A 2015 To Do List

Sam Smith

Stop dissin’ the decentralization of power

Liberals and their media repeatedly suggest that any decentralization of power is a step back towards a Civil War definition of states rights and that opposing federal concentration is the sole purview of the reactionary right.

This is, of course, nonsense and one needs to look no further back than the left of the 1960s to find examples of a progressive approach to devolution of power.

This is not a matter of either/or. The goal is to found in the concept of subsidiarity, which argues that government is best carried out at the lowest practical level.

It was first defined by German theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning who thought that “functions of government, business, and other secular activities should be as local as possible. If a complex function is carried out at a local level just as effectively as on the national level, the local level should be the one to carry out the specified function. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person.”

 And Article 5.2 of the European Union treaty states:

“In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community.”

Besides, polls show that Americans have a much more positive view of state and local government than they do of the federal one. 

The next two years will be a great time to revive devolution given the debilitating conflict between Congress and the White House.  As you do so, remember the recent progress on such issues as gay marriage and marijuana that has occurred overwhelmingly at the state and local level. 

Push the lawyers, the MBAs and the economists to the side

There has been a takeover of the liberal movement by a grad school elite that sees itself as far brighter than much of the country, of superior virtue, and which believes that as long as you can manage something on paper you can make it work in reality. In many ways. Barack Obama – who brought us into our third decade of uninterrupted presidency by a Harvard or Yale grad schooler – epitomizes this approach not just in his manner but in his obsession with data, assessment, tests and legislative complexity. The foregoing not only fail empirically; they annoy the hell out of much of the rest of the country. Further, the liberal elite with increasing frequency can be heard speaking of less powerful and educated Americans in a manner reminiscent of white southerners of a past time talking about blacks.

Learn something from the way churches work

If you step back from the issues involved and consider just organizing skill, a remarkable fact emerges. The groups most effective at organizing large groups of people in America these days are not political at all, but churches.
Even discounting for the carrot of promised salvation, a serious organizer can find much to admire and emulate in the way churches go about their business. An Alinsky-trained organizer would understand this but the average liberal would be shocked. What the union activist understood about politics is that it’s not where you come from, but where you’re willing to go that counts. And even the average church is kinder to sinners than your typical political purist these days.

What is the secret of the church approach to organizing, again leaving aside the not insignificant come-on of heaven?

To begin with, at their best, churches are congregations and not merely organizations. Our society has become so bureaucratized that we hardly recognize the difference, but there is a big one. An organization is a carefully constructed pyramid, a congregation is far less clearly defined. One is a bureaucratic system, the other a social one. One is an artificial construct; the other is a voluntary gathering, a swarming in modern terms, around common values and goals.
Finally, organizations pride themselves on adherence to a specific mission; congregations see their role as far more holistic including the spiritual, the political, the therapeutic and caring for those in need even if they are not a part of the group.

And it’s not just a skill of evangelicals. You can find it among Unitarians, at Quaker meeting or in a synagogue – the sense that the group represents not only common faith, but a shared community and an obligation to each other. It was also typical of the old political machines such as in the Chicago’s 24th ward as run by Jacob Arvey. Said a contemporary: “Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before it hits the ground there’s already a personal history at headquarters, complete to the moment of its tumble.”

When I think back over all the political organizations with which I have been involved, far and away the most impressive in its work, the most emotional in the attachment it attracted and the most moving in its memories was the civil rights movement. I strongly suspect that a major reason for this was that the movement – consciously and unconsciously – used the church as a model.

Get some symbols and sounds

Today we have no simple icon like the 1960s peace symbol.

There is no hand greeting like the “V” sign or a special hand clasp.

There is no color associated with supporters of a new America.


There is a stunning silence. The disappearance of easily recalled tunes in popular music has taken sound away from our collective lips, leaving a silence that “like a cancer grows.”


There is a lack of art or literature that clearly reflects the collapse of the First American Republic, or our present political purgatory – what Eric Budon of the Animals has called “the endarkenment.”

We are in a terrible moment of our history yet we have left its iconization to the same forces that caused all the trouble in the first place. As we think about America 2.0, retrieving control of our symbols and creating sounds should be near the top of the list.

Organize by issue, not ideology

Back in the 1960s, DC stopped a huge plan for freeways that would have made the city another Los Angeles. Behind the effort was a coalition that included radical blacks and white Georgetowners as well as middle class whites and blacks who had never been active before.  Because it was the issue, not ideology or ethnicity, that mattered, the effort succeeded.

That sort of organizing has gone out of style, but should come back. For example, if we had a coalition of black, latino and labor organizations working together on shared issues it could have a big effect.  

Encourage reciprocal freedom

They get their gun, you get to have an abortion or a gay marriage. You can’t have a truly free country without some people doing things you don’t approve of. The solution is not excoriation but a reciprocity that leaves everyone with basic freedoms without hurting those of others. 

End liberal puritanism

While liberals are shocked by recent police abuse cases, the little noted truth is that not a small amount of this abuse stems from a huge increase in legal restraints such as broken window policies and extreme taxes on cigarettes that allow the cops to interfere physically in matters that might otherwise be ignored or treated like a parking ticket.

Liberals need to recognize that they make up less than 25% of the electorate, so if they want to win, they have convince and not just rely, say, on 27,854 new pages of new EPA  regulations issued since Obama took office.

Remember that most politics is a reaction 

If you want good politicians you have to create movements and cultural changes that brings them to the fore. Politicians are a reaction to what’s happening around them. That’s why we are now headed for a bitter choice between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. 
What can change that? Movements that make politicians act differently.   

Use boycotts

The smart use of boycotts is one of the most undervalued forms of activism. The one thing that Americans still have in their power is what they buy.

Get an agenda

One has to go back to the Great Society to find a time when Democrats knew what they were doing and how to describe it. Meanwhile, the GOP has happily gone about oversimplifying life to God and gays, abortion and austerity, and the left still can’t figure out why it’s losing. We need a simple agenda that everyone can understand, one rooted in items that will positively affect the typical American.  

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