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Using Populism To Influence Political Change


It seems logical that if 70% of Americans support a specific political policy, it should be made law. Yet, lawmakers continue to pass legislation that the majority of Americans oppose. The outrage over the insurance purchase mandate in the federal health care reform bill could derail the policy from going into effect in 2014. If so many people are opposed to the idea, why was it included in the legislation? The author of the "Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell" talks about how the power of the people can influence political change.

It seems logical that if 70% of Americans support a specific political policy, it should be made law. Yet, lawmakers continue to pass legislation that the majority of Americans oppose. The outrage over the insurance purchase mandate in the federal health care reform bill could derail the policy from going into effect in 2014. If so many people are opposed to the idea, why was it included in the legislation? The author of the "Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell" talks about how the power of the people can influence political change.


Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, and author of "The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell"

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. They say politics makes strange bed fellows, which is why we should not be completely surprised that among the conservatives celebrating last week's court decisions striking down part of the health care reform law is well known progressive activist. That activist, Jamie Court, argues this is just the type of populist issue that progressives need to get behind. Agitating and harnessing populist power is the subject of his new book, the Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell. I'd like to welcome my guest, author Jamie Court, president of consumer watch dog, Jamie, good morning.

COURT: Great to be with you. Thanks.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: First of all, let's start out with kind of identifying what we're talking about here. How would you define what it means to be a progressive?

COURT: Well, any -- I stand for progress.


COURT: And anybody who stands for progress, and not the status quo, on issues where 70 to 80 percent of Americans agree is for progress, in my view. Of so I view progressive as a far larger word. But to me, the belief that when 70 percent of Americans believe in something or against something, they can win. And they can win if they don't have money, and they can win if they fight big moneyed interests if they use many of the tactics I talk about in raising hell, and if they have tools like the ballot measure process at their disposal or social media and the Internet. But my basic premise here is public opinion is the most powerful force in the world. And if you can harness it and focus it, you can help the public win, and you can be part of moving things forward.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about how you harness the public. You talk about California, how California can serve as an example for the rest of the nation to follow. What are some examples of progressive policies that you think have worked? Populist policies that have worked in California.

COURT: Well, you know, my roots are -- I was in college in 1986, 87, [CHECK] automobile insurance rates, and a guy named Harvey Rosenberg, who happens to be the founder of the watch dog, [CHECK] we have mand more autoinsurance in California, rates were going through the roof, people had to buy it, there was no regulation of the premiums, and proposition 103 came on the ballot, and again, $60 million which was a lot of money back in 1988, [CHECK] 22 years later, we have $62 billion in savings on our automobile insurance, according to the consume federation of America, the fourth most competitive market in America. And it's an example of how the people can win. They can take on the powerful interests, and we've done it since with HMO patients' rights, we've done it with the reforms of the oil industry. And it's to me, what California has, is direct democracy. And I talk in the book about how to file ballot initiatives, how to write ballot initiatives, while the [CHECK] to get 700000 signatures, the ballot progress can be used as a tool to get the legislature to move too, if you have a credible ballot initiative. So far in California I feel like we have a state where when our politicians aren't working, we have a big stick that we can use to make them work. And we've done it with great issues, financial privacy is a great issue. Years ago, we were trying to get financial privacy loss of banks, [CHECK] and we did it buzz a guy named Chris Larson, who founded E-loan, collected 700000 signatures for a very tough financial privacy law, went to the legislature, [CHECK] we're gonna go to the ballot with a tougher law, and 90 percent of the public supports this thing 234 my hand, so you better get this done in a week. And sure enough, the legislature got it done in a week. So to me, it's all about that. Using the power of public opinion, focusing it in the right way, whether you go to the ballot or not, and the Internet now has given us tools for anyone with their own computer.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jamie, just one more word about California, though, if I may. On the other side of the coin, a lot of people complain that we have too many initiatives, there are too many ballot measures, it turns people off at the ballot box. Some people even say it's crippling California government. So how does your advocacy of that kind of grass-roots movement come up against those criticisms.

COURT: Well, you know, it's vigilance. And we just had a ballot measure sponsored by mercury insurance, prop 17 in June, very conservative electors, and they were selling some anticonsumer protection dismantling of proposition 103, as a savings for every motorist in the state. And they weren't telling the truth. We beat them by exposing the insurance issues behind it. The insurance also spread five million to try to their candidate of insurance commissioner without disclosing that in television ads for that commissioner, and that was not the insurance commissioner who won. Dave Jones, and progressive and Democrat won that office. So you gotta be vigilant, in terms of exposing the money behind these initiatives, confronting the industries that are trying to trick the public. And then, you know, that is a full time job, and there are too many issues. But the public is very wise. Of the public can't are fooled as easily as special interest groups want them to -- believe they could be. And I was very proud with this last election. The oil companies tried to repeal the green house gas emissions law with the help of the tea party. That lost. We saw a woman try to buy the office of governor with a hundred and $60 million. Most of it, her own money. And she couldn't do that because an undocumented nanny exposed her character. I mean, the public is very wise. So for all the foibles in the initiative process, and the problems we have with big special interest money in the process, you know, there's no panacea here, but it is the best system we have. Because if you look back in Washington DC, we see grid lock, we see, you know, the insurance industry having its day, time and again in congress, and mandatory health insurance is a good example. This is a sock to the industry to give a guaranteed market of health insurance to the insurance company. So I see 80 percent public opinion against that, literally, in the Kaiser family foundation pole taken this summer. And it's been consistent. And the fact that the politicians would so betray public opinion is the reason that I think it's good to strike down that mandatory health insurance purchase law until we have premium regulation. We can keep the things that I think are progressive in the health reform though. I don't think you have to despite what the White House says take away anything.

Q. Health reform if you lose mandatory health insurance?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is one of those issues, Jamie that you say that progressives should watch for and get behind and organize about because you say that, you know, the poles show that an enormous amount of the American public does not like this idea that they're gonna have to buy health insurance. And it kind of goes up against the liberal idea of what they wanted health reform to be in the first place. And so that's why you aren't celebrating this, along with, as I say, the strange bed fellows of Republicans and conservatives who want to sort of see the health reform law completely go down the drain.

COURT: Well, we're certainly celebrating in the same room if we're celebrating. I thought the White House should be celebrating. What the judge in Virginia said, rather articulately, actually, what was the mandatory health insurance over haul is violating the commerce laws, and it's doing it because, and it's a very reasoned decision, you can't force people -- you can't penalize people who don't participate in a market for a private commodity. That's not the job of government. And I wrote that in 2008 with Carl Mannheim, a professor of Loyola Law School who works at UCLA, before this debate began, mandatory health insurance could be unconstitutional. This is not a new notion. But what the judge also said is I'm gonna strike down the man date, but this is a severable initiative, which means -- a severable ledge vation, which means I can do that and keep the rest of the health reform law check check and that's what I'm doing. Of what the White House has done just remarkably is, like, well, are the insurance industry says we can't force them to sell products to everyone without pre-existing condition limitations. If we can't force everyone to buy the health insurance product, then I really take issue with that logic. Today in New York, the state of New York forces health insurers to buy -- to sell health insurance to anyone who wants it, regardless of repre-existing condition. People are not charged by and large by based on their pre-existing medical condition. [CHECK] and they've stopped insurance companies from raising rates willy nilly. Of in Massachusetts, there is mandatory health insurance issue it's the laboratory for this experiment. Massachusetts has the highest premiums in America. So the link between mandatory health insurance and lower health insurance premiums just isn't true. And if you look at health insurance, healthcare costs in Massachusetts, they're busting the budget. Now, they have got the uninsured rate down, but they started very low. And they're a different type of state than California. So if we had mandatory health insurance where people would have to pay a two percent fine under the law, if they don't spend eight percent of their income to buy health insurance. That would not necessarily make people do it. We would still have a significant number of uninsured. I think there's ways to prevent people from gaming a system. And I think there are reasonable ways, a lot more reasonable ways than forcing the pay --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jamie, you have to let me get a word in edge wise here to reintroduce you. You are Jamie Court, the author of the progressive's guide to raising hell, and president of consumer watch dog. And we actually have a caller on the line, we can take a brief call. Daniel is calling from Clairemont. Daniel, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you again, Maureen for your great show. I just want to ask, is it possible a Republican and a progressive? I'm really astounded, and I believe a lot of things that you're saying issue but I'm astounded, and I got a work comp injury. And the company that I work for is not a self insurer, but they own the company that insures me. And so really, the things are so messed upright now in our commerce, and also, you know, they're lying and cheating in Congress and stuff. And it's just not right. It's not the way it's supposed to be. And that's not how we [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Daniel thank you for the call. And Jamie, that's Ia sort of blurring of the lines of progressive, Republican, populist. Of what do these terms all mean and can we blend them into some sort of people power?

