Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation
Working for peace, social
justice and principled nonviolence since 1976
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Grassroots People-Power Can Win Hearts and Minds
~ Glen Anderson
The American people are intensely frustrated with the way things are going. Public opinion polls show ever-larger majorities saying our country is headed in the wrong direction. It’s the war, the economy, political corruption, campaigns sold to the highest bidder, dangerous products sold to consumers, loss of privacy, inadequate health care – the list goes on and on.
The American people know we can’t look to Congress for leadership. People voted Democratic majorities into the U.S. House and Senate, but they continue to support Bush’s wars and his abuse of our civil liberties. The American people know the problems are more fundamental than a mere change of political party can solve. The Democrats won’t save us – not a Democratic Congress, and not even a Democratic President.
Don’t look to any level of government for leadership. I often wear a button that says, “When the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow.” A powerful saying affirms, “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” The solution to the mess we’re in is a number of issue-based grassroots movements for political and social change.
Therefore – no matter which issue we’re working on – in order for a political or social change movement to win, the movement must:
(1) Make the issue so hot and compelling that society will have to deal with it.
(2) Reach out to the general public, educate the public, and convince an increasingly larger majority of the public.
(3) Mobilize this new majority into an effective force that brings about the necessary social or political change.
In order to win public opinion, the movement must reach out to the public from the inside – as Americans who are grounded in society’s deeply held values, beliefs, traditions, and symbols. We must show that the movement upholds these true American values, while the powerful forces promoting militarism and empire are violating them.
Actions and attitudes that insult the general public’s values or intelligence alienate the very public whom we need to reach! Treating mainstream Americans as if they were the enemy – or even treating them with smug superiority –antagonizes them and prevents them from hearing our message.
Often the peace movement faces an uphill struggle because militarists slander us as “communists” or “terrorists” or some other negative identity, and the mainstream news media reinforce stereotypes against us. While rejecting these labels we also need to create and communicate our own image.
Sometimes the actions of a few reinforce the negative stereotypes. The general public does not want to join a grumpy, angry movement, but they will be attracted to a movement that is working for a better world and other clearly positive goals. We need to reach out to the public in friendly and open ways – with understanding and solidarity as we help the public see how peace and other progressive policies are really in their best interests.
Fresh approaches can catch public attention and help them see the movement in fresh ways. Old stereotypes of activism (methods, messages, images, etc.) can keep the public as well as activists stuck in ways that have stopped communicating the message we really want to convey. Such tunnel vision could marginalize ourselves.
For example, many mainstream people oppose the war but don't see themselves as the kind of people who attend rallies. If this is our primary activity, they will conclude that they don’t belong in the peace movement. We need to reach out to people where they currently are, and not merely tell them to come to us at our stereotypical events.
In what fresh, creative, practical ways could we reach out to the general public and help them see that their values and self-interest really would cause them to reject militarism and to consider a different foreign policy?
We can communicate in ways that actually affirm society’s best values and culture. Remember a few years ago when the City of Olympia used high-handed tactics to cram an unwanted convention center down our throats? The City’s end-run around democracy violated our sense of local democracy and citizen control. The Olympia community rose up, rejected the City’s leaders, and demanded the right to vote on the proposed conference center. The grassroots organization that challenged the City called itself “Public Funds for Public Purposes.” What a winning concept! The grassroots movement challenged the establishment by invoking powerful democratic values of grassroots empowerment, public accountability, fiscal responsibility, and open government.
Don’t those same widely held American values challenge the U.S.’s current war policies head-on?
How could the peace movement – locally and nationwide – convert and mobilize public opinion now by invoking these and other widespread American values? The peace movement represents what’s best about our nation, while the warhawks and the military-industrial complex are violating our American values.
The public says it wants to “support the troops.” Sending them to an illegal war to risk death and disability does not support them. Rather, one of the Olympia FOR’s vigil signs says, “Protect our troops from this reckless foreign policy.”
George Lakoff’s concepts of “framing” and “re-framing” issues are very useful. See www.rockridgeinstitute.org
It’s not about gimmicks or spin. It’s really about humane attitudes and a commitment to effective grassroots organizing that seeks to win the public’s hearts and minds. In a democratic society, that’s what really counts.
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