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General News    H2'ed 2/20/11

Citizens United: Transforming Politics at For the People Summit in D.C.

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Leaders from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C. on the weekend of January 21, 2011 to mark the first anniversary of the "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" Supreme Court decision. The ideas that were shared and the relationships that were forged represent important building blocks in the foundation of a successful movement to restore accountability to our government.

The unique combination of experiences, skills, and perspectives brought by each participant to the summit were transformed by the social interaction and knowledge sharing that ensued. It was an archetypal example of synergy: "Some alchemy takes place that results ... in a qualitative change in the participants ... people in Great Groups seem to become better than themselves. They are able to see more, achieve more, and have a far better time doing it than they can working alone."[1]

The common thread of "For the People" represents a shared desire for a government that works for and is accountable to the people that it represents and the ability to trust the processes and methods of the political system that support it. Underneath this overarching banner there are four themes that make up this dialogue: the process that we choose when we engage in dialogue and discussion, the methods that we use to encourage collaboration, the organizational strategies that we choose to move towards a solution, and the actual solutions that we decide to pursue.

Movement For The People Summit
Movement For The People Summit
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Effective communication and problem solving is defined by these key characteristics: separate the people from the problem; focus on interests, not positions; invent options for mutual gain; and insist on using objective criteria.[2] Progress is encouraged when you shift the dialogue with others towards a "learning conversation."[3] As we pursue a shared vision in collaboration with others, the polarization that emerges from a diversity of views must be harmonized by an "ability " to inquire into diverse visions in such a way that deeper, common visions emerge."[4]

Annabel Park describes the importance of not associating the group with a solution too early in the deliberative process, and instead focusing on creating a community of experts, leaders and community members who can collaborate in creating a solution. She also emphasizes the importance of fact-based discourse and highlights the transformational power of engaging people in a dialogue who are from groups who do not typically associate with one another. By referring to facts and objective criteria instead of fear and sensational positions, people who were previously confrontational can arrive at the realization that they have mutual goals and shared opportunities.

The scientific community approaches knowledge creation and the evolution of understanding by building upon previous work and creating hypotheses that are tested by observation. The opportunity for independent verification of the conclusions is an important analogy for the importance of fact-based discourse in the political sphere. Such an approach will encourage progress that is built on a foundation of unwavering and long-lasting potential.

Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy and describes the pervasive tendency of organizations and individuals to "spin" events and information, presenting an incomplete picture of the whole that puts their interests in a positive light or supports outcomes that will benefit them. Spin is a form of propaganda and uses manipulation and deception to persuade public opinion in favor of or against a certain organization, position, or public figure. Common techniques are: selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one's position; phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths; presenting derogatory information about an individual messenger to distract from their message; and "burying bad news" by announcing one popular thing at the same time as several unpopular things, hoping that the media will focus on the popular one.[5]

As lauded lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald describes, the government will sometimes use a propaganda strategy where a high-ranking official will "make wild and reckless -- though unverifiable -- claims. The U.S. media mindlessly trumpets them around the world without question or challenge. Those claims become consecrated as widely accepted fact. And then weeks, months or years later, those claims get quietly exposed as being utter falsehoods, by which point it does not matter, because the goal is already well-achieved: the falsehoods are ingrained as accepted truth."[6]

Another dangerous theme is media manipulation, in which "many of the more modern mass media manipulation methods are types of distraction, on the assumption that the public has a limited attention span."7 Logical fallacies are often employed that consist of one of several approaches. It will be helpful for us to become familiar with these tactics so that we recognize when they are being employed.

Distraction by nationalism appeals to nationalistic pride to discredit opposing arguments or appeals to fear and disdain of other countries. The "straw man fallacy" misrepresents the opponent's position and refutes the superficially similar position to create the illusion of having refuted the original position. In "ad hominem" arguments, the validity of a position is questioned based on attacks on the individual who is advocating the position.[7]

Emphasis of another simultaneous issue attempts to draw attention away from the sensitive issue. Euphemistically appealing language selectively chooses semantically pleasing terms to obscure the truth. Appeals to consensus, whether it is real or fictional, are meant to create the illusion that the position being advocated is the only opinion, in order to dismiss the alternatives from public consideration.[7]

Fear mongering uses repetitive appeal to an exaggerated outcome to frighten a group and influence their political views. Demonisation of the opposing party ascribes the opposing party's views to that of a hated group so that their views are dismissed without consideration.[7]

When interpreting information and making decisions, it is wise to be aware of the interests of those who are providing information and conclusions. By taking into account their motivations when evaluating the conclusions that have been reached an assessment can be made regarding the relative degree of objectivity and therefore the extent to which the outcome is based on truth as opposed to an agenda of manipulation. Today's society needs to adopt a healthy skepticism of the information that is branded as fact by many think tanks, government agencies, media outlets, and individuals. Professor Lawrence Lessig demonstrates how "money in the wrong place" materially changes the outcome of studies upon which important policy decisions are based. To accomplish an increased awareness of pervasive manipulation tactics and reduce their effectiveness requires that these techniques become a part of public awareness and also requires a vibrant open media.

