements a more general politics of the whip. Whatever our jobs, most of us now work harder than we used to, do more in less time, and worry more about being downsized. This is true whether we're on a factory assembly line, writing code for a software company desperately struggling to survive, or teaching the kids of the poor in an underfunded school. If we're going to have a decent future, and not become "losers" in an increasingly divided economy, we're told that we need to become wheeling and dealing self-promoters constantly selling ourselves to survive. Meanwhile, we spend more hours driving to and from our jobs, as urban sprawl, escalating housing prices, and lack of decent public transit options raise the stress of our commutes. Once we could rely on employer-funded pensions and Social Security, confident that if we worked long enough, our old age would be provided for. Now, for most of us, saving for retirement has become an uncertain journey through treacherous shoals. The US has long been the only advanced industrial nation in the world not to offer universal healthcare, but most of us used to be covered through our jobs. Now we pay more and more to get less and less, and spend hours choosing between equally bad options, trying to cover our families as best we can. We may have no choice but to negotiate our individual passages through these varied pressures. But as in the past, making any significant dent in them will require common action, to change the rules of the game.
This is beginning to happen as union-backed Living Wage laws, like those passed in Los Angeles, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, and over 60 other municipalities, help assure that city workers and contractors earn enough in a 40-hour week so they don't have work extra jobs. Recently, 87,000 Communications Workers of America members who worked for the telecommunications giant Verizon successfully struck against mandatory overtime and workplace speedups. They told of having to choose between keeping their jobs and picking up young children from day care, being disciplined for breaking to drink water or go to the bathroom, and being stressed to the point of physical illness. They stayed out until they won a slower pace and limits on work hours. In Michigan, United Auto Workers members wrote it into their contract to get Election Day off-and volunteered by the thousands in the narrow November 2,000 victory of Senator Debbie Stabinow. A new coalition promoting Take Back Your Time Day (www.timeday.org) highlights the theft of our lives by our workplaces. It will build toward major October 24th events, marking the point at which, comparing the annual hours worked by the Europeans to ours, they would have the entire rest of the year to spend at their leisure. When we talk about the quality of our work, of our lives and of our democracy -- our fellow citizens respond.
We'll also need common action to reverse the way that immensely consequential national and global decisions are increasingly being made at a pace that leaves no time for democracy. Powerful corporate interests want unlimited speed -- to be able to conduct whatever activity they choose in a open global marketplace. Most promote a profoundly short-term concept of time -- the next quarterly earnings report, the next cycle of the stock market -- and for the politicians who back them, the next election. But this approach leaves little or no room for citizens to ask basic questions: Is a polluting plant good for the community? What's the impact of closing a factory and moving it to a low-wage state or nearly no-wage country? What kind of tax system will meet the needs of our society with fairness to all? How do we build an economy based on respect for ordinary people and for the earth?
No company exemplified our hyper-paced world more than Enron. With the help of cooperative politicians like George Bush (they were his largest historical donor, and let him campaign from their corporate jet), they successfully stripped barrier after barrier to energy trading -- first in Texas, and then nationally. When Bush became president, they got to pick the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who accelerated the process still further. Together with conservative think tanks, Enron successfully pushed the idea that energy would be delivered most efficiently and quickly without regulatory checks. Those who argued otherwise, they claimed, were obsolete dinosaurs. In arguments I've heard often from apostles of corporate dominance, they insisted: It's here. It's the future. Get used to it.
My own local utility, the publicly owned Seattle City Light, made the mistake of buying the propaganda. Though they own dams sufficient to generate most of Seattle's needs, they switched from stable long-term contracts to buying energy on the spot market. Then they hit a drought year, which dropped the water level behind the dams and left less available for generating electricity, so they needed to buy more outside electricity than expected. When Enron manipulated energy availability to drive the prices from $24 per kilowatt hour to $450-500 they left the utility in a $600 million hole. City Light managers trusted that the market would be reasonable. They got outmaneuvered by a company built on speed, speculation, and working every possible angle to squeeze out the maximum possible dollars. They weren't used to energy politics being run like a Blitzkreig.