COURT: Well, that's why again, my premise is when you -- to win, there are tactics in the book that he woo you can thatted about, about how to tell human stories, how to get your story out, how to use the Internet. What it comes down to is, the only way to wins if you stand with 60's to 70 percent of the public of you're fighting the insurance interests. So by nature, 60 to 70 percent of the public means Democrat Independant, Republican. And the public is increasingly going independent. I don't see myself as a democratic. I say -- it's called the progressive's guide to raising hell largely because the publisher thought that was better than the populist guide to raising hell. But I think there is a populist movement that is ready to be ignited in America. People are so angry. And in California, for instance, we're gonng try to get what we couldn't get through federal health reform. We're gonna try to get the public option to the private market and premium regulation, and we're gonna do it at the ballot box, and the only way we're gonna wins if we have Independents. Republicans. And Democrats with us. So I see it as a movement that says get back to the states, use the ballot measure process, get back what to 70 percent of the public believes. I think there should be a room in Washington. If a super majority of the public agrees on something, we're talking about 67 percent or more, why shouldn't both parties just agree to do it? When the super majority of Americans agree, it's very likely that they're right.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some people are concerned about sheer unadulterated populism, though because aren't there some issues where populism should not define policy issues.

COURT: Maybe civil rights issues, and nativist issues. There are some very core constitutional protections where they infringe upon the constitution perhaps, and some of the basic sort of broad foundations of our nation. But look thea the reform -- the things we voted for in 2008, and that's what the book's really about, how some Democrats and many Republicans afforded for affordable healthcare and independence in our energy sector and a cleaner environment and sending the wars. These are issues that, you know, when 67 percent of Americans agree, they don't butt up against the constitution. They're pretty simple issues you can take out of consistent poles over 2 or 3 years. This is what Americans want. Yet we're really having to demand to get any attention out of Washington.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And in just about the two minutes we have left, Jamie, what are some of the key things in your book, progressive's guide to raising hell, that perhaps people can incorporate and become more involved in the political process?

COURT: Well, I mean one of the key things is you from your computer, using social media, have the ability to reach millions of people if you have an issue you want to take up, and if you're standing with public opinion. And I have about ten rules of populist power in the book that people can use. One is trying to force your opponents to make mistakes is really the goal of advocacy. Not just educating people on issues. So taking something that's really outrageous to people, something visual something like in Fortbrag when a father found his sons living in deplorable conditions, he put them on YouTube, and literally millions of people watched it, the defense department changed that practice. These are the things that the public can do if it understands how super conductive the Internet is, how to get a good sticky message out that's compelling. And what they're doing with the terms of the battlefield of populism, and so, you know, I think the key thing is we as people have the authenticity of our opinions, we have eyes of outsiders. And that means that millions of people agree with us, tens of millions of people, sometimes hundreds of millions of people. People in DC or Sacramento also don't see things the same way. And we have the ability to hold them accountable in ways that we never dreamed possible. And it's a lot of fun. And I really think it starts with your local legislature, local City Council. If we all were holding the people in our districts accountable to popular will, to the 60, 70 percent public opinion, then we could change the big things. And the book is a bit of a blue print to say, hey, if you get -- forget hope, if you get angry and you want to do something, here are some tactics that have worked for me and my colleagues at consumer watch dog, and they can work for you too.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sounds like finding the issues that unite us rather than those polarized politics that we're all so used to at this point. I have to let you go, Jamie, but I want to thank you so much for joining us and telling us about the book.

COURT: Thank you for that opportunity. I love the show.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you. I've been speaking with Jamie Court, he is the author of the progressive's guide to raising hell, subtitle, a direct democracy tool kit. If you would lake to comment, please did on line, Days. You have been hitching to These Days, and stick around for the hour two, coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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