Every spring National People's Action brings hundreds of community organizers and grassroots leaders from across the country to Washington for its annual conference. And every year the event culminates in a hotly anticipated and meticulously planned direct action. In 2004 organizers bused hundreds of people to Karl Rove's Georgetown home, where they demanded he use his power to push Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to qualify for financial aid. George Goehl, who runs NPA, wasn't on staff at the time, but he describes the logic this way: "Rove was the most powerful person in the administration there was a way to get access to."
This year NPA opted to target someone you've almost certainly never heard of: Ed Yingling, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association. The ABA has been the chief obstacle to a proposed bankruptcy reform bill that would let judges modify mortgages, thereby allowing an estimated 600,000 people who face foreclosure to stay in their homes. The opposition from the banking lobby has been so fierce that the Senate's chief proponent of the bill, Dick Durbin, more or less gave up on negotiating with his colleagues across the aisle, opting instead to negotiate directly with representatives of the banks, as if they were some heretofore undiscovered fourth branch of government. (In April the bill went down to defeat, prompting Durbin to observe that the banks "frankly, own the place.")
"It was 600 people," says Goehl, describing the ABA action. "We had twelve or thirteen buses…. [We] went to the seventh floor where Ed Yingling is…. [And we said,] 'You guys have created the foreclosure crisis, sent the economy down the tubes and now you're preventing the number-one piece of legislation that would keep families in their home. You gotta back off.'"
This is Community Organizing 101: you figure out who's got the power; then you confront them. When the City of Chicago was failing to collect garbage properly in a poor neighborhood on the South Side, Saul Alinsky didn't have neighborhood residents protest the garbage men or the offices of Streets and Sanitation. He had residents collect their trash and dump it on the lawn of the local alderman. Services quickly improved.
It seems strange, almost surreal, to say this, but the Republican Party, and arguably the whole conservative movement, is not the left's biggest enemy at the moment. On keeping a public plan in healthcare reform; streamlining student lending; and passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), cap and trade, financial regulation and a host of other structural economic reforms progressives hope to enact, the GOP is more akin to the garbage men than the alderman.
"Most Republicans aren't waking up every day thinking, How do we kill banking regulation?" says Goehl. "Most people who listen to Rush Limbaugh aren't waking up thinking about how do we kill banking regulation. But the people with the deep pockets who have power in DC are thinking that.
"I sometimes get frustrated because it seems like the left isn't focused on corporate power. We like to talk about the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs, and meanwhile the American Bankers Association is one of the main entities running the country."
And while most of us can name the latest moronic utterance from Limbaugh or Michael Steele or Newt Gingrich, the Ed Yinglings of the world remain comfortably anonymous.
"I watch people click," says a friend who works at a web publication. "If you put a story on Sarah Palin at the way, way, way bottom of the page and a piece on the ABA in a screaming header on top, the Palin story would get more page views."
While the Republican Party shrinks, corporate interests are deftly molting their old K Street Project skin and crawling en masse inside the big tent being pitched by the Democratic Party. These same corporate interests have always had a purchase on Democrats, of course. But for much of the last decade, business interests had the luxury of spending most of their resources aiding their allies in the GOP.
No more. Writing on The Atlantic's website, Scott Bland and Ronald Brownstein identify the emergence of what they dub "The Democratic Industrial Complex." Energy and healthcare companies, automakers and banks all understand that the Democrats control much of their fate, so they've cast their lot with the majority party in a big way: John Kerry got less than 20 percent of the donations from electric utilities; Barack Obama got almost 60 percent. So far in this cycle, Democrats have captured two-thirds of the donations from the healthcare industry.
If big business's old legislative strategy was centered on relentless opposition to progressive initiatives–an approach that continues in areas like EFCA–the new strategy is to subvert legislation through co-optation, as in healthcare and cap and trade. By converting themselves, ostensibly, from opponents to "partners," corporate lobbies are trying to have it both ways: to block reforms while changing overt power struggles over the future of the economy into seemingly cooperative negotiations. At these negotiations, to use the president's favorite phrase, "everyone has a seat at the table"–except, the lobbyists get by far the best seats. (Alinsky didn't have much patience for this approach. "This liberal cliché about reconciliation of opposing forces is a load of crap," he once said. "When one side gets enough power, then the other side gets reconciled to it.")
These efforts at co-optation are aided by our natural inclination toward narrative and fable. It is pretty irresistible to view politics through the lens of heroes and villains. Palin is a character; the ABA is just an acronym.
But Goehl says the challenge for his organization and others (indeed, for members of the progressive media such as myself) is to make Ed Yingling and those of his ilk into household names. "We're interested in, how do we lift up a few of these key actors and turn them into public names for what they've done to lead us down this road. I don't think it's going to be easy. But it's happened a bit with the Bank of America guy."
"Ken Lewis?" I say.
"Yeah," Goehl replies, laughing. "I totally lost his name, and here I'm supposed to have a different orientation."