Spadework on the stimulus

Sometimes politics means pretending we’re less clever than we are. Want to stiffen Obama’s spine? Start repeating boring political messages to lots and lots of people.

I agree that Obama has lost some control of his message (as Josh Marshall and Nate Silver argue), and has, in Senate negotiations, given up some of his priorities (and mine) too easily–though I wouldn’t go as far as Jonathan; things are far from catastrophic.

The question is what to do about it. Avid armchair politician though I am, I think it’s time for lots of us to turn foot soldier instead. The way to amplify Obama’s arguments is to repeat them. The way to improve a big recovery package’s chances in the senate is to get many, many voters to give their senators the identical message that they favor it.

Michael Walzer wrote somewhere (I hereby bleg for where), “a fair definition of political virtue is the willingness to say and do the same things over and over.” That’s only a fair definition, because curiosity, skepticism and dissent are also virtues. But there is a time for everything. This is the time to embrace the boring kind of political virtue—what Ella Baker called “spadework,” less glamorous than planting or harvesting but needful, and needed constantly.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt may or may not have told a delegation of reformers (but Saul Alinsky quoted it, and it makes a great story): “OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and put pressure on me!” Want to stiffen Obama’s spine? Send his defense of the recovery plan, or other defenses likely to be credible among those you’re sending them to, to friends and acquaintances who might otherwise not know about them, or who might otherwise be convinced by Republican spin and made-up economics. Hold meetings (in person, via video, through Facebook, whatever works for you) with other people. If you don’t know how to start, Organizing for America will tell you. (Yes, I said “tell you,” not “ask you.” The organizing, while practiced and to some extent riffed on at the grassroots, will be, frankly, coordinated from the center. That’s why it might work: it has some chance of repeating the same message widely.) Write letters–not emails; letters count more precisely because they take longer to write–to your senator, and get those you contact to do likewise.* Repeat ad nauseam. Then start over.

I may not actually do all of this. And I don’t expect everyone reading this post to do all of this–just some.

Kibitzing is fun. But fun is for when we’re done working.

*Update: or call. I’m such an introvert that I tend to assume everyone would rather write a long letter than call a stranger for thirty seconds–but I shouldn’t. Phone calls are effective and immediate.

Update #2: For those who don’t like, or can’t view, videos, this Washington Post op-Ed by Obama says about the same thing. The preceding may not be the first link to the op-Ed that you’ve seen–but that’s part of the point. We’ll win when everyone hears the same arguments 23 times, and knows that others have too.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.