10 Rules of Populist Power -- The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell
November 6, 2010 |
The following is an excerpt from Jamie Court's new book, The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws, and Get the Change We Voted For (Chelsea Green, 2010).
Turning the tables on a powerful opponent revolves around a few core principles. By understanding what works and what hasn’t for change makers, an informed public can better stake its claim to change. In fact, there are ten simple rules that can help an awakened public see and seize the outside opportunities for creating changes that the vast majority of Americans believe in.
Rule 1: Forcing Opponents to Make Mistakes Is the Goal of Effective Advocacy for Change; Promoting Issues Is Not Enough
Any major change in public policy requires a shift in the balance of power. A big opponent with a self-interest in the status quo stands in the way of the popularly sought reform, or that reform would have happened already. When the powerful opponents of change make egregious mistakes, they vastly amplify the value and force of our campaigns by proving the point we cannot demonstrate on our own: our opponents’ values are out of touch with the public’s.
Every campaign for real change must (1) define an opponent; (2) be waged to trip up the opponent; and (3) be ready to create change from the opponent’s mistakes.
Consider how Congress finally banned so-called drive-through deliveries when HMOs tried to save some money by discharging newborns and their mothers from the hospital as early as eight hours after birth. The practice caught Congress’s eye only after a Kaiser HMO bureaucrat got a little too cute in a memo written to staff at the HMO’s flagship Sunset Boulevard hospital in Los Angeles. A whistleblower gave me the memo, titled “Positive Thoughts Regarding the Eight Hour Discharge.” Among the “reasons” given for hospital staff to explain the hasty departure to new moms were “hospital food is not tasty” and “better bonding with siblings at home.” Our exposure of the memo to the media became big news and was soon the subject of congressional hearings. Not only were the HMOs slighting motherhood, but data showed that newborns discharged early were twice as likely to end up in the emergency room with problems that proved to be expensive.
HMO executives were confronted with their penny-wise, pound-foolish policy. The rare glimpse into the cynical attitude of an HMO administration, coupled with exposures about mothers thrown out of the hospital before they learned to breast-feed, drove a Newt Gingrich–controlled Congress to require that newborns and their mothers not be discharged from the hospital any sooner than forty-eight hours without their consent. Congress rarely acts quickly, but when it does it’s because there is little doubt what the public wants and that those who oppose the public’s interest, like HMOs, cannot be trusted because they are so out of step. Only our opponents’ mistakes can demonstrate so clearly why things need to change.
When opponents of new financial privacy protections claimed our privacy was not at risk, I proved the point in a novel way. I bought the Social Security numbers of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other cabinet officials on the Internet for $26. When California legislation to protect financial privacy stalled in the statehouse, I decided to up the ante. I easily and legally bought the Social Security numbers of all the state legislators who opposed the legislation or refused to vote on it. Then I put up their partial Social Security numbers on the Internet along with the partial Social Security number of Governor Gray Davis. The politicians went ballistic. They called on the California Highway Patrol and attorney general to investigate and prosecute me. Their hot reaction to a risk to their personal privacy proved my point. It allowed me to turn the media spotlight they created onto their own failure to be concerned about the privacy of the public at large. The legislators drew attention to their own hypocrisy. Later that year, the California financial privacy protection legislation was revived, passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Davis.
True change almost always involves a public opinion war with those who control the status quo. This is where President Obama fell down on the job as a health reform change maker. He buckled early on to the drug companies, health insurers, and other medical complex lobbyists, as well as stalwarts in his party, rather than putting them to the test of whether their values were in sync with the public’s. He didn’t think he could fight the barrage of advertising the lobbies could afford to shape public opinion, and in doing that he put too little faith in the public and his own ability to use his opponents’ own weight against them. Obama largely refused to put the opponents of real change in the Capitol and on K Street on the spot so that their mistakes would betray their interest in the status quo. Ironically, his success in finally enacting federal health insurance reforms was a result of one health insurance company’s big mistake. When health reform looked like it was in the mortuary, Anthem Blue Cross raised premiums by 39 percent in California. President Obama had the good sense to seize on the public outrage and make the company a poster child for reform. The president effectively used his media pulpit to vector the public anger into a final, successful push for enactment of a new law, even though it had no teeth to stop premium increases like Anthem Blue Cross’s. Obama’s early capitulations to the medical insurance establishment had created a patient protection act that protected the medical industries’ greatest interests and put new financial burdens on most Americans.
Public success often hinges on the quality of opponents’ mistakes and the ability of change makers to exploit them. When opponents make mistakes that show they are out of touch, they amplify our case and weaken their own. Mistakes are the turning points of most populist battles, because mistakes provide the leverage and ammunition to finish the fight.
Rule 2: To Make Big Changes, Target the Little Things and a Few People
We have only so much energy, time, and capital to spend creating the changes we want. Often the impulse to get involved can be overwhelmed by how difficult it seems to change anything or anyone, particularly powerful institutions, industries, or officials. So it should be a comfort to know this trade secret of change makers: big changes are created by a small number of people who do little things right.
Think Paul Revere. In his bestseller The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell shows how Revere had the right connections to knock on the right revolutionary leaders’ doors, those who knew him, with his “sticky” message: “The British are coming!” Stickiness means that a message has an impact and is memorable. Another messenger who rode out in the opposite direction failed in the same charge because he wasn’t as well connected as Revere, or apparently as persuasive. The Tipping Point, a must-read for effective advocates, sums up a growing body of research that shows how big changes on social issues come down to a few decisions and a few key decision makers. Whether you’re trying to stem the tide of teen smoking, reduce your local crime rates, or sway opinion on any other issue, you need to influence the few to affect the many. Focus on identifying the smallest number of people who have the right connections and who can act with the greatest impact.
The small resources of my consumer group have necessitated that we find the right pressure points—the little things and right people—that will have a big impact. For proof that little things matter, consider the case of what happened after my colleagues and I took Arnold Schwarzenegger’s red carpet away.
After his election as governor during the 2003 California recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger got an even bigger ego. The Republican governor embraced a thoroughly reactionary agenda. Although he had run for office as the anti-politician in a progressive state, Schwarzenegger called students, teachers, firefighters, and even the disabled “special interest groups” in an attempt to cut their budgets and pensions. But Schwarzenegger claimed that the label did not apply to big corporations that funded his campaign committee with tens of millions of dollars.
Shades of the same arrogance had surfaced during the recall, which is why my colleagues and I created “ArnoldWatch.org” to publicly track the hidden hand of special interests in the Schwarzenegger administration. We knew the California public would not look fondly upon being been lied to.
Ultimately Governor Schwarzenegger was forced to apologize for his tactics. Chapter 6 offers the blow-by-blow of that campaign, but a key turning point hinged on doing a small thing right. Early on, a small group of us began in-your-face protests, starting at the governor’s house on Super Bowl Sunday, and shadowing him across the state. Ultimately the protests grew to ten thousand strong. We knew that for a celebrity, used to basking in the public’s spotlight, facing angry fans would be debilitating. The psychological turning point in the campaign came midway, during a premier for the Danny DeVito film Be Cool in Sacramento. DeVito was Schwarzenegger’s acting partner in the movie Twins and a close friend.
We knew that if we could keep Schwarzenegger from walking the red carpet into that premier it would be symbolically devastating. The mighty California Nurses Association, great progressive allies, rented the Greek restaurant next door to the theatre, a block from the Capitol. Hundreds of nurses occupied the restaurant and its adjoining space on the red carpet with anti-Arnold signs and critical props. Schwarzenegger had to enter the theatre from the back exit. The symbolism said we would turn Arnold’s celebrity around on him and that he couldn’t show his face in California if he continued on his course. The governor suffered a near-knockout blow at the ballot box eight months later, when all five of the regressive ballot measures he opened fire with post-election were defeated. Schwarzenegger apologized the day after, reversed course, and regained some of his celebrity.
In a populist fight, targeting the right person can change the entire campaign. That’s how Consumer Watchdog ended one insurance company CEO’s two-decade war against voter-backed insurance regulation and won an end to insurers’ redlining of poor and urban neighborhoods.
George Joseph is one of the four hundred richest men in the United States. He made his wealth from his Los Angeles–based company, Mercury Insurance. No one has more hatred for the insurance-regulating Proposition 103, nor has anyone done more to undo it. Joseph’s company gave millions in campaign contributions to statehouse politicians to undermine the law. When Democrats bucked him, Joseph gave an even bigger, six-figure contribution to the opposite party. That sent a chilly message to both parties’ leaders.
By the time Joseph turned eighty-four in 2006, California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi had at long last finalized rules to end auto insurance rates based on motorists’ zip codes. It was the last unfulfilled promise of the 1988 insurance reform initiative.
Mercury did a lot of business in urban areas, and George Joseph apparently didn’t want to be told that he had to charge people based on how they drive, not where they live. So good drivers in the inner city were being required by the state to buy auto insurance, but insurers would not sell them a policy at an affordable price. In the poorest areas, the cheapest, most basic auto policies cost thousands of dollars a year because insurers didn’t want to sell insurance there. So when the end to zip-code-based insurance was at hand, as final regulations were about to be implemented to make this change real, Joseph gave some top political consultants a big check and a green light to file a ballot measure overturning this long-awaited provision of Prop 103. After almost two decades of resistance, Joseph decided on all-out war.
Our response? We proposed a ballot measure of our own that would strictly curb Mercury’s profits. We started a boycott of Mercury Insurance. But the key to turning George Joseph around was an Internet video we made about him for the “Boycott Mercury” Web site. Robert Greenwald, a friend and the progressive movie director behind Iraq for Sale, Outfoxed, and Wal-Mart Movie, sent a film crew to shadow the octogenarian from his luxurious Hancock Park home to his office. The camera crew confronted Joseph about the initiative in his office garage. They asked why Mercury would want to charge African Americans who lived in low-income communities and poorer zip codes more money. An angry letter from civil rights leaders also appeared on his desk. Within about a week, Mercury had withdrawn the initiative. But not before calling my colleague and Prop 103 author Harvey Rosenfield.
Joseph told Harvey his wife had asked him why there had been a video camera at his home. When he explained, she said she also thought it was wrong for his company to charge customers based on their zip code. A few months later, Joseph resigned as Mercury’s CEO, though he retained his position as chairman of the board. New rules charging people based on how they drive, not where they live, finally took effect in 2008. California is the only state in the nation that forces insurers to base premiums on motorists’ driving record, how far they drive, and how many years of experience they have, and not on where they live.
Only a few people were involved; only a small number of actions were needed. Less yielded more—something that is often not the case with staging a mass demonstration or other Herculean labor of protest. For example, for almost a year a group of doctors called “Physicians Who Care” worked to organize massive protests against HMO medicine on “Rescue Healthcare Day.” The lead doctor bothered me nearly daily, and I kept warning him that the key to rescuing health care was what would happen the day after the protest. Nonetheless he continued to believe the outburst of physician energy would change everything. Of course, things didn’t change on their own the day after the protests. The doctor and his group quickly disappeared. I didn’t hear from him again for almost seven years. Just before the 2008 election he e-mailed to ask how he could raise questions about Senator McCain’s failure to disclose his health records. I pointed him to Robert Greenwald, who had already created a video on the topic and a petition signed by thousands of doctors calling for a release of those records. Greenwald started out with only a few doctors but ultimately grew the effort to include thousands, a popular online video, and a front-page New York Times story that turned McCain’s health into a campaign issue.
The question progressives must ask themselves is which small things and few people to target to turn things around.
Applying this to a national scale leads to some interesting options. Obama may not be the leader of the progressive movement, but it doesn’t mean the movement cannot make him move. And if you were going to target a few people for the greatest change, you probably wouldn’t have to look far. Progressives could demand a shake-up at the White House to oust Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The jobs of Tim Geithner and Larry Summers should also be on the chopping block. The strategy of these three men is largely responsible for the setbacks for progressives in health care, financial regulation, and climate change legislation.
Rule 3: Simple Moral Sentiments Can Change the World When Public Opinion Propels Them
The public’s power to create change against the wishes of powerful interest groups springs from simply phrased, widely shared moral sentiments. A short, simple articulation of the moral viewpoint driving a campaign sums up exactly what we are fighting for or against. The right sentence can rouse public opinion and spread the spirit of change like wildfire.
Here are some of the morals-based phrases that I have put to work:
• Newborns and their mothers should not be kicked out of the hospital eight hours after birth.
• Doctors, not HMO bureaucrats, should make medical decisions.
• Motorists should not be forced to choose between paying for auto insurance and buying food for their family.
• Oil companies should not be able to make more profit by making less gasoline.
• Our private financial information should not be bought and sold like pork bellies to the highest bidder.
• Insurance premiums should be based on how we drive, not where we live.I have run successful campaigns around each of these irrefutable moral sentiments precisely because big industries and their allies in government tried to refute them. Campaigns for change rely on a social, ethical, or populist belief so powerful that our smartest opponents will not openly take issue with it for fear of losing their standing with the public. Most opponents do argue, though, and that is often their big mistake.
The sentiment of any issue-based campaign should (1) articulate a popular moral principle; (2) be simple and human; (3) put our opponents on the spot and force their tactical decision to support it or oppose it. Clever opponents will claim we are mistaken and that they don’t really disagree with the populist sentiment and don’t violate it. Then we must gather evidence to expose them to win our campaign, which creates opportunities for those with that information to come forward. Smart campaigners will have the evidence in their pocket first, ready to release once their opponent claims to support the sentiment.
The Kaiser bureaucrats who gave new meaning to the term “maternity leave” showed disregard for social mores about how to treat mothers and reaped their own shame. I spent years, with the help of whistleblowers, proving that HMO bureaucrats did indeed make medical decisions. HMOs tried to argue back with reasons why doctors should be paid bonuses to deny care to patients. They tried to defend their use of accounting manuals to dictate hospital stays and their bureaucrats in far-off states overriding a treating doctor’s decisions. They found out quickly that offending the public’s sensibilities is quicksand for those who want to maintain the status quo.
Campaigns for change, ironically, are often about preserving traditional values like fairness, justice, and privacy. They are about getting back something that has been lost. That is a powerful message that doesn’t frighten the public: it involves returning lost values through new plans, not embarking on a dangerous new course. People fear change, even as they desire it. Popular change almost always is built on the bedrock of existing values that are threatened.
The greatest tactical objective of change makers is to expose our opponents’ opposition to social mores, ethical customs, and the rule of law. Then we seize the moment to reassert these mores through new laws, stronger codes of conduct, or new decisions. The public should recognize these telltale signs and lend their opinion.
When you hear a moral sentiment worth fighting for, go for it. If you are trying to build a campaign, craft a statement that defines it. Moral sentiments have the power to create change when fueled by the last credible source of information in a culture of disintegrating trust: word of mouth. And Americans now have the best conductor of “word of mouth” in human history, the Internet.
Candidates already know how to win elections based on clearly expressed moral sentiments. Here are some of the ones that brought Obama to the White House:
• Health care should be accessible and affordable so that medical bills bankrupt no one.
• Americans must end dependence on the petroleum economy and stop gasoline prices from destroying our economy.
• Lobbyists and special interest groups shouldn’t control Washington, D.C.Republican senator Scott Brown, who foiled many of Obama’s ambitions on the president’s one-year anniversary in office, was remembered for this sentiment during the campaign: “This isn’t Ted Kennedy’s seat. It’s the people’s seat.”
During campaigns, candidates have opponents to hold them accountable for such sentiments, but, after elections, too many interest groups are afraid to hold officials to their campaign pledges for fear of losing access. There’s no more fertile ground for outsiders who seek to hold elected officials accountable to a platform of change than the field of the candidates’ own words on the campaign trail. This was the tactic, for example, that finally forced Arnold Schwarzenegger to redefine special interests to include corporations that were giving him money. Even allies have to be reminded of the sentiments they espouse in order to keep them to reasonable timelines for taking action. One moral sentiment Americans agree with is politicians shouldn’t forget their promises after taking office.
Rule 4: Forget Sun Tzu: The Bigger the Fight, the Better the Odds; Fight Even If You Cannot Win Today, and Someday You’ll Win without a Fight
Politics may be the art of the possible, but often “realism” or, as Hillary Clinton put it, “reality-based politics” undermines the possibility of genuine political change based on an outside game. By “outside game,” I mean the notion that forces outside the Washington Beltway can move the insiders, based on the power of public opinion. Politicians tend not to believe or put much hope in the outside game unless the public’s sentiment is a clear and present danger for them. Rousing public opinion begins with a strategy to invite conflict.
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the classic strategy manual for politics, business, and military conflict. The Chinese general argues that if your forces are unequal to your opponent’s, you should avoid conflict. That may be true for classical warfare, but in the game of populist change, be it a fight with a government agency or a Fortune 500 company, the odds are always unequal. Engaging a fight with a more powerful opponent on an issue that may not seem winnable at the moment is essential because confrontation creates opportunities for your opponent to make mistakes and creates a public record of the battle. Look for the big fight if you want the big payoff, even if you lose some battles.
When our consumer group first took on the HMOs’ cost-cutting practices, many of our allies said they were too strong and we would alienate a potential force for universal health care by trying to bring them under control. But we changed their worst abuses by exposing and confronting them.
When he went to the California ballot with insurance reform Prop 103 in 1988, Harvey Rosenfield had to deal with angering allies who claimed he could never beat the property-insurance industry’s money. Consumer groups and trial lawyers wanted to avert a ballot war and cut a deal with insurance companies, who ultimately put their own anti-consumer agenda on the ballot to confuse voters. Harvey wouldn’t back down, even though he had raised no significant money to spend on a campaign. Insurers spent over $60 million against Harvey’s landmark ballot measure and on making the case for their own, and that turned out to be their downfall. The companies so saturated the airwaves with television advertisements against Prop 103 that the public realized insurers were against the measure. That convinced 51 percent of voters to support the ballot measure, because it was the real-deal insurance reform. You have to love populist jujitsu.
When matched against a much more powerful opponent, the more our opponent attacks, the stronger we become. So provoke the more powerful opponent to attack. The more a powerful opponent engages and acknowledges us, the more power our arguments gain in the court of public opinion. When the more powerful opponent lends us his spotlight, he places us on the same stage and credentials our point of view. The powerful attack only when threatened. The more we attack, the more they react, and the stronger we become.
Rule 5: Creating the Record Creates the Seeds of Change
Building a record of one’s battles and one’s opponents’ errors is critical to the power of the less-resourced advocate. Letters, demands, exchanges, and exposés that confront opponents—and force them to respond publicly—create a record that can later be used against your target. In the court of public opinion, creating a public record and forcing a decision maker to respond is the equivalent of the legal discovery process in the court of law. You are trying to uncover a discrepancy and take advantage of a mistake, now or later.
A campaign that can and will create a record is a triple threat to a powerful opponent.
1. We can lose the battle and still negatively affect our opponent’s standing in the court of public opinion.
2. We can lose the battle yet create the conditions by which we can win the war.
3. We can win the battle by forcing our opponent to make a big mistake.Building a record builds our power and leverage because an opponent who knows of our ability to build the record and willingness to wait for the right moment to use it will have to take us seriously.
Consider the most famous example of a well-fought loss that led to victory. The debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as they vied to become the U.S. senator from Illinois are among the most famous in American history. Lincoln lost the election, but the record he established in those debates won him the platform to ascend to the presidency a few years later.
Or consider a more recent case from my consumer group’s files, one that shows the value of building a public record on an opponent.
As recently as 2005, then Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee was a presumed front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination to succeed President Bush. Today he’s not even in the Senate. Here’s the story.
When Frist controlled the U.S. Senate in 2003 and 2004 as majority leader, he made a big mistake. At the time there was little chance that he or the Senate Ethics Committee would respond favorably to my consumer group’s written concerns about his conflicts of interest with his family’s business. But we created a record that years later undermined Frist’s power and helped to end his political career.
Frist, a doctor whose family controlled one of the nation’s largest hospital chains, was then backing a Senate bill to limit legal accountability for doctors and hospitals when they commit medical malpractice. We publicly demanded that Frist sell at least $25 million of stock he held in the Frist family company, HCA. HCA was one of America’s largest hospital companies and owner of HCI, the nation’s fifth biggest medical malpractice insurer. No one had ever heard of this issue before we put it on the map for the media and opinion leaders, but afterward it was closely tracked.
“HCI, HCA and your entire family stand to profit directly from the passage of malpractice caps legislation,” we wrote to Frist. Of course, Frist did not divest his stock, nor recuse himself from the medical malpractice vote. We got some press at the time, but, more importantly, the record we created came back to haunt Senator Frist two years later.
When Frist finally sold the stock in September 2005, he did it just before the stock price tumbled, suggesting his family had given him an insider tip. A lot of eyes were watching by then. Frist was subpoenaed by the Justice Department and the SEC in an insider trading investigation of his well-timed sale. The investigation was made public two days after we sent another letter calling for an inquiry to the SEC and U.S. attorney. The record we had created years before, when it looked like we could not win the fight, was significant in the demise of Frist’s political career.
The scandal put an end to Frist’s presidential ambitions. His medical malpractice legislation, stained by the insider-trading allegation, never passed. The record, not the outcome of the initial battle, mattered most in the end.
Doing the right thing at the right time usually produces the right result in the end. The tension between progressives, who want their officials to stand on principle, and politicians, who want accomplishments before the next election, is constant and inevitable. It’s our job to urge the politicians to put what’s right over what’s convenient.
Rule 6: Keep It Human, Put People First
Never underestimate the power of one person’s story to change the world; indeed such stories may be the only thing that ever has. The sincere experiences of individuals who have suffered injustice are the best weapons against injustice. Winning campaigns are about the triumph of fundamental human truth, so real people with genuine stories are the best messengers of populist campaigns.
The language of the status quo is often statistical, actuarial, and data-based. This is not to say proponents of change don’t have science and statistics on their side. It’s just that opponents of change often base their objections on the hard, cold numbers that only accountants can muster and manipulate to show how they will bust budgets, bankrupt businesses, and break up families. My favorite example is tobacco companies’ argument against the Czech government’s smoking cessation plan. The industry’s actuarial study found that the country’s health care costs would skyrocket since people would live longer.
While it’s tempting to mix it up with scientists when you know you’re right, change-making campaigns typically mobilize the public and affect politics by sticking to the human case. Consider the medical patients’ wars in Washington, D.C., the classic arena where critical public policy battles with significant human consequences are too often fought over statistics and computer models. Powerful opponents use selective data to defuse change. So in the mid-1990s I pioneered a method to make sure Washington politicians looked patients in the eye before they took away their legal rights.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were engaged in a debate over whether victims of medical negligence should have limits on their rights to go to court and recover damages for malfeasance. Of course, the medical-insurance industry instigated that discussion. So we began our first “casualty of the day” campaign. In the pre-Internet world, fax machines were the cutting edge of communication. Every day for five months, every congressional representative, every senator, and key members of the press received a fax with a picture and tragic story of a casualty of medical malpractice who needed his or her rights preserved. I knew the campaign was successful when the medical-insurance lobby’s public relations machine answered back with its own “medical miracle of the moment,” highlighting life-saving medical advances. As I commented at the time, the industry’s reaction was like Ford putting out a press release about every Pinto gas tank that didn’t explode.
The power of the campaign was in its cumulative impact. Every day, another story. Legislative staff and the media paid attention. The drumbeat built. We defended against the assault on injured patients’ legal remedies.
A few years later, the time came to go on the offensive for the legal rights of HMO patients. We warmed up the fax machine again. The HMOs spent millions on television advertising to stop us. Here’s how CNN’s Brooks Jackson described the “HMO casualty of the day” campaign at the time: “The industry has its advertising too, but far more effective is this shoestring consumer group. A fax a day to keep the HMOs at bay.” The patients-first tactic fueled landmark HMO patients’-rights reforms throughout the nation.
More recently, I saw the “people-first” principle work when one woman with a compelling story was able to fell a whole industry. It’s the case of “Dana vs. Goliath.”
With health insurance costs skyrocketing in 2006, insurers hatched a plan to remove themselves from the patients’-rights laws that were passed in forty-four states in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The industry explained that the insurance companies wanted to “reduce their costs of compliance” so insurance would be cheaper. It sounded simple enough to President Bush and Congress, who were about to enact the plan. Attorneys general, governors, and state insurance commissioners complained, but it looked like the industry had the votes.
Then Dana Christensen came to Capitol Hill with my Consumer Watchdog colleagues Carmen Balber and Jerry Flanagan.
Christensen had been working with my consumer group to warn against the very type of “junk health insurance” policy that we feared would become the norm if state regulation were bypassed. She and her husband, Doug, had been technically insured, yet Dana was left with $450,000 in unpaid medical bills when her husband died of bone cancer.
The fine print in her insurance policy had no limit on “out-of-pocket cost.” So she had to pay most of the costs of his chemotherapy and cancer care. On his deathbed, Doug asked Dana to divorce him so she would not have to be liable for the medical bills. She refused. In the end, only because of a lawsuit under state law, which prevented fraudulent representations, was Dana able to recoup the cost of those bills from the insurer.
Dana flew into Washington on Monday, on the heels of a PBS NOW news story about her case that aired the previous Friday. She held a press conference with Senators Edward Kennedy and Richard Durbin, then lobbied other senators. The power of her story stopped the legislation dead in its tracks.
“What’s the point of paying for health insurance and then, when you need it, discovering the benefits you thought were promised and paid for just aren’t there?” Dana asked. “That’s what happened to my husband Doug and me.”
Human truth is very hard for a human being, even the most hardened Washington politician, to turn away from.
Rule 7: Make It Personal for Decision Makers
Confrontation creates change in human beings. It forces them to evaluate their positions because it warns of the consequences if they do not. If you want recalcitrant decision makers to change their ways, confront them personally and publicly about their actions. Don’t just tell them why they are wrong; show them how their position reflects on their personal character.
Publicly confront them in a way that forces them to examine their person, not merely their positions. Then they must take inventory of what you have described and stand by it or change it. Successful decision makers typically change to conform with deep-seated social mores and ethical customs. Sometimes they even become your allies. Less-successful opponents compound their mistakes and dig themselves in deeper, which can give us more leverage over them. Making it personal means not name-calling or making spurious allegations, but forcing a confrontation with an opponent on the battlefield of values.
When he was in the California Legislature, Gray Davis, who later lost a recall election as governor in 2003, sponsored legislation to put the faces of missing children on milk cartons. When my consumer group wanted to force Davis, as governor, to sign a strong HMO patient protection law in 1998, Harvey Rosenfield came up with the idea of putting the governor’s face on faux milk cartons. “Missing: California Governor. Last Seen at Fundraiser with HMO Executives.” We printed up thousands of the cartons and delivered them to hotel rooms in the San Francisco Hilton the night before Davis was scheduled to give a big breakfast speech. The flyer had all the details about how Davis met behind closed doors with HMO executives, raised big campaign contributions from them, and said he would not sign the tough patient protection law we wanted.
Davis received a chilly reception at the breakfast speech. He was upset by our tactics, especially a letter about the issue that we had Ralph Nader send to him, and went into a San Francisco Chronicle editorial meeting with a chip on his shoulder and angry that, as the governor, he was being taken to task. At that editorial board meeting he was asked about the patients’ rights legislation and made his big mistake. He said of the legislature, “Their job is to implement my vision.” When those words appeared in the newspaper, he was forced to retreat. The legislature put a very tough piece of legislation on his desk and he signed it. After the HMO patients’ bill of rights signing ceremony, Davis stopped me as I was walking in a crosswalk. He leaned out of the backseat of his Lincoln town car and said, “Jamie, you have to give me high marks for this one. I want to see it on the front page.” Never underestimate politicians’ regard for their self-image.
Making it personal obviously often comes with a personal cost. The governor was very angry with us for a long time. We heard from donors that Governor Davis had personally called them and asked that they not contribute to our group. I knew one of the organizers of that Gray Davis breakfast very well. He wouldn’t talk to me for years. I have no doubt, though, that had we not personalized the issues, Davis would have carried through on his threat to veto the stronger patient protections.
Rule 8: Seize the Moment—Don’t Pick Your Time, Have the Goods and Let Your Time Pick You
Timing is the fulcrum of populist power. We cannot always choose it but we have to be ready for it to choose us. Create the record, plan for the right moments, and windows of opportunity should open to our advantage. These rare openings are awakenings in a public consciousness about an issue that can trump the human tendency to fear transitions and change itself. Moments of opportunity, events that focus public opinion like a beam, must be seized or they are lost. If it seems like the right time to jump into a campaign, don’t wait.
For example, the collapse of Enron following the burst of the dot-com stock bubble left people wondering what had happened not only to their nest eggs, but also to corporate governance rules. Our consumer group knew it provided a moment to act.
In the 1980s, an industrial accident led to a new California law requiring that managers tell regulators about workplace hazards or go to jail. We wanted the same individual accountability for corporate executives on financial matters. Our first stab at reform was California legislation requiring that executives report financial fraud to government authorities or face jail time. We also wanted to create new protections for whistleblowers and a 1-800 hotline for them to report problems. Big business targeted the bill for defeat, calling it “tattletale” legislation and claiming the disloyal should not have new rights.
In the end, the legislature and the governor bowed to popular opinion and granted whistleblowers their protections. They wouldn’t, however, make individual corporate executives personally liable for their financial statements. It took the U.S. Congress to do that a little later, seizing on the idea under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Corporate executives today must personally sign their financial statements and are personally accountable for the veracity. There is not a single provision of Sarbanes-Oxley that CEOs complain about more, which makes us happy and shareholders a little more secure.
Or consider the case of our “Rx Express.” The 2004 presidential election provided a moment of clarity for many Americans about the high cost of prescription drugs. The issue infected the presidential debate between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. So our consumer group chartered two private trains—dubbed the Rx Express—to take seniors to Canada to buy cheaper drugs, right in the middle of the presidential debates. My colleague Jerry Flanagan wanted to show how Americans pay about 60 percent more for prescription drugs than the people of other nations. The next president would then have to lower prescription drug costs.
One train went up the West Coast, another up the East Coast, picking up seniors along the way while we held whistle-stop press conferences in their communities. A train began in Florida and stopped for passengers and press conferences all the way to Toronto. The other train did the same from San Diego to Vancouver. In Canada, the Rx Express riders saved an average of 60 percent off the prescription drug prices they paid in the United States for a total annual savings of $2,000 each. And the journeys made a big impression, in the media and with the presidential candidates.
The Rx Express train trips generated more than three hundred television appearances, with a Nielsen audience of sixty-five million, sixty newspaper articles, and one hundred radio interviews. The provision of prescription drug benefits to seniors became a central issue in the election and ultimately translated to an expansion of Medicare, albeit a faulty one that will be corrected at the right moment.
We had one amazing windfall of luck during the trip, when the Bush administration tried to intimidate our seniors. Government officials boarded the eastern-seaboard train at its last stop before the Canadian border looking for drugs. On the night of a presidential debate no less. Of course, that mistake only gave Jerry and his crew of seniors another round of media stories. The only error we made was not asking then state senator Barack Obama to come along. Had we, he may not have been able to retreat in 2009 from his campaign pledge to reduce the nation’s prescription drug bill through bulk purchasing.
Rule 9: Exploit a Powerful Opponent’s Fear of Falling to Achieve Victory without Combat
Our powerful opponents, if they’re smart, will always be more afraid of us than we are of them. We have far less to lose. I had that revelation early in my career as a public advocate. At the time, I worked as an advocate for the homeless and was vacationing with my wife on the Yucatán Peninsula near the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. As I ascended the great pyramid, the congressional welfare reform fight was on my mind—in particular how to fight on behalf of people most others in America didn’t care about. At the homeless shelter where I worked, there were several children. Their mothers did not have child care, so they couldn’t hold jobs and keep a roof over their children’s heads. But Congress wanted to take away their aid without providing them the child care they needed to go to work.
I remember how the climb up the narrow steps was hard and the view of the surrounding jungle was magnificent. But what really stuck with me was the feeling of standing at the top, on the broad plateau looking out on the dense forests of the Yucatán. My knees went weak. There was plenty of space to stand, yet as I looked toward the edge, I could not help fearing that I would fall, as improbable as I knew it was. It occurred to me then that this is how those at the top of any pyramid of power must feel—fearful of the fall, worried about their knees being cut out from under them, ever conscious of the ineluctable force of gravity pulling them down. It spurred me on to more aggressive tactics to get elected officials to pay attention to the families in our shelter.
I have taken that lesson with me. Exploiting our opponents’ fear of their own missteps, of falling from their perch, is the quickest way to win. Show them how bad they look early on in order to have them change course or preempt an attack. It’s a lesson some colleagues and I recently put into practice against the leaders of Yahoo and Intel to stop an assault on class action lawsuits in California.
In 2007, Intel was a household brand with tremendous popular approval. That’s probably why the company was called on to chair a corporate consortium in California bent on eliminating consumer class action lawsuits. The consortium chose Intel—rather than one of its drug companies, tobacco makers, or insurers—to occupy the top spot as it filed a ballot measure to put up so many legal hurdles that ripped-off consumers would never have been able to file class action cases holding the responsible corporation accountable. Before signatures were even collected to place the initiative on the ballot, though, a group of us trying to stop the effort caught a huge break.
