James Baldwin stated:
If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why…. If you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it…. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.
This statement aims to answer Baldwin’s question.
What is it about “the system” that produces “niggers”? And, how can we change that system?
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Elizabeth Warren brought the crowd to its feet when she declared, “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: They’re right. The system is rigged.”
During their 2016 presidential campaigns, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump echoed that theme and received strong support. Clearly, there’s widespread concern about “the system.”
Advertising and popular culture often refer to “the system.” Following are some images that reflect that perspective.
When most writers discuss “the system,” they only talk about the government and the economy. The strategies proposed here are based on a more comprehensive, or holistic, perspective.
Other writers who propose “systemic reform” only talk about various “systems.” But those systems fit together. They overlap and reinforce one another. They form a single self-perpetuating System, which provides coherence and stability to our society. The System integrates every key component of our society: our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals.
Whether it’s on the dance floor, at home, in the workplace, at church, watching sports, playing sports, watching reality TV, engaging in politics, or dealing with foreign affairs, the System’s driving force consists of two human weaknesses: the urge to dominate and the willingness to submit.
Individuals, including activists, are conditioned to fit into the System. We reproduce it in our daily lives. We do so when we engage in ego trips, seek power over (rather than power with) others, are judgmental and condescending, and undertake other activities that serve to divide and conquer.
Similarly, activist organizations reinforce the System when they compete with one another tooth-and-nail and strengthen social divisions. Transforming the System and democratizing our society will require establishing compassionate partnerships rooted in mutual respect.
An effective first step toward that end would be to identify the root causes of social injustice and gain a better understanding of how the System works. Doing that would help us grow supportive communities, undo the System’s negative socialization, correct injustice, more fully realize our individual and collective potential, and eventually restructure the System.
Few if any organizations are dedicated to that goal. Encouraging action to fill that void is the primary purpose of this declaration.
A widespread commitment to meet the goals presented here could help unify a broad array of forces as elements of a “democracy movement” (or under some other similar umbrella).
Every instance of injustice is an example of how the System systematically oppresses. Likewise, every campaign for justice could be seen as an example of system transformation.
In that movement, existing organizations could continue to fight for their specific causes. But for the sake of the larger cause — a truly democratic society — they could also occasionally unite to achieve goals they can’t achieve alone. This approach could inspire both discouraged, inactive people who seek short-term impact, as well as idealists who aspire to long-term fundamental reform.
Many young Americans are already transforming our society with new strategies. Many of them reflect a growing commitment to transparency, teamwork, mutual respect, and inclusion. Let’s hope that work expands and deepens. This action plan aims to contribute to that process.
As one who’s been involved in many social-change projects for decades, I draw on my experience to offer some suggestions — aided by valuable assistance from numerous associates who’ve reviewed drafts of this document.
A variety of social-change strategies will always be needed. This statement therefore is neither the final word nor a blueprint to be followed precisely. But it may offer a sensible direction and spark new and better ideas.
Human beings are inherently compassionate, cooperative creatures. We need to care for others and be cared for. Those deep, primal, primordial instincts are derived from the bond between infant and mother, both in the womb and in the months after birth.
For two million years, humans lived in hunter-gatherer tribes whose members were equal, cooperative, playful, and peaceful. Food and material goods were shared. No “chief” told others what to do and everyone participated in group decisions.
However, only 12,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age ended and glaciers melted, new seed-bearing plants emerged. Not long after, in various parts of the planet at more or less the same time, humans learned to plant those seeds and grow crops. Eventually, they began to store food in central locations. As control of that food became critical, a few men amassed the power to protect and distribute it. Societies became centralized and stratified into classes, and those at the top used physical violence and the threat of violence to impose their will.
As the risk of being conquered by outsiders developed, fear of “the other” intensified and ruling elites promoted religious myths and rituals to legitimate their power and help persuade their subjects to obey them. The selective granting of privileges to loyal supporters also encouraged submission. Fear, hate, and deception became tools of social control. Monarchies rooted in the biological inheritance of wealth and power became commonplace. Most subjects generally supported their rulers, who provided economic security and protection against outsiders. Ever since that development of centralized agriculture, elite groups have dominated class-based societies (including those that later called themselves Communist or Socialist).
With the growth of capitalism, the new business class challenged monarchies and pursued political power for itself. Affirming ideals such as “all men are born equal,” they argued that greed and the pursuit of self-interest could be harnessed to produce prosperity. The threat of poverty, they said, was necessary to motivate otherwise lazy people to work hard. That cynical view of human nature rationalized using the fear of poverty to support the social order.
During the British occupation of New England, the writings of John Winthrop were highly influential. He wrote:
God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion.
Another leading figure, Cotton Mather, published A Good Master Well Served in which he declared:
Servants, your Tongues, your Hands, your Feet, are your Masters, and they should move according to the Will of your Masters…. You are the Animate, Separate, Active Instruments of other men.
Imported from England, that class-based pattern of domination applied inside the family to wives and children, as well as throughout society. Only property owners elected government officials. Black slaves, indentured servants, other poor whites, and women could not vote. Those voting restrictions enabled property owners to easily pass on their advantages to their children. Nevertheless, a somewhat more fluid social inheritance of wealth and power replaced the rigid biological inheritance associated with monarchies.
“Levellers” and others who wanted a more complete democracy threatened to expand the right to vote and redistribute property. Faced with that threat, the Founders who wrote the Constitution took measures to protect stability. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” wrote: “Divide et impera (divide and conquer), the reprobated axiom of tyranny, is under certain (some) qualifications, the only policy, by which a republic can be administered on just principles.”
With those thoughts in mind, the Founders fragmented the nation’s government, divided the federal government into three branches and Congress into two houses, and established the Electoral College to formally elect the President. For the country as a whole, they divided power between national, state, and local governments. Those divisions made united popular action on a national scale difficult.
On the individual level, as young children find a needed sense of security in the mother-bond, they also experience frustration and pain — which leads to fear and anger. Without proper parenting, that anger can harden into hatred, and be expressed destructively. Even worse, people can become addicted to the adrenalin rush associated with defeating others in competitive struggles.
The conflict between love and hate, both very strong instincts, has played itself out throughout human history. But love (with the mother) comes first. It’s the deepest emotion and, if fully cultivated, can be stronger than hate.
Love and cooperation have been manifest throughout human history. In every major civilization, generations passed down stories of an earlier time of peace, harmony, and prosperity. In Greece and Rome, that period was called the “Golden Age.” In the Middle East, it was the “Garden of Eden.” Reports of cooperative lifestyles from remote areas have reinforced those beliefs.
As modern civilizations expanded, some tribes perpetuated aboriginal lifestyles in lush, remote areas. When the Spanish invaded the San Francisco Bay Area in 1774, for example, that region was incredibly abundant. The fish were so plentiful people threw rocks into streams to kill them and birds would block the sun like an eclipse when they flew. Some 40 indigenous tribes with different languages lived peacefully around the Bay, with only occasional conflicts.
