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UNITE and ConquerHow to Build Coalitions That Win—and Last
By Kyrsten Sinema
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Kyrsten Sinema
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Politics We Want
What kind of world do we want? As progressives, we believe in fairness and justice. We think that all people are equal and should be treated as such, and we think that everyone should be respected for who he or she is. We believe in open processes where everyone is treated with dignity. We value freedom—both freedom from tyranny and the freedom to be and do what we dream. We want everyone to have the opportunity to succeed. And we believe in responsibility—for ourselves, for each other, and for the earth. Finally, we believe in love as a driving force for humanity.
We want to live in a paradise where all of our values have a place, so let's identify what our vision for the world really is and embrace an ethos that is true to our core values. Instead of falling for the tricks and old habits from the past, when we allowed fear and division to rule our decisions, we instead will choose a better path. This "new ethos"—this way of living and doing—simply means that we're choosing to live and act in accordance with our values. This means that we practice what we want to achieve.
The old-school handbook of politics says that the best way to beat your opponents is to use their own tricks against them. If they've been running commercials that bash your candidate and make her look bad (even though they're not quite true), then we should run commercials that bash their candidate and make him look bad (even if they're not quite true).
The old-school handbook of politics says that the best way to win an issue is to outfox your opponents—trick them into something or go around them to get what you want. In the old-school handbook, political actors seek ways to overpower or outmaneuver each other.
The old-school handbook of politics is about scheming and plotting—how to get what you want from the political process while making the other guy look bad. How to one-up his press release or media stunt from the other day. How to look smart, benevolent, and charming while your opponent looks like someone who would literally steal from a child. It's easy to see why so many people hate politics.
The old-school handbook of politics, quite simply, continues political action in the vein it's been traveling in over the past forty years. Cooperation and collaboration are rare, especially when the issue is very important. Partisan-ship is valued as being true to the ideals of one political party. People do not reach across the aisle to work together, much less create friendships together.
Back in the super old days (before the "old-school politics" days), Congress was different. Members worked together more frequently on bipartisan legislation, and party registration was not a prerequisite to friendships or invitations to after-work gatherings. Lee Hamilton served in the United States House for nearly thirty-four years and once wrote that he watched Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater duke it out on the floor of the Senate, then leave after work to have a drink together. Today, such relationships are rare. In fact, those elected officials who do manage to maintain close friendships with members from the opposite party are often viewed as sellouts or are not trusted within their caucus because of their cozy relationship with "the other side."
These kinds of deep divisions have hurt our ability to practice politics in a way that is uplifting and worthwhile. Instead, they've reduced us to the lowest common denominator, causing politics to reflect trashy daytime talk shows ("Watch Jerry Springer today to see which member of Congress reveals a shocking secret about his suitemate that you'll be wild to hear!") that interest few and engage even fewer.
Sadly, this is pretty much how politics operates today—on both sides of the aisle. Many credit the 1994 "Contract with America" campaign, the brainchild of Newt Gingrich, with ushering in a hyperpartisanship that has become standard fare in American politics. During the 1994 congressional election cycle, the Contract with America laid out specific policy proposals by the Republican House caucus. All but two sitting Republican House members signed the contract, and every single Republican House candidate in the country signed it prior to the election. After Republicans took a majority in the House, they began passing bills based on the proposals in the contract. Most of the bills never made it through the Senate or became law, but their very existence as items for debate changed the way in which members of Congress worked together (or, more appropriately, didn't work together). Gone were the days of hashing out the elements of a bill in a bipartisan work group—instead, wholesale ideas created by one party were brought to the floor and ushered through. This brand of politics has made a lasting impression on our nation. Now that Democrats have reclaimed the House, we read regular reports from Republicans decrying the Democrats' unwillingness to create legislation in a bipartisan fashion. Instead, they say, the Democrats create legislation in a back room somewhere and then push it through the floor, regardless of the views of the minority party.
Americans are quite clearly sick of the old-school practice of politics. Voters say regularly that they're tired of the partisan bickering and want politicians to sit down and work out practical solutions to the pressing problems facing our country. While we hear this regularly from the public, we've not made any real effort to change the way we do business, and so the hyperpartisanship continues. But I believe that in order to survive politically in the coming years, we as progressives must find a new way to engage in politics—one that is true to the values that we espouse and that strives to emulate the kind of world that we actually want to live in.
A New Ethos
What can we do differently? I propose that we choose instead to engage in politics from a belief that you must practice politics in a way that you would like politics to be. Even if the prevailing attitude about political activity demands that you engage in smear tactics against your opponents, you reject that method of acting and instead choose a higher road of engagement that focuses on finding common ground with those typically considered opponents and that seeks to create solutions that meet everyone's interests. You put aside the inflammatory rhetoric about those who are different from you and seek to highlight that which affects us all and can bring us together.
President Barack Obama's campaign for the United States presidency was a phenomenon, sweeping the country like wildfire. Democrats, Independents, even Republicans, became fans and supporters of Obama in numbers and with an intensity never before seen in my lifetime. While there's been no definitive study on this phenomenon, many credit his tsunami of support and, frankly, devotion to his unique brand of politics. During the primary election, Obama talked about bringing people together, downplayed conflicts between Americans, and said that we are all more alike than we are different. He said that there was no red America or blue America but one America. His campaign focused on hope and unity and an attempt to bring people together regardless of their political affiliation, race, age, gender, or geographic location. The word transcend has been used so often in connection with Obama that it's taken on almost mythic proportions.
While critics claim that Obama is a stock liberal (because his political views on policy issues are pretty typically progressive), what has made him different from other major candidates in recent years is his willingness and his comfort with difference, as well as his refusal to concede that divisions must be standard fare in party politics. While this has made him appealing to independents and even some conservatives, its effect, I think, has been most impactful among the left—who for years have sounded angry and bitter when part of the national discourse.
Barack Obama embraced the new ethos—his speeches, day after day, centered on what brings Americans together and downplayed what separates us. He repeated, in varying iterations, that "the choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white. It's about the past versus the future." By speaking a message of unity and hope, he invigorated an until-then-dormant American public and inspired millions of people to engage in politics anew.
But while Obama is a great poster child for the new ethos of politics, one doesn't need his oratory skills or charisma to actually practice this ethos. Instead, ordinary Americans the country over can (and I argue, should) begin practicing the new ethos in city councils, on school boards, in legislatures, and in political coalitions of all stripes. By putting aside partisan and hackneyed tactics that rely on obfuscation, trickery, domination, and plain old bullying and instead finding common ground with others and embracing a commitment to shared outcomes, we can transform politics to reflect a more progressive vision of the world and, in the bargain, accomplish a whole lot more while at it.
How do we move from a politics based on fear and domination to a politics based on unity and shared values? We cannot get there by waiting for others to take us there. We cannot expect that this new ethos of politics will materialize, and we can simply join it and take our spot at the table. We must create it ourselves. That means taking the risk to be the one who engages others—those who are different from us—and forms relationships, builds trust, and finds common ground. It means being willing to take some political lumps from our own party and fellow ideologues. It means being ready to try something new and untested—that pundits will warn you against.
In the fall of 2008, I was running for reelection to the state house of representatives in Arizona. I'd served two terms and was asking the voters to return me for a third term. As is common in most local elections, all the candidates in the race were invited to participate in a debate. My Democratic colleague in the house, David Lujan, and I attended (in Arizona, each district has two state representatives, both elected at-large), as did our Republican challenger. Roughly six members of the public attended (which is also pretty common in local elections). Over the course of an hour and a half, we answered questions from a moderator on a number of subjects ranging from the ever-growing budget deficit facing our state to immigration to education. The debate went well (at least the six attendees appeared to think it did), and at the end of it, a constituent came up to me and said, "Sinema, you don't even sound like a liberal anymore." I laughed and mentioned that I'd learned so much over the past four years; that I just wanted to find good, commonsense, practical solutions to our state's problems; and that I was done with the fiery rhetoric I started with. As we parted ways, I told the voter that I believed in all the progressive values that I'd always held dear, but I'd finally learned to talk about my values and beliefs in a way that created space for compromise and coalition.
