Paul Rogat Loeb has been a Seattle author and social activist for over 30 years, best known for his groundbreaking book, Soul of a Citizen, that describes how citizen activists find inspiration and hope in tough political times. His newest book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While (Basic Books, $15.95), is an anthology of writings on citizen activism featuring contributions from Nelson Mandela, Arundhati Roy, Wendell Berry, Susan Griffin, Howard Zinn, Vaclav Havel, Marian Wright Edelman, and many others.
With the success of Soul of a Citizen, Loeb now travels the country giving workshops, seminars, and speeches on campuses and to corporate groups. Loeb is genial but wired: a torrent of words and ideas, rarely pausing for breath or comment. He's not an easy guy to get a word in edgewise with. But we managed. I spoke with him recently on the phone—he was in Portland—about what awaits us after the election on Tuesday, Nov. 2, regardless of who wins. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Geov Parrish: So it's midnight on Nov. 3, and the election is over. Now what?
Paul Rogat Loeb: Well, the first thing is to take some time and breathe. People have been working so hard, or even just been so emotionally invested, and the result is going to mean a lot. We'll need to take some time to either grieve and mourn or to celebrate, depending on who wins. And then, regardless of who wins, we'll need at some point to get back to work, because we'll have a lot of work to do.
G.P.: I don't think there's much doubt that [John] Kerry shares a lot of fundamental assumptions with [George W.] Bush, and for that matter with the entire U.S. political establishment. There's a certain set of beliefs regarding the use of U.S. power abroad, the dominance of corporate money in the political process at home, and so on that remains problematic with both of them even with their substantial differences. If Kerry wins, we can't go to sleep the way many activists did when Bill Clinton was elected after 12 years of Reagan and Bush Senior in 1992. There was nothing in Clinton's record as governor, what he said as a candidate, and what he promised to do that indicated anything other than a problematic centrist. But people wanted to believe, and so we got welfare reform and more Star Wars and all the rest. We have to brace ourselves against the same tendency if there's a Kerry win this time around.
P.R.L.: Democratic presidents have to be pushed by citizen movements, just like Republicans do. In fact, they're often the most successful moments for such movements.
We look at the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the civil rights movement, we look at Roosevelt and the labor movement, and in both cases those movements pushed the administrations to do very, very important, courageous actions that they would not have taken on their own and they, in fact, resisted initially. If you look at the whole package of New Deal reforms, from labor laws to Social Security to oversight of corporations, those were really spearheaded by citizen movements, and then Roosevelt responded. In the same way in terms of the civil rights movement, it was the citizen movements that set the agenda, and then Kennedy and Johnson, to their credit, finally did respond after initially resisting. Johnson, in particular, was very clear-sighted about what it would mean politically. He said they would lose the South for at least a generation, which they did.
G.P.: So what you're saying, essentially, is "get active!"
P.R.L.: It seems to me that with Kerry, who I find essentially a decent person though hardly a risk taker, we have somebody who is receptive but who is certainly not going to take the lead on really any of the significant problems that we face as a country, many of which have been worsened by the Bush administration. And so, it really is up to us to be able to raise and put on the public agendas the issues of where we have to go. So that's one branch.
If Bush wins, the problem is fairly obvious. We'll have an extraordinarily dangerous regime that is hell-bent on consolidating every bit of power that they can and essentially pretty much putting an end to democracy if they can get away with it, and so our task then becomes reaching out to build enough of a base to get the Democrats to resist, as they didn't in the first term. And refuse to allow the appointing of more Clarence Thomases and [Antonin] Scalias to the Supreme Court. And then we hold Bush accountable for the messes that he has already created that will only worsen if he gets in again.
G.P.: And I think in that case, also, we need to pressure the Democrats. They could have resisted far more of the Bush administration's agenda than they did. Bush essentially had a free pass for his first three years, both before and after 9/11, when Democrats in Congress could have used their numbers to get far more in the way of concessions or the blocking of bills than they actually did. Their rhetoric wouldn't even stand up to Bush. It was gutless, and it was only when you started having the large antiwar demonstrations that some of the stardust started falling out of their eyes. Some. But it took a movement that brought in millions of people who had either never been active before or hadn't been in decades.
P.R.L.: We also need to find ways to start reaching out to people who don't necessarily share our perspectives but are very much the casualties of the stands this administration has taken, like conservative religious folks who have been devastated by the kinds of unequal economics Bush has promoted. So, either way, we have work to do, and I would say that for that first week, if we're doing now what we should be doing, which is to do everything we possibly can to get Bush out of office, then for that first week we may just need to sit in the bathtub and soak or go hiking or listen to music or have some good food or play with our kids or whatever nurtures our soul.
G.P.: But don't do it by ourselves.
P.R.L.: Be with other people, so that we recognize that we aren't alone. And that's critically important. So in other words, the next two weeks after the election, unless it's a contested election, in which case we need to be out in the streets, but barring that, the next two weeks after the election are critical. What we need to do is essentially begin to replenish our spirits and start thinking about the road ahead.
One thing that I think is extremely useful is to be able to frame things in terms of both short- and long-term goals. And so when I think of my book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While—the title comes from a Billie Holiday song—and the phrase is, "The difficult we'll do right now, the impossible will take a little while." The difficult, to me, represents the very immediate challenges, that is, blocking the right Republican agenda, the immediate environmental fight. The impossible is the larger questions of how we're going to create a world where people do not get so bitter that they're willing to murder 3,000 innocent people by hijacking an airplane; trying to find a way to live sustainably on the earth. These are the sorts of overarching questions that often seem very daunting to us.
Even if we fail in the immediate task, we may still be building ground for that larger task of proceeding towards justice. You don't really know how history turns, but one kind of action can multiply into many others, and one thing can inspire another. It's a multiplication.
Whenever we're doing something to work for change, we need to work to broaden our base. That is something that's powerful, even if we're working on critical life-or-death issues, trying to stop a war, whatever it might be. And even if we fail, in the long run we may succeed.
G.P.: Obviously there's a tremendous amount of work, whoever wins. What is the nature of that work? What, in your mind, are the greatest priorities?
P.R.L.: There are a couple of priorities, and some of them are easier and harder to act on. Certainly, there are issues out there that are just essential to deal with. The Iraq war is going to continue until it's stopped, and it's going to have to be citizens who stop it, whoever gets in. Kerry is obviously more receptive to stopping it, but he's still going to need that pressure, and he's going to need a citizens' movement to create the political space that he can operate in.
G.P.: During the campaign, he's set himself up in a way where he's almost obligated to be highly militaristic.
P.R.L.: Absolutely. And that's a tragedy. He'll have to wiggle out of it under pressure.
G.P.: He's also said very clearly that he's willing to change course when circumstances require a change of action. He's contrasted that with Bush's stubbornness and refusal to ever reconsider anything. Part of changing those circumstances under Kerry is what ordinary citizens' movements can do.
P.R.L.: Right. One of the ways that I look at these movements again and again is their ability to put things on the agenda, to make things seem like crises that no one sees as a crisis. Look at the civil rights movement. For most whites, that situation was not a crisis. The civil rights movement put it on the agenda, so it became perceived as a crisis that required action. I think we need to do that. You would think the Iraq war would be perceived as a crisis. Bush has attempted to stage-manage it as simply business as usual; so what if five U.S. soldiers get shot every day and a hundred Iraqis die and the Islamic world stands united against us? That's not really a crisis.
G.P.: But they're very concerned about the domestic attitude. That's why the stage-managing. That's why both Bush and Kerry are so adamant that they wouldn't restart a draft. They don't want the campuses in an uproar.
P.R.L.: We need to be the people to say that every day that war continues, it is a crisis, it has destructive effects, and it, in fact, makes us less secure. The same is true with global warming. We need to be able to say that this is something to take extraordinarily seriously, the increased glacier melt in the Northwest, the floods in Bangladesh, the hurricanes in Florida, the forest fires in Los Angeles.
G.P.: When history looks back at Bush, the lack of action on global warming will be the most criminal of all the actions. And they've been able to get away with it because there's been no clear public constituency demanding that they do something. People just don't see it as an immediate threat, or they see it as something too large for them to influence.
P.R.L.: This is an issue where we can have every bit of legitimacy in the world. The insurance companies have Web sites essentially saying they will be bankrupt. There's a possible constituency there far beyond the bounds of the sort of narrowly defined environmental activist circuit.
G.P.: There's also the status of U.S. democracy itself. On the one hand, you've got this tremendous surge of interest and new voter registration with this election, but the system is very much in trouble.
P.R.L.: That's been particularly bad with the Bush administration. They've tried to exert control over every single institution, over media, over universities, over the culture as a whole, and saying you will be punished and you will lose your livelihood, you will have your character smeared if you dare criticize us. And it doesn't matter if you're a Republican secretary of the treasury, or a general warning that you don't have enough troops to fight in Iraq, or an ordinary citizen. They will try and go after you. Part of what we'll have to do if that administration gets in again is really draw a line that says, excuse me, this is an absolute assault on our democracy and is not acceptable.
For any of these issues, we have to take that argument to ordinary citizens who may be much more conservative than us on those sorts of issues. And on the other side, if Kerry gets in, I think that's an opening to do things—well, either way. For example, campaign finance reform. There is absolutely no reason why Washington state shouldn't be able to pass what they passed in Arizona, Maine, and Vermont, where if you have a $5 contribution, you now have public funding to run for office. It opened things up immensely. It radically shifted the balance of power. It's no accident that Maine, a very poor state, now has the most comprehensive health plan in the nation. I think it's in part because everybody there in the Legislature now has an option where they don't have to listen to the $1,000-a-plate drug lobbyist anymore.
G.P.: But backing up, if Kerry wins, we'll still need to be doing that sort of outreach to the disenfranchised and to people who disagree. We'll still have a deeply divided country, a country where many people are cynical or just don't care or have time to care, and we can easily lose anything that we win right now.
One of the things that might be appealing to people across the board is demanding from our politicians more accountability. We saw the smear campaign against Richard Clarke. It was necessitated because when he apologized for 9/11, when he took personal responsibility for his failures and the failures of his government, the response was enormous. People hungered for that. Now we've got this CIA report being suppressed until after the election because it supposedly names names, and one of the things the Bush administration has completely lacked, has in fact resisted fiercely, is any sort of accountability.
So, with all of this, what can people do? So I've mourned or celebrated for a couple of weeks. Then what?
P.R.L.: Well, one is knowing this is a long-haul fight that's going to take the rest of our lives. And knowing that it doesn't have to be grim work, so citizen activism can actually be fun, it can be empowering, it gives you the opportunity to meet and work and socialize with wonderful people.
G.P.: And knowing that, don't try to or expect to solve all the world's problems at once. Pick an issue, pick some sort of a goal that's achievable, and get to work. It works in concentric circles. If nothing else, you feel better about yourself, you're clarifying your own ideas and needs; then maybe you influence the people around you, and on a good day you change city hall, and on a really good day you change the world.