05/21/2013 07:02 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

While Washington Scandals Distract, David and Goliath Tales Inspire Across the Country

Last week brought us a full plate of scandals in Washington. Added to the GOP-enhanced "Benghazi-Talking-Points-gate" was the story of the IRS singling out conservative organizations for extra scrutiny regarding their non-profit tax status. Speaker Boehner expressed his outrage by calling for jail time for the perpetrators at the IRS. Of course, we have not heard such outrage from him about those financial institutions on Wall Street that drove the economy full-throttle into the tank. Perhaps he simply forgot. Or is this just more hypocritical righteous indignation from the GOP?

To be fair, the IRS did single out the Tea Party and other organizations with "Patriot" or "Constitution" in their name for tougher reviews of their tax status. Of course all organizations must receive equal treatment, and the IRS using their powers to conduct a political and partisan attack was way out of line and directly counter to their duty as a government agency, which must at all times remain neutral and non-partisan. The top two officials at the IRS, including acting director Steven Miller, have since stepped down, and hopefully there will be a thorough review of what went wrong so that this never happens again.

Then there is the ongoing flap about Benghazi. The central issue with the GOP is the role of the administration and presumed 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (surprise, surprise) -- who was then Secretary of State -- played in "concealing" and "manipulating" the talking points being used by UN Ambassador Susan Rice and others on the political talk shows to explain what happened in the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and who was responsible for this attack. Was beefed-up security requested at the compound and denied by the Obama administration? No, as it turns out. Indeed, it appears Republicans were engaging in a little manipulation of their own, as reported on Thursday by CBS News, which noted that, "... leaked versions (of the memos) sent out by the GOP the previous Friday had visible differences than the official batch..." of 100 pages of emails that had been released by the White House. House Republicans are now demanding to see thousands of e-mails. Who knows what they will "find" in them?

Last but not least, to cap off the week, we had the telephone records of the Associated Press being secretly seized by the Justice Department without ample warning to the AP. Only under the most dire circumstances should government ever consider entering these forbidden waters. An attack on freedom of the press is a clear violation of the First Amendment, yet the Justice Department claims it was justified in seizing the phone records of some 100 AP reporters and editors over the course of two months, as its prosecutors were in a quest to find out who leaked information regarding a mole in Al-Qaeda that had led to an AP story on the subject. "It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole," said Attorney General Eric Holder. Guidelines call for the Justice Department's prosecutors to talk to and negotiate with a news service over its records. The fact that 20 phone lines and the calls made on them were compromised for considerable time stretched into gross overreach. Since the leak was not identified, and apparently the Justice Department's 550 interviews went nowhere, the AP itself became the target.

And so a week passed in which the Obama administration itself wound up on the hot seat. The president went into his familiar aloof mode, and did not step up to take responsibility and declare all of this happened on his watch and cannot and will not be tolerated. Instead, he headed to Baltimore the next day for a photo-op with school kids, while the Clinton crisis managers were brought in to try and control the damage. To the delight of the GOP, these distractions are a further opportunity to stall the president and his administration from moving forward with its second-term agenda, which, frankly, has not even been clearly articulated to the American people as of yet. The GOP must be crowing about last week's events, since it played into their standard message of big, intrusive government threatening our basic liberties. Confidence in government among the American people is at an all-time low and is a major issue. Will last week's scandals revitalize the Tea Party and bring new members to the GOP? Only time will tell, but the president must immediately work to restore confidence in government and its role in the lives of its citizens if he wants to have any hope of accomplishing anything in his second term, and not suffer another 2010-style tidal wave of right-wing nut-jobs invading Capitol Hill and gumming up the works

On the other end of the political spectrum from all of this foolishness in D.C. is a groundswell of terrific, on-the-ground activism and organizing work taking place across the country in just about every state, with tangible results. People are joining organizations and becoming involved at unprecedented numbers. Even an online petition these days can produce hundreds of thousand signatures that target members of Congress in support of or opposing a bill or action. The people understand what must be done in government to make it work for us.

