Worth a Re-Read: The Do Nothing Strategy | An Exposé of Progressive Politics

Political Analysis

April 12, 2011

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SolarTimes editor ( Sandy LeonVest in conversation with political organizer, independent journalist and environmental and climate activist, Karyn Strickler. Their conversation includes, among other things, the utter failure of a corporate-dominated Congress to pass legislation that addresses accelerated climate change, the imperative of moving NOW to get to zero carbon emissions, and possible organizing strategies toward that end. Karyn Strickler also addresses what she calls the "Do-Nothing Strategy," a political tactic being utilized by many of today’s mainstream environmental organizations — much to the detriment of creating a sustainable future.

June 30, 2003

The Do Nothing Strategy

an Exposé of Progressive Politics


If you feel frustrated and think Americans are losing ground on issues like the right to choose safe and legal abortion, environmental protection, electing more progressive women to public office and civil rights – you’re right. The reason: The Do Nothing Strategy that infects many national, progressive organizations today. The Do Nothing infection has broader implications for American democracy, liberty and justice because it allows right-wing viewpoints, by default, to dominate public policy.

The year was 1989. The U.S. Supreme Court had just decided the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, returning the regulation of abortion to state legislatures across the country. At a meeting of the pro-choice coalition, Marylanders for the Right to Choose, the Chair of the group, an employee of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, began presenting The Do Nothing Strategy. She very carefully detailed how, in the face of potentially severe restrictions on abortion rights, those of us whose jobs were to defend reproductive choice, were going to achieve that end by actively doing nothing. Never mind that access to safe and legal abortion is critical to the lives and dignity of women or that limits on abortion could send us hurling backwards to a time when women risked their lives to get abortions.

The Do Nothing Strategy was a detailed plan with very specific strategies and tactics about how we, the pro-choice community, would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and boundless energy — to do nothing. That way none of the Chair’s friends in the State legislature would ever have to make a tough vote on the contentious issue of abortion. The Chair had this strategy elaborately detailed on flip charts and went through it point by excruciating point. I looked around the room several times at my coalition partners and waited for someone to laugh. Surely the Chair must be kidding. No one laughed. No one asked whether our opponents might move to curtail access to safe and legal abortion if we did not move to protect it. No one challenged the perverse logic of The Do Nothing Strategy.

As the Executive Director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League, I wasted half of my day exercising patience and listening to this surreal strategy until I could stand it no longer. Incredulous, and past the end of my patience, I stood up and said, "This is the most absurd idea I have ever heard. I’m going to codify Roe v. Wade for the State of Maryland. You have two choices. You can work with me to codify Roe v. Wade, or you can eat my dust." I left the meeting.

A broad coalition ultimately came together in Maryland and was successful in passing legislation that put the principles of Roe v. Wade onto our state law books, protecting a woman’s right to choose safe and legal abortion. We worked together in the 1990 election to defeat anti-choice legislators, then passed the codification of Roe v. Wade through the State House and Senate and finally were victorious in a statewide referendum where Maryland voters in 44 out of 47 legislative districts ratified the law making Maryland the fourth state in the nation to put the principles of Roe v. Wade onto our state law books. In fact it was this experience that gave me my understanding and strong appreciation for the effectiveness of grassroots political organizing. The voters of Maryland made this historic victory possible.

In my experience, the conventional wisdom around a controversial issue usually begins with: "Political reality dictates that it can’t be done." Ask the experts on almost any issue, they’ll tell you the same thing. Whatever reason they give, the real reason for such advice is that their funding, power and prominence comes from protecting the status quo. The next time you’re told about "political reality," ask yourself how the expert giving the advice benefits from maintaining the status quo. Then move forward in spite of this advice. The experts told Maryland NARAL that we could not unseat anti-choice incumbent legislators from pro-choice districts. We ignored them and carried forward the momentum of our electoral victories to make history and codify Roe v. Wade.

Since that first experience, when the strategy was actually named and detailed, it has become painfully clear to me that The Do Nothing Strategy defines much of the national, progressive community’s approach to issues today, whether articulated or not. It’s true on every progressive issue on which I have had direct personal experience.

The Endangered Species Coalition Steering Committee

I moved on to direct the National Endangered Species Coalition (ESC) not realizing at the time that The Do Nothing Strategy had beaten me there. America’s national environmental organizations who made up the Steering Committee of the ESC had become giant bureaucracies where self-perpetuation, the quest for funding from large foundations, and the desire for a seat at the political table has replaced environmental protection as the primary goal. It’s arguable whether environmental protection evens remains on the list of goals for some national, environmental organizations. At best these groups have been out of touch with the public and grassroots activists, engaged in destructive competition for media coverage and funding and resistant to change for more than a decade. At worst, they have been cavorting with industry to destroy the environment, just as the recent series of articles about the Nature Conservancy in the Washington Post, entitled, Big Green: When Conservation and Business Fail to Mix, have made painfully clear.

During my tenure as Executive Director, from 1993-1994, the Coalition worked to build a national grassroots force in order to reauthorize and strengthen the Endangered Species Act. A strengthened Endangered Species Act (ESA) would protect us, safeguarding species upon which we rely for medicines. Endangered species also identify problems that could be threats to human existence, just like the canary in the coal mine. The ESA protects ecosystems like wetlands, which purify our drinking water and forests which filter our air. It protects private property from corporations that benefit financially from the destruction of our natural heritage. It helps to ensure our long-term economic viability by contributing to the tourism, fishing, pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.

The talented Coalition staff of 24 employees designed a simple, compelling, campaign message meant to resonate with all Americans by emphasizing the link between issues of human health, ecosystem protection, economics and the protection of endangered plants and animals. We successfully used the message that the "Endangered Species Act Protects US" to build a large base of grassroots support for the Act, recruiting and training 1,000 citizens leaders who were to lobby and lead our efforts on the local level, 4,500 volunteers and 10,000 individual donors. We raised one million dollars. We accomplished all this in a little over 1 year’s time.

In short, the Coalition was fully prepared to fulfill our mission of reauthorizing and strengthening the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with a powerful organizational infrastructure, grassroots base, and adequate funding. There was one obstacle – not the American people – but the Steering Committee of the Endangered Species Coalition.

The Steering Committee was a small, self-appointed, decision-making group which led the Coalition. It had no criterion for participation and provided no direct funding or other assistance to the Coalition effort. The larger Coalition included 145 organizations but was governed by this self-selected Steering Committee representing 10 of the largest, national environmental groups. The Steering Committee members list reads like a Who’s Who of the national environmental groups and included organizations like Sierra Club, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation and the World Wildlife Fund.* What the Steering Committee did not include were representatives from the 145 grassroots regional, state and local groups. Even the Coalition staff of 24 had no vote on the Steering Committee.

As the Coalition staff and I traveled the country laying the groundwork for an effective campaign, grassroots member groups who had no voice in decision-making were clamoring for reauthorization of the ESA. They urged me, as the Director of the campaign to help make it happen. The Steering Committee, however, made the unilateral decision that the Endangered Species Coalition would not move for a vote on reauthorizing the ESA in 1994. That singular decision has sealed the ill fate of 10’s of thousands of threatened and endangered species and contributed to overall environmental degradation.

Continuous delay motivated by fear resulted in the inability of the Steering Committee to understand and appreciate the power of grassroots pressure. The Committee refused to move on reauthorizing the ESA in 1994, when we had a Democratic Congress and President. I explained to them that "historically, the party controlling the White House has lost congressional seats in every midterm but 1934 and our job could range from slightly more difficult to nearly impossible in 1995 with Republican control of Congress." Of course 1995 saw the realization of the Republican Revolution and the Contract on America, led by Newt Gingrich, which had a strong anti-environmental component. But in the face of impending disaster the Steering Committee held fast to its policy of "do nothing" and "delay."

Another key reason articulated in private meetings by the Steering Committee for not pressing for a vote was that, like the Maryland Do Nothing Strategist, they didn’t want to force their friends in the U.S. Congress to vote on a controversial issue in an election year. It’s clear that there is no time when the Steering Committee would put their friends in Congress in that position. It’s now 2003 — a decade has passed — and still the Endangered Species Act languishes, unreauthorized. The logging, mining, cattle and oil industries are cheering as they head to the bank, since that failure allows them to more freely destroy unique endangered species and their habitat for profit, with impunity. Those are the species and habitat that protect us all.

Today the ESC describes the current, bleak situation on it’s website like this, "After the 2002 elections, the far right is sensing victory at last. Already, on public lands across the nation, the law is being implemented by a Secretary of Interior who has asserted that the ESA is unconstitutional and backed up by a President whose close ties to extractive industries don’t even raise eyebrows. With industry-favored appointees in every key post, carefully disguised administrative reforms are being crafted to undermine the gains of the last thirty years…The hounds are baying in Congress too, with the ascension of [anti-environmentalist] darling and ESA foe, Rep. Richard Pombo, to chairmanship of the House Resources Committee." If only we had moved for reauthorization in 1994.

When I, members of my staff and vast numbers of grassroots Coalition members tried to force the issue of reauthorizing the ESA with the Steering Committee in 1994, I was fired. My crime exactly: asking the grassroots organizational members of the Coalition who were pushing for reauthorization to communicate their thoughts directly to the Steering Committee. A Vice President with the National Audubon Society, upon hearing about this communication and in the process of terminating my employment angrily said, "How dare you lobby me. I don’t need to hear from the grassroots. I know what the grassroots thinks."

Electing Women

I still refused to believe that The Do Nothing Strategy pervaded the entire progressive community when I founded and directed Fifty plus One, an organization to train pro-choice women in the campaign skills necessary to run for public office. At the end of my tenure, I worked with a U.S. based, international organization to train 60 women to run campaigns for Parliament and Local Council in Botswana, Africa through a grant provided by United States Agency for International Development. Trainings contributed to 100% increase in the number of women in Parliament in a single election cycle — from 9% in 1994 to 18% in 1999. Trainings were also a key factor in dramatically increasing number of women in local councils.

The U.S. Senate is the rough equivalent of Parliament in Botswana. The U.S. Senate in the year 2000 saw the highest number of women in its history, with the election of 13 women. Achieving the 13% mark took over 40 years of actively working to elect women. The question is, how actively have we been working toward electing more women? Not The Do Nothing Strategy again.

Early in my tenure at Fifty plus One I approached the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), to work cooperatively with that well-established organization. Their response was to offer me a schedule of NWPC trainings and tell me we could work cooperatively by having Fifty plus One pay them $5,000 per training. Since I was hoping to start with 6 trainings in our first year of operation, the bill would add up to $30,000.00 plus materials – for a fledging organization struggling to attract funding. And, by the way, it would be up to me to do the most difficult work of recruiting training participants with no assistance from NWPC. With such "cooperation" I thought unfortunately that I had to work independently of NWPC. I would lose the chance to benefit from their years of experience; they would lose the chance to nurture a new group dedicated to the same goal of increasing the number of women in politics.

My hopes, however, were raised again when I received a letter from the President of NWPC. I opened the letter with great enthusiasm, hoping for a plan to achieve real cooperation. Instead, in her letter and a subsequent phone call the President launched a personal attack that questioned my integrity and competence. It was an obvious attempt to deliver a crippling blow to a potential rival for funding and media coverage.

What makes this story so sad for women is that there is so much to do. There are 500,000 electoral offices in America, the overwhelming majority occupied by men. The NWPC has done a respectable job of training women for public office over time, but the job is far too big for one relatively small group. It’s like having one drinking water fountain for all of America. My experience helps me to understand why progress in electing women has been so slow. The real problem is that there aren’t enough people working to bring women into the political pipeline at the entry levels. Progress cannot be judged by input like media coverage, conferences held, and mailings sent. It must be judged by output and by the bottom line: a larger percentage of women in public office at all levels. Fifty plus One worked with over 1000 universities, labor organizations, local women’s organizations and professional associations, but we suffered and finally ceased to exist partly because of resistance that ranged from passive to active from entrenched organizations like NWPC whose mission it was to elect women to office.

So much for Sisterhood.

Protecting Choice

While at Fifty plus One I was asked to lobby on the issue of so-called "partial birth" abortion. After looking briefly at the legislation proposed in Maryland it was clear that the way legislation was written, it could ban all abortion. The Maryland legislation had language similar to laws that passed in more than 30 states and in the U.S. Congress. It’s been eight years since the anti-choice movement first introduced "partial birth" abortion legislation in the U.S. Congress and state houses across the country, it is still not recognized as a carefully crafted, national strategy to ban all abortion.

It’s easy to understand why anti-choice zealots portray the bans as narrowly drawn for the limited purpose of stopping a certain late-term abortion procedure, but if you look at the language of the legislation, you see a very different reality emerging. The mystery is why many pro-choice leaders and the mainstream media haven’t exposed the reality that nowhere in this legislation is there any reference to stage of pregnancy – not viability, not trimesters, not weeks of gestation. And the definition of the banned procedure is so broad that it could ban the safest, most commonly used abortion procedures.

The term "partial birth" abortion cannot be found in any medical dictionary because it is a political term that anti-choice zealots made up as part of their public relations campaign to stigmatize all abortion. When talking about the bans, advocates use graphic language about late-term abortion that is different from anything found in the legislation itself. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which represents most ob-gyn specialists, has rejected these bans, which fail "to use recognized medical terminology and fail to define explicitly the prohibited medical techniques it criminalizes."

