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  Sierra Magazine
  January/February 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: The 51 Percent Solution
Time to reach out and talk to the other half
by Carl Pope

For the past two years, the Sierra Club has focused on stopping the Bush administration's environmental policies and defeating George W. Bush. We fought as we have never fought before, pouring heart and soul and every resource at our disposal into that endeavor. We encouraged millions of new and infrequent voters to come to the polls, but a nation at war and deeply divided on social issues was unwilling to change its leadership. We did our best, but our best wasn't enough.

It's going to be a tough four years. When Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, Bush still took his election by the Supreme Court as a mandate. Now Bush has won outright, with a clear but narrow majority. True to form, the day after the election he was already claiming that his 51 percent of the vote was "a broad, national victory," while Vice President Dick Cheney was again calling it a mandate.

What will the White House try to do with this "mandate"? We can expect efforts to limit the Endangered Species Act and to undo the National Environmental Policy Act, which guarantees that citizens can go to court to defend themselves and their communities against environmental assaults. Science will continue to take a backseat to politics; wildlands will be in danger if they have timber on top or petroleum underneath. Already there are new calls to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Sierra Club will oppose such moves, of course, and block as many as we can. It's what we've been doing for the last four years, and we're very good at it.

But blocking the administration's excesses is only the beginning. In the 2004 election campaign, the Sierra Club stepped up to the challenge of building environmental communities across the nation, raising our grassroots organizing to a whole new level. Joe Murphy, one of our voter-education organizers in the Tampa Bay area, talks about the power of the clipboard to change the world. In the hands of a seasoned volunteer, he says, it's an excuse for the most basic tool of self-government -- conversation.

"Those conversations created consciousness that didn't just end on November 2," he said the day after the election. "The 2006 elections in Florida, and our efforts to educate and turn out environmental voters, begin today. Let the word go forth that we ain't going anywhere, and if politicians want the people of this region to elect them, they'd better be good on the environment, because the people will be educated and mobilized."

All over the country, thousands of Sierra Club volunteers knocked on their neighbors' doors -- many of them for the first time -- and thousands more telephoned environmental voters. In city after city I visited, I heard stories about volunteers refusing to stop phone-banking when their shift was over because they wanted to complete their list. Hundreds of Sierra Club members uprooted themselves for a few days, or a week, or a month, to work in the battleground states. By November 2 we had visited more than a million homes, made 1.5 million phone calls, and recruited 12,000 new volunteers.

These were among the Club's finest hours. As the water rose around our office in Philadelphia in the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne, volunteers and staff kept every phone manned, even as the police shut down the street because of flooding. In South Milwaukee, we lifted our precincts' turnout to a phenomenal 97 percent -- 25 percent higher than four years ago. "I feel sad, but I also feel motivated," said a 25-year-old volunteer, driving back to the San Francisco Bay Area from Reno the morning after the election. "We worked hard and convinced 49 percent of the public. Now we've got to find out who those 51 percent are and go talk to them."

That kind of job you can't do alone, and the Club has built some powerful new partnerships. Club volunteers multiplied their clout by working side by side with Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union, with the NAACP and MoveOn, with Defenders of Wildlife and the Young Voters Alliance.

This broad-based work must continue. After Barry Goldwater's crushing electoral defeat in 1964, American conservatives withdrew, regrouped, and set about the painstaking work of creating an infrastructure to support future efforts. They established think tanks; identified, trained, and supported young candidates; started media outlets; and coordinated political fundraising.

We and our friends can do the same. Many elements of this alternative infrastructure are already in place. What counts now is whether we persevere in working together to reach out to new allies. Of these we will find many: The American people, even those who voted for Bush, will never embrace his shortsighted environmental vision. So we have to hold on to those clipboards and get a conversation going with the other 51 percent. We must tell stories, not just recite statistics. Our common cause with our fellow citizens is plain: the beauty of the country we love, and the health and well-being of us all. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, "This country can never permanently be a good place for any of us to live unless it is eventually a good place for all of us to live."

How long will it take? The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was asked the same question in March 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama. "How long? Not long," he said. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."


Carl Pope is the Sierra Club’s executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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