In every corner of the world, at least some freedom-loving rebels have always resisted centralized societies based on domination and submission. Often, they’ve tried to establish compassionate alternatives, whether privately in their families and religious institutions, or in small, semi-autonomous alternative societies and subcultures. Sometimes slaves and other oppressed groups have rebelled and sought freedom violently.
Every major civilization has experienced conflict between two major forces: top-down domination rooted in hate, deception, and fear; and bottom-up partnership rooted in love, honesty, and faith in the future.
The Current Situation
Today, there are signs that the drive for compassionate partnership is gaining ground, especially among younger people who value transparency, reject arbitrary divisions such as racism and sexism, and resist rigid hierarchies. Many people are trying to learn how to relate to others with respect, in ways that maximize both self-empowerment and community empowerment.
Overall, however, the dominant paradigm in our society is still domination and submission. People learn to dominate when they can, and submit when they cannot.
Society sends mixed messages. On the one hand, it affirms values grounded in compassion. But our society also preaches being self-centered:
You can be whatever you want to be.
All of your dreams can come true.
If you work hard enough, you can “get ahead” of the competition.
Winning is everything.
“What’s in it for me?”
“Winners” and “losers” deserve what they get.
You can rightly look down on those “below” you.
Rather than affirming the equal value of all people — their essential humanity as members of the human family — society labels and ranks people, based in large part on characteristics over which individuals have little responsibility or control. Those labels, which tell us what we are not who we are, put people in boxes that obscure each individual’s unique characteristics.
People are pigeonholed and unjustifiably discounted, according to multiple categories that are usually arbitrary. Those labels include:
Conventional standards of “beauty.”
Degree of schooling.
In such rankings, most middle- and upper-income children benefit from advantages they have not earned. Those advantages include:
Growing up in a nice neighborhood.
Living with two parents who make decent money.
Learning the “proper” mannerisms, styles of behavior, grammar, accents, fashion.
Going to a well-funded school.
Being raised by parents who are relatively untroubled emotionally.
Those rankings do great injury by placing people on particular rungs of various social ladders and then justifying it when those who are “higher” dominate and discriminate against those who are “lower.” In addition, the rankings are often expressed with harsh judgments.
Our major institutions promote such norms in many ways, in various arenas. With respect to economic matters, the lure of prosperity drives people like a piece of meat held in front of dogs at the race track. Combined with the fear of poverty, the vaunted “American Dream” pushes people to work hard and make as much money as they can — often as a hedge against an uncertain future. America worships the rich and famous, and bombards Americans with images of affluence and privilege. Money is a way to keep score. People use money to get more power, and they use power to get more money.
In the political sphere, politicians rarely encourage citizens to get involved in civic activism on a regular basis; instead, they generally only urge people to vote and get others to vote. Individuals who want to be more active in politics are recruited to serve as loyal supporters of elected officials or to pursue their own ambitions by becoming candidates themselves.
In foreign policy, politicians nurture a hyper-nationalistic patriotism that mirrors the assumptions that the System drills into almost everyone: selfishness, the urge to dominate, and the belief that leadership consists of mobilizing others to do what the leader wants. “Me First” becomes “America First.”
Since the country’s founding, recent developments have made it harder for the general public to advance its interests. The increasing power of Big Money in politics has undermined effective grassroots movements. Various laws make it difficult for a third political party to emerge. A concentrated attack on unions has weakened the political power of workers. And the major parties — Democratic and Republican — have been weakened, leaving them less able to implement the popular will. Those factors and others have all lessened the ability of ordinary people to have a voice in Washington.
Similar dynamics can be observed in our other major institutions:
Schools teach students that only a few are winners and students must learn what they are told to learn in order to “make it.”
“Prosperity theology” — the belief that faith in God leads to wealth — is widespread in churches and synagogues, as is a submissive attitude toward religious leaders.
Universities become profit centers that hustle funds from corporations.
Television, driven by ratings and advertising dollars, feature shows like “Survivor” that reinforce the zero-sum game of winners and losers.
The film industry gambles on blockbusters, and winning awards becomes primary.
Banks have moved away from boring loans into the more lucrative paper economy.
Police departments use their monopoly on violence to enforce dominant norms, even when it involves discrimination against racial minorities and social “deviants” such as homosexuals.
Criminal courts rely heavily on punishment and stigmatize offenders as outcasts, making it difficult for them to reintegrate into society.
Prison populations have expanded rapidly as their management has been outsourced to corporations, so prisons too have become major profit centers.
The clothing industry promotes one hip new fashion after another.
The obsession with “success” has led to many problems. Throughout society, cheating has become more widespread. Corporate America has turned its back on workers, deciding instead to “take the money and run.” The “revolving door” in Washington turns ever more rapidly, as Big Business and Big Government practise Crony Capitalism. Politicians leave office worth millions more than when they entered. Celebrity itself has become a way to get rich without producing anything. As the number of news outlets has increased, so has the obsession with celebrities. More and more people, perhaps one-third of the total population, now live vicariously through celebrities.
For each one of us, the class to which we belong can be identified by how we talk and the tastes we have in matters such as food, music, and film, which are learned at an early age from parents or developed as young adults. Privileged adults learn to wear nice clothes, drink fancy martinis, go to upscale restaurants, and travel the world. By expressing their tastes, which usually reflect hostility to tastes found in classes beneath their own, people position themselves on social pecking orders. And, critically, parents pass on their advantages to their children.
That “cultural capital” encourages members of the upper classes to recognize only those with similar backgrounds as people they can trust and wish to associate with. The same recognition prompts many lower-class people to exclude themselves from pursuing significant upward mobility.
Generally, a lack of cultural capital impairs an individual’s ability to accumulate economic, political, and social capital. Individuals who are not white males find it even more difficult to advance due to persistent bias and discrimination, and experience a higher frequency of overt oppression, such as police brutality. The amount of money people make can be roughly predicted by how much money their parents made, despite occasional rags-to-riches stories.
The combination of all the labels assigned to individuals determines the power they hold. Individuals who carry less respected labels — such as black, female, disabled, high-school graduate, working-class, sporadic work history, limited social skills, unattractive, and elderly — rank lower and are more likely to be subject to abuse, discrimination, or disrespect. Individuals who carry more respected labels — such as white, male, able-bodied, college graduate, professional, solid work history, socially adept, attractive, and young — rank higher and are more likely to inflict abuse, discrimination, or disrespect on people of lower rank. So, for example, black, male, college-graduate professionals who have a solid work history and are socially adept, attractive, and young generally hold more power in most situations (with exceptions such as encounters with racist police) than do white, male, disabled, unattractive, and elderly working-class high-school graduates with a sporadic work history and limited social skills. In such a situation, the young black professional may disrespect the elderly white high-school graduate.
