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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Citizen Action Can End Iraq Quagmire

In her American Prospect article “The Missing Measure of Our Outrage,” Courtney E. Martin repeats a frequently-asked question about public attitudes toward the war in Iraq, “Why haven’t we been more outraged? And if we have, why hasn’t it manifested in desperate action?” And later in the article, her question is boiled down to the inevitable “What the hell do we do?”
It’s the right question, much better than simply whining and griping about lousy elected officials.
I’ve heard this same question asked in different ways in various conversations several times over the last year or so. Martin’s article does tap into a sense of helplessness many opponents of the Iraq war, particularly young people, feel about what they can do to help end this horrific quagmire.
There is still plenty of apathy. As she points out, many people seem to be tuning out the Iraq War because it hasn’t yet touched their families in readily discernable ways (although, hello, 10 percent of the federal budget is now being spent on Iraq-related outlays, and that touches every family). For another, there is a sort of “ostrich reflex” where war is concerned, a denial-like tendency to tune out what is ugly and brutal.
But what Martin is getting at is not the same thing as apathy. Many people who do care and who feel a sense of outrage also share in feelings of political impotence. Martin is more concerned about what more those who oppose the war can do.
I often hear expressions of regret that we’re not seeing so many of the big anti-war demos and marches that characterized the Vietnam era. I took part in quite a few of those large demos. As a practical matter, however, I would rather have a half-million people visit the offices of their elected representatives, ask for a meeting and appeal for an end to the war than have a half-million protesters have a rally in downtown Washington, and then have all that time and energy evaporate into a feel-good exercise with little follow-up, as is so often the case. Large demonstrations still have a place in the arsenal of protest, but they are no longer the most powerful means of citizen action, if they ever were.
What the hell do we do? We channel outrage, sweat, toil and money into political work. We face the painful fact that 51 U.S. Senate seats just ain’t enough to stop a war, and we get busy organizing voter registration and education drives and participating in campaigns of anti-war candidates. If we already have a good anti-war voice representing us in Congress and the Senate, we “adopt” an anti-war candidate running a close race in another district and send them a check and/or offer our help (for suggestions, see our posts below on close Senate and House races).
Electioneering is only one part of the political work needed for change. Equally important, yet more often overlooked, is the work of the citizen lobbyist. Yes, the “K Street” corporate lobbyists in D.C. are a powerful force because they have plenty of money to throw at candidates, and we don’t. But they are also powerful because they are there, a constant presence in the halls of congress, and yes, the white house. They stay on top of issues of concern and monitor every single vote that bears on the profit margins of their companies. That commitment we can emulate. Their strength is their money, which we can’t match. Our strength is our numbers, which they can’t match.
No, we can’t all live in Washington. But we can all become a familiar presence in the district offices back home. Petition campaigns, rallies and the like are all helpful. But there is no substitute for personal visits – getting in the faces of our elected officials. If that isn’t possible, we can be a ‘presence’ through phone calls, emails, text messages, faxes or snail mail. Contact members of Congress and ask for a response. If they don’t provide one in reasonable period of time, badger them relentlessly until they do. The point is to take up so much of their time and refuse to go away until they get it that addressing our concerns will actually be easier than ignoring us. We must stay on elected officials, because even the better ones will backslide if we give them enough wiggle-room.
None of this will come as a revelation for the already politically-engaged. But maybe there is a need for more training programs and workshops for citizen-activists. Perhaps local Democratic parties and community-based organizations could help with this. There is no good reason for bright young people to feel powerless.
What the hell can we do? We can do a hell of a lot — with enough personal commitment.

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