This is an excerpt from my third novel, “Burnout Fever“.
Derek Boa straightened his notes while the small crowd in front of the dais he was sitting at took their seats and quieted down. The first day and a half of Constitutional Evolution’s legislative workshop at George Mason University had been more productive than he had hoped, and it was time to discuss what the group had learned.
“Good afternoon,” he said when the chatter had dropped to a single hushed discussion about the Virginia legislature. The two members still talking turned to look at him, and then settled into their seats.
Derek nodded to the young redhead to his right before smiling broadly at the crowd. “I’d first like to thank every one of you for making this the most productive session we’ve had to date. When Gisela Kilarney first came up with the idea of simulating the process we’ve proposed, nobody was certain that we knew enough about the various stakeholders to represent their cases adequately. Clearly, we were wrong. In any case, now that we’ve walked that mile in various pairs of shoes, it’s time to reflect on where we’ve come, and how to proceed from there. Since it was your idea, Gisela, why don’t you start us off?”
Gisela looked up from her notes, and pushed a few strands of her long red hair behind her ear before speaking. “Being a gamer does have its uses, it seems. Once we’d broken the problem down into stakeholders and bits of process, setting up this weekend’s activities pretty much happened on its own. Of course, our simplified version of Civics 101 from another reality probably glossed over a lot of things, but I think the model worked well enough to show us both the value and the potential pitfalls of what we’re promoting.”
She paused, and turned to face him. “How did you want to run this?”
Derek shrugged. “Like everything else we do, by feeling our way through it. We have representatives of each faction up here. Gisela will speak for the citizens, Rodney Falk for grassroots groups like ours, Elliot Sacchi for the corporate lobbyists, and Melissa Fox for legislators. Before we get into the new process, I think it would be useful if Melissa gave us a brief reminder of the existing process, from the point of view that her group portrayed this weekend. Melissa?”
“Sure, Derek. My father would never admit this, but when people like him are elected to public office, they don’t have near as much power as we’re led to believe. The legislature is a cultural and political ecosystem mired in legal precedent, lobby groups, and campaign contributors. Doing what’s right may be an admirable objective, but in practice its pretty far down on his list of priorities. As a result, when a good idea is introduced as a bill, it’s either trampled to death by those it might inconvenience, or it’s turned into something with no teeth, and any good it might have done is sidestepped by lawyers finding ways around it. In other words, the political system’s been gamed, just like the electric grid was, and we all know the trouble that caused.”
When the gathering finished being amused by Melissa’s bluntness, Derek retook the floor. “Thanks. I think I may use that last remark sometime. Okay. We started the exercise yesterday morning at the first node of the process network. Regardless of whether the idea for a bill was suggested by a citizen, grassroots group, lobby or even a legislator, in our schema the next step is always public discussion of the issue. We broke into subgroups to see if there were any differences in outcome or dynamic, so I guess we ought to get a reading on how each kind went. Who wants to start?”
Elliot Sacchi, who had brought outfits for playing each of the roles, raised a hand. He was still dressed in what several members of the group had dubbed ‘lawyer drag’.
Derek nodded. “Okay. I guess we’ll begin with bills initiated by lobby groups.”
“Our break-out session got pretty raucous,” Elliot said. “What we found was that anything that a lobby group suggests is met with instant suspicion. Because the corporate forces have so much money to throw at it, everyone assumes that the implications of the proposal have been carefully worked out, and that the principal beneficiaries will be those footing the bill, as it were.”
Once the groans had subsided, he continued. “We talked it over, and decided that when the big money realized this, they’d change their tactics. For them to succeed, they’d have to make it look like some other stakeholder had the idea, and then quietly step in to support it. To do this, they’d either arrange some leverage over their patsy, or get a mole into the organization. So when corporate interests want to initiate something, grass roots groups are put at risk.”
“In that case,” Derek said, “I guess we should next hear from Rodney about the grassroots perspective.”
Rodney Falk had been an activist since he got into trouble for organizing a blacks-only softball team in the eighth grade, to prove to the coach that the umpire was making biased calls. “Representing a grassroots group in our break-out session,” he began, “was a bit like being lost in a hall of mirrors. I think we demonstrated that communication is only possible between equals. The ‘lobbyists’ at our public discussion ignored the individual citizens entirely, and would only deal with other groups. This had two effects. First, it made the unaffiliated citizens feel marginalized, which caused them to want to join a group. And second, it cast us as equals in the eyes of the lobby group. The discussion ended up being basically two sided, grassroots versus lobby.”
“In that case,” Elliot said, “what do you think might have happened if the lobby group had gotten a mole into your organization?”
“Well,” Rodney began slowly, “if he or she spoke up against us at the public meeting, it would certainly have weakened our position, and I’m sure the lobby group would have made the most of it. There’s a lot of strategy and tactics involved.”
“That leaves unaffiliated citizens and the legislator,” Derek said. “Before we get to the target of all this bloodless warfare, what can you tell us about the citizen’s perspective, Gisela?”
She thought for a moment. “In our session, both types of group, grassroots and lobbyists, took some time to digest the proposal and decide how it related to their particular interests. To us, it seemed like both kinds of group were so tightly focused on their agenda that the only way they could see our point was through their respective filters. It could help them, hurt them, or not matter to them. And then they reacted predictably based on that decision.”
Rodney was intrigued. “Hmmm. And I though we had a hall of mirrors. Did you discuss this perspective on group behavior afterwards?”
“Yeah, and we decided that grassroots coalitions, like what happened for the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle or the accretion that solidified after the second Iraq war, would put us on stronger ground in this context as well. That means we need to get buy-in from as many other grassroots groups as possible.”
“I agree,” Derek added. “It also means that we’ll need to establish good working relationships with them. They may have gotten the network bootstrapped, but we’re building a legislative context that needs the grassroots network to balance right. And speaking of legislative, Melissa, how did things go in your session?”
“Strangely, as it turned out.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Resentment, I think.” She scanned the audience, some of whom were looking a bit uncomfortable. “Nobody really appreciated having an elected representative initiate the bill. The lobbyists were taken by surprise, and acted like they’d been attacked or something, the grassroots groups were offended that they hadn’t been involved in the beginning of the process, and the unaffiliated citizens felt disenfranchised. It was pretty noisy in there.”
“Yeah,” Rodney agreed. “We could hear your group loud and clear from down the hall.”
“Clearly,” Derek said, “the dynamic depends on how the bill is initiated. So here’s a question for everyone. Which method yields the best results?”
“For my money,” Melissa said, “I’d go with the ones initiated by a coalition of grassroots groups. That eliminates the focus problem and starts us off as equals against the lobbyists fronting for the corporate fat cats. In fact, I think we ought to set up a liaison committee to talk to other groups about it.”
“I agree,” Elliot said. “Sitting there as a lobbyist, I’d feel a lot less sure of myself if I knew that my opposition had a bigger reach than I did. The corporations may have more money to throw at the fight, but they don’t know how to mobilize people.”
“Same here,” Gisela added.
As the group tossed the idea around, the orderly panel discussion broke into a verbal free-for-all, so Derek pulled out his webphone and checked for email. One message in particular piqued his interest because the subject line was uncharacteristically punctuated. A moment later, he quietly excused himself from the dais and left the room.
Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack