Using Innovative Activism to Change the Local Political Culture

IT SOUNDS LIKE A STORY President Obama might tell: Donna Baker, a disabled and retired state worker, lost her home in the face of mounting medical bills. Yet the culprit was not “substandard” insurance but a callous, out-of-control local government. Washington State’s Thurston County officials decided protecting a gopher species was more important than protecting people like Donna. Her retirement investment—a 20-acre parcel of land—became nearly worthless to her.

When the Freedom Foundation told this story, people saw the injustice of these government regulations. People started waking up to the idea that government rules—although they may sound good at the outset—ultimately have serious impacts on individuals like Donna.

Washington State has trended politically liberal. It is considered dark blue, and while perhaps not as “progressively” hopeless as New York City or California, there is a wash of special interests who want to descend into Big Government nirvana as quickly as possible.

Liberal politicians, an expanding bureaucracy, and outside “environmental” special interests have made traditional routes of political change impossible. Lobbying conservative ideas is like spitting into a hurricane-force wind.

Sadly, these liberal attitudes have percolated down into local government and are pervasive throughout communities. More and more, people in Washington State are less self-reliant and look towards government as their personal safety net.

Like most conservative think tanks across America, we start our day asking: “How do we change this trend?” We have found it best to start with a local, personal story.

After we told Donna Baker’s story, hundreds of citizens began turning up at town halls, testifying at public meetings, writing letters, putting up yard signs, starting new property rights groups, and getting involved locally. The local bureaucracy and political elite were shocked to find real citizen opposition to their central-planning schemes.

Although the final chapter in her local government’s efforts remains unwritten, Donna Baker’s story shifted the political momentum in her community. Thousands of people will never view their local government the same again.

Then the shift trickled northwest to San Juan County, one of the “bluest” counties in Washington State, where over 70 percent of voters support Obama. The county consists exclusively of islands located at the Puget Sound’s entrance. The San Juans have become a laboratory of the left and a petri dish of “environmental” policies.

Some citizens got involved in local government to oppose new environmental regulations but to no avail. When the Freedom Foundation started to record personal stories, the political tide began to change.

We told a story about how Nick Jones, a local organic farmer, had to close his farm stand on Lopez Island due to county regulations. Then we told a story about how San Juan County forced Charles Dalton to stop growing blueberries. When San Juan Islanders heard these stories, they began to realize government was out of control. Short YouTube videos circulated widely throughout San Juan County and put the well-funded, entrenched “environmental” group “Friends of the San Juans” on defense.

Citizens filed public records requests and used a newly-created blog to tell the truth about government’s central-planning schemes. They created a political action committee, grew their local associations, and began to engage local government. When the next election came around, only one of the left-wing elites’ favored County Council candidates succeeded. The rest were defeated by residents much more concerned about local government’s abuses. San Juan County won’t become conservative like rural Oklahoma any time soon, but its trend toward big government policies has changed.

These local, personal stories—and others like them—became the basis for our video series called “Tales of Tyranny,” which is changing Washington State’s political culture even beyond the Thurston and San Juan Counties. These stories woke people up and got them engaged with their local government.

Traditionally conservative think tanks have one fatal flaw: They believe their ideas are the best, and people need to understand them. Then the world would be made right. Think tanks pine to change the minds of average citizens while spending their limited resources in an echo chamber of limited audiences: politicians, intellectuals, academics, and business leaders.

Yet activists engage on issues important to them and are exceptionally resistant to top-down approaches. That’s why we at the Freedom Foundation have shifted from a command-and-control model to a servant-leadership model.

Innovative activism can include parade floats, costumes, issue-sign campaigns, issue-based flyer campaigns, YouTube videos, and other activities that draw attention even from a community’s most uninvolved citizens.

Beyond storytelling, there are two leadership opportunities think tanks can provide:

1. Encourage active involvement in local political races.

Most activists watch national issues very closely, not realizing that success in local political races is far more achievable. We encourage them to find or recruit freedom-friendly candidates or even run for local office themselves. We train them on how to prepare a winning campaign at a local level.

We focus on this issue because most of today’s congressmen and state legislators all started in local office somewhere. The more liberty-minded people we can engage in local office, the more likely that tomorrow’s crop of legislators will trend toward freedom-oriented ideas. If you can’t change city hall, what makes you think you can change Washington, D.C.?

2. Train local activists to focus on local issues and engage on those issues in a friendly, but confrontational way.

We encourage unique activism, sometimes political theatre, and it needs to be done in a confrontational manner. Not angry, but assertive. We are limited only by our imagination. Innovative activism can include parade floats, costumes, issue-sign campaigns, issue-based flyer campaigns, YouTube videos, and other activities that draw attention even from a community’s most uninvolved citizens.

Big-government politicians and bureaucrats are rarely prepared to deal with local activism. When they get more attention than they expect, they frequently react poorly. Regardless, innovative activism should draw attention to the critical issues and ramp up political pressure on elected officials who need to remember they work for the people.

We believe think tanks are key to providing local activists with this training and education. Large, federally-focused organizations are not able to build the local support or understanding to do so. However, organizations like the Freedom Foundation are close enough to focus on local communities throughout their states.

We can’t afford to ignore this battle for freedom or activists’ critical role in changing our nation. Rather than concentrating efforts on white papers destined to languish on shelves, we must work to implement our ideas in our communities.

If we do, we will change the political cultures of our states so we no longer find stories like Donna Baker’s to tell.

Mr. Morgan is the Property Rights Director at the Freedom Foundation, a Washington State-based free-market think tank.