The Newtown parents have recently reminded us that ordinary citizens with a compelling story can move policy, even in Washington. They were able to do what even the President could not: prevent a filibuster by Republican Representatives intent upon blocking action. The filibuster threat wilted in the face of bereaved mothers and fathers–a different kind of lobbyist from the pin-striped suits with whom they are familiar.
There are many lessons we might draw from this episode, but something Dana Milbank wrote in a column about the parents struck me. He noted that “Hockley [one of the mothers] and her peers succeeded precisely because they weren’t the usual actors following the usual script. ‘At the start of the week I didn’t even know what a filibuster was,’ Hockley told me Thursday beneath the cherry blossoms outside the Hart Senate Office Building.”
And therein lies a lesson for us all.
I don’t know how many citizens have no idea what a filibuster is, or how it has been used and abused. We know that only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government; if I had to guess, I’d wager fewer than 10% could explain the filibuster. Could a population that knew the basic structure of our government, a citizenry that actually followed events in the nation’s capital, change the nation’s trajectory? Could they marry righteous wrath to informed participation, and end the petty game-playing and toxic power struggles that increasingly characterize our government?
The Newtown parents had to understand the filibuster in order to prevent one from blocking the action they supported.
Knowledge really is power. No matter how uneven the contest between ordinary citizens and moneyed interests, people armed with information and determination can make a huge difference.
When the only people who understand the system are those who use it to their own advantage, however, it’s no contest.