Reforming the Political Landcape

Get Out the Vote Illustration
Illustration by Drew Christie ’07.

Two Greeners are at the frontline of people’s movements to clean up elections and environmental policies

by Carolyn Shea

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” –Frederick Douglass, 1857

No matter which polls you check, most Americans, regardless of party, say they’d like big money to have less influence on politics. They want clean energy. And they support better pollution standards. But money continues to flood our elections; the planet— and our health and safety—continues to be compromised; and trust in our government continues to erode.

Josh Silver and Ed Zuckerman have committed their lives to harnessing public concerns and building social movements to force politicians to change course. Each is working to unify Americans in demanding the changes they want to see, empower elected representatives who lead on these issues and unseat those opposed to fixing the problems.

Silver’s goal is cleaning up the money in politics and Zuckerman’s is cleaning up environmental policies. By combining civic engagement with policy advocacy, both have won significant victories.

Cleaning up Money in Politics

Silver is a leader in the growing movement to eliminate the influence of money in politics. He is the cofounder and CEO of United Republic, a year-old group devoted to increasing awareness of the corrupting sway money has over our political system, replacing lawmakers who put special interests and corporations ahead of their constituents and pressing for the enactment of comprehensive legislation to limit money’s power in politics.

The 270,000-member organization is working on a plan to overhaul campaign finance, impose strict lobbying and conflict-of-interest rules and stop secret political money. They hope to engage a broad-based coalition of people of all persuasions—liberals, moderates, conservatives and independents.

As United Republic’s mastermind, Silver brings considerable experience to the table. He cut his teeth on election reform in the late 1990s effort to pass campaign finance reform in Arizona, where he managed Arizonans for Clean Elections, a citizen initiative to get special interest money out of state politics. Passed by voters in 1998, the Citizens Clean Elections Act revolutionized campaign fundraising by giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to run for office, and by allowing candidates to forgo special interest groups. “That law has held up for a dozen years,” he says.

Silver went on to become the director of development for the Smithsonian Institution’s cultural arm. While there, he got so incensed with how the news was being covered—he remembers a particularly fatuous lead story on the 5 o’clock news in the nation’s capital that reported on rising lobster prices—that he cold-called Robert McChesney ‘76, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an expert on media economics, to discuss media reform. “We ended up mapping out how to launch a bona fide grassroots movement,” says Silver.

Their initiative kicked off in 2003, under the aegis of the nonpartisan organization they founded, Free Press, which promotes diverse and independent media ownership, a sustainable future for public media, hard- hitting investigative journalism and universal access to communications. Based in Florence, Mass., it now has an office in Washington, D.C., 40 staff members and 500,000 active members, who write letters to government and corporate leaders, make calls to elected representatives and file public comments with the Federal Communications Commission.

Free Press quickly proved its worth by mobilizing millions of Americans in 2003 to stop the Federal Communications Commission from lifting media ownership limits and allowing further industry consolidation. “We stopped them in their tracks,” says Silver.

A couple of years ago, the organization did the same for net neutrality, the tenet that Internet providers can’t block content from users. “We sounded the alarms, turned net neutrality into a popular issue and ended efforts to kill it,” says Silver, who was Free Press’s executive director for eight years and also ran Save The Internet, a coalition of more than a hundred groups and companies involved in the net neutrality battle.

Within a year of its being established, Free Press launched the popular National Conference for Media Reform, which brings together media activists, policymakers, educators and practitioners to explore ways to promote communications policies that better represent the public interest.

Silver moved into campaign finance reform again because he says, “I kept running into the same obstacle that virtually every issue runs into: a massive special interest juggernaut that completely controls American politics. No matter whether you’re concerned about the environment, women’s issues, economic justice, if you don’t address these two issues of media and money in politics, you will lose your fights. I felt I had no option but to move into the money in politics arena and figure it out.”

United Republic has already begun building its grassroots foundation by encouraging communities around the United States to pass resolutions calling for an end to the corrupting influence of money in politics. Los Angeles, New York, and hundreds of other localities have endorsed such motions. It has also joined forces with other efforts and individuals—like MSNBC news anchor Dylan Ratigan’s “Get the Money Out” campaign—that are working on limiting political contributions and spending.

Ed Zuckerman
Ed Zuckerman. Photo by Shauna Bittle ’08.

“It has to be done with the American people demanding it,” Silver says. “We've got to be as audacious as the problem is immense. We’ve got to end the auction of our republic to the highest bidders. The future of our democracy depends on it.”

Cleaning up Environmental Policies

In 1997, only about a half-dozen states had conservation voter groups. Today, the number has grown to 34, plus one in the District of Columbia.

“That wasn't happenstance,” says Ed Zuckerman ’77, vice president of capacity building for the League of Conservation Voters. “It was the result of conscious, intentional effort.”

A dedicated conservationist, Zuckerman has had a big hand in this growth. He oversees LCV’s program of building a network of state voter groups, which the national organization assists with grants, training and other programs. He came to LCV from his position as the executive director of the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues—a kind of trade group for the state groups—which was merged into the national LCV in 2007.

Joining forces has resulted in a stronger coalition of organizations that are cultivating green politics from the ground up. “Before we started the federation, the national organization was focused on federal issues and the states were focused on state issues and the twain never met. So a lot of the work that’s been done is trying to integrate what’s happening with the states and what’s happening at the national level,” he says. “It’s good to have local voter involvement because all politics is local, at the grassroots level. That’s where people engage.”

Zuckerman began his career in environmental politics in 1995 as the executive director of Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Alliance for Voter Education (WEAVE), sister organizations that became leaders in engaging civic action among environmentally conscious citizens during his tenure.

The very day he began, Washington’s state legislature passed an anti-environmental takings bill, which Zuckerman says “required the government and taxpayers to pay any landowner if the laws and regulations kept them from making maximum profit off their land.” If, for instance, a developer or a corporation was prevented from making money by laws that prohibit ruining an endangered species’ habitat or polluting the water, the taxpayers had to compensate that company.

“To get rid of the law, we had to collect about 250,000 signatures to get the measure back on the ballot and then campaign to ask people to go to the polls and vote against the initiative,” says Zuckerman, who called the experience “a baptism by fire.” He put together the first database program matching voter data with the membership lists of environmental organizations, which was used to prompt environmental voters to turn out for a statewide referendum on the takings bill.

Zuckerman’s work on this campaign helped defeat the referendum—a major victory for conservationists in Washington—and his program became a model for mobilizing environmental voters in local, state and national elections.

Zuckerman says much of what his LCV team does—in concert with the state leagues—is devoted to planning and anticipating what tomorrow will bring. “It’s based on the belief that you don’t just fund the here and now, but build towards the future. A lot of our work is focused on what the landscape is going to look like five, ten years from now. What do the leagues need in their toolboxes to succeed in coming years?”

Some of the upcoming challenges include issues around climate change, the health aspects of environmental degradation, integrating work inside the Beltway with organizing at the grassroots levels, and overcoming concentrated corporate power, which as Zuckerman says, “is not always friendly to environmental protection.” That means mobilizing voters, via all available means—including social media—into a powerful movement.

Zuckerman's environmental consciousness extends into his personal life. He commutes to work by bike every day and is a cross-country skiing instructor, an avid hiker and a regional board member for NatureBridge, a nonprofit that offers environmental education programs for young people at Olympic National Park. In 2004, he won the Wilburforce Foundation’s Conservation Leadership Award for the impact he has had on the environmental movement.

The Long Arc

Both Silver and Zuckerman are in their fights for the long run. Reform doesn’t happen overnight. “People need to be willing to see themselves as one piece of the long-term arc of history,” says Silver.

Zuckerman agrees. “One of the things you learn pretty quickly in environmental organizing is that your victories are ephemeral. One victory does not a saved planet make. If you’re working hard to protect the air, land and water, you’ve only done your job until someone has an idea that will ruin those things. If you lose a battle, what you’re trying to protect could be gone forever. One of the harsh realities of working in this field is that you have to be vigilant 24/7. I have two kids, so it’s important to me that we leave them a planet that they can survive in. It’s a never-ending battle.”

Josh Silver
Josh Silver.

Ed Zuckerman's 12 Rules for Effective Activism

  1. Think Big Picture (focus on what you are trying to accomplish long term).
  2. Don't sweat the small stuff.
  3. Be in for the long haul (changing the world doesn't happen overnight).
  4. Commitment is key; it helps you get through the rough patches.
  5. Make connections and coalitions with multiple issues.
  6. Make connections to real people's lives; no one follows abstractions for long.
  7. Talk values and from the heart. While it’s important to know your facts and figures, never spew them when you are trying to convince people to your side.
  8. Tell stories that people can relate to.
  9. Tell people why you do this work, what motivates you.
  10. Always be yourself but be respectful of others. Never shout or argue violently.
  11. Don't assume what others are thinking or what their values are until they tell you!
  12. HAVE FUN/Laugh.