ABOUT THE NEWS- LETTER
RADICAL MIDDLE, THE BOOK:
OUR CONGRES- SIONAL SCORECARDS:
OUR POLITICAL BOOK AWARD WINNERS:
RESPONSES FROM OTHERS:
WHO WE ARE:
Issue No. 57 (September 2004) -- Mark Satin, Editor
OK, vote -- but more important, be a Player, not a Good Soldier or a Rebel
Because this is a Presidential election year, many of us assume the most important single thing we can do politically this year is vote for President. Certainly John Kerry, George W. Bush, and the Democrat and Republican parties want you to feel that way.
-- Set your career sights high;
-- Turn your job into a political vehicle;
-- Join a local activist group;
-- Join a professional association;
-- Join a national citizen group;
-- Help reform the political process;
-- Run for office yourself.
Put these together and you have a distinct, “radical middle” strategy for social change: neither a Good Soldier nor a Rebel be. Instead, be a Player in this world.
Our first five years’ worth of newsletters told you what radical middle thinkers and activists believe. This special issue tells you what we’re doing . . . how we’re becoming Players.
I hope it inspires you, reassures you, and lets you know you’re not alone.
Set your career sights high
For most of the 20th century, small radical groups were seen as social change incubators. The various socialist and communist parties, radical antiwar groups, Third World “support” groups, and a thousand national or local variants were where it was at, and if you wanted to do serious social change work you’d have felt compelled to make one or more of them the center of your life.
There are still thousands of radical left- (and right-) wing groups out there, arguably more than ever. But we live in a knowledge society now -- a world that depends increasingly on professional expertise and special skills. If we want to change that world, then we’ll need to be even more expert and skilled than those who’d defend the status quo.
That’s why professional schools, not radical groups, are our social change incubators now.
And radical middle social change agents know it. Many of the most idealistic and dedicated of them have been pouring into our graduate schools, including our great medical, business, and law schools.
And it’s not just young people fresh out of college. Increasingly, those of us in our 30s, 40s, and even older have been doing whatever it takes to get into professional school and become more relevant to the extraordinary new world we’ve made. In the school year 2001-2002, the number of students 35 and older in U.S. graduate and professional schools was an astonishing 1,145,000 -- 34% of the total. From 1987-1999, the number of grad students over 40 grew by 56 percent.
Part of “whatever it takes” is being able to afford it. On the surface, that looks pretty daunting -- some professional schools cost a total of over $100,000 to attend (though some fine state schools charge in-state residents dramatically less, and -- psst -- it usually takes only one year to qualify as “in-state”).
But over the last generation, student loans have become increasingly easy to get. Now, virtually any American citizen can borrow up to $100,000 to attend professional school -- and if you actually intend to work in your profession (and if you insist that your lenders put you on 10- or 15-, not 20- or 25-year payback schedules), it’s not difficult to pay the money back.
So many good people have been pouring into professional school that the schools themselves have radically changed. There’s still an image out there that the professors are apologists for the status quo and the courses are 20 years behind the times. Nothing could be further from the truth now.
Spurred on by hundreds of thousands of students at the radical middle -- caring people who want to succeed in life by doing good -- many professional schools are infinitely more visionary and exciting than leftist groups ever were:
-- At least 75 of our 125 medical schools offer courses on alternative medicine now -- chiropractic, therapeutic massage, homeopathy, and the like. And the Association of American Medical Colleges, an umbrella group representing all 125 medical schools, has formed a task force to promote even more courses on “nontraditional health care” in the schools;
-- Courses on the environment were taught at only a handful of business schools in 1990; now they’re offered at over 100 B-schools. Courses in entrepreneurship have gone from a grand total of 16 in 1970 to over 400 today. And the number of graduate courses in nonprofit management has jumped from 17 in 1990 to roughly three times that today;
-- In the 1980s, few law schools offered courses on mediation, arbitration, and the like (collectively known as “alternative dispute resolution,” or ADR), even though the whole country had begun to long for simpler and less costly forms of justice. Today nearly every one of our 180+ law schools offers courses and clinics in ADR, and some law schools have gone so far as to introduce dispute resolution concepts into all required first-year courses.
