Engines of Liberty
Welcome to another week. I am continuing to try to tighten and improve the focus of this newsletter. Last week was my first time doing the column on small immediate acts of resistance, and I got a lot of positive feedback about that. My plan was to keep doing it! I love hearing from you guys, so please feel free to submit your own suggestions or tell me which ones you did. Might I suggest dressing up like someone in the Trump administration when you go out this weekend??
This week’s acts of resistance are right here for you, right now.
Small Immediate Acts of Resistance
- Sign up for your Councilmember’s newsletter. Find out who your DC Councilmember is if you don’t already know and sign up for their newsletter. This is very helpful for getting the heads up on DC-related events, but they also usually put brief updates and reports on upcoming legislation. Not all of us want to get into the nitty gritty of budget policies and such, but those policies are what determine our future.
- Donate $5 to John Ossoff’s campaign in Georgia. I don’t want to always put money things here, but sometimes it’s important. There are special elections going on for National Office right. now! And one of them is Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The seat was vacated by HHS nominee Tom Price, and a Democrat who has been endorsed by John Lewis, actually has a shot at it. Make a donation here, OR, if you don’t have the spare cash, sign up to make calls for him here.
- Sign up to volunteer to flip your nearest swing district with Swing Left. The nearest swing district — defined as one currently held by a Republican that won by less than 10% of the vote, in most cases — to DC is VA-10, and it basically touches DC. You can sign up to be part of the volunteer team to flip that district with Swing Left. I did. Join me!
Alright, onto this week’s longform topics. I have yet another guest poster for you this week! My partner, Michael Triebwasser, is the Floor Manager at beloved DC institution and bookstore Politics and Prose. He does a lot of reading, and he really love the book Engines of Liberty by David Cole. You can follow Michael on twitter at @fearnotrieb.
Topic 1: Engines of Liberty and Citizen Organizing
So, my fellow Forerunnerians, as I began writing this we were only six days into the Trump Administration and the GOP controlled everything. If you’re like me, in between acts of resistance and activism, you may find yourself contemplating the enormity what we’re up against, of what we’re trying to accomplish. In these moments I feel like I’ve been backed into a corner, the path before me has collapsed, and I find that I’m inexplicably stuck in this hole with someone who is hellbent on giving me a comb-over…I mean a whooping. So what do I do? Well, being in the book business, I read. There is so much great literature that outlines concrete ideas on how to stand up for your beliefs. The first one I read post-election was Engines of Liberty by David Cole.
If you haven’t heard of him, David Cole is new the National Legal Director at the ACLU and he’s a longtime lawyer and constitutional scholar. In his book he illustrates how some of the best citizen activists — activists like us — have been able to effect real change in constitutional law. Why is this important right now? First, because you better believe that Trump and the Republicans are going to do all they can to enshrine conservative beliefs not just into law, but as constitutional principles. From filling the vacancy on the Court, to GOP state officials and other like minded activists initiating legal action that will eventually lead to a Court ruling, this is a front in the fight that needs constant vigilance, because to undo the damage could take decades. Second, because constitutional law gets a bad rep. According to Cole, from the way its studied in law school it’s obvious that most experts think constitutional law has three and only three sources: the Constitution, the Supreme Court, the cases that bubble up from the legal system. Cole argues there’s a fourth source and it can be found in the first three words of our governing charter. We the People. Seriously. You. Me. That person over there. Citizen activists and civil societies can have a major impact in this arena typically left to politicians and lawyers. This is a powerful idea. Honestly, take a look at the Constitution (here you go: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript). Read a few lines. Beyond the stylized language and the system of check and balances, beyond the Bill of Rights and the amendments it outlines, there is a truth as important as all the rest: You, and not the big collective you but you reading this right now, can change the Constitution. Together we are the engines of liberty.