To hear the truth about the state of our country and what extraordinary people are doing to change it, I get my weekly antidote to the political farces in D.C. by watching Bill Moyers on Sunday evenings on PBS. On May 12th, Moyers had as his guest Marshall Ganz, who teaches public policy and building movements and organizing at The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. His emphasis is on organizing people to fight organized money, and his organization is the Leading Change Network. Ganz considers himself an organizer, which is what he did when he dropped out of Harvard at the end of his third year and joined the Civil Rights movement in 1964 in Mississippi. He mentioned to Moyers those slain civil rights workers named Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, whom we still remember today, some 50 years later. This is the power of movements.

A year later, Ganz joined Cesar Chavez as his strategist to build the United Farm Workers. He helped to organize those beaten-down farmers who at the time believed "no we can't," and turned it into "si se puedes" -- "yes, we can." With the help of Ganz's organizing and strategies, they learned to believe in themselves and their cause, and history was written. He remained with Chavez for 16 years, and the world heard of this movement that took those farmers out of bondage and gave them dignity and a living wage with benefits. That is the power of movement-building and the power of storytelling, which Ganz emphasizes is the core of building a movement.

Twenty-eight years after leaving Harvard, he returned to earn his undergraduate degree and continued organizing, teaching, writing and conducting research, eventually earning a Ph.D. in 1993 in Sociology. Ganz is now creating a laboratory for the next generation of activists and public servants -- perhaps even future members of Congress. His program could be moved into the public high school level and introduced into Civics and American History classes, with a focus on the 20th century and the rise of these powerful American movements that continue to change our nation. Ganz also mentioned David and Goliath in his interview, a biblical tale about an ordinary young man who fought and defeated a menacing giant with nothing more than his wits, courage and a sling shot. Ganz's point was that with the right tools and plenty of heart, David sometimes wins. Two other activists worth mentioning were also on the program with Moyers: Rachel LaForest, Executive Director of Right To The City, and Madeline Janis, ED of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Both showed how they serve their communities through activism and organizing. It's worth checking them out.

We see thousands of Davids -- and their female counterparts -- working every day in our communities on so many issues that are otherwise neglected by the government. Imagine how different it could be if our government was able to function properly and direct its energies and resources to creating a more sustainable and equitable society, instead of bowing down to its corporate masters and floundering under partisan gridlock. These activists toil day in and day out to make their communities and states a better place in which to live and work. Many also work on school boards and in faith-based organizations, such as Kim Bobo in Chicago, whose book Wage Theft In America is a classic study of wages, benefits and working conditions for low-wage earners. She is the acknowledged expert on the subject, which grew out of her 15 years as the director of Interfaith Worker Justice, which now includes 50 religious labor groups and 25 worker's centers. Another one of her books is Organizing For Social Change, first published in 1991 and co-authored with Jackie Kendall and Steve Max. It is one of the most widely used manuals for progressive activism in the country, and is worth a read for anyone interested in becoming an effective activist in their community.

There are so many people out there working to make our world better. They raise awareness and drive action on climate change, economic injustice, fracking, healthcare reform through Improved Medicare for All, marriage equality, campaign finance reform (which goes to the I.R.S. story last week and the need to pass an amendment overturning the Citizens United decision, gun control, affordable housing and education -- including lower student loan costs -- opposition to governments ceding public lands for mining, labor issues, and so much more. For every issue, there is a group working tirelessly to bring positive change to it. And let us not forget the progressive political groups working to elect more progressives to Congress, to rid us of the destructive dead wood and crazy right-wingers that are standing in the way of real progress in our country.

Every day, more and more "ordinary" Americans are doing extraordinary things, and the opportunity is there for anyone who believes that the people can make a difference to join them. If you are inspired by these courageous citizen activists -- as I am -- then it is time for you to make your voice heard and your presence known. As former Governor Howard Dean said during his 2004 campaign for president, "You have the power." If we want real change to come to this country, we, the people, must take that power and use it.

- with Jonathan Stone