As I drove home from the debate, I reflected more on his comment. I really had changed so much over the last four years—from the way that I thought to the way that I behaved and spoke. You see, I'd been convinced early on that the best way to engage in politics was to unequivocally highlight the differences between me and others, which led me quickly to isolation and irrelevance. Once I switched my thinking to a new ethos, not only was I able to open up lines of communication with those who are different from me, I was, more importantly, able to open up my own ways of thinking to embrace a much larger possibility than the strict party-line rhetoric I'd been using. And the difference has been stark. By acknowledging that my colleagues, both more liberal and more conservative than I, have ideas and values worth examining and sharing, I've been able to find common ground, make coalitions, and accomplish more than I ever anticipated to be possible.
And—perhaps most importantly—I've been much happier. Here's a story illustrating the great success that can result from working in coalition with others.
In August 2005, I woke one day to read an article in the paper about a young mother who had been kicked out of a community pool area in Chandler (a suburb of Phoenix) for committing the heinous act of breast-feeding her baby at a table near the pool, under a blanket, while fully clothed. It's easy to see why the city pool managers felt that it was only appropriate to kick her out of the pool area. Why, at a pool where people of all ages are frolicking in the water, lounging in the sun, and wandering around finding lost children (all while wearing bathing suits), it is shocking to think that any mother would consider putting a large blanket over her body, tucking her baby underneath, and discreetly feeding him.
This young mother had more fabric covering her and her baby's bodies than the rest of the pool-goers' clothing combined that day. Yet someone thought it was indecent for her to be seen feeding her child.
I was incensed, so I went online and tried to find her. After a week or so of e-mailing various people, I found Amy Milliron. I called Amy on the phone and volunteered to help her get a bill passed to protect all Arizona mothers who breast-feed their babies. This was quite an audacious offer, considering the fact that (1) Democrats don't typically get bills passed in the Arizona legislature and (2) other Democrats had introduced legislation to protect breast-feeding mothers for the prior eight years without ever getting a single hearing on the idea.
I was determined to help Amy—and I knew we could pass this law if we did it right. Throughout the fall of 2005 I met regularly with Amy and her fellow "lactivists," crafting legislation that would exempt breast-feeding mothers from indecent exposure statutes (laws that make it a crime to get naked on the street, etc.) and give them the legal right to breast-feed in public places without harassment. By December 2005, we'd crafted a pretty good bill. We just had to get it passed.
We decided on a two-pronged strategy. First, I'd make sure that Amy and her team of lactivists learned how to lobby effectively and support the legislation throughout the session. We reviewed the legislative process, covering everything from how a bill is introduced to when and where committees meet and how to talk to legislators about an issue. I taught them how to testify in committee, and we worked together to frame the issue in a way that would appeal to conservative members of the legislature. Amy and the moms agreed to get other breast-feeding moms around the state energized about the legislation so we'd have an army of e-mail and phone support for the bill once it was introduced. We agreed to stay in constant contact as the bill proceeded so Amy and the other dozen or so moms on her team could show up at the capitol at any time to help the bill if the situation got sticky.
The second prong was my job: get the bill introduced, heard in committee, and passed on to the governor. I was just returning for my second year in the legislature, and I hadn't had much success the year before. I knew that I couldn't introduce the bill under my name because that would be the kiss of death. (My reputation as a bomb thrower was still fresh in people's minds.) I started the hunt for a sponsor, someone who would carry the bill but work with me to get it passed and stay true to Amy's intent. During the first week of session, Representative Jonathon Paton asked me about the bill. He'd read about Amy's story in the paper and was interested. Jonathon was a new legislator like me, but he—unlike me—is a Republican and had already formed good relationships with powerful Republican members of the legislature. He was a perfect choice to carry the bill. We quickly agreed that he would sponsor the bill in his name and work to get the bill a committee hearing and that I'd do the behind-the-scenes work of crafting the right kind of message and getting Amy and her team to lobby members of the legislature.
Excerpted from UNITE and Conquer by Kyrsten Sinema Copyright © 2009 by Kyrsten Sinema. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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