As Free Press communications director Dave Saldana indicates at the summit, it is very important for us to preserve a strong and independent press in our society. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, stated "the basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."[8] Wikileaks founder Julian Assange points out that a free press acts as a watchdog for society against abuse of power when it is concentrated in government or corporate institutions.

By focusing on community building, objective information, recognition of logical fallacies, a free press, and an awareness of conflicts of interest we can foster an environment for decision making that allows significantly greater productivity in reaching conclusions that ultimately support the people who are affected. This allows us to engage in a collaborative community to evaluate and pursue strategies to reach our goals.

A wholesome approach will aim for significant accomplishments and utilize the strengths of the participants while connecting with the broad community that is affected.

There are often multiple angles that are proposed to address an issue at hand. A tendency to frame solutions in black and white, which is referred to in the psychological community as "splitting", can reduce the overall effectiveness of the group when multiple solutions will produce a benefit and they are not mutually exclusive to each other.[9] Lessig reminds us of the importance of being able to "walk and chew gum and the same time."

The corruption in the government is "in plain sight" and is not a mysterious, hidden corruption; but rather a systemic reality created by our current legal environment, says Lessig. To fix this system would be to fundamentally restore accountability and representation to the very core of our political system. While this represents a complete paradigm change, that does not mean that it is out of the question. The popular understanding of the role of corporations that we take for granted today has shifted significantly in the past and can shift again in the future.[10] Lessig emphasizes that we need to strategically address this issue and solve it with a system of public campaign financing within a short time frame of no more than six years.

Some in this community do not have extensive experience in this particular field and their fresh perspective can be considered to have a level of "naivete" that can work as an asset or a detriment depending on the way in which it is used, says Bill Moyer of The Backbone Campaign. By showing respect for those who are already entrenched in this area and building relationships with them, we can leverage this enthusiasm in combination with the extensive talent that already exists.

There are very large groups of people who are fundamentally affected by this issue but have not been engaged in a manner that would raise their awareness of the relevance of this problem. Moyer describes how the poor communities and the victims of the housing crisis are deeply invested in solving this problem and that we must be sure to reach out to this part of the community. Soya Jung of The Consortium for Change reminds us of the importance of using stories to communicate a message to people, as facts without a human context to produce feelings have much less impact on people's perception.

There are popular media programs that have successfully engaged large portions of the population through satire. Eric Byler envisions a conscious push towards much more citizen involvement in the creation of satirical content. By becoming active creators of content -- rather than passive consumers -- the level of participation and discussion will rise, and a large portion of the population will be involved in "true civic engagement", says Park.

These strategies allow us to move from a deliberative framework for decision making towards an environment of collaboration that will eventually allow orchestrated action towards a solution. A strong collaboration will require a broad and deep level of engagement, communication that transcends traditional divides, and a compassion for others.

There are a very large number of groups that are actively pursuing a wide range of far-reaching objectives. Lessig discussed the importance of reaching out to this extensive community to involve them in this pursuit. The corrupting influence of money in politics has a significant negative influence on the ability to make progress on nearly every agenda.

It would be wise to develop a plan to meet with leaders of other movements to inform them of a significant opportunity that is at hand. This opportunity is to commit to investing a small percentage of their resources towards campaign finance reform. The magic of this opportunity is that they will realize an unprecedented return on their investment; the level of progress that they are able to make in their primary mission will be multiplied by orders of magnitude as a result of this reform. Lessig proposes that other cause based organizations dedicate ten percent of their resources towards this pursuit, and not for altruistic reasons, but rather based on their own self-interest.

Many groups are already working on this specific problem as their core focus. Moyer points out that many of these disparate groups do not typically communicate with each other. An individual who has communication with the leaders of this broad spectrum of groups is in a unique position. One of the important roles played by an individual such as Annabel is to unify groups that share common goals to encourage collaboration for mutual benefit. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

The power of language to tell stories and convince people is significant. As Ralph Nader reminds us, we should not fight an uphill battle against a struggle that is already challenging. Instead, we should understand the language that the population and the opponents are using, and build our messages in a way that will reach people and be best understood. The popular term for the opposition that is being used by people on all sides of the political spectrum is a "corporatocracy" and it will benefit us to use this term that people are already familiar with.

To bring together people who do not typically associate with each other requires an understanding of compassion and a capacity for empathy. We can significantly amplify our effectiveness by building upon the vast body of knowledge and experience that already exists around the understanding of compassion and the unifying power that it brings with it. Wide scale cooperation on shared issues between formerly divided groups can become a reality. There is no need for us to recreate this knowledge if we will take advantage of the extensive insight that already exists in this area.[11]

The Tea Party is often brought up in two contexts: as an example of populist action in response to a widespread discontent with the state of politics in this country, and as an example of extreme, fear-based propaganda spreading by prominent figures. The idea of many people in the group arranging personal meetings with Tea Party members around the country and introducing fact-based dialogue into discussions of issues was presented by Park and Joey Mornin. In these meetings common desires and shared goals may be established. To actually carry out these meetings will require resolve and will demonstrate a personal integrity and consistency with the values that we represent. During these meetings, it would be wise to apply established tools of effective dialogue and collaboration.[12]

The biggest risk faced by the movement is that of division. As former Pentagon analyst Chuck Spinney details, those who are opposed try to divide the group by creating internal conflict. This division causes significant resources to be spent on this conflict and marginalizes the group's effectiveness. Byler and Park remind us that a prominent tool for division is the pervasive fear-based rhetoric regularly employed in the mainstream media.

