The fruits of Eric Cantor’s new “YouCut” project made it to the House floor last week, with results entirely predictable: nothing passed, and it did so amid great partisan kerfluffle. But according to the House Minority Whip’s office, some 280,000 people voted online or via text on the particular measure they’d like to see deleted from the federal budget, in what Cantor’s new media guy described as “the most direct use of technology to establish a more direct democracy in the history of the federal legislature.” Mission accomplished? Not quite.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not we settle the federal budget via popular vote in this country (if you like direct democracy, you’re going to LOVE California), something’s rotten at the core of YouCut. Of course the language involved in describing the various programs YouCut participants vote to “kill” is slanted (just about any government program taken out of context can be made to sound ridiculous), but that’s politics. And yes, it’s a naked attempt to get the emails and cell numbers of Tea Partiers and their fellow travelers, but again, list-building via online activism is an internet classic. I’m talking about something more fundamental: YouCut is dishonest, the cynical act of a leadership that’s put the scoring of short-term political points ahead of developing a coherent plan to govern.
Any time you ask someone to take a political act, you’re implicitly asking them to trust you that it matters. As former MoveOn organizer Adam Green said on a panel we shared at last year’s Personal Democracy Forum, you need to give them a clear and effective path to change in the real world. By that measure, list-building for list-building’s sake is an insincere act, something my friend Charles Lenchner has also argued in the nonprofit space. These guys are purists, no doubt, since almost every organizing activity we do in politics has some element of cold calculation involved. Names are names and supporters are supporters, and campaigns and advocacy groups MUST build their lists if they’re going to be able to leverage support, raise money and apply politicial pressure in the long run.
So there’s a balance involved in most online outreach, between the short-term need to get people to take a single concrete act and the long-term need to expand the support base. And here’s where I fault YouCut: by failing on the first front, it endangers the second. Let’s be honest — there is no way in hell that the Democratic leadership is going to let the Republicans kill the programs voted on under YouCut, any more than a Republican leadership would let a Democratic minority get away with something similar. YouCut provides NO effective way to change policy, other than through some amorphous process of awareness-raising, making it at heart a lie — Cantor is asking people to vote for something with zero chance of passing. In fact, after last week’s public charade, I wonder if it’ll even it make it to the House floor again.
YouCut is dishonest on a second level, too: even if the programs on its list were to die tomorrow, they wouldn’t make the slightest difference in the federal budget or the federal deficit. In a budget in which a billion dollars is a rounding error, killing a program that costs a few million a year may be worse than useless, since it lets activists FEEL like something substantive has been accomplished when nothing has, other than to deprive the people who received benefits under the program in question. It’s like the classic promise to cut the budget by eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” — if that were all it took, we’d have been out of the fiscal woods a long time ago.
I’m not naive; it’s not exactly uncommon for politicians to make promises that they don’t intend to keep. But actions do have consequences, and you have to wonder how many times most YouCut activists will bother to cast a vote if they decide that their involvement is essentially meaningless. And there’s the long-term danger — political action is ultimately based on emotion, on people’s feelings about the issues and the politicians involved. Campaigns like Obama’s in 2008 treat their lists as precious resources, with supporters’ willingness to act seen as a commodity to be tapped with great care, lest people burn out and turn off. Take advantage of them, or let them FEEL that they’ve been taken advantage of, and you risk poisoning the implicit relationship that keeps them engaged, involved and effective.
Tea Partiers in particular are a dangerous crowd to trifle with, because at heart they’re purists like my friends Adam and Charles — they don’t seem to trust politicians of any stripe, meaning that Cantor is potentially playing with fire. During the healthcare debate, and farther back during the 2008 elections, Republican leaders tried to ride the wave of right-wing discontent, but in the process they risked awakening forces they couldn’t themselves control. A crowd that’s tasted the red meat of partisanship, paranoia and power can find that it has a hunger for more, and it’s not always going to be picky about who’s on the menu — just ask Senator Bennett in Utah or Trey Grayson in Kentucky.
Of course, I could be completely wrong — YouCut might turn out to be a fantastic tool to raise awareness about the federal deficit and a way to keep conservative activists engaged and involved. But somehow, I doubt that it’s going to make much difference, other than giving Republicans a way to score a few cheap political points at Democrats’ expense. And while getting your talking heads on cable news can help “win” a few spin wars, it’s no way to govern a country. But real governing doesn’t seem to be a high priority of Republican leaders of this generation, from “heckuva job” Brownie to Bush’s deficit explosion to the outright fraud and theft of Abramoff and company. And that may be the greatest lie of all: that the Republican leaders who claim to want to help this country seem only to care about their own short-term political (and financial) interests. God help ’em if the Tea Partiers turn on them, and God help us all if they get into power again.