The Permanent Campaign

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.

20th debate

I’m watching the debate tonight in Ohio between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I’ve actually cringed for Hillary. Such bad, even embarrassing responses: complaining that she’s being “picked on” first and picking fights over insubstantial matters. This is clearly last-gasp maneuvering. You can almost see it in her face — this is all over.

The issue that still gets me is health care. They spent the first 17 minutes debating it. But neither seems at all interested in discussing the merits or demerits of a single-payer plan. By that I mean that all people would pay into one plan — getting us lots of economy of scale — and that this plan would then pay for your trip to your own local doctor. I know single payer is controversial. But it’s worth debating. And I’m missing a debate on that now.

What Kind of Democrats are Obama and Clinton?

Robert Gooding-Williams has an interesting post on the new Gender, Race, and Philosophy blog. He makes a good case that candidate Clinton is a democrat in the old elite style, while candidate Obama is a deliberative democratic. I’d love it if the latter were true. Whether it is so will be seen in practice, by how truly interested he is in cultivating and incorporating reflective public will. I don’t need any persuasion to agree that Hillary Clinton’s style is anything but participatory or deliberative. Recall her 1994 health care initiative: it was crafted behind tightly locked closed doors. No public input or oversight was welcome. Perhaps she thought this would be better somehow, but the results were predictable: the proposals that emerged were roundly dashed and never got off the ground. The same thing had happened in 1988 when AARP met behind closed doors with members of Congress to hammer out a catastrophic health care plan. The bill was enacted shortly before winter recess. Members of Congress returned home to find seniors up in arms over the new bill. It called for sacrifices that those subject to the bill had had no hand in shaping. They hadn’t had the chance to work through (in the Freudian sense, and the sense that Dan Yankelovich discusses) the costs and trade-offs. So when Congress recovened, one of the first things it did was rescind the new law.

Yankelovich once told me in an interview, “Any public policy that is not built on public will is built on sand.” Sand is what met the AARP bill and the HRC proposal. But I doubt that either learned that lesson. Obama seems to know instinctively that politics calls for drawing on public wisdom, not trying to manufacture public support after policy has been crafted.