There is widespread consensus that the corrupting influence of money in politics has a devastating effect on the integrity of our political system and the ability of the people to trust the political process. Multiple solutions are presented, including a public financing system, a constitutional amendment, a constitutional convention, open debates, a discussion of recent proposed legislative measures, and a strategy of making this problem a platform issue in the upcoming election cycle.

Keynote speaker Lessig outlined the importance of "fixing congress first," emphasizing that while other projects that are proposed may be good, that the real problem will only be addressed through a system of publicly financed elections. He suggests adoption of the "First Fifty Dollars" project, which was first proposed by Yale University professors Ackerman and Ayres.[13] This proposal is based on the fact that every voter generates at least fifty dollars in federal revenue, and would be assigned a voucher that they would then allocate to the candidates of their choice. The candidates would have the ability to choose to opt-in to this financing system, and would then forsake accepting large private donations for their campaign. The total amount of financing that this system would be estimated to generate is six billion dollars, compared to the approximately four billion dollars that was spent in the last election cycle. It is designed to be a robust system in today's Supreme Court jurisprudence and to address the underlying issues that existed even before the Citizens United decision.

David Cobb of Move to Amend explains why it is reasonable to pursue a constitutional amendment that clarifies what entities are entitled to certain constitutional protections and eliminates the legal concept of corporate personhood. He explains why the work of his group is important to eliminate the negative influence that the Citizens United decision has had on our political system in the sense that it has classified corporate spending, meant to influence the outcome of elections, as "protected free speech" under the First Amendment.

Lessig explains that a constitutional convention can be suggested as a strategy to persuade Congress to take action on this issue in an political environment where they would prefer to avoid it.

The corrupting influence of money in politics needs to be at the forefront of discussion in the nation so that it will receive exposure commensurate to the importance that it carries in society. The Commission on Presidential Debates is not an independent organization; it is controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties and has demonstrated in the past that it is interested in censoring viewpoints that are not popular with the two participants in the debate. As Nader says, this debate forum is the most widely covered political forum by mainstream media and is an important tool for reaching many American homes. When issues do not receive adequate representation in this setting they miss an important opportunity to become a part of the national agenda.

Lessig describes how the upcoming primary elections cycle will present an opportunity for a prominent Republican candidate to build his campaign platform around the issue of money in politics. Doing so will have the potential to raise the prominence of this issue so that no other candidate can afford to avoid discussing it. This would be a positive step towards reaching a real and present-day solution to this problem.

Moving Forward
Moyer reminds us that the points of view that we represent are held by the majority of the American people. This is not a question of convincing people, but rather a challenge of bringing together the pieces that have been outlined here of dialogue, strategy, collaboration and solutions, allowing us to embark upon a path of lasting transformation for the benefit of society as a whole.

This summit represents an important step on the path to reform and a launching pad for a unified movement to transform the political system of our nation. It has the potential to be a galvanizing moment that sparks relationships and partnerships that will join together to transcend the effectiveness of either as an individual entity. It combines intellectual pursuit with trans-partisan collaboration, a diverse group of leaders, and a rich set of stories from each of our perspectives. This summit is an important moment in this movement, inspired by our great founder Abraham Lincoln, a movement that is "of, by, and for the people."[14]

[1] Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaborations (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1997) 196.
[2] Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (New York: Penguin, 1983) 10.
[3] Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999) 16.
[4] Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (London: Random House, 2006) 228.
[5] "Spin (public relations)," Wikipedia 31 Jan. 2011
[6] Glenn Greenwald, "How propaganda is disseminated: WikiLeaks Edition," 12 Oct. 2010, 31 Jan. 2011
[7] "Media manipulation," Wikipedia 31 Jan. 2011
[8] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington (16 January 1787) Lipscomb & Bergh ed. 6:57.
[9] Atsushi Oshio, Development and Validation of the Dichotomous Thinking Inventory (Chubu University. Kasugai, Japan: Society for Personality Research, 2009)
[10] Richard Grossman and Frank Adams, Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation (South Yarmouth, MA: Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, 1993)
[11] Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2009) 115.
[12] Muneera Spence, Graphic Design Collaborative Processes: a Course in Collaboration (Oregon State University. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: AIGA, 2005)
[13] Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, Voting with Dollars: A New Paradigm for Campaign Finance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002)
[14] Abraham Lincoln, "The Gettysburg Address," The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1955)
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Cosmo Harrigan is an internet activist, entrepreneur, musician, photographer and writer. He lives in Seattle and has been involved in freedom of speech and human rights work for the past ten years. He is the founder and president of an international (more...)
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Citizens United: Transforming Politics at For the People Summit in D.C.

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