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January 16, 2007

What Divides Us

Today’s message is part DC Downsizer philosophy and part open-letter from Downsize DC President Jim Babka to an organization called “OMB Watch.” Take the time to read it, and you’ll see the connections between where it begins and where it ends. And maybe you’ll even want to send a message to Congress. (NOTE: Anyone republishing this article should remove this introductory paragraph)

“What Divides Us”

Late last year an armed man put his children on a school bus, then walked into a schoolhouse in another part of town, took young girls hostage, and proceeded to shoot and kill them. The world watched in the days that followed as those “odd Amish” invited the killer’s wife to their daughters’ funerals, and even more odd, how they attended the killer’s funeral — to support his widow.

There was no tit-for-tat — no cries for vengeance. Odd indeed. Yet the world marveled.

Several years ago, an Irish man lost his son due to IRA violence. He sought out the IRA leaders, but not to get his shot at them. He had a simple message: “It stops with my son. I don’t want your children to be next.” 

Again, the world marveled. 

We have . . . 

* Too much tit-for-tat in our politics.
* Too much revenge motivation.
* Too much political tribalism, which leads people to think if our guys do it, it’s ok, maybe even great; but if their guys do it, it’s stupid, illegal, or evil.

Political tribalism is a poor substitute for listening, for gathering facts, and dare I say it, for thinking.

Frankly, our political tribalism is killing us. The politicians play lip-service to fixing it, but mostly, they play “Hardball.” And the pundits tell us, who’s up and who’s down, as if they were sportscasters.

Well, actually, they are sportscasters. It’s like a half-time show! “Senator Blowhard really struck the right note and his poll numbers are surging. I don’t know how Governor Handy can recover in the second half.” 


Yet these “games” operate on a principle of divide and conquer. Politicians, along with their handlers and spokesmen, play on a “fear of the Other.” They suggest that their followers choose tribal loyalty instead of independent thought; otherwise the bad guys might win. And this argument works!

But there is a better way, and if we adopted it, the world would marvel.

This is something of an “open letter” to an organization called “OMB Watch.” It’s also a declaration, to our supporters present and future, of the kind of organizations both, Inc and the Downsize DC Foundation want to be.

Last week, in a fact sheet distributed to their members, OMB Watch decided to attack Downsize DC.

* They told who knows how many people that we were dishonest — that we intended to deceive. They never substantiated the charge.

* They quoted me out of context. Yet they managed to concede the thesis of the very Downsize DC action alert they quoted later in their piece.

* They accused me of being a partisan conservative. Clearly, they don’t know me — or Downsize DC! As I explained in December, we are not conservatives, nor libertarians, liberals, or anything else. More on that in a moment. 

* And though it’s been said, all publicity is good publicity, and you shouldn’t care what people say about you as long as they spell your name right, they didn’t even manage to do that. They incorrectly attributed my editorial to the organization that reprinted it.

But we’re not going to respond in kind. At some point, someone has to say no to the tit-for-tat. Someone has to relinquish vengeful responses. And that is my purpose today. 

I don’t want to sound sanctimonious. In fact, I have a confession to make. When I read OMB Watch’s fact sheet on what was “really” in the grassroots lobbying bill (according to them), I was fuming. My first thought was to respond with a raw passion that would qualify as anger. The facts were all on my side. I intended to set the record straight — maybe even get even.

That would’ve been wrong. 

I had barely started to do the wrong thing when I was reminded both by a dear Christian friend and next by my non-Christian partner here at Downsize DC, Perry Willis, of what I profess to believe. Jesus promoted a “turn the other cheek” ethic that few have figured out how to live by — particularly those who claim to be his followers. But the few who have managed to live by it, well, they’ve accomplished a great deal.

It seems strange, even to me, that the meek can inherit the Earth. But a Russian novelist and Christian anarchist by the name of Leo Tolstoy believed it. He inspired a non-Christian named Mahatma Gandhi to stand up to the largest empire in the world and try a risky strategy of non-violent resistance and even civil disobedience when necessary, knowing full-well that such activity could cost him tremendously, even up to his very life.

Gandhi inspired men like Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s Solidarity Union during their days behind the Iron Curtain, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. when his people were second class citizens right here in our own country. Gandhi also inspired a man named Nelson Mandela, who emerged from a prison cell with a smile and a handshake. Mandela became the leader of his country and led it to reconciliation rather than vengance and unending conflict.

None of these men were perfect. But each tried to live by this difficult ideal of meekness. And in each instance, the world marveled.

No one plays politics like that. It couldn’t work, right? 

Nearly a year ago, Perry Willis and I were doing something we frequently do; talking about Downsize DC’s identity and strategy. We discussed the pitfalls of most political communications — the direct mail letters that demonize, prey on fears, and promise protection from the “bad guys” (at least until the next letter arrives with a new problem). We talked about how we could advance a policy of communication that, as Downsize DC grew into a national player, would change the tone of debate in this country.

I won’t go into the entire conversation, but to give you a flavor of it, we decided to tend in the direction of “meekness” and that for Downsize DC that would include principles like these . . .

* Steer clear of partisan tribalism, ideological labels, and cults of personality. If we began hearing from Downsizer-Dispatch subscribers who said they could sense that we had a favorite in the political games, then we were becoming part of the problem, and would need to adjust our behavior.
* Along the same lines, we had a duty to speak truth and speak it plainly, but we must avoid personalizing it — particularly in the form of an attack: Avoid labels and reduce adjectives. Every time we mention a politician by name in one of our Dispatches, trust me, we’ve had a conversation about it. We don’t do so lightly.

* Avoid the logical error of “special pleading.” This is a variation on the Golden Rule: the standards we apply to others should apply to us as well. I can’t begin to tell you how many rhetorical arguments or campaigns we’ve considered using (that you’ve never seen) just because they came up short on this particular test.

* And if someone catches us in an error — and it has happened several times — don’t be stubborn. Admit it. Fix it. Often, it’s appropriate to announce your error and what you did to correct it. I know some incredible people, but I know too few who are truly open to correction. Their minds are made up and they refuse to be confused by the facts. We strive desperately to be “teachable.”

Wouldn’t the national debate be “marvelous,” possibly even productive, if these were the universally accepted ground rules?

Call me an “idealist” but I actually believe these could become the accepted ground rules. When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched, he was routinely subjected to a particularly egregious insult — a word that starts with the letter “N.” But only 50 years later a well-known television star has probably ruined his career because he used that same word.

Bad behavior should be sanctioned, though not by government. I’m with Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

The solution to every problem that faces us isn’t a new law. The comedian I’ve just referred to isn’t going to jail, but perhaps he wished his problems could be solved that simply. We need to reach the point where blind tribal loyalty to a partisan team, combined with the tactics of either fear or division, is considered inappropriate in polite company . . . And not because people are afraid to speak, but because they want to be good.

Which brings me back to OMB Watch. 

As we’ve also reported here in a December edition of the Downsizer-Dispatch, I signed a factual letter to Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen. Claybrook had told her supporters that her group was helping Nancy Pelosi write the new grassroots lobbying restrictions. The letter I signed violated none of the principles cited above.

In her response Ms. Claybrook chiefly noted that the majority of the other co-signers of that letter were conservatives, and there was an implication which Public Citizen made clearer in a post on their blog, that this was sour grapes by Republicans who didn’t want to lose their (DeLay-Abramoff) “astro-turf” groups (as opposed to the real grassroots groups the legislation would really harm).

Her response was pure partisan tribalism. According to Public Citizen, our criticisms were supported by too many conservatives, so they didn’t need to be taken seriously, even though the criticisms we were making were perfectly in line with what most people would consider liberal values. 

OMB Watch seems to have taken a page from this same book and assumed that is a conservative group that can be dismissed not because of what we say, but because of the supposed label OMB Watch has mistakenly affixed to us.

We are not conservatives. I could list scores of examples to prove it, but I’ll pick my most recent favorite and simply say that in the second-half of last year we were valued participants in a coalition of liberal/progressive groups fighting warrantless wiretapping by a Republican President’s administration. There was exactly one conservative in the coalition. There was one self-identified libertarian. And there was Downsize DC. Everyone else, more than 20 groups and additional individuals on top of that, starting with the coalition leaders from the ACLU, was a liberal.

Again, we just don’t care about that partisan stuff. We think it’s poisoning the governing process of this country.

On the other hand, it seems OMB Watch has forgotten their Voltaire. Voltaire was right, and these barriers to entry in our national debate are wrong, even if they are applied to groups that we at Downsize DC disagree with strenuously. THIS BILL IS BAD FOR ALL START-UP AND UP-START GRASSROOTS GROUPS LOOKING TO PARTICIPATE IN THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS. A well-spring of under-funded, gritty-grassroots, progressive political activism is, in large part, responsible for the Democrats recent Congressional victory. Ironically, now a group of liberals will strangle this kind of grassroots activity.

Do Public Citizen and OMB Watch even understand that this is what they’re doing? I think not. So my fondest hope would be that they would come to understand that their legislation is not only anti-conservative, it is anti-liberal and anti-every-label-under-the-sun.
Yet we don’t think Public Citizen and OMB Watch mean to cause harm. We merely think that they ARE causing harm, and we would like to coax them back to the bright side of the force. We want to do this with love and respect and friendship, the same as we feel for all the liberal and conservative organizations with which we work. 

Here are the non-partisan facts: These regulations will cost significant money, when compared to our annual budget. They may cause progressive groups (and groups all across the spectrum), to quit before they start because they don’t want to risk fines of up to $200,000 per violation, or jail time (yes, you could go to jail for a First Amendment activity here in America!). When these budding grassroots groups see that they will need the proverbial “lawyers, guns, and money” to do business, all too many of them will quit before they even start. 

The cynical part of me says this will make the incumbents quite happy.

Yet I firmly believe OMB Watch is sincere in their intentions. They believe their tactics, including this recent fact sheet, are advancing an important goal. And this important goal is to limit corruption and give us better government.

And I still firmly disagree that this policy is even remotely beneficial.

* In my opinion, it was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that led bad actors to seek new, darker, more hidden places to put their money.

* I think this new set of regulations also fails a Constitutional test.

* On top of that, it seems illogical to me to burden citizens, who can’t be corrupted in the legal and political sense because they have no public office to sell and no taxpayer financed favors to dispense, while politicians who apparently are so morally feeble they can’t handle the temptations these groups offer, get away regulation-free.

Fortunately, we have a chance to strip the grassroots lobbying provisions from the Senate version of the bill even as you read this. So please send a message now.

So to OMB Watch I want to say, simply, that you were wrong about us. I sincerely hope that at some point you’ll take the time to get to know us and that when you do, you’ll understand that you’ve mischaracterized us.

And to DC Downsizers I say, let’s set an example of not only what to change about our governing, but how to behave as we do it. We will educate and speak the truth to power. We will be aggressive and overwhelm the Upsizers. But we will try to do it with grace and kindness. It won’t always be easy, but we’ll do our best.

And just maybe, the world will marvel.

Jim Babka
Downsize DC Foundation
&, Inc.

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