The following is excerpted from The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell by Jamie Court, published by Chelsea Green in September 2010.
Never underestimate the power of one person's story to change the world; indeed such stories may be the only thing that ever has. The sincere experiences of individuals who have suffered injustice are the best weapons against injustice. Winning campaigns are about the triumph of fundamental human truth, so real people with genuine stories are the best messengers of populist campaigns.
The language of the status quo is often statistical, actuarial, and data-based. This is not to say proponents of change don't have science and statistics on their side. It's just that opponents of change often base their objections on the hard, cold numbers that only accountants can muster and manipulate to show how they will bust budgets, bankrupt businesses, and break up families. My favorite example is tobacco companies' argument against the Czech government's smoking cessation plan. The industry's actuarial study found that the country's health care costs would skyrocket since people would live longer.
While it's tempting to mix it up with scientists when you know you're right, change-making campaigns typically mobilize the public and affect politics by sticking to the human case.
I saw the "people-first" principle work when one woman with a compelling story was able to fell a whole industry. It's the case of "Dana vs. Goliath."
With health insurance costs skyrocketing in 2006, insurers hatched a plan to remove themselves from the patients'-rights laws that were passed in forty-four states in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The industry explained that the insurance companies wanted to "reduce their costs of compliance" so insurance would be cheaper. It sounded simple enough to President Bush and Congress, who were about to enact the plan. Attorneys general, governors, and state insurance commissioners complained, but it looked like the industry had the votes.
Then Dana Christensen came to Capitol Hill with my colleagues Carmen Balber and Jerry Flanagan.
Christensen had been working with my consumer group to warn against the very type of "junk health insurance" policy that we feared would become the norm if state regulation were bypassed. She and her husband, Doug, had been technically insured, yet Dana was left with $450,000 in unpaid medical bills when her husband died of bone cancer.
The fine print in her insurance policy had no limit on "out-of-pocket cost." So she had to pay most of the costs of his chemotherapy and cancer care. On his deathbed, Doug asked Dana to divorce him so she would not have to be liable for the medical bills. She refused. In the end, only because of a lawsuit under state law, which prevented fraudulent representations, was Dana able to recoup the cost of those bills from the insurer.
Dana flew into Washington on Monday, on the heels of a PBS NOW news story about her case that aired the previous Friday. She held a press conference with Senators Edward Kennedy and Richard Durbin, then lobbied other senators. The power of her story stopped the legislation dead in its tracks.
"What's the point of paying for health insurance and then, when you need it, discovering the benefits you thought were promised and paid for just aren't there?" Dana asked. "That's what happened to my husband Doug and me."
Human truth is very hard for a human being, even the most hardened Washington politician, to turn away from.
Jamie Court's new book, The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell: How to Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws, and Get the Change We Voted For, was just released by Chelsea Green Publishing Company. Court, an acclaimed consumer advocate and HuffPost blogger, is president of Consumer Watchdog.