Friday, August 5, 2016

Exploring Plans for a Brand New Congress

Brand New Congress (BNC) sounds like a great idea to almost everyone who learns about it. Americans of all political stripes need a way to fight back against the corrupt legislators who have a stranglehold on our laws, so the goal of targeting 2018 as the year when we will replace the professional politicians in Congress with engaged citizens who care about the future of our country is bound to have wide appeal.

Bernie Sanders generated a lot of energy in the U.S. not simply by appealing to progressives, but by waking everyone in the country up to the possibility of meaningful change in the way our government conducts itself.

Americans have wised up to the tricks of our Congresspeople. We know that polarizing debates about everything from flag burning to restroom access are cynically deployed by our politicians to keep us arguing about distractions instead of facing the reality that the U.S. government is working overtime to destroy democracy here and throughout the world so that it can get on with the important business of destroying the world itself.

Nina Turner taught Berners to say, "Enough is enough,"—and we've said it for so many months now that it's impossible for the millions of us who became politically engaged to shrug off the nomination of Hillary Clinton with some halfhearted agreement to "try again in 4 years." That's not an option for us. We have to do something. We have to work towards practical gains because there's too much at stake.

BNC seems practical because it provides us with a realistic opportunity to change the fundamental makeup of Congress. Check out the methodical BNC timeline that details how we ordinary citizens, if we stay organized and committed for two years, can recapture the U.S. Congress from the corporate interests that currently control it.

I very much hope that BNC will achieve its stated objective of building a progressive Congress, but my initial experience with the organization was a painful reminder of how vulnerable progressive causes are to the entrenched neoliberalism of the Democratic Party. The organizers of BNC presumably have their hearts in the right place, but those of us who seek to continue the Sanders revolution have good reason to worry about the ways in which our "friends" in the Democratic Party will try to manipulate BNC into supporting a toxic corporate agenda.

My exploration of BNC earlier this week left me deeply skeptical about the willingness of Democratic operatives to separate the progressive agenda of BNC from the corporate agenda of the DNC. In the remainder of this blog post, I'll chronicle that experience partly as a warning to my fellow progressives and partly as a challenge to BNC to improve their sales technique.

Problem #1: Lack of information

BNC is just getting started, so it's unfair to fault them for having an under-developed website at this point. But my experience in reading their materials, corresponding with the volunteers at their help desk, and participating in a BNC conference call convinced me that their problem goes beyond the limitations of their online presence. They haven't yet figured out how to communicate effectively with the people who would be most inclined to support them.

The fundamental problem with BNC's website is that it fails to answer the question likely to be foremost in the minds of visitors: "How can I get in contact with like-minded people in my area to help support a progressive candidate from my congressional district in 2018?" The website can't answer that very simple question in a lot of places because there aren't enough people involved to make networking with local progressives as easy as it should be, but BNC promotional materials certainly lead curious readers to believe that if they participate in a conference call, they will have a chance to learn how they can support BNC both at the national and the local level.

That's simply not true at this point. Although the leader of my BNC conference call assured me that she would explain how BNC could connect me with other progressives in Austin during the "meat" of her presentation, she never touched on the subject in her 20-minute spiel. 

Problem #2: Structural flaws in the conference call setup 

In the Q&A session at the end of the conference call, another participant repeated my question about how to get in touch with local progressives, and the call leader's answer was that since BNC's website wasn't really set up to give people that information just yet, the working method was to visit BNC on Facebook, sign up within our own states, and see what activities were scheduled in our area. I did so; no BNC activities are currently scheduled in Austin, Texas—one of the most fiercely progressive cities in the country.

That's not BNC's fault. It's to be expected at this point in their development. But the problem is that instead of answering that question in a forthright fashion, BNC wasted three hours of my life (90 minutes of reading and 90 minutes of participation in a conference call) by evading the question so that they could get me to tell them what sort of volunteer work I was best suited to do for them. 

