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A Letter to FixCongressFirst.Org: Where We Are, Where We're Going

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On Thursday, the House Committee on Administration passed the Fair Elections Now Act — the bill that we, along with many others, have been pushing for the past two years. With a bit of luck, and a lot more pressure, the managers of the bill believe it could have the votes to pass the House as well. If they're right, and if the Speaker allows the bill to come to the floor, then for the first time in a generation, the House will have ratified fundamental and effective campaign finance reform.

This optimism will surprise many of you. As I've travelled to talk about this issue, the overwhelming attitude of people who want better from our government is that our government is incapable of giving us better. The House ratifying Fair Elections would be the first, and best evidence, this skepticism might be wrong. It would also be a testament to the extraordinary work of organizations like Public Campaign and Common Cause (especially the campaign director, David Donnelly), as well as many others, including MoveOn, the Coffee Party, You Street (as in "not K Street") and many of you. This victory would give American voters an idea worth fighting for. It would be a critical victory, at least if we can gather the final few votes needed in the House. (You can help in that by using our Whip Tool).

But we should recognize that this victory would also be just a first step. I don't believe the Senate will pass this bill this session, which means the fight must begin again in January. So as we've been at this now for almost two years, I wanted to give you a sense of where we are and where we're going. I also want to begin to share with you my own sense of how to get there.

This isn't a short letter. But I hope you'll take the time to read it. (Here's a PDF if you want to print it). We all need to understand the kind of fight this will be. And after many sleepless nights thinking it through, I believe I have a sense of what victory will require.

Reform Movements, Past

The fight to win in the House has been a traditional legislative battle waged effectively and well. I joined this fight late, and I've been happy to help how ever I can. But the kudos here goes to those I've already mentioned. Fingers crossed, they will have done what the experts thought was impossible.

But as I've said many times before, we cannot rely upon this inside the beltway fight alone. The change that the Fair Elections Now Act would effect would change Washington fundamentally. There are too many inside DC who depend upon the system as it is — for their own wealth, and future. They are not about to permit this fundamental change, and they have not yet even begun the fight against it.

Instead, the battle to pass this reform will require something that none of us have seen in our lifetime — a broad based, cross-partisan, citizens movement that demands fundamental change in how our government works.

This movement must take aim at the core corruption that is our government. Not the corruption of bribery, or improper (as in illegal) influence. Instead, it must attack the in-plain-sight corruption of the current system of campaign finance. Our Congress has become dependent upon their funders. Their attention is devoted to their funders. And like a 5-year-old watching his dad on his BlackBerry, we get that we're no longer the most important souls in their lives. In a very precise sense of the term, this Congress has been corrupted by this competing dependency. We must change this.

The last best example of this sort of change is a movement that is as misunderstood as any in American history — the Progressive Movement. Most of us today think the "progressives" were liberals. No doubt many were. But as I described in a piece for the Huffington Post, Progressivism was actually a multiparty movement. It was a Republican, Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, who took up the Progressive cause for the Right, by challenging a sitting Republican President, William Howard Taft. La Follette lost, but he inspired Republican Teddy Roosevelt to return from the wilderness to wage a third-party campaign against Taft. In that election of 1912, America had an extraordinarily broad range of ideologies to choose among: Eugene Debs ran as a Socialist, Taft ran as a "standpat" Republican, and two Progressives ran between these two extremes: TR, a former Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a new kind of Democrat. Almost 70% of Americans voted for these two leading Progressives, with Wilson — the more conservative, small government, pro-liberty Progressive — beating Roosevelt by almost 15 points.

Of course, the Liberal Progressives of 1912 wanted different things of government from the Conservative Progressives. But despite these differences, they shared a common recogniti all Progressives believed that government had become corrupted. That with its appointed Senate, and enormously powerful corporate funding of elections, our democracy, they all believed, was no longer a democracy. The government had become dependent not, as Federalist No. 52 puts it, "upon the People alone." Instead, it was the People who were left alone, as the government did what ever it could to curry favor with the richest and most powerful in society.

Progressives of all stripes wanted to restore that democracy — again, not because they all agreed upon a single platform for government action, but because they all believed that the platform of democracy had to be restored if we were to be true to the best ideals of the founders.

Cross-partisanship was thus the first feature of that Progressive Movement. Headlessness was a second. Though there were many important Progressive leaders, the Progressives had no single leader. Every Progressive group did their own work in their own field. None tried (for long at least) to claim the authority of the movement as a whole. Everyone recognized a common need to reform a corrupted government, and worked with astonishing public commitment to achieve that reform in addition to the particular policy objectives that their wing of the movement wanted to push.

Finally, there was one more critical element to the movement's success: citizens. This was not ultimately a movement controlled by politicians. Of course, we remember the movement for its politicians. TR, and Wilson, and perhaps now that I've mentioned him, La Follette. But politicians were not the lifeblood of that movement. Citizens were. There were thousands of leaders in hundreds of fields, from women's suffrage to the temperance movement, to labor reform, to judicial and electoral accountability. These citizens were the giants. Yet the overwhelming majority of these people never dreamed of running for office. They had been awoken from a slumber by the repeated and grotesque excesses of a corrupted government. And they worked hard to end that corruption, not to become famous senators, or president. But so that they could go back to their private life, and do the private things they wanted to do.

It was this cross-partisan, headless, citizens movement of passion that changed the American government at the turn of the last century. Not in perfect ways. In some cases, not even in smart ways. But the point to remember is that this change happened in the only way real change ever does: From the many, putting aside key differences, to focus the swarm upon the key problem in government: corruption.