Throughout society, in countless ways, the System perpetuates domination and submission.
The Role of Individuals
One key element of the System is all of us as individuals. Through the continual interplay between our own free will and social structures, we develop deeply ingrained habits of thinking, feeling and behavior that reproduce the System. Our gut reactions, intuitions, and other unconscious responses all become compatible with, and attuned to, the dominant social order and its norms. Because we are not solely “rational actors” governed by critical reflection, as many have argued, our language, judgments, values, labels, and everyday activities often lead to an unconscious acceptance of social ladders and our place on them. By that acceptance, we constantly re-legitimize the System.
One effect of such conditioning is prejudice. Many city dwellers, for example, think they’re better than other people because they live in hip, sophisticated cosmopolitan centers with “cutting-edge culture.” They may say that everyone should be treated equally in the eyes of the law, but, deep down, they believe they and their kind are superior and lower-class, rural people are of less value as human beings. Similarly, many “white collar” professionals have a condescending attitude toward “blue collar” Americans. And rural residents are often resentful toward “city slickers.” Such attitudes generate resentment and division.
Inflamed by economic insecurity, the System is fueled by the effort of individuals to climb ladders of “success” and gain more money, power, status, and/or recognition. That success typically involves using, manipulating, and disrespecting others on their way up. Our own sense of identity is based on feeling superior to certain categories of people we label with pejorative terms. We then take credit for our success and blame the “losers” for their difficulties. In ways that are often unconscious, we deny the equal value of each person. That discrimination breeds fear, foments hate, undermines empowerment, and serves to divide and conquer.
That same negativity is often internalized by people on the lower rungs. They begin to see themselves in the same reduced way others see them, and lose their sense of who they really are. With that, their self-esteem is diminished. They see themselves as fundamentally different and become victims of the “divide and conquer” perpetrated by the climbers.
In recognizing those realities, it should not be overlooked that individuals bear some responsibility for their situation. Most people can do more to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, the social forces that limit opportunity are powerful. Life becomes like a game of musical chairs played one after another, in different places with different rewards. Luck, skill, self-discipline, and other factors come into play. But in each game, there aren’t enough chairs for everyone, and the referees make it more difficult for certain people — those with the wrong labels — to find a chair.
The comic-book character Pogo definitely had a point. To a considerable degree, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” To transform the System and democratize our society, we will need to transform ourselves as well as our culture and our institutions.
Scapegoating, blaming others for difficulties, is widespread — in families, workplaces, politics, international relations, even among sports fans. We simplify situations that involve many interacting causes and blame a particular individual or group. Taking out our frustration on scapegoats may provide emotional release and can even help stabilize families and organizations.
But, in pursuing political grievances, we need to keep one thing in mind: Although individuals administer institutions, no one individual or group of individuals controls the overarching System — which is the primary cause of social dysfunction. Of course, in cases of specific wrongdoing, we need to hold people accountable for their actions. But there, too, we can hate the sin without hating the sinner. We must never dismiss the perpetrators as less than human, or, in extreme cases, simply discard them by means of capital punishment. In helping to divide and conquer, scapegoating is a key part of the System, which sets one group against another.
That pattern shows up regularly, for example, in the offerings of the mainstream media, which inflames divisions to gain ratings and avertising dollars. Ever since the vicious televised Vidal-Buckley convention debates in 1968 attracted a large audience, TV news has relied on venom for ratings and the “politics of personal destruction” has become a central attraction. The two-party system makes it easier to reduce reality to “saviors” and “devils,” and the dichotomy between “left” and “right” perpetuates the notion that one side must defeat the other. Rather than focusing on solving problems, politics is presented as a battle between conflicting ideologies. All this amounts to scapegoating, which reinforces arrogance and self-righteousness. Rather than presenting important facts as accurately as possible and evaluating policy options objectively, cable news covers elections like a horse race with opposed panels of commentators who offer partisan talking points and treat one another with no more civility than do the candidates.
The same scapegoating that characterizes the American mass media now also applies internationally. The world of far-reaching national empires is long gone and, increasingly, the System is becoming global. Even at the height of the Cold War, Soviet control was largely limited to its immediate orbit, and the United States relied more on “soft power” than on the direct control associated with empires. The United States was not an imperial power then and it is even less so now. Yet, many critics exaggerate its power and try to blame it for every crisis. In so doing, they scapegoat.
There is also, perhaps, a more fundamental point to be made in relating aspects of foreign policy to influence by the System. It seems that most Americans have assumed that the United States must “lead” the world and defeat enemies, rather than forge real partnerships and mediate conflicts as an honest broker. That attitude is still another symptom of influence by the System, which by its nature fuels distrust, fear, and demonization of the “other.”
Problems with Activist Organizations
Often motivated by the desire to build their own strength, activist organizations have failed to form multi-racial, multi-issue, ongoing democratic coalitions that stay together once a particular battle is over. Far too frequently, they also reinforce the System by demonizing opponents, promoting dogma, and failing to nurture compassionate hearts and minds.
The wealthy elites who administer the System are few in number. We activists outnumber them by a large margin. If we united, we could ensure that Washington respects the will of the people. But the activist organizations that have the potential to mobilize large numbers of Americans fail to do so consistently.
One reason for their weakness is that activists engage in behavior that drives people away and fails to attract new members. Far too frequently, activists, myself included:
Talk too much and listen too little.
Believe they know it all.
Believe my way is the only way.
Assume that leaders mobilize followers to do what the leader wants.
Label, rank, and look down on those they disrespect.
Allow bias to influence their behavior.
Indulge in judgmental name-calling, insults, and mind-reading.
Question others’ integrity and their motives.
Engage in vengeful retaliation.
Engage in black-and-white thinking.
Focus on policy and neglect underlying values.
Get hung up on head trips.
Fail to be available for heart-to-heart encounters.
Are not open, present, and spontaneous.
Are too serious.
Don’t have enough fun with fellow activists.
Have trouble expressing and hearing emotions.
Are defensive when criticized.
Scapegoat and demonize.
Allow their anger to harden into hatred.
Release their anger in counterproductive ways.
Are self-righteous, strident, dogmatic, and narrow-minded.
Fail to focus on achievable objectives.
Are too impatient and neglect the long view.
Do not critically examine themselves and their strengths and weaknesses.
Do not admit mistakes and resolve to avoid repeating them.
Are too concerned about what others think about them.
Are too afraid to fail.
Are too upset by disappointment.
Seek power over others.
Declare that people who rank higher on a particular social ladder don’t have the right to criticize people who rank lower on that ladder.
Rather than help their members support one another in overcoming those tendencies, activist organizations focus only on political action. Though some informally foster mutual support and personal growth, few do so explicitly. They do not adopt written policies that commit them to that goal. Nor do they publicize any such commitment to encourage critical self-examination and self-improvement among the general public.
Most activist organizations reflect the larger society: rigid hierarchies, hyper-competitive power struggles (both within their own organization and with others), excessive focus on the external world, and minimal attention to inner experience. In so doing, they replicate other institutions throughout society. That’s why they generally fit in so smoothly.
The fragmentation of activist organizations and their ineffective methods create despair among Americans who might otherwise be mobilized to help change public policy. Those potential activists fail to get involved because they don’t see any evidence that activism can have an impact. As a consequence, many compassion-minded organizations and individuals eschew political action altogether and focus instead on rescuing victims or pursuing their own personal and spiritual growth.
The Non-Profit Industrial Complex
Private foundations and wealthy individuals pour money into non-profit corporations that play a major role in reinforcing the System. Those non-profits back:
Think tanks that develop proposed changes in public policy that remain within conventional bounds.
Organizations that work to defend the interests of the elites.
Organizations that push for privatizing the public sector.
When they support grassroots advocacy organizations, funders often do so in ways that reinforce the System’s divide-and-conquer dynamics. The organizations chosen generally fall into one or more of the following categories:
Service organizations that help individuals cope, without also organizing to change public policy.
Activist organizations that become dependent on foundation funding rather than on financial support from members.
Advocacy organizations that focus on local or regional policy, without also addressing national policy.
Single-issue advocacy organizations that fail to form long-term, broad-based coalitions.
Groups that scapegoat.
Groups that rely on college-educated professional organizers who fail to confront their own class-based privilege and the discrimination faced by people without a college degree.
Groups that manipulate members by stroking egos, a tactic that reinforces submission.
Groups that assume that leadership is the ability to mobilize followers, a mindset that reinforces rankism.
Groups that believe that individuals who are relatively powerful should always follow the leadership of disenfranchised people.
Groups that argue that individuals who’ve been privileged should never criticize people who’ve been oppressed.
The System Defined
Based on the foregoing discussion, we can now formally define the System. Fueled by the drive to dominate, the System consists of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals. Its various elements fit together, and interact with, overlap, and reinforce one another.
By and large, each instance of injustice and oppression is an example of how the System seduces people into climbing various social ladders, while disrespecting and dominating those below them, and adoring and submitting to those above them.
The foregoing analysis of the System was based on implicit positive values. Those principles will be made explicit in the following section.
In seeking to restructure the System, humanity’s powerful instinct for compassionate partnership provides an opening for progress. When we’re truly compassionate, we respect others and oppose injustice. Over the years, in every society, subcultures have kept alive an awareness of just alternatives. Inspired by that history, we can tap compassion more deeply, awaken it more fully, and transform the System with a democracy movement.
Examples of just alternatives surround us: Indigenous peoples protect and revive their cultures. Co-housing projects nurture community. Some Christian churches honor “the priesthood of all believers.”
Compassion doesn’t necessarily lead to action, however. We can be compassionate and remain inactive. And when we act, our actions may be ineffective or counterproductive.
If we’re thoughtful and determined, however, we can form partnerships that replace domination as the driving force in our society. With a democratic revolution throughout society, we can make primary that which is now secondary. We can establish compassionate policies supported by a majority of Americans, expand understanding of what is possible, and steadily transform our society with evolutionary revolution.
Toward that end, it will help to agree on some principles that point us in a compassionate direction. Following are some suggestions, which surely can be improved on. For starters, we can draw on the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and aim to:
form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
Transforming the United States into a compassionate community must involve personal, social, cultural, economic, and political reforms that reinforce one another in a positive upward spiral. All of those elements are equally important and need to be pursued simultaneously. Which element we discuss first, the chicken or the egg, is arbitrary. That being the case, let’s begin with economics.
A New American Dream
Rather than racing each other to the pot of gold at the top of the hill, we can go into the valley below, help those who stumble along the way, and work together in the fertile soil there to grow all the food we need.
Let’s advance compassion for all. Economic security for all. Jobs for all. Economic opportunity for all. Housing for all. Health care for all. Justice for all. Childcare for all. Learning for all. Broadband for all. We have more than enough money in this country to ensure all of our people meaningful living-wage job opportunities, affordable housing, healthcare, and enough retirement income to make ends meet.
Overcoming economic despair and preventing economic anxiety will nurture personal fulfillment. With economic security, Americans will be able to more fully relax, enjoy life, participate in supportive communities, engage in freewheeling creative activities, realize their potential as they see fit, and accept the right of others to do the same. That same security will also help dissolve the undercurrents of division that come to the surface during stressful times.
We can create a new and better American Dream, guided by the principle that the good life is good enough. That dream will shift us away from materialism and consumerism toward a rich quality of life, one that gives people more time to care for one another and themselves. A society less committed to greed will be a happier society.
Consider this example: A federal revenue-sharing program could send money to local governments for human-service jobs to meet needs that are being neglected. Day care, child care, teacher’s aides, after-school programs, parks-and-recreation programs, peer counselors for drug/alcohol/mental health centers, arts programs, prison release programs, and environmental cleanup are just some of the much-needed services a revenue-sharing program could provide for rural, suburban, and urban communities. That would contribute greatly to both the idea and the reality of a caring economy. A human-services jobs program could help guarantee living-wage job opportunities and a better economy for everyone by providing jobs that cannot be outsourced to another country or replaced with some new technology.
The question, of course, is: Where would the money come from to pay for a meaningful economic security program? Only the federal government can raise the funds required. It could do so by increasing taxes on the wealthy, redirecting wasteful military spending, and tapping other sources. The reported pre-tax incomes of the top 5 percent of American households total roughly 3.5 trillion dollars. Those households currently pay roughly 30 percent of that income in federal taxes. If they, for example, paid 45 percent instead, it would generate roughly 500 billion dollars a year in additional revenue. To grasp just how much money that is, consider this: It could be used to hire 12-million full-time workers at $20 per hour.
In one way or another, we can cultivate national unity with universal programs that benefit everyone. If the day ever dawns when any American can walk into his or her unemployment office and be referred to a meaningful human-service job, the ripple effects will bring enormous material and spiritual benefits to the entire society.
Make America a Model
With compassionate patriotism, we can make the United States a model for the world — rooted in respect for individual liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. Such a mission, however, requires a reset of our traditional cultural tie to “rugged individualism.” That short-sighted “What’s In It for Me?” approach simply isn’t working — and, today, the mirror image of that selfishness, ”America First,” represents an equally certain dead end.
America can lead the world by setting a moral example. That would enable us to say to the rest of the world: Hey, we’ve had our problems. But we’re solving them and making this country more compassionate. Let’s compare notes. Maybe you can learn from us and we can learn from you. Let’s work together to make this a better world. Equally important, we can demonstrate as a nation a much deeper willingness to engage in compassionate partnerships and joint problem-solving with other countries.
The old definition of leadership defines a leader as one who mobilizes followers to do what the leader wants. The new, emerging understanding of leadership sees a leader as one who helps their team identify a problem to focus on, and then facilitates collective decisions about solutions. Any member of the team may exercise leadership at any time.
Numerous experiments in deliberative democracy have demonstrated that randomly selected citizens, if given basic introductory information and time to deliberate thoughtfully, can agree on solutions to complex public-policy issues. In a similar vein, some cities randomly select members for grand juries that identify problems in local government.
Elected officials could make use of the deliberative democracy model by randomly selecting citizens to develop recommendations for new public policies on specific issues. Such an initiative would represent an important step toward making society more democratic. In any randomly selected team, chances are that individuals who’ve traditionally been given a lower rank by society, the disinherited, would be included and given a full voice.
Inclusion and diversity are critical to reaching good decisions. A wide variety of views at the table enhances prospects that all key information and perspectives will be considered. However, one caveat should be observed. If a project targets a specific population, such as support services for female rape victims, it’s common sense that such victims themselves should have a relatively greater voice concerning how those services are provided.
In organizing a coalition to address broad national policy issues, however, it seems to make sense to select a leadership body that, as much as possible, both “looks like America” and conforms to the principle of “one person, one vote.” As we saw in the previous section describing effects of the System, society ranks everyone according to many social categories. That makes it problematic to give certain individuals a relatively greater voice based on just one or two labels. Should an upper-middle-class person of color, for example, have more voice than a white homeless person?
In addition, the related principle of bottom-up leadership selection should be encouraged. In activist organizations, members can select their own leaders. In the case of national organizations, the selection can be done either directly with a national vote, or in layers, by which local groups select regional leaders who, in turn, select national leaders.
In whatever way it’s done, ensuring diversity in national leadership is important. One way to achieve that goal is for nominating committees to present slates of candidates that reflect diversity, while leaving open an option for other members to present alternative diverse slates.
Collaborative leadership requires humility. It starts with the honest recognition that, because we often don’t know why we ourselves do what we do, it’s even less likely we can fully understand others. No one is perfectly rational. What we don’t know is far greater than what we do know, and, in any case, words fail to fully capture what we think and feel. On the other hand, instinct and intuition play a major, often valuable, role in our decision-making.
We find ourselves immersed in an awe-inspiring Earth Community — human beings, living creatures, the environment, and life itself. Into an incredibly complex ecosystem, we’ve inserted a social system that has often failed to be in harmony with the ecosystem. Those realities demand that we cultivate profound humility and respect the “wisdom of crowds.”
We need to develop many-sided awareness. Humility calls on us to consider situations from multiple perspectives, be open to what others say, and try to put ourselves in their shoes as best as we can. Reality is usually both/and, not either/or, and the best solutions usually involve everyone winning. We need to be flexible, learn as conditions change, and set aside our initial thoughts and feelings in order to appreciate the points of view of others.
Beware of detached abstractions. Wisdom requires integrating our thoughts, feelings, heart, and hands. Ideas need to be grounded in the reality to which they refer. When they become separated from reality, we’re led to worship abstractions. We idolize words and become ideologues who propagate dogma.
Accept separation. People who belong to specific oppressed social categories often need to gather with others who share the same label. Doing so enables mutual support and understanding, and facilitates self-respect. Whether voluntarily or out of necessity, it seems that most people touched by such experience eventually re-engage with others and affirm their common humanity — at their own pace and in ways they choose.
We must all affirm the Earth Community. Though we carry many labels that have been imposed on us, we are fundamentally all members of the same human family, which is immersed in a global ecosystem. Without ignoring the realities of our differences, we must keep in mind that our shared membership in the Earth Community gives us more in common than society’s labels set us apart. Because of that, we can relate person-to-person in any encounter with others.
On a global scale, this means that we Americans can set aside our rigid nationalism and accept our obligation to care for all members of the human family. By declining to exploit other nations and seeking instead to support their economic development, we would boost our own prosperity.
When, with humility, we care for others in a diverse community, we can work through tensions and overcome the divisions foisted on us by the System and, instead, fully experience our common humanity.
Set Aside Privilege
Luck and other factors lead most people to privileged positions on countless social ladders, which generally gives them power over others on a lower rung. In nurturing collaborative partnerships, such privilege must be minimized.
As individuals, we can make a conscious effort to restrain our impulse to associate with people like ourselves, reach out to others, and form new friendships. We can also decline to participate in events that are unjustifiably exclusive.
If we’re involved in group interactions, we can resist the temptation to quickly jump into conversations, give space to others who are slow to speak up, and ask honest, non-rhetorical questions in order to learn from others who tend to be quiet.
When others talk about how a privilege they perceive in us affects them, we can speak honestly about how that privilege affects us. And, more broadly, we can actively protest structural inequalities, such as banks that issue housing loans in a discriminatory manner, and organizations that hold events in locations that are not wheelchair-accessible.
Avoid Political Correctness
In the mid-20th century, Socialists used the term “political correctness” to criticize Communists who slavishly followed the Soviet line. In the 1960s, when liberals and radicals argued heatedly with one another, some radicals criticized other radicals for being “politically correct.” At times they criticized, questioned, or satirized themselves by applying that term to their own holier-than-thou tendencies.
In recent decades, similar sectarian splits have been amplified in heated differences about the best strategies and tactics. Disagreements about what candidate to support in a given primary election, for example, have led to bitter personal feuds and power struggles that undermine the ability to work together on points of agreement. And Republicans have charged “treason” when artists and activists have spoken out against a particular war.
Dogmatism is well-known across the so-called political spectrum. Today, when they disagree on tactics, some social-justice advocates hurl harsh judgments at allies who are on a higher rung of a particular social ladder. Sometimes they accuse their allies of acting on the basis of privilege, or tell them they have no right to offer advice or talk about people who are on a lower rung.
No doubt, everyone should examine whether their relatively privileged position, such as being college-educated, makes it harder for them to understand others who are less privileged, such as those in the working class. Asking others to examine their privilege is appropriate. But accusing them of acting on the basis of privilege is another matter, because that usually involves mind reading, which is impossible.
Let’s face it. Sometimes our efforts to avoid offense are excessive. Sometimes we are too judgmental or dogmatic about proper language or behavior. Sometimes we are guilty of being “politically correct.” When that attitude is rooted in a desire to feel superior and dominant, it reflects, reproduces, and reinforces the System and its divide-and-conquer dynamic. When we are guilty of such political correctness, we need to admit that it was a mistake, and commit ourself, in future social encounters, to respect others enough to actually pay attention to what they are saying.
Avoid Name Calling
Political correctness is a form of dehumanization that overlaps with name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and harsh judgments about another person’s character. To say, “I consider that an evil deed” is not the same as to say, “He’s an evil person.” To say, “I consider that a racist statement” is not the same as to say, “You’re a racist.” Personal attacks like that can be counter-productive. They can even move the perpetrator to double down on his bigotry — to be even more racist, for example. In personal interactions, rather than name-calling when we take offense at what someone says or does, it’s much better to say, “When you said (or did) X, I felt Y.”
Many ad hominem attacks, such as “Clinton supporters are elitists” or “Trump supporters are ignorant,” are unqualified generalizations. The use of qualifying adverbs and adjectives may make the writer’s prose less crisp. But precise meaning — and fairness — require it.
Other ad hominem attacks, such as “You think you’re better than me,” are often rooted in attempted mind reading. So are statements like these: “You’re being selfish.” “He’s seeking to preserve his legacy.” “All you care about is power.”
Name-calling has been refined to a science in the politics of personal destruction. In practicing it, candidates ignore debating the real issues and analyzing whether their opponent’s statements are accurate. Instead, they try to destroy their opponent’s image. The media, seeking ratings, go along with that game. But those of us who put truth above labeling need to focus on the accuracy of what candidates say and the effectiveness of the policies they propose.
Closely related to political correctness and name-calling is scapegoating — the act of unfairly blaming an individual or a group of individuals for a particular problem.
A classic example of scapegoating is white men blaming blacks, women, or immigrants for their economic hardship. Some white men condemn affirmative action for giving blacks and women a slight advantage in hiring or college admission, while ignoring the fact that such policies provide a richer learning environment that benefits everyone – and, of course, also justly compensates blacks for advantages long accorded white men. Other whites blame immigrants for taking their jobs. But they fail to notice that most of the jobs taken by immigrants would go unfilled otherwise, and that their hiring therefore boosts the entire economy, which benefits everyone.
A closely related bigotry, though not a mirror image, is perpetrated by social-justice advocates and others who say that white men are “the enemy.” Such generalizations are of course not broadly true, or helpful. Neither is it accurate or fair to demonize “the 1%,” Wall Street, the “governing elite,” the “ruling class,” or, in foreign affairs, “America.”
Humanity is just beginning to reach a more sophisticated understanding of the ecosystem. We need to do the same with our social system. Because the causes of any social phenomenon are multiple, overlapping, and interacting, addressing associated problems calls for both multiple awareness and humility. At bottom, no particular group of people is the primary problem. The problem is the System.
We often scapegoat in order to dump our anger on an easy target. Anger motivates action. It is a natural part of being human. But how to handle it is critical. No question may be more important.
Perhaps on the deepest level, death prompts anger. To live is to die. Yet, few people consistently face and accept that reality. It enrages most of us at an unconscious level.
Moreover, death is only one of countless limits inherent to the human condition. Those who are honest will confess to many desires that are out of reach. A particularly difficult example is to witness suffering and be powerless to alleviate it.
Anger often comes from disappointment. Perhaps someone doesn’t do what we want for a perfectly good reason, but we still get angry. We may express our anger at that person, unmoderated by empathy. We might also use anger as a tool to manipulate him or her into doing what we want. We might declare, “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll be really angry.” Obviously, such reactions can’t lead to free mutual consent.
Another common response to disappointment is passivity and melancholy. We get sad, feel sorry for ourselves, and withdraw to a sheltered spot in order to avoid more disappointment. That strategy doesn’t work either, and we need to get beyond it. We may not be able to do much, and what we can do may be only a drop in the bucket. But it is our duty to do what we can.
If we aren’t careful, we lose touch with our capacity for compassion and are driven by anger. We forget that we rebelled in the first place to affirm humane values. We may even end up believing that the end justifies the means — that when we win, the damage we’ve done along the way will be worth it. Frustrated and enraged, we finally conclude that our only hope is to “shut it down,” stop “business as usual,” or “smash the state” so we can build something better out of the ruins. Our anger hardens into hatred.
There’s no easy solution to that downward spiral. Someone’s grandmother once recommended, “Never go to sleep angry.” Another approach is to remember: “The problem is the System and I can only do what I can do.”
Talk Less, Listen More
Especially when one is engaged with someone who’s relatively disadvantaged and also angry, it generally makes sense to just shut up and listen. Responding to anger with “rational” criticism can easily be seen as discounting that anger, and it often is. Anger must run its course, as must grief. Premature positive advice, like saying, “You’ll feel better soon” to someone mourning a death, can be irritating.
When anger is directed against you, it’s easy to become defensive and argumentative. But, hard as it may be, it’s generally best not to begin by defending yourself. Instead, take a deep breath and ask questions to try to better understand the other person’s anger.
In general, offering unsolicited advice is risky. It’s usually better to ask questions, discuss the issue at hand, and wait for the other person to ask for your opinion. A person who wants your advice will usually ask for it — though, if he or she is a good friend, you can feel free to ask, “Do you want some advice?”
Activist organizations often provide training to their members on “how to talk to others.” Yet, they rarely train members to talk with others using methods such as Active Listening. In many cases, instead, organizers are taught to engage new recruits with a “listening session” designed to explore how the recruit can fit into the organization. Thereafter, however, the typical approach is to manipulate members to do what the leaders want.
Asking questions is a great way to overcome implicit bias. We often react to others with snap judgments or gut reactions that prove wrong once we get to know them better.
In fact, asking others simple questions such as “Why?” seems today to be a lost art form. Young children are naturally curious, caring, and easily awe-struck. The more society nurtures those instincts, the more adults will pursue truth (seek to understand ourselves and our world), justice (alleviate suffering and eliminate injustice), and beauty (be amazed at the wonder of the universe). Those three aspects of being human — the pursuit of truth, justice, and beauty — are interwoven. Experiencing one leads to the other two.
Regrettably, however, our natural curiosity is often suppressed, and we need to ask questions to help keep it alive. Not just one or two superficial questions, but a series of meaningful questions to probe below the surface. A movement dedicated to asking meaningful questions could well be the first step in transforming the System.
Being fully human, living up to our highest (and deepest) nature, requires a series of delicate balances between apparent opposites such as these: head and heart; individual and community; taking care of oneself and taking care of others; embracing particular persons while remembering our common humanity; accepting what we cannot change while striving to change what we can; stability and change; legitimate authority and freedom; collaboration and self-determination; competition and cooperation; public regulation and private profit; acknowledging pain and anger without allowing it to disable us; judging without being judgmental; enjoying life without becoming addicted to self-indulgence; helping individuals cope with hardship while trying to correct root causes of that hardship; being both detached and attached; being self-confident without being arrogant; aiming to think clearly without getting hung up in the head; being concerned about the future while remaining fully present in the here-and-now; being honest while choosing words carefully.
Another highly important balance is to treat others as we wish others to treat us. This principle is affirmed by all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. To express it, Christians say: Love your neighbor as yourself. Buddhists say: Neither selfishness nor self-sacrifice. Other traditions make the same point with slightly different words.
Balance is essential to a fully human life, both at the personal and social levels. It’s not “all about me.” It’s not “America First.” Rather, it’s: We’re all in this together, and we’re all on equal footing. The better you do, the better I do. What goes around comes around.
If we stay in tune with our compassion, we avoid getting stuck in the world of ideas, dogma, doctrine, and ideology. We don’t sacrifice people for the sake of some future greater good. If we can alleviate suffering, we do. We don’t reject a reform that relieves pain because we think it might make stronger reforms more difficult in the future. Rather, we persist and implement the stronger reforms when we can. We pursue evolutionary revolution. We are pragmatic idealists.
Because structure shapes process, how we organize our efforts will be critical to transforming the System. If we want future federal legislation to reflect compassion for all, we’ll need to build compassionate values and principles into new social structures throughout society. And, because a democratic society will require democratic structures in every aspect of our life, we’ll have to reorganize all of our institutions to empower people.
In undertaking these efforts, we can envision concrete changes like these:
Human-service workers can provide services within a political context. They can keep relevant literature on the tables in their waiting rooms and relevant art on their walls, and acknowledge and discuss political realities with their clients.
Teachers can engage students in addressing problems related to their daily lives, and seek to learn from students as well as “teach.” To do that, they might structure some class time in the form of a Socratic Dialog, and minimize the use of lectures that impart knowledge in one direction only.
School boards can guide schooling by creating partnerships between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.
Police can be required to walk the streets and learn from residents how to better serve and protect their neighborhood or community.
Courts can facilitate dialog between victims and violators aimed at exploring how violators can make restitution to victims.
Families can make sure to have screen-free meals that include reports on recent good news and not-so-good news.
With respect to the economy, we can:
Require corporations to serve the public interest as well as make a profit.
Stop efforts to undermine the ability of workers to organize unions.
Support the development of worker-controlled businesses.
We can also seek to ensure that:
Spiritual communities avoid nurturing top-down domination and the willingness to submit.
Libraries and public television stations air live public dialogues on issues of wide concern, and produce documentaries on the results.
Those are just some of the ways we can begin to establish new structures to help democratize society.
A Political Strategy
Creating a compassionate, democratic society calls for an ongoing multi-issue activist coalition that can quickly focus massive pressure on Congress. Only the federal government has available the resources needed to effect dramatic improvements in the nation’s quality of life.
When, concerning a popular proposed change in national policy, one million or more Americans communicate the same message to Congress at the same time, the impact will be enormous. And if and when those messages are ignored, if many of those Americans follow through with more vigorous, nonviolent action, the impact will be even greater.
Working alone, single-issue national organizations will never have enough power. And without major changes in national policy, local efforts will continue to swim upstream against a torrent of human misery created in large part by national policies.
Building a powerful force will take time. In the short-term, victories may be rare. But planning and organizing for the long-term can and should begin now — so we can act decisively when the opportunity to have a major impact emerges. In building up to that moment, it will help to keep in mind certain strategic principles.
First, America’s greatest division is not left-right, but top-bottom. Most Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agree on many proposed changes in national policy that would move us in the direction of a more compassionate society. Those points of agreement include:
Limit the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns.
Reduce “corporate welfare,” such as government aid to help other countries buy U.S.-made weapons.
Break up the big banks.
Provide free education at public colleges.
Make corporations and wealthy people pay their fair share in federal taxes.
Offer a “public option” for health insurance.
Reduce military spending by at least $12 billion, starting with money for weapons the military doesn’t want.
Reduce jail and prison populations, and invest more in crime prevention and drug treatment.
Create a federal jobs program that would spend government money to create more than a million new jobs.
A strong national “purple movement” could focus on “crossover issues” like those. Many Congresspersons who represent purple districts have ideological, partisan, or other reasons for voting against the majority opinion in their district on crossover issues. But they also know that such a vote could get them defeated in the next election. In such cases, we need to seek every opportunity to convince those officials to vote in step with their constituents’ opinion.
If We the People unite in large numbers, focus pressure like a laser beam, and sustain that pressure over time, we can persuade Washington politicians to respect the will of the people — and involve them in our efforts to organize a powerful grassroots force for social change.
Though spontaneous actions can be helpful in promoting desired legislation, we can’t rely on spontaneity to build lasting broad-based coalitions that are committed to both short-term reforms and systemic transformation. To do that, we have to build sustainable, democratic structures that nurture both spontaneity and stability. And that will take careful thought.
Ideally, an already existing national organization will dedicate itself to systemic transformation. If not, a local chapter might persuade the national body to do so. If, however, no existing group can be recruited for that purpose, this project could develop independently.
Regardless, activist organizations need to be run by their members from the bottom up. Members who have a real voice in running the organization develop more loyalty to it, which increases both their commitment to its mission and the quality of their work. Some already existing organizations have demonstrated that national activist groups can be run democratically, with local chapters that are self-governing and free to design their own activities consistent with the national framework.
A prime candidate to lead transformative political action is the Democratic Party. It already has a bottom-up, democratic structure. The door is open for like-minded activists to walk through. And it’s already a multi-racial, multi-issue coalition. Moreover, it has the credibility to engage other activist organizations in a broader coalition.
As envisioned here, the coalition as a whole would recruit unaffiliated individuals to join it. For two reasons, member organizations should not see such a coalition as a threat, but as an opportunity. First, the coalition could help those organizations win victories they can not otherwise. And, secondly, the coalition would publicize those organizations and encourage people to join them.
In creating a broad national activist organization, it’s critical to establish a balance between local direct democracy and national representative democracy. Local bodies can select representatives to state bodies, which, in turn, can select representatives to the national governing board. If the membership is not submissive, such bottom-up representative democracy can promote accountability throughout the entire organization.
A unified national coalition structured to carry out those activities would not only be equipped to effectively pursue change; it would be large enough to actually achieve change. If we assume a total active membership of one million, the organization would field an average of 2,300 members per Congressional district. In 2014, 180,000 votes for House candidates were cast per Congressional district, and Republicans won by an average of 10,000 votes. If 2,300 coalition members were able to get an average of five otherwise non-voting constituents to the polls, or get five voters to shift their vote to another candidate, they could flip districts. Those are averages, but elections in many districts are closer than that, and primary elections typically involve even fewer voters.
The main point here is that Congresspersons are sensitive to public pressure. If a massive national coalition communicated to the entire House the same message on a particular issue, and sustained that pressure over time, the House would listen. Then, once that issue was resolved, the coalition could unite behind another demand, with the attitude that no victory and no defeat is final. Each victory, however, would give us more leverage behind our next proposal. In the case of Congresspersons who repeatedly refuse to support our proposals, we could support opponents against them in primary and/or general elections. Once we replaced a few such Congresspersons, our leverage over others would increase immensely.