The folks at BNC assume that their bona fides are beyond question by progressives, so when they invite you to participate in a conference call, it's not because they intend to persuade you that they're a good fit for you; it's for them to find out what you can do for them. As an organization that will have to rely on volunteers in much the same way that Sanders did, it's obviously important for BNC to figure out how supporters can contribute to the progressive cause ASAP, but they skip the critical first step of convincing potential volunteers that supporting BNC is the best possible use of their time and energy.

Problem #3: Apart from repeated assurances of non-partisanship, nothing about the process of registering for BNC or participating in the conference call felt remotely non-partisan

Even though BNC is an avowedly "non-partisan" organization, my limited involvement made me feel like I was simply discovering a new way to hitch my wagon to the fading star of the Democratic Party. BNC has perfectly good reasons to use the Act Blue fundraising website, but their claims of non-partisanship were undermined when a browser issue (presumably a cookie created during my previous donations) caused me to finish my interaction with Act Blue on a Texas Democrats page. 

That may not be BNC's fault, but such problems will undermine confidence in their commitment to non-partisan progress. They need a clear cyber-signpost at the end of the registration process to assure people that their interaction with BNC has been concluded.

The single most disappointing thing about my conference call leader was her habit of using the word "we" to blur the lines between BNC and the Democratic Party. When she said that "we" only needed to elect a handful of senators for "us" to have a simple majority in the senate, she was plainly assuming that Democratic senators somehow automatically qualify as progressive. That's a huge part of the problem that independents such as myself have with the Democratic Party. We're sick of being told to accept warmongering corporatist advocates of the surveillance state as "progressive" simply because they are pro-choice. 

The call leader's response to my explanation of what made me interested in BNC was also disappointing. I explained that the main lesson I learned while protesting the DNC in Philadelphia is that voting for Jill Stein in 2016 isn't enough. I need to help progressives work for lower-profile, higher-impact goals.

She responded by saying that it was okay for me to vote for Stein.

What kind of person would be most likely to construe my comment as a request for permission not to vote for Hillary Clinton? A corporate Dem (or perhaps someone who spends a lot of time in the company of corporate Dems).

My skin began to crawl when she later explained that the non-partisan approach of BNC on issues like climate change would be to persuade Republicans that even if they don't accept climate change as part of reality, they can still get behind measures that will help us reduce our reliance on foreign oil. That doesn't sound like support for green energy to me; it sounds exactly like Hillary Clinton clearing her throat to explain why fracked natural gas will be a clean energy bridge to a green energy future.

Hey BNC, people like me are not going to help you raise money and win hearts and minds for the privilege of destroying the atmosphere with American natural gas instead of Saudi oil. If you're as green as your promotional materials say you are, we need you to come through on that message loud and clear.

Problem #4: I'm less confident about BNC's commitment to progressive policies after participating in the conference call than I was before

A few hours after the conference call, I received a survey from BNC with this question:

I would have checked the third option ("More skeptical") if the prompt had ended there. But I'm not more skeptical because of any doubt concerning the viability of the plan. I think it's a brilliant plan, and I absolutely think it can work. The problem is that I'm not sure it won't be co-opted by traditional Dems who will be happy to save their corporate sponsors a little money by promising not to rely on super-pac dollars. Just because candidates insist on taking small dollar donations from ordinary citizens, that doesn't mean they are committed to single-payer healthcare or ending perpetual warfare or recognizing the humanity of Palestinians or stopping the racist war on drugs or curtailing the powers of the surveillance state.

Sure, they can sign a pledge affirming that they have adopted progressive positions on all those issues, but I don't see reliable mechanisms built into BNC to ensure that the candidates BNC elects will really champion the progressive agenda once they're in office.

With all that said, I can end on at least one positive note. After I raised these concerns to BNC's help desk in a long email that I expected to go unread, a volunteer replied with a thorough and thoughtful response. 

She knew she couldn't allay all my concerns because BNC is still in embryonic form, but she did make an honest effort to engage those concerns with the information available to her at the time of the response.

For now, however, I remain unconvinced that BNC is where my civic energies can best be put to use.

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