Ok, so how do we become this engine Michael? I’m not an engineer! Fair point. To answer this Cole outlines the history of three causes (marriage equality, gun rights, and human rights during wartime). He shows they all had similar beginnings to one another and they were all considered nearly impossible to achieve. At the outset there was no way the Supreme Court was going to rule in their favor and upend years worth of constitutional thought. With the sense of inevitability that hindsight tends to bring it may be hard to remember this. And yet despite the enormity of their task activists, by being dogged, strategic, and learning from defeats as well as successes, were able to lay the groundwork for profound shifts in constitutional thinking using tools commonly found in organizing. There were tools used by all three movements, and other tools that appeared in only one of them. Here are a few highlights:
1.) Be methodical: The ability of activists across all three movements to be thorough and methodical was astonishing. Early gay rights activists realized that before they could openly strive for marriage equality they had to achieve other equally important benchmarks, like being able to be “out” safely. To use a parallel example, in the 1970s and 80s, facing a federal court system that was inhospitable to their line of thinking, the NRA focused on making changes to local and state laws one jurisdiction at a time. Both movements realized they had to methodically alter the cultural context, brick by brick, so that the powdered wigs on the highest court in the land (ok I made up the wigs) would eventually transform constitutional principles. Think about it. You’re a Supreme Court Justice in 2015 deciding Obergefell v Hodges (the case that ultimately decided marriage equality). What do you have before you? You have over half a century’s worth of systematic changes wrought by activists. Again, not that the decision in this case was inevitable but it was more likely in 2015 than it was in 1950. The same can be said about gun rights (unfortunately, but they were effective). This methodical strategy is so crucial because the cultural bricks we lay can be the source of our most long lasting change, or our greatest weakness if we choose to ignore them. Examine the issues you care about to find out not only how to build them up from a very local level but also how they’re vulnerable.
2.) Don’t be methodical: Umm….what? You just said be methodical! I know just hear me out. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you have to trust in the Force and fire off your proton torpedoes. Back in 2002, during the early days of the war on terror, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights named Michael Ratner learned the Bush Administration was going to be keeping prisoners in Guantanamo Bay without access to any judicial system or oversight. Ratner found this reprehensible, and believed that it violated the principles not only of the Constitution but those that our entire legal system is based on. As a result he decided to sue the federal government on the detainee’s’ behalf. Cole asked Ratner what he thought his chances were back then of winning. “None, whatsoever,” he said. “We filed one hundred percent on principle.” By bringing this lawsuit Ratner hoped to shed light on what he thought were profound human rights violations. For two years he lost in the lower federal courts until finally the Supreme Court, surprisingly, agreed to review the case and, also surprisingly, ruled in the detainees’ favor. Sometimes, a hopeless, out-of-left-field strategy can work.
3.) Hone your message: I know. At this point someone says ‘we need to talk about messaging’ and you immediately Macgyver together a crude flying contraption using nothing but gum, nine blades of grass, a pencil and take off, all the while yelling nnooooo. We’ve all talked about messaging a lot. But this is important. The difficulty we’re currently facing isn’t new. All three movements faced significant obstacles in getting their word out in a way that would be effective. During the early 2000s human rights activists were faced with a wartime president who framed the war on terror as “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In 2008 Proposition 8 passed in California, one of the most progressive states in the union, despite a vigorous campaign against it by marriage equality activists. And yet, as we’ve seen, both movements achieved monumental successes within just a few years. An important contributor to their success was their messaging, and how they changed it to meet those challenges.
Human rights activists altered their messaging to meet President Bush on, as Cole described it, “his field of strength.” They realized Bush wasn’t the only one with access to language touting the importance of people, government, and state. They could also use that language to THEIR advantage, and they found their mantra in “the rule of law.” Whenever Bush made claims about his power and privileges as a wartime president, activists painted his assertions as a direct challenge to the rule of law, meaning a challenge to the law itself. The rule of law is an important constitutional notion, even though we haven’t always lived up to it. Activists of all sorts, both here in the US and overseas, were so effective at spreading this message that when lawsuits were reached the Court this was how the argument was seen, as the rule of law versus an overreaching government. (Side note: I feel that this turn of phrase is SO common today, and I had know idea it’s popularization came from activists. I mean obviously the phrase existed before but I would bet money you didn’t hear it with as much regularity before this movement. — JM) Effective messaging directly contributed to the successes in these cases, to these shifts in constitutional thought. This is all the more astounding when you remember that the Court historically defers to the executive branch during times of war.
Marriage equality activists also had a messaging conundrum after Proposition 8. Despite legal successes and a rising cultural tide of acceptance, they lost at the ballot box in a progressive state. Studying what had gone wrong in California they realized their messaging hadn’t been effective and worked to update it for the fights ahead. Whereas in California they focused the campaign on equal rights, in Maine (one of the next round of states with marriage equality at the ballot box) they embraced a “love and commitment” theme. This theme served to address people’s emotional concerns and inner turmoil about marriage equality, emotions being an indicator of voting behavior. How did this theme actually play out? One example was the ad featuring Harlan Gardner, a ninety year old World War II veteran Mainer. In the ad he’s in a house surrounded by four generations of his family, including his lesbian granddaughter Katie and her partner Alex. After talking about his service and expressing his belief that Katie and Alex were brave for being able to be open lesbians, he ends the ad by saying “this isn’t about politics. It’s about family and how we as people treat one another.” This is just one example of the powerful new messages used in Maine that moved the hearts and voting behavior of its people to pass marriage equality at the ballot box. This in turn became part of the groundswell that lead the Court to make marriage equality the law of the land.
