John Gardner on Citizen Action
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
John Gardner on Citizen Action
Effective Citizen Action: Three Musts
The most important thing the reader should know about citizen action is that it can work. It has worked. It is working.
The next most important thing to know is that enthusiasm isn’t enough. If citizen action is to be successful it requires careful preparation, effective organization, and stamina. Lots and lots of stamina. As Arthur Vanderbilt said of court reform, it is no sport for the shortwinded. And purity of motive is no substitute for well-conceived, well-executed, sustained action.
There has been more enthusiasm than realism about citizen action, and critics are justified in asking hard questions about any group: How does it expect to bring about changes? How will it cope with the powerful vested interests that it will confront? Where will it acquire the clout that lobbies are supposed to have?
We are still far from having all the answers. But we have a few.
Perhaps the first rule is that an effective instrument of citizen action must be a full-time, continued “presence” on the scene. One of the deepest failings of citizen action is the here-today-gone-tomorrow campaign, the unpredictable waxing and waning of enthusiasm. In matters of significant social action, the forces opposing change are powerful and deeply rooted. They have little respect for adversaries who lack staying power.
An example of the need for sustained effort is the experience with campaign-spending control legislation in 1970-1971. After the elections of 1970, the scandalous laxity of our campaign-financing laws became a live public issue. It was on the front pages and the editorial pages. It was in the cartoons. There were powerful stories by the ablest investigative reporters.
That was in December 1970 and January 1971. But it takes time to draft legislation, to hold hearings, to bring significant legislative proposals to a vote. Eight months elapsed before legislation was moving toward a crucial test. And by that time the public was bored with the subject. Editors shunted stories to the back pages. And once again the public interest was in danger of being butchered. Fortunately, both editorial and public interest revived and a law was passed in early 1972.
An equally important rule of citizen action is to select a limited number of clearly defined targets and hit them hard. Among the most familiar weaknesses of citizen action are the diffusion of energy and resources over too many targets, the brave but trivial effort, and the failure to tackle concrete, tangible, achievable goals. Citizen action scattered enthusiastically in all directions changes nothing. The accomplishment of significant change requires clear-cut targets and a massing of energy and resources.
In Common Cause we guard against aimless dissipation of energy by a simple operating philosophy: with rare exceptions, we do nothing but fight specific battles –legal or legislative. We enter each battle seeking a specific outcome. And we stay with it until we win or lose.
We do not engage in educational campaigns for their own sake, nor research for its own sake (although we use the research of others). Nor do we make pronouncements or engage in debate on any issue unless we intend to fight that issue through to a conclusion.
That operating philosophy has forced us to focus our energies and resources on specific targets. It has spared us the vague and intangible efforts to “do good” that absorb so much of the energies of well-intentioned organizations. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but it is never intangible.
The concrete nature of the goal is crucial. Let me illustrate the point. From the beginning of Common Cause, we have been deeply concerned with advancing the principle of accountability in government, but the goal could not be pursued in terms of abstractions. Nor could we pursue it on a thousand fronts. We chose a specific battleground, the seniority system.
To take another example, we believe that citizens should have access to their political institutions and that those institutions should be responsive. We had to translate those abstractions into a concrete issue on which we could do battle, and the issue we chose was campaign spending. Uncontrolled campaign financing makes for political institutions that are accessible and responsive to money rather than to people.
A PROFESSIONAL CUTTING EDGE
Another weakness of the citizen in political action is unwillingness to acquire a grasp of the processes of government. Too often he can’t be bothered with the grimy machinery by which the public business gets done. He is content to “leave that to the technicians.” But people who control the course of events leave nothing to the technicians. Often they are the technicians.
It isn’t in politics only that high-minded citizens shy away from the nuts and bolts of action. In every other field of practical action they show the same distaste for the unglamorous details by which victories are won or lost. And it is always disastrous. Significant social change is accomplished by men and women with a vision in their heads and a monkey wrench in their hands. Ideals without a program are fantasy. And a program without organization is a hoax.
Part of the reason for these failures of the hjghminded citizen is self-indulgence. He feels so noble just “fighting the good fight” that he finds rewards even in defeat. And he often seems to believe — if only unconsciously — that high-mindedness is a substitute for professional skill in doing battle. No wonder he loses so often.
What’s your opinion about constraints on elected officials? What can we hope or expect from them? Speak up!