I am so pleased that Bill Scher joins us for an FDL Book Salon on his book Wait! Don't Move to Canada: A Stay-and-Fight Strategy to Win Back America today. Bill is the Executive Editor at Liberal Oasis, and appears regularly on Air America — but he is also an outstanding liberal/progressive voice and a former PR guy, so he knows a lot about the whole image and meme and framing discussions that need to be had, about which we talk frequently here at FDL and all over the progressive blogosphere.
And, I am hoping, a discussion that we can kick-start even more here today.
Bill's book is fantastic — and a lot of the ideas in it give you hands-on approaches to tackling political problems and demanding accountability from your elected representatives. It begins by examining what it means to be a liberal — by taking a peek at a fantastic speech given by JFK back in 1960, which is still as relevent today as it was back then:
What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?" If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of "Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."
I previously quoted a portion of that speech here on FDL a couple of weeks ago on the anniversary of JFK's death, and it is worth a re-read in its entirety if you are not familiar with the speech. John F. Kennedy was a man who understood not only the power of words, but that the use of them took away power from those who would seek to use them against you. This is a lesson on which current leadership in the Democratic party ought to take copious notes.
One thing that Bill makes clear in Wait! Don't Move To Canada! is that we have for far too long allowed the conservative smear of the word "liberal" to stand unchallenged. Democratic politicians tap dance around using the label (the Dukakis vignette that Bill shares in the book is spot on), and far too often "progressives" shy away from the label as well. Politicians will not start reclaiming the label unless they feel like folks have their back — isn't it about time we all dusted off the "liberal" label and wore it proudly? Hell, conservatives don't shy away from labelling themselves "conservative," and they are currently led by George W. Bush. We can at least hold our heads high and say "I didn't vote for him, and you can call me his opposite any day."
"Hello, my name is Christy. And I am a proud liberal." (See, it's not so hard.)
Bill's background in PR work, prior to his start in blogging, gives him a great deal of experience and a unique persepctive from which to view the importance of language and its powerful uses for communicating a targeted message — as opposed to allowing the conservatives and wingnuts control the language. It is essential that we learn how to be on offense in terms of messaging and language, because to cede that field only puts on squarely on the defensive, in a weakened position, time and time again. And to do that allows someone else to control the direction and priorities, because the Democratic party is then forced to consistently defend itself instead of proposing policies that the other side must defend against.
One of my favorite aspects of Bill's book is the practical applications that he finds for applying these theoretical communications questions. Take, for example, the questions of "big versus small" government as compared to "ineffective versus effective government."
It is essential for us to make the case that without a representative, responsive and responsible governing body, there are some things we just can't do, like effectively educate our kids and care for our elders, preserve our environment so we can live healthy and enjoyable lives, and protect our towns and cities from the horrors of natural disasters. If conservative forces succeed in continuing to erode our trust in what we can accomplish together through government, our expectations and standards will wither, our government will disintegrate from lack of support, and too many of us will fall through society's cracks. (p. 37)
Well, that pretty much sums up the opposite end of the spectrum from Grover Norquist's desire to drown government in a bathtub, doesn't it? As Bill says in the book, two great ways of reframing the discussion are (1) to find ways wherein government is doing a good job, and to use those effective means of government as the foundation for a discussion with others on what good government can be; and (2) where government is not working effectively, instead of blaming it "on government" blame it on the poorly designed programs and discuss ways in which reforms could make the situation better. Often the problem is not a particular agency or program, but the pork-barrel riders and restrictions placed on the agency trying to implement a well-intentioned program that got hijacked along the way by cronyism and special interests.
As usual, sunshine and accountability are vital to success on this.
One of the more eye-opening aspects of this book is the results of the Greenberg survey on taxation that Bill cites more fully beginning on page 45. A full 84% of Americans agreed with the following statement: "I don't mind paying taxes because my taxes contribute to making sure we have public schools, clean streets, public safety and a national defense, and a cleaner environment." Not exactly what you hear from the punditocracy on Sunday morning news show, now is it? But honestly, wouldn't we all be happier if our tax dollars were headed to programs which were effective, targeted and showing results, which helped our communities as a whole, and which gave us a good return for our investment in our communities and our nation?
Of course, we would.
The disagreement comes in with regard to which programs fit this and, we're in luck, because Wait! Don't Move to Canada! has some ideas on that as well. One of the biggest areas of disagreement throughout the Bush years has been "culture war" issues. Since Karl Rove and his cronies at the RNC have had no scruples in terms of leveraging Jesus for political gain, we have witnessed a wholesale politicization of some aspects of churchgoing and some battles being waged over issues on which, fundamentally, a majority of Americans agree for the most part — but are convinced through some very effective snake oil and tap dancing to think otherwise.
One of the main beneficiaries of this smoke and mirrors game the last few years has been the placement of some very conservative judges on the federal bench.
We spent a lot of time on the Roberts and Alito fights here at FDL, and across the liberal blogosphere, so our regular readers will know about that — but it hasn't been only the US Supreme Court where this battle has been waged. Each and every time you hear a GOP politician say the words "activist judge," you should be prepared with the facts on who is really legislating from the bench: let's just say that Clarence Thomas has some 'splaining to do. Helpfully, Bill lays a lot of that out for you in clear terms, and offers some ideas on how to combat this sort of spin.
The phone calls that we have advocated each and every time a nomination has come to the floor haven't won the day on every nomination, but they are beginning to have an effect on how hard a lot of our elected representatives are willing to push for liberal principles and to stand up for the Constitution.
What we CAN do is to continue this fight for every issue to come — and to make them understand that we will not abandon our principles any more than the other side will abandon theirs.
Bill puts forward a lot of fantastic, practical, and common sense ideas for a hands-on effort for liberals all over the country to be able to make a difference. From ideas on how to make local grassroots groups more effective, to guidelines for better letters to the editor, to confronting media bias, to finding ways of funding liberal outlets for alternative media and pushback.
…As Daou notes, the blogosphere gives individuals a medium to "put pressure on representatives." "Pressure" does not always take the form of brute force; it can also be applied with constructive criticism. And "representatives" does not only mean your elected representatives. Organizations that are spearheading the liberal movement are indirectly representing you when they campaign for goals that you support.
They need to hear from us. They need to hear from people with an outsiders' perspective who can spot things that myopic insiders miss. They need to hear when they are doing stuff right, and when they are doing stuff wrong so they'll get better.
So, when you notice liberal leaders failing to communicate uniform messages on a particular issue, or focusing on separate issues when they should be joining forces on a pressing issue, point it out to them. Nudge them to get on the same page. Constantly remind them that unless we are coordinated at the top, we will not be able to articulate a compelling vision of America — and, conversely, an unappealing vision of a conservative America — and have it be clearly heard throughout today's cluttered and manipulated media landscape.
Sound familiar? We do this every week somewhere across the liberal blogosphere, and without the institutionalized funding support that the conservative foundations set up long ago to fund their Wurlitzer of conservative blogs, think tanks and mouthpieces. We have a long way to go — but we are working on it, and discussions like this one do a lot to further that work.
One way that we have tried to leverage this new concept of grassroots action was through our Blue America candidates list, which had some great success this past election cycle. Through the genius of ActBlue, lots of blog communities and netroots groups across the counrty were able to do the same thing — and to help candidates $10 at a time, one reader at a time, to purchase postcards and radio time and all the other things that make a small-time campaign a more effective one.
Wait! Don't Move To Canada! is a book that I cannot recommend enough. It's a quick read, but one that you'll pick up over and over again for ideas on what you can do — and how you can say what you need to say — to make your activism more effective.
The big lesson from this book — and from the last election cycle — that I hope we all take away is this: if you see a problem, you cannot sit back and wait for someone else to take care of it. We have all got to learn that everyone has to step up to the plate. If you see something that isn't working well, try and fix it. If there is a local organization that isn't doing the job effectively, get involved with it and try and make it better — or start your own group to counteract the bad one if it is beyond saving.
Just don't move to Canada — try fixing things here first, instead. And now, please join me in giving a big welcome to Bill Scher.
[As always with Book Salon threads, please stay on topic with the discussion below. Please be polite and give a big welcome to Bill. If you have issues you'd like to discuss which are off-topic, please do so in the prior thread. Thanks! -- CHS]