I heard on National Public Radio that Intel was in the middle of a flap over an insensitive advertisement that many considered racist. The print ad, which had been published overseas, featured a white manager standing over six African-American sprinters kneeling before him. The ad proclaimed, “Maximize Your Power.” Intel withdrew the advertisement and apologized. Still, I knew immediately that Intel had made the fatal mistake that could be used to force withdrawal of the initiative. Its brand was now vulnerable. A major purpose behind class action lawsuits is to protect the civil rights of Americans, and Intel had shown a callous disregard on matters of ethnic sensitivity.
During the next two weeks, my consumer group launched an Internet campaign that asked, “Is Intel racist inside?” We called on the company to withdraw both the advertisement and the initiative. After our e-activists sent thirty thousand faxes online to the board of directors and kicked up a lot of bad press, Intel and its corporate consortium announced that the initiative would not go forward. In an internal e-mail to the consortium’s board of directors, a proponent blamed the retreat on the fact that the initiative campaign would be more “high profile” than initially anticipated.
“Fear of the fall” was directed not only at Intel, but at one of its key board members, Susan Decker. Decker had just taken the reins at Yahoo, right after CEO Terry Semel resigned for a major misstep. We knew Decker was particularly vulnerable to criticism as a new CEO. So a member of our group, Chris Lehane, who had been a lawyer and spokesperson in the Clinton White House, and Will Robinson of the New Media Firm created and produced a cable television ad that ran in Silicon Valley targeting Decker and providing her office phone number.
The ad opened with the Yahoo logo flashing on a white background while the announcer declared, “Yahoo is a leading global brand.” Then a photo of Decker swept in next to the Yahoo logo and the announcer continued, “And as president, Susan Decker helps set Yahoo’s vision.” The Intel logo swooped in, too, and the announcer added, “But she’s also on the board on Intel.” At that point, an image of the controversial Intel advertisement slowly crept onto the screen. “And Intel had been using advertising that has been called offensive, even racist,” said the announcer. Eventually, the image cut to a ballot box, and word discrimination with a big “no” circle over it. “Now,” continued the announcer, “Intel is supporting a ballot measure that makes it tougher to fight discrimination, and harder to stop big corporations, HMOs, and oil companies from hurting consumers.” At the ad’s close, the Enron logo flew in and pushed out the word discrimination, then “HMO” pushed out “Enron” and then finally an oil derrick pushed out “HMO” and the image changed back to Susan, with her phone number plastered below. The voice-over concluded, “So call Susan, and tell her maybe it’s time to start bringing Yahoo’s vision to Intel.”
The same week the advertisement aired, Intel decided to withdraw its ballot measure. Fear cuts both ways, of course. The public’s fear of change is often the target of our opponents’ campaigns to defeat reform. Special interest campaigns to stop popularly sought-after changes operate from a standard playbook that feeds upon the public’s well-conditioned fears and seeks to distract from the public benefits of a reform. Seeing through the standard ploys, though, may make it easier to resist them. The following table shows six of the most common “fear points” that opponents of change use in both their political attacks to counter reform and the claims they frequently make. You may recognize how the GOP and the medical-insurance complex effectively used these arguments in the court of public opinion to fear-monger about the Democrats’ health care reform plan during 2010. The Tea Party’s playbook is little different, as it’s been constructed by many longtime GOP operatives, like Dick Armey, looking for a more populist chorus.
Appeals to the public’s fear that destroy reform efforts are typically strategic arson: a fire of fear sparked on the dry brush of parched populist ground. For example, the drug companies and insurers could ignite Americans’ fear of the bureaucrats in President Clinton’s health care plan because the Clintons failed to keep the populist soil fertile by engaging public opinion. Instead, the Clintons engaged in back-door negotiations with so-called stakeholders. President Obama fared far better with his health reform effort during the summer of 2009,when it contained a public health insurance option to compete with the private health insurance market, supported consistently by the vast majority of Americans in poll after poll. Obama lost ground to the fear factors only when he abandoned the public option and his progressive base. That’s when support for his plan fell under the 50 percent mark. The best prevention against public fear destroying a populist campaign for change is to constantly nourish public opinion and stay true to your message and values.
Rule 10: Don’t Worry about Your Seat at the Table; Find the Rock to Throw through the Window
The big coalition, the most famous names, or the politically diverse negotiating partners do not signal that the changes being espoused reflect a consensus about the public’s opinion—or even have a chance of success. In fact, when insiders are all on the same page, it’s very likely that their proposal won’t shake things up at all. Shaking endangers their interests.
Copyright Chelsea Green 2010 -- All Rights Reserved
Jamie Court’s new book, The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws, and Get the Change We Voted For, was just released by Chelsea Green Publishing Company. Court, an acclaimed consumer advocate, is president of Consumer Watchdog.