Whew! That’s all folks! Thank you so much for sticking with me to the end. Please read this book. There is so much more in it, other strategies and nuances of understanding, that I can’t really do it justice without, you know, rewriting the book. As a parting thought I’d like to leave you with the slightly amended words of Judge Learned Hand:
“Liberty lies in the hearts of (people); when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”
Reading is going to be important for all of us in the next few years. If you want more book recommendations on successful social political campaigns, visit Michael at the Connecticut Ave Politics and prose most week days. He’s the floor manager. You can purchase Engines of Liberty online from Politics and Prose at this link. You can also get it as an eBook through the Kobo app. You can support Politics and Prose through Kobo by starting your Kobo account from the P&P page. Or of course find it at your local library! -JM
Good Night and Good Luck
This is my weekly news roundup column
-Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned amid a deluge of controversies this week over conversations he had with Russian officials prior to Trump’s team taking office. NPR’s piece on six questions we still do not have answers to in the wake of his resignation is worth a read.
-Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary, withdrew his name from consideration this week after it seemed his nomination was doomed to fail in the Senate, with several Senate Republicans expressing doubts over him. Though some of those Senators — notably Collins and Murkowski — spoke about his past issues with domestic violence as a contributing factor, Slate makes a good case that many Republicans were more uneasy with him because of his lax stance on immigration (after all, the Commander in Chief is a sexual predator and you don’t hear Republicans fighting him because of that), and that the next pick might be even worse
-Last Thursday, Kellyanne Conway broke the law by endorsing Ivanka Trump’s products on TV. I have a personal issue with headlines that call it “an ethics violation” or which say it “raises ethical concerns”: it is illegal for Federal employees to do this. Period. (The President is exempt, however.) Read why she should be punished for breaking the law on national television and why she probably won’t be.
-More than 600 undocumented workers in the US were held by ICE agents in nationwide raids that began late last week. Al Jazeera’s piece called “What happens during a deportation raid in the US?” is particularly scary and enlightening. This type of nationwide raid is unprecedented in both scale and scope. A woman in Texas was detained at a courthouse while seeking protection from her abusive boyfriend. This means we are encouraging undocumented women not to go to court when they are raped or abused, because they will be deported.
-In local-to-DC news, I have one good and one bad for you. In positive news, Mayor Bowser decided not to veto the Universal Paid Leave Act, getting over the first major hurtle to bring paid family and medical leave to DC workers in the near future. On the negative side,
“After an impassioned debate, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted Monday evening to block a D.C. law giving District physicians the right to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live.”
The Committee, chaired of course by our favorite idiot Jason Chaffetz, voted 22–14 in moving the bill to the House floor for a vote. Luckily, the 30 day window for Congress to overturn DC laws is up around Saturday, and that narrow window makes it extremely unlikely the measure could be locked — as it required House, Senate, and Presidential approval — in time.
Today, and EVERY day, you, yes YOU, can reply to this newsletter to send me feedback; check out my Pinterest board for links to the many articles linked here, and my Medium page if you’d prefer a blogged version of this newsletter; follow me on Twitter at @speaknojessica; and/or subscribe to The ForeRunner at http://tinyletter.com/theforerunner. Invite people to subscribe. It makes me happy! And when I am happy I post pictures of Maple in bow ties for you to look at.
Event link round up (local to DC unless otherwise noted):
February 16 (or 21): The Resistance is Local, hosted by Jews United for Justice, RSVP required
Fenruary 16: Effective Advocacy in Today’s District of Columbia, hosted by the Coalition for Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development, during the day, RSVP required
February 16: A Day Without Immigrants, hosted by Many Languages One Voice
February 18 and 19: Weekend project to identify and save vulnerable Federal Government data, hosted by DataRescueDC (Phil, Laura, this sounds right up your alley, or if you’re a research who values having gov data available, this is for you too!), RSVP required
February 18: Onward Together: A DC Volunteer and Advocacy Fair, hosted by many DC orgs
February 19: Resist, Retreat, Resign? A Workshop for Federal Employees, hosted by Takoma Park Mobilization, RSVP required, but information will be kept confidential
February 20: Not My President’s Day Rally, DuPont Circle
February 21: DC Open House hosted by DC Black Lives Matter
February 21: Digital Defense for Activists and the Rest of Us, hosted by The Action Letter