To sum up: if you think being a social change agent means being a caring person, acquiring valuable expertise, and applying it in imaginative ways for the common good, then send your kids to professional school. Or take the plunge and go yourself.
Make your job more political
So you’ve earned your professional degree and you have your first job. Or you already have a job that suits you just fine. How can you use it to help bring a radical middle perspective into the world?
An extraordinary number of people have been asking that question lately (in their own words and way), and our triumphs and struggles have spawned two fascinating books, Howard Gardner et al.’s Good Work (2001) and Debra Meyerson’s Tempered Radicals (2001).
Both books report on the authors’ long-term, in-depth studies of people who’ve tried to bring their essentially radical-middle political values into the workplace. Both are by authors who can be comfortably described as radical middle themselves (Gardner is the father of the notion of “multiple intelligences,” emotional, artistic, kinesthetic, etc., not just the IQ-testable kind; Meyerson teaches at Stanford Business School and specializes in nonprofit management and women in business).
Their biggest finding: You are not alone! There’s a whole subculture now of radical middle social change agents in corporations, in the professions, and in knowledge work in general.
Gardner calls them advocates of “’good work’ -- work of expert quality that benefits the broader society.” Meyerson calls them “tempered radicals” -- people who “want to fit in and . . . retain what makes them different. They want to rock the boat, and they want to stay in it.”
Sometimes events force radical middle change agents to reveal their presence to the world. Dramatic recent examples include the Enron employees who tried to warn their superiors about that company’s unsustainable course, and the FBI employees who tried to warn their superiors that possible terrorists weren’t being adequately monitored.
Enron’s Sherron Watkins and the FBI’s Coleen Rowley weren’t ideological radicals looking to strike -- they were ethically driven Americans at the radical middle who refused to stand quietly by while their institutions betrayed the public trust.
But most of the time, radical middle change agents at work are out of the public eye.
So how do they -- we -- operate? How are more and more of us able to act as radical middle change agents without losing our jobs or our standing at work?
If you take all the experiences we poured out to Gardner and Meyerson and whittle them down to 10 pieces of advice, you’d come up with something like this:
-- Help sustain other people’s efforts at work. There’s no better way to build support for your efforts;
-- Go out of your way to address ethical issues in your daily interactions with colleagues;
-- Challenge norms in small ways. For example, if you work at a coffeehouse or bookstore, get your manager’s permission to refuse to wait on abusive customers. By deviating from an accepted norm, you’ll encourage more people to attend to their own value priorities;
-- Speak out against the deteriorating values in your occupation or profession, without necessarily making your own institution a target of your critique. In fact, constantly reaffirm the decent values and principles your institution says it stands for;
-- Set up new initiatives that circumvent dysfunctional workplace bureaucracies. For example, rather than arguing endlessly over what pro bono cases your firm should take, set up a special pro bono wing of your firm to handle the cases you think are worthwhile;
-- Expand the function of your institution in some logical but humane way. For example, some genetics firms have been induced -- by radical middle researchers within them -- to devote some small portion of their annual budgets to addressing social and ethical issues arising from the research;
-- Work hard to diversify the membership of your institution. Diversity always boosts radical middle perspectives, since minorities who want to succeed in the mainstream have got to be both practical and visionary;
-- Let people see you rise above your own frustration, humiliation, and anger when working on behalf of your larger ideals. It will inspire them to hang on when the going gets tough;
-- Choose your battles within contexts in which there’s some chance of accomplishing something. Don’t pick fights just to let off steam or to turn yourself into some kind of Noble Victim;
-- Establish a support group for like-minded people within your institution.
Do all that (or even some small portion of that) and your work life will not only become more interesting and challenging and rewarding. It will become a seamless part of your political life -- and vice-versa.
Join a local activist group
Don’t let anyone tell you local groups are dying out. Some of them may look different from the groups we had before, but they’re as numerous and feisty as ever. And as popular -- Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow claims that four out of 10 of us now belong to organized local groups that meet regularly and provide purpose and social support for their members.
Some of these groups are explicitly, or implicitly, political. Besides PTAs there are now PTOs, Parent-Teacher Organizations that aspire to be more flexible and creative. There are probably more neighborhood associations today than ever before.
