I'm what my friends on the left (the REAL left) would dismiss as an "electoralist." I believe the most effective means to making the most positive changes is through contesting and winning elections. And I believe that, with all due respect to organized labor and the civil rights movement, the most effective organization for progressive change in the past 80 years has been the Democratic Party.
But that election vs. "direct action" tension is out there, and I seem to have hit a nerve the last couple days with my thoughts on Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (a/k/a CCI).
CCI's MO is to show up at events and make "demands." (It's a drinking game in newsrooms across Iowa: every time a CCI press release uses the word "demand," do a shot.) Usually they make "demands" of Republicans with whom they 100% disagree, but often they do the same to Democrats with whom they 80% agree.
"Making demands" often means drowning out speakers, generally with the trite chant trifecta: "Hey hey, ho ho, somethingsomething's got to go," "What do we want? Somethingsomething! When do we want it? Now!" and "This is what democracy looks like."
It's in direct conflict with my own style. I go to Republican events, make it very clear I'm a lefty blogger (the beret is a bit of a giveaway), actually engage people in conversation, LISTEN to the speeches, and report what they said.
And that can be enough. The ultimate gotcha moment was then-Sen. George Allen's "macaca" comment. It wasn't prompted by a protester. It was an unforced error captured by a silent tracker from Allen's Democratic opponent, who simply recorded the event.
The CCI style is nails on a chalkboard to me, and I've been baiting them the last few weeks. The catalyst for the latest round was a recent Chuck Grassley town hall in Carroll. Douglas Burns, for my money the finest small market journalist in the state and one of the best in the state period, was at the event:
Not content to interrupt and hurl insults at the senator during the public forum, the mob that is Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) crowded Grassley, 77, in the hallway, blocking his entrance to a post-event media interview, and later, used physicality to prevent his clear passage from New Hope to a car.The self-congratulatory tone is as much a part of the CCI style as the "demands."
It was shameful, hateful and, most of all, dangerous.
And CCI spent Monday night bragging about the disruptive behavior — the stuff of chaos not King — on the Internet in email blasts, claiming a “crash” of the Carroll town hall in which they made “demands” of the senator, a venerable public servant and exceedingly decent man.
“Grassley avoided directly answering our questions and when we confronted him after the meeting ended, he left as quickly as he could,” said Kenn Bowen, a CCI member from Winterset.So he HEARD you. Well goody for you. What did that change?
“He definitely heard our ‘put people first’ message loud and clear.”
"Well, uh, ya know, I've been a staunch corporate conservative throughout my, uh, five decades in public office," said Grassley, "but after a dozen hippies yelled at me in, uh, Carroll, I've, um, seen the light and am now going to vote the way Bernie Sanders does."
As the great military leader Sherman T. Potter once said, mule muffins. You don't change Chuck Grassley's vote by making "demands." (Drink!) You change Chuck Grassley's vote by beating Chuck Grassley.
So... the phone banks were jam packed last fall with CCI members making calls for Roxanne Conlin, right? Right? (chirp... chirp... chirp...) Riiiiiight. Because you don't get on TV making GOTV calls. You get on TV by "making demands." (Drink!) They probably thought Roxanne was "too corporate" anyway because she has earned some personal wealth, even though she grew up dirt poor and even though she sued Bill Gates and won.
I've gotten some patronizing responses on this from CCI folks:
"I'd like to educate you on issue organizing vs. electoral/partisan organizing, and also organizational structures and what organizations are allowed to do based on their tax status. "Seems I need educatin.' Gotta got to SCHOOL. No, I don't need no education. I get the difference and I'm not interested in the CCI brand of "issue organizing." I'm interested in winning elections.
"I'm sorry you feel alienated by holding our elected officials accountable." Hey, I've been holding Chuck Grassley accountable since you were in kindergarten. Do the names Jean Lloyd-Jones, Dave Osterberg and Art Small mean anything to you? You win some, you lose some, and THAT is what democracy looks like.
But CCI likes to draw a false equivalence between oppositional Republicans and imperfect Democrats, which ultimately hurts the progressive cause. Just the day after their big coup at the state fair, goading Mitt Romney into his "corporations are people" comment, they were right back "making demands" (drink!) of Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Now, I've got an issue or two with Debbie Wasserman Schultz: she was 100% down with her state, Florida, breaking the rules of the nomination process last cycle and getting away with it. But by and large she's a solid spokesperson for liberal causes with a good voting record. Should a progressive organization tar her with the same brush as Mitt Romney? No way. And should they be dealing with even their harshest opponents by shouting them down? Absolutely not. It stinks when the Tea Party does it, it stinks when you guys do it too.
Even the Iowa Democratic Party, allies on many issues, felt compelled to condemn the tactics:
The behavior of Iowa CCI is unproductive, embarrassing, and has no place in a serious debate. Yes, we should be working to protect Social Security, doing everything to keep our air and water clean, and ask our elected officials tough questions. Unfortunately, this group has become less focused on results and more focused on creating chaos that gets their name in the paper.There's absolutely a place for vocal protest, even civil disobedience, in our political culture. But CCI, while presenting themselves as spiritual heirs to the 1960s, doesn't have the dignity of the civil rights movement or the genuine mass support of the anti-war movement. What do we want? To be on the news! When do we want it? Now!
Iowa CCI is doing a disservice to the state, to true progressive values, and to their members who signed up to make a difference and change our state for the better. Instead of bragging about ‘crashing’ a town hall, designed to give citizens a forum to discuss their concerns, they could be educating Iowans about what’s really at stake and actually make a difference.
So one of the C's in CCI is for "counterproductive." You can decide what the other C and the I are for, but remember that "idiot" is now unconstitutional in Iowa.