Peace and Electoral Politics - Department of Peace & Nonviolence
Statewide Meeting, Curtis Memorial Library - Brunswick
January 7, 2006
As you've heard here today, peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is an active verb, not a passive verb. Diplomacy is difficult, particularly across cultures and national boundaries. Conflict resolution is an art and a technique that does not come naturally to most people. Domestic violence must be confronted directly, in our courts and in our schools. Bullying must be dealt with as the violent and anti-social behavior that it is.
My part of this program is to talk to you about how electoral politics fits into all this.
Electoral and activist politics are two sides of the same coin. The Progressive Democrats of America call it an "inside/outside strategy."
Protests, petition drives, marches, groups repeatedly holding rallies at the offices of Maine's sitting members of Congress these are "outside" strategies, designed to change the minds, and the votes, of already-elected politicians who don't agree with our way of thinking.
Working to get like-minded candidates elected so they can actually cast votes you agree with is an "inside" strategy.
Unfortunately, in too many cases, there is a disconnect between those components.
Ten years ago, I was in the U.S. Senate primary here in Maine. In June, right before the primary, all the candidates for federal office, and there were a bunch of us, were asked to do pancake-flipping duty in Biddeford to welcome Maine's 600 hungry and road-weary Children's Marchers arriving in big buses back from a nationwide march on Washington.
After spending two hot hours flipping pancakes on an outdoor gas grill, I went around and handed out some of my calling cards. Volunteers for the other candidates running for Congress and Senate had been there before me, and campaign literature was everywhere.
I was stopped cold when I hit one of the county organizers of the march on Washington, who refused to take my card, and made it clear that he thought it was inappropriate for candidates to be politicking at such an event, trying to solicit votes.
I thought his attitude was rather curious, and pointed out to him that his group went all the way to Washington for the express purpose of influencing politicians. And here he had a group of candidates who clearly agreed with his position, and who wanted his support to get to Washington, because that way we would be in a position to actually submit legislation and cast votes for those issues of mutual concern to us both.
He was not persuaded, and said he didn't like politics interfering with the impact and energy of the event, which he said was designed to empower people to action. Apparently empowering people to action in the voting booths was not what he had in mind, even though that process is probably the most effective means to the end he supposedly seeks.
I was reminded last month of that pancake-flipping morning ten years ago, when I joined nearly a hundred peace activists in the hallway outside Olympia Snowe's Bangor office. The purpose of the rally was to get her to hold a public forum on the Iraq War. The protest ended with 19 people getting arrested for criminal trespass.
As I looked around me at those dedicated activists, most of whom I've known for years, I couldn't help but think that it would have been a much different scene if that had been my U.S. Senate office and my name were on that door.
That's what I'm talking about here today. The establishment of a Department of Peace is a terrific goal. But, as we learned tragically with the demonstrated incompetence of the Department of Homeland Security, just having a good title on the door does not mean the job is done.
We are talking here about nothing less than changing our whole culture. We have a tremendously huge task before us. Moving from what one minister in Bangor recently called "the myth of redemptive violence" to one in which diplomacy, conflict resolution and mutual respect are considered the norm will require nothing short of a paradigm shift in thinking.
The "outside" strategists are making headway, for sure. A year ago, when a bunch of us went to Olympia Snowe's office to protest, there were about a dozen of us. Last month we had nearly 100. The momentum is building; people are waking up to the fact that our current government is violent, oppressive, and dangerous to all living things, including us. And that growing awareness is all very well and good.
But to actually pull off this paradigm shift, we need the other half of the equation. To put peace as a priority on the national level, active involvement and funding at the national level is essential. The only way "Peace on Earth" will become a functioning national goal in the United States of America is for the federal government to become committed to that goal.
And the only way the federal government will take on peace as a goal is for the electorate to be so motivated toward that goal that, all across the country, voters elect peace-minded politicians to office.
And to get peace-minded politicians elected to office, we need to change the thinking of many voters.
I was stunned the first time someone said it to me. "I like your ideas, I think you would do a great job in Congress, but I won't be voting for you because you can't win." The second time this happened to me, I was ready with my reply.
"If the people who like my ideas and who think I would do a great job in Congress, refuse to vote for me, OF COURSE I can't win." The look I got back was a puzzled gaze, as if to say, "So what's your point?"
During the 1980 Presidential campaign, when pollsters asked the question "Who is the best candidate for the job?" Independent candidate John Anderson came out on top all across the country. However, when the question was, "If the election were held today, who would you vote for?", the answers were very different. Clearly people for years have been casting their votes on the basis of something other than whom they perceived to be the best candidate for the job.
For those of us in the peace and environmental movements to be successful, we have to collectively trust our instincts. We have to show our strengths in the voting booth. It may take some time for those strengths to show up with successful candidates, but we must keep trying.
And it may take less time, and fewer elections, than we might expect. Remember, in ten months time, from last spring to last month, the protesters at Olympia Snowe's office went from a dozen to nearly a hundred. Very few people had ever heard of Cindy Sheehan when I posted her Mother's Day letter on my campaign web site last May. Until last fall, Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania was considered a pro-Iraq War hawk.
To get this job done, to bring about an effective Department of Peace, the dual "inside/outside" strategy needs to work jointly, concurrently. Efforts on each side of this strategy can, and will, build on the other, each adding momentum to the other's position.
So we have to keep our public activism front and center, keep the public pressure on the already-elected politicians. But we also need to find and support peace candidates to run for office at all levels of government.
AND, we MUST have the courage of our convictions to vote for those candidates, to vote for the America we want to live in.