There are tens of thousands of ad hoc groups addressing local problems. There are over a thousand “community development corporations” (CDCs) engaged in housing and community revitalization. There are phenomenally innovative congregation-based community organizing groups, neighborhood-watch groups, and community visioning projects.
One major difference between today’s local groups and those from the Sixties and Seventies is there’s a new voice in them. Alongside radicals, liberals, and conservatives there are people bringing a radical middle perspective to bear.
The radical middle perspective manifests itself in many ways in local groups. If you’d like to find a local group that’s radical middle in spirit -- or if you’d like to push your local group in a more radical middle direction -- here’s what you’ll want to pay attention to:
-- If a local group wades into hot-button issues with hardened positions, it’s not radical middle. But if it tries to resolve community differences in creative new ways to everyone’s satisfaction, then it couldn’t be more radical middle. The Public Conversations Project, near Boston, specializes in teaching local groups how to initiate constructive conversations and relationships in their communities;
-- If a local group is too proud or “militant” or suspicious to work with business or government, then it’s not radical middle. But if it cultivates potential supporters among local businesspeople and in city hall (and in the bureaucracy around city hall), as Seattle’s network of neighborhood associations began doing in the late 1980s, then it’s not only radical middle, it’s probably going to be effective;
-- If a local group takes volunteers or visitors for granted, or thinks of them as outsiders, or treats them as fodder for the next big campaign, then it’s not radical middle. But if a group makes an extra effort to make newcomers feel welcome, and makes it easy for them to take part in the proceedings, and makes sure their work is appreciated, then it’s radical middle in the best sense. The grassroots anti-poverty group RESULTS, founded by my friend Sam Daley-Harris, is famous for this;
-- If a local group thinks “group process” is something only bureaucrats or Sixties leftovers pay attention to, then it’s not radical middle. But if a group prohibits personal attacks, regularly makes use of a facilitator, encourages open discussion, invites quiet people to speak, and follows a clear and coherent procedure to reach decisions, then it’s surely radical middle.
Join professional associations
Professional associations are increasingly influential in our increasingly knowledge-based, complicated, and globalized society. So one great way to have an impact politically is to get involved in a professional association, and nudge it to the radical middle.
Many people suppose that professional groups are only for credentialed members of a profession. But with a few exceptions, that’s not so. Most professional groups welcome associated journalists, policymakers, researchers, and activists, and all of them participate fully -- even passionately -- in the proceedings.
That’s what makes many national meetings of professional associations such a delight to behold and attend. Anyone who’s ever attended meetings of the American Medical Association, American Society of International Law, American Political Science Association, Society for the Advancement of Socio-economics, or the World History Association -- to take just a few examples -- knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Professional associations are also great places to meet radical middle allies. Caring people who hope to use their expertise for the common good are front and center at professional associations.
The popular image of professional associations is that they’re insufferably staid and Establishment-oriented, but like many popular images, it’s out of date. Take that paragon of professional associations, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Back in the Sixties, the AAAS was staid and Establishment-oriented. If you were around then, you probably remember radical students bursting into AAAS meeting rooms shouting obscenities and “Science for the people!” by way of attacking the science community’s largely supine role in the Vietnam war.
Today, half those radical students have become perpetual rebels and are off attacking biotech or television or whatever. But the other half have become radical middle players, and their impact on AAAS has been huge. Its Science and Human Rights Program now gives aid and comfort to scientists, teachers, and students in oppressive countries around the world; its Black Churches Initiative helps thousands of U.S. churches do science and math education after school hours; and its Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion is trying to raise issues of values and ethics in every lab and lecture hall.
It isn’t just the rebels who’ve clouded up our image of professional associations. Most media coverage is either nonexistent or superficial.
Although 800 media folk attended the millennium AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C. (which attracted over 5,500 scientists, educators, policymakers, and activists from around the world), most reporters did little more than hunt for free food, attend press briefings, and report on glamour sessions like “Space Travel for All” and “The Healthy Side of Eating Chocolate.”
Meanwhile, out in the trenches -- that is, in poorly air conditioned conference rooms where the real work of the meeting was taking place -- at least 14 panels featured radical middle perspectives on the burning social and ecological issues of the day.