Reform Movements, Today

As hard as this might be to believe — given the way most of us are oriented by party leaders who want to keep us loyal to the way things are now — each of these elements of the old Progressive movement is returning to American politics.

Start with passionate citizens: We have not in our lifetimes seen as angry and frustrated a citizenry as we now have. That anger sometimes expresses itself poorly, but we need to get beyond this critique. From the Tea Party to the Coffee Party to the millions of Americans who call themselves "Independents," America is filled with citizens who are desperate to end the corruption that is our government. Many of these citizens thought they had their reform leader in 2008. All of them are now looking for the leaders who can deliver the reform that 2008 didn't.

"Leaders," not "leader." The key here is the plural. We are used to movements in the style of Mussolini: charismatic leaders, like FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, who unite millions to a cause. But that's not what's happening here. No doubt there are leaders, but none who can pretend to speak for the full breadth of this movement. Indeed, my heroes are people like Mark Meckler, and Jenny Beth Martin, who however much I disagree with them on policy substance, conceive of the movement they are trying to build (the Tea Party Movement) as a swarm, not an army; as headless, not the borg. This is the model of real reform. It is the model that our reform too must make successful.

And finally, cross-partisanship: The Tea Party Movement has been framed as right wing. Its most successful candidates are on the far right of the Republican Party (localized at least: Scott Brown is no Rand Paul, but he is the Right of Massachusetts). But the most significant and important part of the Tea Party Movement is the demand for fundamental change, not just a change in parties. And in this respect, they are no different from many of us on the Left. No doubt, we don't have common ends. But we do have a common enemy. And we need to find a way to push a common movement that defeats this common enemy, through the peaceful mode of revolution given to us by our framers: Democracy.

In the next two years, I want Change Congress to help this Neo-Progressive movement. That may well not be the right name, given how misunderstood the term "progressive" now is, but it is the right idea. We need to build a community of citizens, each taking the initiative to teach a message to Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike: that regardless of your party, regardless of what you want government to do (or not do), the current system is the enemy. And regardless of what you want government to do (or not do), you won't make progress to your ends until this system fundamentally changes.

This lesson won't come from lectures by law professors. It won't be taught by senators, or candidates for president. We will only spread it if we can get at first thousands, and then millions, to carry the word friend by friend. In house parties, over dinner, in Rotary Clubs, and in small meetings. We need to provide the tools, and build a platform to help spread the message. But the message here is not Read-Only. It is Read-Write. We must give citizens the resources to enter into this debate, and then encourage them to spread the message as broadly as they can.

This will make our work somewhat different from others in this movement. The standard form of digital advocacy today is clicktivism — finding ways to get people to react to messages, to push support (and of course, raise dollars) to one group and then another. The strategy is simple: Build a list of people who agree with you, and push their buttons so they click yours in return, and send you cash, and support.

We want to do something different. We want to build a conversation that engages a wider and wider community, focused on the single objective of fundamental reform. We want that community to spread the message. Not just our message, or my message, but their message, or at least a message remixed, hand-made, by them.

Here's how are are going to do this:

We're first going to build out more explicitly the cross-partisan character of Change Congress. Already our board has an extraordinary mix of talent. In the next 6 months, we will expand that mix more. All of these leaders are leaders in their own field. None of them intend to be leaders in government. Indeed, as I think about who to recruit to this list, the single question I ask myself is this: Can this person inspire others without others believing the inspiration is just the first step to their own political campaign?

Second, while we continue to build the board, we will also strengthen the communities that it supports. Today, many of you associate the work of Change Congress with me. If we are successful, next year, the vast majority of Change Congress followers will not even recognize me among the many who are pushing this message. None of us, me especially, will try to claim control of this movement. All of us, and me especially, believe there is only a movement when there are many cells of strength each pushing in its own way. Remember: A swarm, not an army; headless, not the borg.

Third, as we multiply the parties, and multiply the leaders, we will push to spread tools that anyone can use to learn, spread, and teach the message. Through SlideShare, we will make available the assets anyone needs to craft this story in the shape that makes most sense to them. Through our video channels on Vimeo, YouTube, and Blip.tv, we will make available as many of the telling of these stories as possible, for you to use however you can to do the same with your friends. The mission here is shared. The responsibility is all of ours. And through the work of all of us, we will build a recognition of the kind of change that is needed here.


Justice Louis Brandeis, perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most misunderstood, Progressive of the last century, warned "the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people," and demanded "that public discussion is a political duty." When I first read that quote, it sent a chill down my spine. For of course: We, as a People, have become "inert." We have not lived up to our "political duty." We have instead allowed the professionals to take over our politics.

But we have a chance to do something here. It will take an enormous effort to teach and then persuade. We don't have easy anger to tap into here. But as I've found as I've given more than a hundred talks over the past few years, there is real anger and real commitment to this issue once the issue is understood. Our role in this must be this ground campaign — building a large and powerful base that recognizes the peculiar corruption of this Congress, and how it must change.

Here's how you can help:

  1. Visit FixCongressFirst.org. Don't simply sign up for the mailing list. Instead, read about the Fair Elections Now Act. Skim the blog to get a sense of the current conversations happening around election reform. Convince a friend, online or off, about the need for fair elections. If we can get one million people each to have a real conversation about corruption and campaign finance, we will have succeeded.
  2. Do join the Fix Congress First mailing list if you'd like to stay informed. Better yet, tell us if you'd like to volunteer, and we'll let you know when opportunities arise.
  3. Visit the Fix Congress First whip tool to see which members of Congress haven't yet supported the Fair Elections Now Act. Call your representative if he/she is not a supporter, or send your thanks if she/he is.
  4. Use your networks. Spread the word. Take things into your own hands. Tell us how we can help you and how we can do better.