On the other hand, the coalition could work cooperatively with consistently supportive Congresspersons to establish models for ways other Congresspersons could support the coalition’s further development. Supportive Congresspersons could also encourage their party to become an activist organization committed. The party could, for example, support precinct organizing, fight for its platform year-round, and seek ways to gain input into future platforms well in advance of the next national convention. Such activities would allow the coalition to engage with supportive Congresspersons in a number of ways to advance its own mission. The following section suggests some concrete steps for building such a movement.
A 16-Step Program
The concluding section of this Call to Action offers a step-by-step scenario for how a democracy movement to transform the System might develop. As one scenario, it represents only a “thought experiment.” The steps suggested may serve as useful guidelines, but there is no assumption they will be fully implemented.
- A diverse organizing committee forms with the intent to find or help develop a multi-issue national coalition that:
Promotes a new common purpose for our society.
Helps reform our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves to serve that purpose.
Helps their members undo the System’s divisive conditioning.
Quickly mobilizes massive numbers to fight for priority changes in national policy.
2. The committee drafts a brief statement of principles to guide its work. To whatever degree it chooses, it draws on material presented in this document. The committee widely circulates that draft, solicits input, and modifies it.
3. The committee looks for an existing national organization that embraces the approach presented in its finished statement of principles. If it’s unable to find one, it seeks a local branch of an existing national organization that’s willing to adopt the project and persuade its national body to take it on.
4. If it’s unable to find such an organization, the committee explores the possibility of forming a new organization itself, using the following methods:
It requests individuals to endorse its principles and pledge to join the organization if and when a certain number of individuals, perhaps 50,000, sign the pledge.
The organizing committee also asks a broad array of organizations to endorse its principles and pledge to mobilize their members for joint actions (perhaps once a month if needed) if and when the organization is launched.
5. The committee tells organizations with more than a certain number of members that they’ll be able to designate a representative to either the organization’s governing body or its advisory committee. When the individual-member threshold has been crossed, the organizing committee forms a diverse governing body.
6. The governing body launches the coalition, adopts written policies to guide the coalition, and delegates to staff the responsibility for implementing those policies.
7. Individual members form a precinct-based club with two or more neighbors who live in the same voting district to build mutually supportive friendships and undertake activities to bolster the coalition. Those clubs:
Meet at least once a month.
Share a meal.
Organize and convene social and educational activities that enrich members’ lives.
Open meetings with each member briefly reporting on one of his or her self-improvement efforts.
Discuss how to engage other neighbors in mutual learning dialogs, register them to vote, and recruit them to join the club.
During elections, engage in voter education and get-out-the-vote.
8. The coalition’s national office publishes a list of precinct clubs on the Web so new members can join their local club.
9. When a few clubs in the same Congressional District (CD) have formed, each club selects one or two members to participate in a CD action team to develop relationships with their Congressperson’s staff. Other voters who do not belong to one of the coalition’s precinct-based clubs may also participate in the CD action teams. Those self-governing CD action teams may engage in one or more of the following activities, as well as others:
Send representatives to meet at least monthly with one member of their Congressperson’s staff, ideally the chief of staff, to explore ways of working together to advance the coalition’s goals.
As a model for the rest of the nation, persuade the Congressperson to convene an open-ended monthly community dialog at the same time each month as a way to encourage civic participation and inform all participants about current events. These Dialogs would enable the Congressperson’s constituents (randomly selected if need be) to address questions and statements to the Congressperson. Congresspersons unable to participate in a particular Dialog could send their chief of staff to represent them.
10. Each month, the coalition’s national office, after soliciting input from members and conducting straw polls, identifies a timely top-priority winnable issue, and asks all of its members to communicate with their Congressperson about that issue. Precinct clubs and district action teams consider actions recommended by the national office and decide how to act on them.
11. If the Congressperson resists supporting the coalition’s position:
CD action teams will gather support from other community-based organizations, elected officials, and local governmental bodies.
If necessary, CD action teams may conduct public demonstrations and, if needed and feasible, nonviolent direct action.
The national body, when appropriate, calls for nationwide actions such as boycotts and work stoppages to increase pressure on Congress.
12. If their Congressperson supports the coalition’s position, the CD action team works with the Congressperson to take on other projects to strengthen the Coalition. Such projects can also serve as models for coalition-building in other districts, such as Community Dialogs.
13. Empower a diverse national committee to negotiate compromises on coalition proposals, while also consulting extensively with the membership and perhaps presenting compromises to the full membership for ratification.
14. When an issue has been resolved with a complete or partial victory, a defeat, or a stalemate, the national office undertakes a campaign on another timely issue. From the outset, the Coalition will affirm that no victory and no defeat is ever final. The work is never-ending.
15. Using the following methods, the Coalition seeks continually to structure itself as a bottom-up, member-controlled organization:
After the coalition has operated for two years, each CD action team will be invited to send one or two representatives to a regional advisory body. The national office will establish a method for maximizing diversity on that advisory body.
The advisory bodies will meet every three months to evaluate how the Coalition is operating and send advice to the national governing body.
After another year of operating, those regional advisory bodies will select representatives to a diverse national advisory body.
After another year of operating, the national governing body will be selected democratically in a manner that ensures diversity, either with a direct vote by the entire membership or a vote by the regional advisory bodies.
16. If one ore more local Democratic Parties take on this project, they work with other organizations to develop slates of candidates for local and regional Democratic Party elected positions who: 1) agree that the Party should engage in year-round precinct organizing and fight for its platform year-round; and 2) promise to push the state and national parties to undertake the same kind of continual precinct organizing.
Imagine this scene: Forty adults picnic on a riverbank. They see many small children floating rapidly downstream and dive in to save them from drowning. But they can rescue only some of them.
A man on a raft passes by and reports that one mile upstream a giant monster is throwing children into the river. He estimates it would take twenty adults to subdue him.
The party discusses how to attack the monster. But they can’t agree on a plan. They argue about what path to take through the swamp upstream, what weapons they should use, and who should lead the assault. The discussion turns into a heated debate. Many in the party begin hurling insults at each other.
Eventually, ten of the picnickers, become discouraged and return to rescuing as many children as they can. Ten return home and go back to work. Five meditate, hoping to gain insight. Five give up and get drunk. And ten go after the monster, but all they can do is slow him down.
This scenario roughly reflects our current situation. If Americans united, we could greatly alleviate suffering and correct injustice. But we are fragmented. Instead of joining with others in common cause, most activist groups focus on building their own organization. As a result, while they rescue a few children, they ignore the monster and fail to deal with root causes.
Until we unite, we’ll muddle through, or fall into a downward spiral. When we unite, we can create a truly compassionate, democratic society by transforming the System.