You can find the same quiet omnipresence of radical middle ideas in many professional associations now.
At a recent meeting of the American Political Science Association, panelists passionately debated how to “value nature”; how to establish the rule of law in a globalized world; how to mitigate the importance of group identity in domestic politics.
At a recent meeting of the World Future Society, prominent futurist Graham Molitor argued that genetic engineering and nanotechnology can solve our environmental problems, if we carefully monitor their development.
At a recent meeting of the American Society of International Law, Harvard professor Anthony Appiah tried to develop a “global moral framework” based on individual dignity rather than collective need.
In the media and on the street, it often sounds like the extremists are winning the crucial political debates. But in the jam-packed conference rooms of the professional associations -- where the debates are actually being fought -- most of the energy, most of the juice, is with the radical middle.
You should join up and pitch in.
Join a national citizen group
Another great way to push radical middle ideas forward is by joining a national citizen group (aka nonprofit group, public interest group, non-governmental organization).
You can find radical middle perspectives in just about any citizen group now -- from Children’s Defense Fund to Bull Moose Republicans, from Environmental Defense to National Taxpayers Union -- and even if all you do is send in dues, attend the occasional meeting, and send the occasional deftly-worded note to the national office, you’ll be helping move your citizen group to the radical middle.
Parts of the left have begun to disparage national citizen groups. For example, Benjamin Barber, who runs the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, says citizen groups represent “thin” rather than “thick” democracy since they’re not primarily local, face-to-face groups. Theda Skocpol -- a Harvard professor -- worries that they’re “professionally dominated.”
National citizen groups are indeed organs of representative not direct democracy. But that’s what makes them appealing to people at the radical middle.
Because we tend to be heavily committed to our jobs and our personal lives, we don’t have time to attend endless local and regional meetings and spend endless hours hammering out “consensus” positions that might very well need to be redrawn the next week. It’s not how we choose to live, and it’s not how we want American democracy to work. Direct democracy would give disproportionate power to those whom I call “self-sacrificing” people -- the kind of people who make political struggle the centerpiece of their lives -- folks who tend to be found on the far left and far right.
Because national citizen groups are under attack, some thinkers at the radical middle have sprung to their defense. Heart of their case: national citizen groups not only privilege knowledge and expertise (and fail to privilege those who are willing to stay at meetings till the last person leaves). They are increasingly effective in our complex society.
For example, Jeffrey Berry of the Brookings Institution has found that, even though citizen groups constitute fewer than 10 percent of all policy-making and policy-influencing groups in Washington, they constitute a remarkable 32 percent of all groups testifying before Congress -- up from 26 percent in the 1970s. And no other kind of group testifies more: trade associations constitute 26 percent of all groups testifying; corporations, 19 percent.
Berry has also discovered that citizen groups are now 46 percent of all interest groups mentioned in television coverage of policy issues. By contrast, corporations are 24 percent and trade associations, 13 percent.
Finally: Berry has found that citizen group research is 19 percent of all research featured in major newspapers -- second only to government research at 31 percent. Academic research is 18 percent, and corporate research, nine percent.
And it’s not necessarily left- or right-wing clout. From the outside, citizen groups may seem extremely partisan. But when you wade in, you’ll find that most citizen groups are caught up in fascinating dialogues, now, between their radical middle members and their more conventionally partisan members.
For example, if you’d have attended the 2000 annual conference of the left-leaning Children’s Defense Fund, you’d have heard many speakers come across in a radical middle key. Susan Schechter, social work professor from the University of Iowa, didn’t blame youth violence on unemployment alone. She also blamed it on bad parenting. Educator Ted Sizer called for a nationwide commitment to character education in the schools, and conflict resolution expert Linda Lantieri called on schools “to teach young people how to habitually respond in situations of conflict and violence.”
A recent National Taxpayers Union conference featured the usual contingent of right-wing tax resenters and tax resisters. But it also featured tax reformers like Alvin Rabushka of the Hoover Institution, who argued that a flat tax could benefit the poor, and Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s first African-American Secretary of State, who urged delegates to observe “the duties at our doorstep” (a line from Dickens’s Bleak House) and fight for “simple and fair” tax reforms at the state and local levels.
