During the Cornyn Stakeout last week, I, on impulse, walked into the Chase Bank Building, rode the elevator to the 15th floor, and knocked on the door to Cornyn’s office. Next thing I knew I was sitting face to face with a young staffer. Now what?
I had my talking points about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s–and especially John Cornyn’s–lackluster response to Russian election interference, but it seemed weird to launch into that. When there is a human being sitting a few feet away, the dynamic is very different compared to speaking on the phone or firing off angry tweets.
She may have been more nervous than I was. I’m a tall man in an Indivisible Austin t-shirt and for all she knows I am about to start shrieking at her, or worse. So I explained, calmly, that I was from Indivisible Austin, one of the organizers of the stakeout, and that we aren’t scary. I joked that most of the Indivisible activists look like our moms, and in fact, my mother is an Indivisible activist in rural Texas. (See, we’re not all Austin hippies, either.)
The staffer smiled, and let her guard down a bit. Sure, she was being paid to listen to my concerns, and we might disagree vigorously on many things; but it was clear that a human connection was forming.
I believe these human connections, seeking common ground, will save our Democracy.
Paraphrasing what I said:
On the AHCA
“Getting people to question facts is a hallmark of authoritarianism. When John Cornyn called CBO data ‘fake news,’ that sent a dangerous signal. The CBO score may not be perfect, but it’s the only data we have, and the Congressional Budget Office is as nonpartisan as it gets. For our Democracy to function, we need to have agreed-upon facts. If we can’t agree on facts, our Democracy dies.”
On withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord
“Sen. Cornyn signed a letter encouraging Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Cornyn and other Republicans like to point out that the treaty is not legally binding. But one thing we have learned from the Trump presidency is that norms and traditions uphold our Democracy far more than laws do. By withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, we send a message that we no longer take seriously the bonds, however symbolic, between the U.S. and our global allies. Additionally, climate change is a nonpartisan issue, affecting everyone. We can disagree about the means with which to solve the problem, but we first need to agree on the basic fact that it is happening.”
On Russian election interference
“The original purpose of the Cornyn Stakeout was to send a message to Sen. Cornyn that Americans take very seriously the issue of a foreign power interfering in our Democratic process. Sen. Cornyn’s seemingly flippant attitude toward his own committee’s investigation is inappropriate. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. If Russia, or any foreign power, is influencing our elections in any way, that is dangerous to both parties, and to our nation as a whole. We need Sen. Cornyn to take this issue more seriously.”
I spent 15 to 20 minutes sharing my concerns with the staffer, who was very professional and polite, and took notes that she said she would deliver to the senator. It is quite possible that she was seething inwardly, disagreeing with everything I said… but I don’t really think so. Human beings are social creatures and instinctively seek common ground. And it is much easier to find that common ground in person, than on social media or phone calls.
This summer we’ll be kicking off a series of “air-conditioned activism”* events, centered around meetings with congressional staffers. We’re planning a toolkit to make your meetings with staffers as effective as can be, and we would love to hear what has and has not worked for you. We would especially welcome feedback from staffers. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment here.
*Many thanks to the Indivisible TX-25 Eanes / West Austin group for coining the term “Air-Conditioned Activism.”