The Bush administration has greatly accelerated these kinds of destructive change. Their policies have pushed America further toward a society where we have no room to deliberate, reflect, or do anything except to place ourselves at the mercy of the market. The administration has killed ergonomics rules, a decade in the making, that sought to slow the pace of work and help prevent workplace accidents that take the lives of six thousand workers each year and injure six million. They've attacked Environmental Impact Statements that delay the process of development enough for us to glimpse the larger consequences of ecologically damaging projects. They've done their best to eliminate all mechanisms through which ordinary citizens can even reflect on whether corporate activity is useful or destructive. And from the USA Patriot Act to hugely regressive tax cuts, they've rammed through immensely consequential legislation with just the most nominal amount of time for citizens or our elected representatives to consider it. As powerful economic interests increasingly grease the wheels for corporations to act without public oversight, regulation, or check, it becomes harder for ordinary citizens to respond, much less to undertake the necessarily patient task of rebuilding grassroots democracy. We find ourselves constantly reacting, running to keep up, trying to slow the juggernaut of change.
But we're also seeing the beginnings of a citizen activism that combines new approaches, like online organizing, with traditional grassroots outreach. Emails easily overload, as our inboxes pile up with disturbing news and urgent action calls. We feel lucky just to keep up with the flow. Yet the strength of the new world-wide peace movement or the movements against corporate globalization would be inconceivable without electronic networks to pass on talking points, articles, fliers, posters, summaries of key documents, and information on ways to protest. In the process these movements have also raised critical issues about how ordinary citizens can slow the pace of critical global decisions enough to ensure that they're wise.
The very speed of our electronic communications also makes more intimate kinds of connections more necessary. We need the visible human presence of public vigils and protests, and the step-by-step outreach that happens when we discuss major public issues in churches, temples, PTAs, city council meetings, Rotary Clubs, college and high school campuses, and with coworkers, neighbors, and friends. While electronic discussions can foster surprisingly productive dialogue, they work best as an adjunct to face-to-face conversation and community, and not a replacement for it. People still need to gather together, eat, joke, flirt, tell their stories, attach names to faces, and remind themselves why they joined their causes to begin with. "It's almost reassuring that we still have to do all the traditional things if we want people to respond," says a software editor who chairs her local Amnesty International chapter, "not just rely on the new technologies."
America's dominant culture makes speed an ultimate virtue, as if simply by moving faster we can overcome all obstacles, including our own mortality. Yet as Milan Kundera writes, "There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting." Challenging the increased pace of work and of change may require slowing down our own lives. Even in our activism we might remind ourselves that we're in it for the long haul, however difficult the times. We need time to play with our children, read a book, go to a movie, dance to good music, or soak in the bathtub and do nothing. If our causes call for more, and they always will, we can find other people to participate, or take on fewer projects. One way or another we need to stop before we're so spent and bitter that we feel no choice but to withdraw permanently from the fray. "You can't solve all the world's problems," longtime labor and environmental activist Hazel Wolf reminded me on the eve of her 100th birthday. "You have to guard against taking on more than you can do and burning out with frustration. But you can take on one project at a time, and then another. You can do that your entire life."
It's tempting to respond to the speed of all that we face with a short-term politics of our own, reacting on issue after issue, as we try to prevent further incursions on human dignity by a culture that would place every value on a global auction block. We can keep our eyes on the prize by drawing strength from what we fight to preserve, and thinking about the world we'd like to see. We can tell the stories at the core of complex issues, so lives and communities can't simply be dismissed as expendable barriers to progress. We can raise enough root questions so we do more than challenge particular abuses of power, but offer a broader alternative.
For most of us, our community activism will inevitably be squeezed into whatever hours we have remaining after we earn what we need to get by. For over half a century, these hours have been diminishing, as our work takes over more and more of our lives. If we can begin reversing this, we'll have more time to heal the real wounds of our communities, of our nation, and of the world. We fight for bread and roses, in the words of old union song -- not only for survival, but for the beauty and richness that makes life worthwhile. We fight as well for the right to be citizens, for the chance to create a democracy where all can participate.
Paul Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time." A version of this article will appear in Experience Life magazine and in the book "Take Back Your Time (Berrett-Koehler publishers) To receive Loeb's articles directly, send a blank message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those of us who think Bush's pending war against Iraq is reckless madness, it's tempting to retreat into bitter despair after the Senate vote giving him a blank check to attack. Like Dickensian orphans pleading for gruel, the Democratic leadership politely requested that Bush consult them, work with the UN and other allies, and exhaust all diplomatic means before going to war.