A recent NAACP national convention played the usual racial blame games. But it also featured a series of “Youth Program” events that turned into a virtual counter-convention. One young person spoke with great passion about how it feels being told you’re “acting white” when you do well in school. Those who voice these insults, he declared, are “just as dangerous” today as those who opposed the civil rights movement in the Sixties.
Even Rotary and Kiwanis have begun to respond to radical middle energies. The “Declaration of Rotarians in Businesses and Professions” includes a pledge to be “fair to my employer, employees, associates, competitors, customers, the public.” And at Kiwanis’s 88th annual convention in Indianapolis in 2003, delegates reaffirmed their commitment to eliminating iodine deficiency disorder -- the world’s leading preventable cause of mental retardation -- in every country on Earth.
So don’t listen to doubters like Benjamin Barber and Theda Skocpol. Join a national citizen group and find the radical middle energy in it. Then connect with that and make it stronger.
Open up the political process
There is no reason radical middle oriented men and women can’t win electoral office, in any political party. Our politics is both more relevant and more compelling than anything offered by the left or right today.
To pave the way, two tasks await us. We need to open up the political process, and we need to learn how to credibly compete for political office.
Opening up the process is the harder task. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill is a paper tiger, and behind the saccharin rhetoric everyone knows it.
Under McCain-Feingold, the national political parties aren’t supposed to solicit or spend soft money. But state political parties can continue to accept some unlimited donations. And independent political groups and nonprofit organizations -- including those whose “independence” is more legal than real -- can also continue to raise and spend soft money.
As I write, billionaire George Soros is putting together a $15 million war chest to prevent President Bush from winning a second term. I guarantee, Soros will find ways to spend that money.
Because money will always be sloshing around in political campaigns, public funding of elections would be a disaster. Taxpayers would pour millions of dollars into campaign coffers . . . but many, many more millions of dollars in private funds would show up anyway, through traditional and designer nonprofit organizations, to pay for “issue ads” and other gimmicks that everyone would know were in support of certain candidates or in opposition to others.
At the radical middle, you don’t want to pursue sainthood. You want to make the real world a better place. So radical middle activists don’t aspire to stop money’s inexorable flow, but open up the political process despite the presence of big money.
To that end, we’ve proposed five key reforms. What they have in common is they rely more on radical middle cleverness-and-imagination than they do on big government censoring-and-policing:
1. Free media. Some groups would have media outlets provide free TV and radio time to all candidates who managed to gather a certain number of signatures (in some scenarios, a certain number of $5 contributions would also be required).
Free media time would let voters hear from all credible candidates -- and would put underfunded challengers on the same footing as incumbents. If the free time came in segments of 15 minutes or more, it would improve political dialogue, too, since glib sound bites wouldn’t suffice.
2. Tax credits. Some groups would have the IRS provide a $50 tax credit (in effect, a free $50 coupon) to all individuals contributing $50 or more to candidates or parties.
That should make people of ordinary means a lot more influential in political campaigns -- since if a couple of million taxpayers regularly took advantage of the credit, politicians would know that a substantial portion of their funding was coming from people of ordinary means (approx. $1.2 billion was spent on the 2000 election; $50 times 15 million taxpayers is more than half that).
3. Proportional representation. Some groups would change the ground rules of our elections. That’s not as radical as it seems -- the ground rules have varied considerably over the course of our history. In one widely discussed scenario, we’d do away with single-member districts and switch over to a system of “proportional representation” (PR).
Under our current voting system, voters are divided into one-seat districts and “winner takes all.” Under PR, we’d have multi-seat districts and many more parties and viewpoints could be represented.
Let’s say 10 one-seat districts combine into one 10-seat district. A party that wins 10% of the popular vote would win one of the 10 seats, a party that wins 30% would win three seats, and so on. (Many variants are possible, but that’s the basic system.) The result? Third parties would be more likely to win seats, members of racial and ethnic minorities might win more seats, and a greater range of political perspectives would almost surely be represented.