Federal Judge Gerald Rosen, a George H. W. Bush appointee, permanently enjoined an early Michigan ban because it was so vague that doctors lacked notice as to what abortion procedures were banned. A temporary restraining order against legislation in Arkansas said that the "act applies at any stage of gestation," and that it defies logic to say that the language applies to only one type of abortion. Despite evolution in the language defining "partial birth" abortion since these decisions, a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Stenberg v. Carhart found a Nebraska statute unconstitutional and said that the definition of "partial birth" abortion remains so broad that it could outlaw the safest, most common methods of abortion used in the second trimester of pregnancy.

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) both understood that so-called "partial birth" abortion bans could ban all abortion and they have worked at every level to get that message out to voters.

In a long and difficult battle with other national pro-choice groups about how the debate on so-called "partial birth" abortion should be framed, principals of some of the national pro-choice organizations decided that those of us saying – so-called "partial birth" abortion bans were attempts to ban all abortion – had to be stopped. National pro-choice leaders decided to fight our message by calling pro-choice leaders on the state level and telling them not to work with us. The Executive Director of the National Abortion Federation concluded that our efforts to develop an accurate message should be destroyed. They knew that Fifty plus One had received funding to do trainings across the country to change the debate on so-called "partial birth" abortion. Whether or not our message was accurate, they felt threatened. The representative of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL)*** said that she would tell her affiliates that I was "a rogue with a dangerous political message." This despite the fact that from 1986-1992, I led one of the most successful NARAL affiliates in the nation. In fact the national NARAL field office at the time referred to our affiliate as, "The Maryland Miracle."

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP)**** pointed out to other national groups, that together we could reach out to more states. The response of the others: "Why do we need to be in any more states? We don’t need to be in 16 states instead of 10, what good does that do us?" They were going to actively work against us and refuse to talk with me from now on. If I couldn’t use their message, the others didn’t want CRLP working with me to "legitimize" our efforts.

Many leaders of the national pro-choice movement are still debating the issue on the playing field designed and defined by their opposition, discussing the frequency and need for late-term abortions. Even worse in pursuit of this inherently losing strategy the movement destroyed its credibility by making up statistics about the frequency of certain late-term abortion procedures. They never put the partial-abortion bills in proper perspective as an effort to ban all abortions. By contrast in Maryland we did use the message that so-called "partial birth" abortion bans were designed to ban all abortion to defeat the legislation introduced into the Maryland state legislature, proving the effectiveness of the message.

Since the term "partial birth" abortion has no legitimate medical meaning, some in the media have begun an uninformed, dangerous trend by saying that "partial birth" abortion is medically known as dialation and extraction abortion (D&X). Assigning a legitimate medical term to this legislation is something that anti-choice legislators strategically avoided. They want a broad ban on abortion. Six staunchly anti-choice U.S. Congressmen including Henry Hyde, Charles Canady and James Sensenbrenner said in a letter dated March 18, 1996 on an earlier version of the bill: "H.R. 1833 does not ban ‘D&X’ or ‘Brain Suction’ abortions…the ban would have the effect of prohibiting any abortion [that meets our definition]…no matter what the abortionist decides to call his particular technique." If George Bush appoints one more anti-abortion Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, this interpretation could well become the law of the land, in effect overturning Roe v. Wade.

Those who were intent on silencing the message that Fifty plus One, ACLU and CRLP advocated were only partially successful. They did convince some of their chapters across the country not to participate in message trainings we were offering. They convinced pro-choice U.S. Senators who had invited Fifty plus One to come and share our message with them, to "postpone" the meeting, never to be rescheduled. In Connecticut the local people had been excited to schedule a training which was mysteriously cancelled. When I traveled to California, the Planned Parenthood affiliate there obstructed the training to the extent that I was unable to present my information.

But these national pro-choice groups couldn’t stop the press from writing about the issue. Judy Mann of the Washington Post wrote an article in 1998 on the issue entitled, "Partial Birth Abortion Bans: The Big Lie," in which she said, "The very clever antiabortion movement has pulled a fast one. Laws passed in 28 states, ostensibly banning "partial-birth abortions" in the last term of pregnancy, are so vaguely worded that they, in effect, could ban abortions throughout pregnancy." She continued, "Most of the abortion rights movement have been slow to catch on to this. The courts, thankfully, have not."

At the end of the conversation after learning about the realities of this bogus legislation, Judy Mann asked me, "I just have one question for you, where have you been?" I answered by saying simply, "You wouldn’t believe where I’ve been."

