The Greatest Leadership Challenge: Renewing our Belief in Democracy and Political Advocacy

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Historically, the leaders of nonprofit groups have been active advocates for democracy. Nonprofit leaders have taken risks, boldly speaking out for interests that were not represented in debates on public policies and priorities–communities that were poor, powerless, or otherwise barred from equal access to education, commerce and similar foundational aspects of life. They wisely recognized that organizing constituents, raising public consciousness, legislative advocacy, and funding of these actions were necessary components of a strategy for effecting systematic social change. Yet today, for a variety of reasons, this practice of political advocacy is in sharp decline–even in the face of dramatic and alarming changes at the federal and state level.

The overwhelming influence of money in our culture has lowered our expectations about what can be accomplished. The increasing success of special interests in politics has effectively driven anyone without big money to the sidelines, diminishing broad participation and engagement, and narrowing the policy agenda. As our civic worth seems increasingly to be measured by our net worth, it is harder and harder for people to believe they can trump money.

Absenting ourselves from public dialogue is a particularly dangerous trend for nonprofits. Without a radical wake-up call, the recent past will most certainly become a prologue to the future. New restrictions–often self-imposed–on dissent and debate seem a curious counterpoint to growing corporate influence over government–and media. Unchecked, these trends could well find nonprofits boxed out of the framing of public issues even further.

Since the 2000 presidential election, Americans have endured a series of national challenges, including a major economic downturn and recurrent corporate scandals, the lingering specter of 9/11 and the price tag of a global war on terrorism. The administration’s political response has been to pursue a massive tax cut, which unabashedly favors the wealthy. In combination, each of the above will contribute to the already mountainous federal debt and shrinking fiscal capacity of government–threatening to undermine vital programs and policies.

Meanwhile, for the less affluent, the vise is tightening. Even for middle-class people, worries about health care coverage, shrinking and unprotected pensions, housing and educational costs loom large, threatening both their future and their children’s. State and local budgets are being squeezed from above and below. States are reluctant to adopt new taxes, eliminating subsidies for local services and safety-net programs for lower-income people without accounting for the ultimate human and financial costs. Public health funds are being diverted to meet deficits. All this has occurred without a serious, organized political challenge. Many of the traditionally vocal opponents of such moves are in silent retreat as the current administration successfully blurs any real differences between the political parties.

High-profile corporate scandals that reveal the failings of integrity and governance are a powerful example of the continuing erosion of democratic principles in America. When has there ever been such a massive breakdown in the ethical core or our systems of accountability? Despite losses reckoned in the trillions of dollars adversely affecting every family in America, the dominant voices in the media, the political arena and business are protecting and defending the rights of monied special interests rather than those of the victims. The silence of responsible corporate leaders is deafening.

It is now clear that this great economic engine, so vital to our well-being, is imploding. Thanks to the power of money in politics, government enforcement and regulatory watchdogs have been weakened. The voices of citizens, constituents and investors have been stifled through obstacles legally created to minimize any meaningful corporate democracy. The principles of transparency, disclosure, integrity, credibility, and checks and balances have simply evaporated.

One would think that economic self-interest alone would cause political activism to flourish. After all, it is our endowments that are threatened, our burdens that are increasing as government recedes, and our interests that are subordinated to corporate bottom lines. Even the capacity to innovate is stymied by the effects of these events on our communities. Yet initiatives supporting elder care, affordable housing, the arts, community and small business development, and on and on, continue to be sacrificed in the name of “compassionate conservatism.”

We are undoubtedly in a crisis that calls the very morality of this country into question. The voices of the nonprofit sector stand at the crossroads of a unique challenge. A choice must be made to step into the vacuum, to become involved, to support and renew our democracy, and to educate and train a new generation of activists. We will serve our communities best by engaging in the politics of governing and change because, by doing so, we will exert influence over the major decisions that frame our social realities.

Our public policy priorities are what they are today because those who benefit are active in the political fray. Corporate America and the forces that seek to alter our social and public priorities never quit; they demonstrate no capacity for shame (no matter how much they are exposed and criticized), actively support their allies–and aggressively oppose those who are not. And they do so at every level of government. They understand advocacy and they use every tool available to them, exploiting every loophole and every medium. In other words, the “special interests” that we decry actually sound and act just like the progressive reformers, unionists and the liberal activists of the 60s.

Monied interests are exercising their rights to be heard, to lobby, to advocate, to vote, to petition, to influence, and to contribute to organizations and campaigns they believe will further their cause. They educate their members and constituents at every turn to get them involved in the political process because values in a democracy are, in fact, worked out through the political process. And they participate even if the candidates or choices are not ideal. They play to win–not to be pure, not to be “right,” not merely to exist.

Just as corporate interests learned their democratic politics from the progressive grassroots coalitions of the 60s and 70s, we can relearn political effectiveness from them–and take it one step further. People can trump money if organized and mobilized–nationally and locally.

So what to do? We need to develop a road map for how nonprofit leadership–of every size and in every community–can organize toward an alternative set of societal values and a new national agenda. We know that this kind of movement begins locally, at the grassroots level, and that the stakes are no less than reclaiming democracy. It will require that we rededicate ourselves to extensive constituent outreach, consistent civic education activities, deliberate engagement in public policy advocacy, and commitment to fund these crucial democratic activities. In this way, people can again approach their opportunities and power in a democratic system.

People can trump money, but it takes coalitions, standing for things that matter, and connecting them to people’s lives and values. Most of all, it takes staying power. There are legions out there waiting for us–a generation that still remembers when there were public heroes, and when civil rights and liberties mattered–as well as a new generation of young, developing, united leaders with immense potential. In every group, every discipline, every persuasion, and every sector, there are ordinary citizens who love their country. They are waiting to be asked, to be called, to do their service as foot soldiers in an independent, non-partisan, broad-based, aggressive, politically astute and highly principled citizens’ army.

Scott Harshbarger practices at the law firm of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane, LLP, and served as president and CEO of Common Cause, and as attorney general of Massachusetts.