By David Swanson
What if you had to choose your top priority for an activist campaign to change a government policy? Would you tell everyone to call and Email and write and try to meet with and protest the president? Would all your marches be to the White House, all your petitions addressed to the president, all your talk be about what the president should do? Or would you focus on Congress instead? Or would you just generally make noise, march around on Saturdays, and hope that both the Congress and the president hear about it? It might be ideal to protest, pressure, and lobby both the Congress and the president, but if you have to choose the top priority, which is it?
If we had an out and out dictatorship, and Congress had completed its transformation into a royal court of sycophants and jesters, the choice would be easy: we would address all grievances to the emperor’s throne, assuming he or she any longer permitted the articulation of grievances. If, on the other hand, our government behaved the way its founders intended, and Congress made all the important decisions, while the executive really did just execute the will of Congress, the choice would be similarly clear: we would take all of our concerns to Capitol Hill.
So, one factor to consider in the world we actually inhabit is whether by asking the president to make laws or fund important projects we are contributing to the misunderstanding that he should have the power to do such things. A president should have the power to end wars, just as Congress does, but a president should not have the power to begin or escalate wars, and by asking him to end them without addressing his illegal initiation or escalation of them we could be seen as accepting that he has those powers too. By ignoring Congress, we could easily be seen as accepting the dangerous misconception that a president, but not Congress, should end wars.
But let’s set all of that aside. Let’s imagine that our behavior has no impact on the ongoing transfer of power from Congress to the president. Let’s imagine that only the present moment matters and that the future will take care of itself. It might. Anything’s possible. Let’s ask ourselves simply this question: how can we best end the current wars? We could ask the same question about how we best pass the Employee Free Choice Act, or single-payer healthcare, or a green jobs program — although these examples necessarily involve the Senate and the president, whereas the example of ending wars could involve the House of Representatives alone. We could ask the same question about holding criminals accountable for torture, spying, political prosecutions, and aggressive war — although these examples involve different sorts of accountability depending on whom we target, and these campaigns also throw the Department of Justice into the mix.
So let’s look specifically at ending wars. In favor of lobbying the president are a number of factors: Everybody knows who he is and knows that he’s a person with a wife and two kids and a dog. He’s in the news all the time, so it’s easy to imagine that a protest of him would be too, even though they rarely are. He’s always asking us to go out there and make him do it, even though he has yet to ever listen to us. People feel personally betrayed by him and are ready now to demand that he do better. If we don’t focus on protesting him, somebody might accuse us of protecting him and being afraid to speak truth to power, and that would hurt our feelings. He’s not up for election anytime soon, so in the twisted view of despisers of democracy he’s actually more likely to listen to us than somebody we could vote out if he doesn’t. Or in the analysis of those looking at campaign contributions, he is more likely to defy the demands of his funders since his election is further off. And there’s only one of him. We don’t have to win over 218 people, but just one — just a single individual person — surely we’re up to that! Surely that’s easier than 218. And we’d need participants from 218 different districts in order to influence 218 Congress members, whereas a medium sized gathering of mostly east coasters could change the president’s mind if we have really, really good posters and we block his limousine for 15 minutes.
OK, I’m sorry for the sarcasm. It’s not that we shouldn’t pressure the president, or that moving him even slightly wouldn’t help with moving Congress. But the president has hundreds of millions of constituents and can afford to ignore entire states. As a candidate, not even yet the president, the number one demand on his website was that he keep his promise to vote against telecom immunity. Instead he voted for it and promised to undo it when he was president, but then decided not to. The number one demand put to him during the transition and after he was inaugurated was that he appoint a special prosecutor for the crimes of his predecessors. He has not done so. Of course, these requests made largely by people who swear their loyalty first and ask favors second never stood a chance. If a million serious protesters shut down the streets of Washington D.C. for a week and demanded change, we would get change out of both the president and Congress. But as we struggle to raise the level of resistance from near zero to something approaching respectability, the first place we are going to have an impact is not on the one person we cannot vote out of office anytime soon, a person with no primary challengers, a person bankrolled by hundreds of times the funding of any congress member. But there is a small group of people who could influence the president because he has to work with them, a group whom we in turn might be able to have some influence on, namely the members of the House of Representatives.
If the House refuses to fund wars, the Senate can vote for $100 quadrillion, and not a dime of it can be spent. The president can scream for blood (or gently suggest humanitarian bombings) but not send a single drone. It only takes one house to block a bill. A handful of skilled and determined people can often sway the vote of a House member. These representatives have to be elected every two years. They are always worried about elections. They are also very concerned about their portrayals in local media, and generating positive or negative stories about them in local media is very easy. They are bought off by corporate funders, but not nearly as completely as a president is. They, like the president, are all real people with families and pets and wounds and weaknesses. Most of them do not encourage activist pressure against their current positions, because they are afraid of it, unlike a president who thrives on it. It’s true that we need 218 of them, instead of 1, but they are a very different sort of creature, and needing only 1 means nothing if you go on needing that 1 forever. In addition, in many instances, we don’t need 218, because weird mixtures of motivations provide us with 50 or 100 votes for free, such as Republicans opposing awful bills because they are not awful enough. On the last war supplemental, we only needed 39 Democratic no votes, and we got 32. Also, congress members do not live in fortified mansions with military guards. They can be threatened with electoral defeat, with bad media, and with the very easy disruption of their lives through protests where they work and where they live. And we have seen all of these tactics succeed. And we have seen online whip lists coordinate such action nationally.
Of course, as we get closer to achieving the majority votes we need, it gets harder and harder to get those last few, and the pressure from the White House and the Party leadership in the other direction is intense. But a president forced to fight hard for a narrow victory on an unpopular policy is less likely to continue it in the coming months. Similarly, a Congress pressured less ferociously by the White House to oppose its constituents is less likely to do so. Ultimately, therefore, we are best off applying pressure to both the Congress and the White House. But clearly the top priority is Congress. Targeting only the president leaves congress members free to defy the public will and to join the president in doing so. But targeting only the Congress leaves the president untouched and able to pressure congress members from a position of popularity.
And I would add back in here the very real concern that if we persuade a president to end wars and kidnappings and detentions and torture and political prosecutions, but leave the next president free to start them up again, we’ll only delay our destruction, not prevent it. I would advocate, therefore, taking on both branches of our government whenever able to, but Congress alone when forced to choose. I would not encourage massive mobilizations directed only at the White House.