Then they caved and gave Bush -- and men like Richard Perle, who believed in winnable nuclear wars, and Dick Cheney, who opposed the freeing of Nelson Mandela -- the power to lead us into a war that will fuel rage and resentment throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
So what to do, other than nurturing bile and resentment? Or writing angry emails and letters to those who've once again shown no moral courage? Or thanking the 23 Senators and 133 Representatives who found the strength to resist all the lies and threats?
We might start by recognizing that we've made some progress. A few weeks ago, the press reported that a mere 19 House Democrats would vote against the resolution. Only two Senators opposed the Tonkin Gulf resolution that opened the door to our full-scale war in Vietnam.
Those who stood up now did so knowing they would be attacked and baited for their stands. (And Bush timed this vote to fracture and demoralize the Democratic base and drive all other issues off the table for the November elections.) Yet they found the courage to vote their conscience -- and did so in part because so many citizens like us made clear their opposition to this war.
Now, in a time when Bush audaciously claims that "America speaks with one voice," we must make our voices heard even more. This means continuing to speak up, preferably in ways that reach out as much to our fellow citizens as to our elected representatives.
If enough of us take public stands, we may yet avert going to war with Iraq -- or at least limit the power of this administration, whose backers speak blatantly about the virtues of empire, to wage further wars to come. We never know the full impact of our actions.
One case in point happened in 1969, when Henry Kissinger told the North Vietnamese that Nixon was threatening to escalate the Vietnam war massively, including potential nuclear strikes, unless they capitulated and forced the National Liberation Front in the South to do the same. Nixon was serious. He'd had military advisers prepare detailed plans, including mission folders with photographs of potential nuclear targets.
But two weeks before the president's November 1st deadline, there was a nationwide day of protest, the Moratorium, during which millions of people took part in local demonstrations, vigils, church services, petition drives and other forms of protest. The next month came a major march in Washington, D.C of over a half million people.
Publicly, Nixon responded to the protests by watching the Washington Redskins football game during the D.C. march and declaring that the marchers weren't affecting his policies in the slightest -- sentiments that fed the frustration and demoralization of far too many in the peace movement.
Yet privately, Nixon decided the movement had, in his words, so "polarized" American opinion that he couldn't carry out his threat. Participants in the Moratorium had no idea that their efforts may have helped stop a nuclear attack.
This example of our actions having more power than we know came to mind as I marched with ten thousand others on an October Seattle Sunday, the weekend before the Congressional vote.
Marchers paraded huge puppets of black-clad mothers holding children and George Bush as a global sheriff with pistols marked Exxon and Mobil. Others carried a giant inflatable earth and a 50-foot Trident missile. A community anti-smoking project brought their 20-foot cloth eagle, adorned with a large black peace sign. Signs proclaimed: "Drop Bush Not Bombs," "Iraq Didn't Attack Us Sept 11," "Another Vet For Peace," "How Much Blood For George?" "The U.S. Needs A Regime Change," and "Preemptive Impeachment."
Families marched with their children. Onlookers waved in support. A lawyer for the Seattle prosecutor's office said he'd reluctantly supported the Afghan war, but not this one. My neighbor from across the street, an electrician and military vet, put a "No War" sign in his window and marched with his wife, both unusual for him.
I talked with students and grandmothers, skateboard punks and doctors, carpenters and software designers. Some had been active for years. Others were just beginning. This was the first demonstration for one woman in her 43 years, "because I've had it up to here with Bush's bogus leadership. If we get in this war, we'll never see the end."
A cluster of African drummers propelled marchers forward with their beat. Their friend had posted a notice on their drumming website. Further back in the parade that stretched for blocks, two saxophonists and a trumpeter played a mournful St Louis blues, which merged into a high-stepping cakewalk, and then a long plaintive version of "America the Beautiful." The drummer's tie displayed an American flag and a picture of the World Trade Center towers. A friend passed on a joke from Los Angeles singer-songwriter Dan Bern: "Satan wears a button asking 'What Would Cheney Do?'"
People marched for different reasons, but all feared that attacking Iraq would inflame the Muslim world, help Bin Laden recruit a new generation of terrorists, and kill thousands of innocent Iraqis, not to mention our own young soldiers.
They mistrusted Bush's lies on a host of other issues and wondered why he was ignoring the many generals who were urging restraint. They asked whether the rush to war had less to do with Saddam Hussein than with wanting to control key oil supplies, or distracting November voters from a melting economy, strip-mined environment, and runaway corporate greed. They asked why so few other countries supported our stand, and what would happen after Saddam Hussein fell. They wanted to do more than watch the news in pained silence.