Although no U.S. legislature currently uses PR, it’s the dominant voting system in free nations. Of the 42 large democracies with high ratings from Freedom House (a widely respected voice for democracy and freedom around the world), only three -- the U.S., Canada, and Mongolia -- fail to use PR to elect at least one of their national legislatures.
Unlike some good people, I don’t support PR. Because it would encourage candidates to make narrow and often divisive appeals to clearly identifiable fragments of the electorate, I think it would drive Americans apart. And divisiveness is not the radical middle way. Besides, candidates with innovative ideas need to learn how to appeal to ordinary Americans -- not be given an opportunity to make an end-run around them.
4. Instant runoffs. Some groups would replace winner-take-all with “instant runoff voting” (IRV). I much prefer IRV to PR.
Under IRV, we keep one-seat districts. But in every race with three or more candidates, voters would rank them in order of preference. Whenever a vote fails to produce a clear majority for one candidate, the least popular candidate would be eliminated and the second-choice votes of his or her voters would be given to the remaining candidates; and that process would continue until one candidate achieved a majority.
IRV could accomplish everything positive that PR could accomplish. Votes for third party and independent candidates would no longer be “wasted,” and more of us might come to the polls.
But IRV trumps PR and winner-take-all in one very crucial respect. Under both those systems, candidates have a built-in incentive to take polarized -- and polarizing -- positions on the issues. But under IRV, candidates have a built-in incentive to seek out innovative positions that appeal to everyone’s best interests -- since they’re competing for everyone’s second-choice votes. So IRV has the unique capacity to encourage a healing, “radical middle” kind of society and discourage the polarization of winner-take-all and the balkanization of PR.
In 2002, San Francisco voters approved a proposition calling for IRV in local elections; and at least 20 other U.S. jurisdictions are thinking about following suit.
5. Nonpartisan redistricting. Some activists think that the best way to encourage radical middle politics is to create more competitive voting districts. Truly competitive races held every 2-4 years might induce candidates to run not by rallying their hard-left or hard-right political bases, but by coming up with clever, healing, radical middle public policy solutions to the issues of the day.
One hundred years ago, many races for the House of Representatives were competitive. Half the seats in the 1890s were won by margins of 10 percent or less. But in the year 2000, only 13 percent of House seats were decided by margins of 10 percent or less. What happened?
A line of Supreme Court cases going back to the 1960s began requiring voting districts to have roughly the same number of people. So instead of redrawing district boundary lines only when population changes caused a state to lose or gain seats, legislators began redrawing district lines after every census -- every 10 years.
On the surface, that was a good thing. “One person, one vote” was the stated goal. But politicians were quick to use the new rules for their own self-serving ends. The majority party in each state capitol carved out a maximum number of safe seats for itself. Or, when the parties were more or less evenly matched, both parties colluded to carve out safe seats for one another. Thanks to ever-more-sophisticated computer programs, legislatures got better and better at creating “designer districts” with safe seats, and now they absolutely dominate the political landscape.
Tom Hofeller, the Republican National Committee’s redistricting director, was only being honest when he told the National Conference of State Legislators, “In the politics of redistricting, politicians get to choose the voters.”
What can be done? We can insist that redistricting be carried out not by partisan politicians, but by nonpartisan or bipartisan panels.
A very few states are doing that now -- most notably, Iowa and Washington. In Iowa, the state legislature has turned the job of redistricting over to the Legislative Service Bureau, a respected, nonpartisan agency that also drafts bills and does research for Iowa legislators. Under the redistricting rules, the Bureau can’t look at previous election results, or any demographic information other than population size. Counties are not to be divided and geographic contiguity is to be maintained.
As a result, for years Iowa has boasted some of the most competitive Congressional races in the nation, and some of our most thoughtful and independent Congresspeople.
The best way to create a polarized society is by sticking with winner-take-all elections. The best way to create a balkanized society is by changing over to a system of proportional representation. The best way to create a radical middle society -- where politicians will listen to all people, and people will listen to each other -- is by moving to instant runoff voting and nonpartisan redistricting.
Consider running for office
Even before we attain a more open political process, I’d like you to consider doing the biggest single thing one can possibly do to bring a radical middle society into being: run for political office. Or help some other caring person run for office.
