Monday, September 24, 2012

Effective Change

In a recent appearance, President Obama said that one of the things he has realized is that Washington cannot be changed from the inside. It must be changed from the outside.

The Tea Party and the evangelical community have certainly realized this fact. They know what it takes to make a change in Washington. The Tea Party is the only group with an unfavorability rating higher than atheists, yet they wield extraordinary power.

Large corporations also know this – those that are successful. To make a change in Washington, they spend a great deal of money on public relations, selling their ideas to the people. The campaign to spread doubt on global warming among the population is motivated precisely by the fact that change in Washington must come from outside of Washington – and that doubt makes effective change difficult to come by.

To illustrate what I am talking about, I would like to look at the issue of closing to Guantanamo Bay detention center.

The Obama administration made plans to close Guantanamo Bay and transfer the prisoners to prisons in America. However, many people in America were opposed to the plan. Congress added a rider to the 2011 defense authorization bill to deny funding for any type of transfer – effectively outlawing any attempt to close the plant. Obama’s only option was to veto the defense authorization bill – which would have had significant impacts across the whole economy. It is unlikely that the American people would have been willing to endure those economic harms for the sake of closing Guantanamo. Therefore the detention center remains open with no opportunity to close it.

Many people blame Obama for failing to close the detention center. I hear few people even mentioning the names of the senators and representatives responsible for getting that amendment added to the 2011 defense authorization bill. Nor do I hear people explaining how they would now go about closing the detention center if they were Obama in light of the fact that congress itself prohibits funding.

If one wants Guantanamo to be closed and the rule of law to be respected, blaming Obama and yanking support from those who want to close the prison camp but cannot is entirely the wrong way to go. One needs to focus on those who insist on keeping it open and who supported legislation that would block funding.

The way to make change is to talk to your neighbors, friends, family - to use twitter and facebook and other tools at your disposal – to publicly identify those people who support the prohibition on funding prisoner transfers and who oppose fair trials in a court of law. When the people demand change (and promise to support the agents of change), change will happen. Until the people demand change and offer sufficient support to the agents of change, change will not happen.

In another example, President Obama has said that his views on gay marriage have "evolved" since 2008. He now supports gay marriage.

My guess would be that Obama's views have not evolved at all. Instead, in 2008, Obama was running for President in a country in which he could either claim to support gay marriage and let the McCain/Palin team win the election, or oppose gay marriage and have a chance of winning the election. He selected the final alternative. For 8 years before the 2008 election, Republicans have been using the gay marriage issue to pull conservatives to the polls to elect Republican candidates. It was a very effective tactic.

By 2012 things had changed. This year, it is possible to win an election as President and support gay marriage. In fact, the homosexual community and those who care about people who are homosexual offered more support for a candidate who favors homosexual marriage than conservatives are offering people who oppose it. Over thirty elections to define marriage as between one man and one woman gave the homosexual community a way to effectively organize. While they lost many of these battles, each battle allowed them to gain a little more public support and acceptance.

By 2012 things had changed. But the change did not come from within Washington. It came from outside of Washington.

That same technique is how one goes about actually closing Guantanamo Bay, or seeing to the separation of Church and State, or seeing to it that the deficit is tackled in part by taxing people who have more than enough money than they need to pay for food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care.

When somebody protests that Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay, I ask, "What are you doing to make it possible to be President AND to close Guantanamo Bay? What are you doing to get the law changed so that the funding for prisoner transfers is no longer blocked?”

If the answer is, "Me? Are you nuts? I would lose my friends. My family would disown me. My boss would hate me. They would think I was a traitor. I'm not going to actually tell people that I oppose Guantanamo Bay. I want Obama to do this on his own – and take all the heat and the blame (and still be President). If he cannot, than he is a failure as a President."

Well, if this is the answer to that question, my response would be, "Obama is not the one who decided to keep Guantanamo Bay open. You made that decision."

Do you want Church and State to be separate? Then do not demand that the politicians separate church and state. Instead, you need to do something to change the poll numbers. You need to do something to make it the case that no policitian who wants to keep his job will dare to oppose the separation of church and state.

Along these same lines, writing letters to elected representatives is another irrationally inefficient waste of time. Letters should not be sent to representatives. They should be sent to your friends, family, neighbors – put on posters carried in a march to City Hall, on billboards, in 30 second radio and television spots, and the like.

An elected official is going to take your letter, look at the poll results, and simply conclude where you fit on the poll. If you write a letter opposing capital punishment, then the elected official knows that you are among the 30% of the people who oppose capital punishment. Your letter gives her little to no reason to buck the 70% who favor capital punishment. If you want your elected official’s position to change, what you need to do is to change that poll – to lower the percentage of people who favor capital punishment to the point that the politician can now speak out against it without losing his political life.

Sending letters to politicians does have a political role to play in a particular context. Consider the case of an opinion leader speaking to an elected representative. “With a snap of my finger, I will have 10,000 letters, emails, and phone calls sent to your office on this issue.” If he can pull that off, then that represents powers. A person who can deliver 10,000 pieces of correspondence at the snap of a finger can deliver 10,000 votes. She can direct those 10,000 people not to send letters, but to send campaign contributions.

This represents power. However, it requires organization. It requires already having been effective at bringing about a certain amount of change outside Washington, and bringing that weight to bear to make effective change within Washington.

Obama is right on this. Effective change does not come from inside Washington. It comes from the outside. It comes from you and me.

Of course, effective change is one thing. Good change is a different thing entirely. Not all of those who are effective are good, and not all of those who are good are effective. That's a problem.


Anonymous said...

This is tremendously disingenuous.

Obama has been a fearless supporter of executive privilege, both in the usual legal sense of "the executive branch doesn't have to explain its actions in court" and in the expanded "the executive branch can do whatever it wants provided it's an order from the president, and the other branches can go pound sand". How many Congressional votes has Obama had to send troops to the various places we now have them (such as the 5 -- yes, 5 -- countries in Africa we now have troops in)? When it's a matter of spying on us, or killing people -- even American citizens -- without trial, or leaking things which put the Obama administration in a good light, Obama just goes ahead and does it, and sends his lawyers to court to either claim the victims have no standing or that the actions cannot be brought to trial because of either national security or executive privilege.

Obama only suddenly turns around and claims the obstruction of Congress as an excuse when it's something he doesn't want to do. He didn't want to do anything about DADT or DOMA -- in fact, he had attorneys arguing the anti-gay-rights side in court right up to the day he suddenly realized the polls were on the opposite side and he needed a wedge issue, and made his big announcement. He didn't want to pardon whistleblowers who expose government corruption (like Bradley Manning) even though that's explicitly his right, even though it was a campaign promise.

Obama could quite easily just close Gitmo, and tell the people who start the inevitable backlash that it's a matter of both executive privilege and national security. It would be vastly more plausible, in fact, than most of the times he uses these claims. But he doesn't, because he doesn't want to. He likes Gitmo. He also likes bombing innocent people with unmanned drones, because he could stop that any time he pleases as well, and doesn't.

Leaving this aside, he also had a period of 2 years in which he had majorities in both houses of Congress in which to get the closing of Gitmo through. But during that time, any time anyone asked about it, we were told that we had to wait because everyone had to work on health care reform -- which was a laugh, because Obamacare was negotiated from the start by Obama with the big hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers behind closed doors, and anyone proposing anything else, such as a public option, got shut down by the president. Congress could easily have dealt with it then -- but Obama didn't ask for it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not find anything in your comment relevant to my post. The uses of power you complain about are thise that the American people support - as shown by the lack of protest. Whereas if Obama were to try to close Gitmo by executive order, this would be usedagainst him in the election by an opposition party that would - I guarantee it - involve an attempt at impeachment if any government funds were used.

The very differences between the abuses a President can get away with and those he cannot is determined by those that the people care about and those they do not.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In adendum, I hold that many of your claims are false or misleading. However, it is not the purpose of this post - or even this blog - to discuss such issues. The topic of this post is that effective change requires pressure from the outside - true or false?