Since Bush took office, I've seen plenty of personal dissent: conversations with friends, endless emails, bitter comments. But visible public outcries have been strangely absent. They were barely present as Bush cut every conceivable social program, worked to gut core environmental protections, and enacted a tax cut transferring $1.2 trillion to the wealthiest one in a hundred Americans.
Dissent dropped off even more in the wake of Sept 11, though many of us felt uneasy with Bush's simplistic framing of a war of good versus evil. Yes, many of us have endlessly called, emailed, and faxed our elected representatives, pleading for them to show more courage and spine. We've signed petitions and statements, written letters to local papers, and emailed article after article to friends. What we might call virtual politics can matter immensely. We pass on critical contexts and perspectives through the electronic equivalent of the Soviet underground Samizdats.
This virtual politics can matter. Coordinated phone calls, emails, and faxes have blocked destructive policies, like Bush's proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and some of his regressive court nominees. Our recent efforts gave strength to Senators and Representatives who've opposed Bush's war. But when we forward political emails or contact our representatives, these actions remain invisible to our fellow citizens.
It's hard to build engaged community in the process of taking them (though groups like MoveOn.org and the Working Assets network have done their best to bring people together through virtual networks). Our actions don't publicly express our outrage in ways that other citizens can see.
To march with others, in contrast, feels richer, more human, more empowering, and makes the challenge more visible. Publicized largely through the ubiquitous emails and through fliers at related events, this particular march was the fruit of a small group of mostly younger activists who'd begun meeting six months earlier.
They linked themselves with a national campaign, Not in Our Name www.notinourname.net, that's been circulating a pledge of resistance and running newspaper ads challenging Bush's right to wage war without limit. Our group of 10,000 complemented rallies, marches, and vigils in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Houston, Austin, Buffalo, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Brattleboro, Boston, Anchorage, Kansas City, and several hundred other cities and towns, including 2,000 in conservative Cincinnati, the night Bush made his war pitch.
Had we equaled the huge recent European anti-war rallies-400,000 people in London, 1.5 million throughout Italy -- who knows how many other votes we would have swung. But it was a start.
Public courage can be contagious, much like public cowardice. Seattle congressman Jim McDermott made national news by journeying to Iraq and challenging Bush's actions. He went in part because so many citizens asked, again and again, that he take a stand. In turn, McDermott helped inspire opposition from other Washington Congressmen, and one of our Senators, Patty Murray. When citizens convince previously silent political leaders to speak, their words of questioning ripple out.
We need to do more than march, of course. We need discussion and debate, teach-ins and vigils. We need to reach out in our local churches and temples, PTAs, city council meetings, Rotary Clubs, colleges, high schools and with coworkers, neighbors, and friends. We've already seen strong peace statements from major Catholic leaders and the heads of major Protestant denominations like the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalian, Lutherans, American Baptists, United Church of Christ, and even the Mormons.
The challenge now is to extend the discussion into the pews, and into our communities. Lobbied by members, the Washington State and San Francisco Labor councils recently came out against going to war, as did the Seattle City Council and Washington state Democratic Party. So far, most of the national labor and environmental groups have been silent. We'll need to keep broadening the discussion and remember that even Richard Nixon was constrained by public opinion. We'll need to continue even if Bush goes ahead to war, and refuse to let ourselves be marginalized.
That means listening carefully to those who disagree with us, and trying to find common ground. It means continuing to speak out, whatever names we're called by the power-hungry and cynical zealots now leading our country, even if our fellow citizens initially seem to support them. As a Catholic nun said at a 3,000-person religious vigil three days after the Seattle Sunday march, those working for peace cannot fold up our prayer tents and go home, just because history does not instantly and visibly go our way.
For we march not only to stop Bush's war on Iraq, but the wars that will follow from his defining America as sole global policeman, sole arbiter of freedom, sole nation with the right to unleash preemptive attacks on whomever we decide to take down. Whatever policies Bush undertakes, we need to keep raising the real questions. We don't want to recruit another generation for future Bin Ladens. We don't want more innocents to die. However our actions play out, we're far better voicing our beliefs than staying silent.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time and three other books on citizen activism. See www.soulofacitizen.org.