Working with the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, with funding from the Ms. Foundation for Women, we were also successful in generating supportive editorials in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The Madison Capital Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel among many others. When presented with the legislative language they drew their own conclusions. The New York Times wrote, "The ban’s proponents cloak their strategy by directing attention to a rare medical procedure used in late-term abortions called "intact dilation and extraction." But the actual language of the law says nothing about that particular procedure, nor does it say anything about late-term abortions. The wording [is] broad enough to cover the most common procedures…"

Time and again we were asked by editors across the nation, where we had been for the preceding two years and why they hadn’t been informed of the reality of this legislation previously by national pro-choice groups. We were battled to a near stand still from within the pro-choice movement. Even today, eight years later, as a so-called "partial birth" abortion ban passed the U.S. House and Senate, most pro-choice groups still have not learned how to accurately portray this issue, but instead prefer to debate the issue on the erroneous, graphic terms offered by anti-choice advocates, as though it proposes to ban a particular type of late-term abortion procedure. The anti-choice minority is actively working to ensure that the long-term consequence is an end to safe and legal abortion.

Why Do Nothing?

What The Do Nothing Strategists and Political Reality Advisors need to realize is that: Political reality is created. The perspective of dominant, national, progressive groups is generally a loser’s view of political reality. Contrary to the early days of the modern progressive movement, today they see Goliath and they shrivel. The only effective organizing such groups do is against people within their ranks who are working for real change. If only their external organizing were as effective.

The experts in political reality insisted that we couldn’t codify Roe v. Wade in Maryland. We did it. The same type expert believed that we could not reauthorize the Endangered Species Act in 1994. My indicators were all saying that it could be done. If we persuaded enough undecided legislators to vote with us through strong grassroots pressure in targeted congressional districts, we would win. We had a Democratic Congress and President. We had a regionally generated grassroots structure with trained leaders and volunteers in key districts. We had adequate funding and a strategic plan that would have gained strength with the momentum of a feisty, national campaign.

In the case of the ESC, history shows that if you don’t move when you are fully prepared, you may find yourself locked in the endless purgatory of The Do Nothing Strategy. That is until The Do Nothing Strategy becomes the political reality presented by George W. Bush and his administration whose goal is to undermine everything that environmentalists have built over the last 30 years.

Do Nothing Strategists and Political Reality Advisors will never get it. They’re afraid of change. So to those in our community who don’t share passion and commitment for actively moving toward progressive change and embracing those who try to help, you are hereby notified: You’re off the team.

Aggressive progressives can create political reality just as effectively as the Right. In the early days of the modern, progressive movement we created our own political reality through grassroots organizing strengthening environmental protection and making real advances for women and minorities. That’s still the model for effective change.

Understand that if progressives wage a grassroots battle, our opponents cannot defeat us. We have overwhelming public support on progressive issues even before we begin organizing. Change doesn’t have to happen incrementally. Radical change on women’s, environmental and civil rights issues can happen in the streets, but protests are only one tool of a winning strategy based on grassroots organizing. It can happen through collective legislative and electoral action. A small group of committed, passionate people will make political reality anything they say it is. Those kinds of groups already exist and are already working effectively, mostly on the state and local levels, but some on the national level as well. Find them and join them.

Progressives must realize that legislators with supportive constituencies who refuse to take tough stands on a controversial issue are not our friends. They need to let Do Nothing legislators know that lip service doesn’t count. If your issue never comes up for a vote, you’re guaranteed never to make progress, with the Endangered Species Act as a prime example. It’s the job of a legislator to vote on the difficult issues. If they refuse or constantly insist on compromise, we need to work through the electoral process to replace them with representatives who will lead on challenging questions.

Let’s get back to our grassroots. When asked to compromise, always remember that half of a half of a half over time equals nothing. Develop an honest, simple, compelling message around your issue. Your message can make or break you. Combine education, an uncompromising legislative strategy with an unflagging electoral strategy and an unflinching enforcement plan and you have a winning strategy. Organize locally, move swiftly and decisively when the time is right. Beware and rage against The Do Nothing Strategy. Create progressive political reality. Act! Do it as though your life depends on it.

Karyn Strickler, a grassroots, political organizer and President of Progressive Consulting Group. She can be reached at: fiftyplusone

* Members of the Steering Committee of the National Endangered Species Coalition 1993-1994 included Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, The Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Center for Marine Conservation (advisory status), Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society of the United States, the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council (advisory status).

** On the phone were: The National Abortion Federation, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

*** Now known as NARAL-Pro-Choice America

**** Now called the Center for Reproductive Rights

Copyright Karyn Strickler 2003.

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