I know it’s fashionable to disparage politicians. And if you don’t know any, they probably seem like a strange and rare breed. But most politicians are just like anybody else. And they’re not rare at all: at last count, there were over 510,000 popularly elected officials in the U.S. Over a million elections are held in every four-year cycle.
Don’t feel obligated to start at the top. You can start down the street -- literally. Although local political parties were once on the decline, most of them have turned around in the last 20 years. Some political scientists claim that, on the whole, they’ve never been stronger -- partly because of soft money and partly because they’ve figured out how to be of use to the new generation of independent-minded candidates.
If you know a local politician, try to make yourself useful to him or her. But even if you don’t know anyone on the local scene, it’s not too hard to get your feet wet by getting involved in local party affairs. “The local parties are far from being exclusive clubs,” says Indiana University Prof. Marjorie Hershey, one of the leading students of U.S. party politics. “The ‘front doors’ are often open to anyone who cares to walk in.”
Whether or not your local party is welcoming, attend city council meetings; attend the meetings of other elected bodies you might like to be part of; become familiar enough with the rhythms of your institutions that they lose whatever mystique they may have in your eyes. If you want to bring innovative radical middle ideas into the political arena, you can’t feel awed by the institutions you’ll be serving.
At the same time, begin breaking down your lack of familiarity with political campaigns and campaigning. One great way of doing this is to actually get involved in a political campaign -- they’re always looking for volunteers (and not just leafletters: you can volunteer to organize events, research press coverage, or do whatever else you might be good at).
Another, complementary approach you can take is read some of the wonderful books on the market today about the nuts and bolts of campaigning for office. For local elections I recommend Lawrence Gray’s How to Win a Local Election (rev. 1999) and Catherine Shaw’s The Campaign Manager (3rd ed. 2004). For big city, state, and Congressional elections I also recommend Ronald Faucheux’s Running for Office (2002) and Faucheux, ed., Winning Elections (2003).
One thing these books can do is help you overcome the myth that elections are off-limits to anyone without huge gobs of money. Most elections do not require unfathomable amounts of money. And to the extent that money is required, there are many tried and true techniques for raising it which these books summarize.
Another thing these books can do is help you pose certain questions you’ll need to ask of yourself: Why do I want to do this? Do I really want to serve in the capacity I seek? Will I respond well to the work and the challenge it will give me? Is it the right time for me? Can I do this to my family?
After one of my subscribers ran for -- and won -- a seat on the Alachua County Board of Commissioners (Gainesville FL and environs), he sent me a letter that included these telling passages:
“It finally occurred to me that I could be the next commissioner from my county. With an academic background in city planning, with leadership skills gained from serving on a variety of advisory boards, and with the experiences of starting a farmer’s market and teaching adult classes in energy conservation, I felt as qualified as anyone. . . .
“My campaign team was unorthodox -- to say the least. My earliest supporter was a retired history professor who offered to serve as treasurer. The local president of Friends of the Earth took charge of literature distribution. A 72-year-old Trinidadian responded to my need for car top signs. . . .
“However, I did not shun the more traditional kinds of expertise. I attended a workshop in Daytona called ‘How to Run and Win an Electoral Campaign.’ And a former City Commissioner offered to counsel me on a regular basis. At these weekly sessions we developed content, style, and process. His major contribution may have been convincing me to simplify my presentations. My immediate task was not to change the world but to win an election.”
Throughout this article I’ve argued that there’s a more important way for radical-middle-oriented individuals to change this country than voting for President, and that it consists of at least a couple of the following: setting your career goals high, turning your job into a political vehicle, joining a local activist group, joining a professional association, joining a national citizen group, and helping to reform the political process.
But we live in a representative democracy. So before radical middle political ideas can replace traditional left- and right-wing political ideas, they’re going to have to be carried into the political arena by caring men and women with the moxie to run for office. Could one of those people be you?
ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT
GREAT RADICAL MIDDLE GROUPS AND BLOGS:
SOME PRIOR RADICAL MIDDLE INITIATIVES:
SOME RADICAL MIDDLE LESSONS:
SOME PRIOR WRITINGS BY MARK SATIN:
NOT JUST RADICAL MIDDLE: