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Jason Carter

Jason Carter

Posted: September 5, 2007 02:05 PM

Caught in the Act - A New Politics of Leading by Example


In the midst of the media storm surrounding Larry Craig's bathroom habits and the immediate Republican response, it may have been too easy to forget that last week marked the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration's utter failure to respond to a real disaster. The two events hardly seem related, but the tempest in a Minneapolis men's room and the truly disgraceful government response to Katrina do bring to mind the same cliché: actions speak louder than words.

It doesn't matter what Larry Craig says about what happened in the Minneapolis airport or what George Bush says about recovery in New Orleans. Words only go so far when the actions on the ground (or in the stall) tell a very different story.

Indeed, these are just two examples of the disconnect between talk and action in our nation's politics. This is a familiar refrain, and we could chalk up these episodes as further evidence that politicians are liars or are corrupt or always say one thing and do another -- that it's just "politics as usual." We could dismiss Senator Craig's troubles as yet another case of yet another politician engulfed in yet another scandal. Or we could look for more, and turn a fresh eye to a new kind of politics.

For the past year, our organization, Democrats Work, has been building a new style of political engagement that closes the gap between our professed values and our public actions. This approach has a very simple guiding principle: put your values into action. By mobilizing Democratic volunteers to do tangible service projects in their communities, we are creating a service-based approach to politics -- a "politics of service" -- that we hope looks nothing like politics as usual.

Since January, Democrats Work has mobilized nearly 900 Democratic volunteers who donated thousands of hours at over 30 service projects across the country. Because we care about the environment, Democrats have planted trees and cleaned up parks, trails and open spaces from Colorado to Georgia, Nevada to Nebraska. Because we care about public education, Democrats have supported schools and teachers in Arkansas and California and helped the children of our deployed troops start the school year with the supplies they need in Texas. Because we care about livable and safe communities, Democrats have removed literally tons of illegally-dumped trash from poor neighborhoods, supported programs to combat homelessness, and worked at food banks in Atlanta, Little Rock, and San Francisco.

Democrats Work and its local partners validate the notion that voters respond more favorably to deeds than to words. Others are pushing the politics of service as well. John Edwards' One Corps has mobilized volunteers for service projects across the country, the Blue Tiger Democrats have supported local veterans in Michigan and organized community cleanups in Flint and Troy, and the Service Politics Institute has worked with politicians in Vermont to link community service to policy prescriptions. These actions serve as simple and powerful reminders of what the Democratic Party stands for. We believe that this type of leadership by example may be the best way to convince voters you'll do right by them. Put simply, there is a credibility and a confidence that comes from acting on your values.

In this era of unrelenting 30-second television ads, eye-popping fundraising, and news coverage that too often misses the point, wouldn't it be nice if political campaigns bragged that their volunteers did more for our communities than the others? Wouldn't it be nice if politicians were judged by, um, what they actually do? Next October, we want the person dropping campaign literature off at your house extolling the Democrats' commitment to public education to be the same guy that volunteered to build the new playground at your kid's school.

A service-based approach to politics may not grab as many headlines as corrupt hypocrites, morally bankrupt do-nothings, liars and louts, but our country and our politics would be a lot better if it did. And, when it comes time to ask for votes, I believe that this politics of service will allow Democrats to ask with more than words.

Jason Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, is a co-founder of Democrats Work and serves on its board of directors.