The Obama administration’s outside arm, Organizing for America, is now adding the Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination to its roster of issues that it is calling on the American people to lobby for. We the people are being called on to help the administration pass its health care and Supreme Court battles. These are good fights; I’m all for them. But once again I’m disappointed in the model. As I posted back in January, organizing and mobilizing are two different things. To mobilize the public is to get the public active in supporting a given proposal. To organize the public is to help the public for so that it can decide and articulate public will and create civic capacity for change.
As it stands, Organizing for America is trying to use the campaign model that worked so well to elect Barack Obama to work again to lobby for issues. But this isn’t going to work. In an electoral campaign people are being asked to do something, to focus on specific action for a specific day. Albeit limited, this is public action. Now people are being asked to hold house meetings to talk about Obama’s health care policy, to learn about it, tell stories about what that policy would mean for them, get excited about it, and maybe write their members of Congress.
They are not being asked to deliberate. They are not being asked to think through the issue and come up with their own ideas about what kind of health care policy would work. They are not being asked to think outside the box that is being handed to them. (Single payer, anyone?)
Okay, this may be better than nothing. It is nice that government is paying attention to the people. But I worry that this lack of imagination and playing it safe will be counterproductive and give the impression that all citizens can or need do is latch on to the policies that their favorite leaders have proposed when in fact it is important that people work through and think through issues themselves, ideally in the company of others. House meetings would be a great place to start. But the agenda should not be how to get policy x to win; it should be to start from scratch and think through a variety of alternatives, including, for example, single payer or any other that seems at all promising.
There’s little like this to do on a Supreme Court nomination. That issue is a straight up issue of lobbying. There’s nothing wrong with that. (And I’m proud I was part of an important campaign twenty years ago to block the nomination of one especially conservative Supreme Court nominee.) A house meeting on Supreme Court issues could have a very general agenda of thinking through the role of the courts, of how representative judges should be, about the hold of past precedent versus new thinking.
Public discussion, deliberation, and organizing is good for generating public will, and if that will happens to coincide with proposed public policy, then it can be an important engine for creating civic capacity for change.