Listen, Learn, Leverage, Lead: Our Most Pragmatic Strategy Has Yet to be Seriously Tried

(I wrote this after the 2004 election.  It fully applies today.  Note the section [“Listen”] on the barrier of the Democratic Congress, and the later sections on how to overcome it.)

Here’s what we can do, amazingly, today.   Here is what we could have done yesterday, what we must do tomorrow to prevail!

My standard peace sign for cars stopped at intersections summed up the case for our side.  We are:

Tougher on Terror

Deeper in Analysis

More Comprehensive in Details

More Democratic in Patriotism

More Defensive of Liberty

More Supportive of our Troops

More Consistent in Morals

More Universal in Grief.

That’s us, however you want to define us.  We stand out.  We stand above.  We stood up, and we should have won decisively.  But we did not.  In fact, despite all our efforts, we seem to have lost.  For whatever reason, in spite of our awesome credentials and the pitiful credentials of the Bush administration, the results did not reflect the advantages I’ve listed.

I see two main alternatives behind this puzzle.  Either 1. we couldn’t have won, or 2. we didn’t know how to win.  For me the clear answer is alternative number 2:  we simply didn’t know well enough how to win.


I’m reminded of Howard Dean in Iowa.  He was winning but he had one major flaw.  He was running against most Democrats in Congress.  Had those Democrats, not voted with Bush-Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft post 9/11 it would have been altogether different for Dean.  As it was, of 18 slick fliers I received from Gephardt, 9 bashed Dean and only 3 bashed Bush.  The basic argument was that Dean lacked the stature to be compared side by side with Bush on foreign policy.  Seriously!

My background is as a professional farm organizer.  In the sustainable family farm movement we have a significant minority of groups which are winning major victories against congress and corporate America.  One bunch won seven out of ten conservative western Senators against he GATT and WTO.  Another group has won consistently to stop the multi million dollar propaganda campaign funded by the pork tax.

Elsewhere, activist farmers have directly joined inner city minorities in significant numbers, organizing side by side in a series of specific victories.  For example, a while back they beat American Bankers’ association and their advocates in Congress.  All together they won billions of dollars for community reinvestment.

Here in Iowa we decisively beat both Senator Grassley and Representative Leach on these issues.  Sure, Grassley keeps winning elections here, but a small group of us forced him to reverse his attempt to gut the Community Reinvestment Act with his “Banking Paperwork Reduction Act.”  I personally took the phone call when Leach, then head of the House Banking Committee, called our ratty little office to concede.

Among farmers in Iowa and elsewhere these methods of winning are growing.  All too often in the past our mass movements have not been sufficiently effective.  That was certainly true of the National Farmers Organization during the 1960s, and it was true all through the farm crisis of the 1980s as well.  My view as an organizer is that the same was true for the peace movement during the Vietnam war, and also post 9/11.

Don’t get me wrong.  Farmers are still losing the fight.  Most groups still use ineffective methods.  But a significant minority of groups are amassing significant competence and power.

The peace movement must listen to these and other real victories and and learn how they are won.  Peace advocates face the bullies with their dirty tricks and Machiavellian power politics.  In response we’ve waged impressive symbolic displays.

That’s not winning, however.  Are there effective alternatives that can beat the bullies and manipulators decisively and consistently?  More to the point, who is actually winning something significant and how are they doing it?  Who knows how to beat the Machiavellians?  How do we learn how to implement these methods for ourselves?


The single book I recommend first for peace advocates is a little paperback:  Beyond Machiavelli, by Roger Fisher and others at the Harvard Negotiation Project.  This one little book could almost be enough by itself.  The method is powerful, but also available.  It can show how to radically, pragmatically transform every peace activity you are now doing.  Read Fisher and you’ll see what we could have done in the three years since 9-11.  You’ll see what we can do now, in the next two years and the next four years.

So far, however, I have not met another Iowa peace advocate who is familiar with this approach.  Not a single one.  I suspect that, like many veteran activists, they’ve neither read nor experienced anything quite like this.  I am not surprised.  I have not seen a single article referring to anything like it on the several progressive web sites I’ve monitored for several years.  I do not seem to find this method on any of a number of activism web pages I’ve surveyed either.

What I find instead is that people really want to know what to do, but they are not finding satisfactory answers.  In one telling example, a radio listener prompted Noam Chomsky by stating:

“. . . .  I’d like to strongly lobby you to begin devoting maybe 10% or 15% of your appearances or books or articles towards tangible, detailed things that people can do to try to change the world.  I’ve heard a few occasions where someone asks you that question and your response is, Organize.  Just do it.”1

Cynthia Peters, who once worked on Chomsky’s books for South End Press, addressed this matter recently in an important essay (link:  https://zcomm.org/zcommentary/talking-back-to-chomsky-by-cynthia-peters/ ).2  Chomsky often treats the question of what to do as an easy one, she argued.  You just join like minded groups and stay persistently active.

In my experience, however, these questions often come from active members of these very same groups.  So Chomsky’s “obvious” point somehow doesn’t adequately address the question.  As Peters herself stated, “I have been politically aware and active for 25 years and yet I still wonder about exactly what I should do.”


Fisher’s approach is, he says, more pragmatic and more effective than Machiavellian power politics.3  I agree.  First, in contrast to Fisher, the realism in Machiavelli’s realpolitik is essentially a fatalism.  In The Prince, Machiavelli looked at political processes and military conflicts and bemoaned the perennial failures.  He argued that his prince must face and accept this horrible record and find the means to beat it on behalf of his own ends.

Fisher sees the very same failures.  He sees the failures of appeasement and the successes of treachery.   Better than Machiavelli, however, Fisher also sees both the dramatic failures of war and the perennial failures of conventional diplomacy.  In short, he sees the failures of Machiavellianism itself.

To Machiavelli’s realpolitik or fatal politik, Fisher posits a wise politik.  Rather than focusing backwards, his focus is proactive and purposive.  He faces Machiavelli’s game, but does not accept it.  He directly counters the tactics and strategies, but, “beyond Machiavelli,” he also counters the game itself.

In the end, Fisher essentially argues, Machiavelli’s quest for the power of domination proves to be significantly less pragmatic and significantly less effective than his own quest for the power of influence.  Fisher would rather reconcile and get a lot more than make huge sacrifices so that his opponent gets less.  Right from the start Fisher is geared to win step by  step by step.  In the end, he’d rather win than dominate.  This gives his approach important pragmatic advantages over Machiavellian fatalism.

Fisher does not make this philosophical summary himself.  He concisely tells you what to do and how, in detail, in sequence, in exceptional circumstances and more.

The real name for the method I’m advocating is “issue organizing,” asserting group power to win successive issue steps.  Beyond Machiavelli doesn’t use that term, but it effectively describes much of the pragmatics behind it.  The one shortcoming of Fisher’s approach, however, is that it is not developed and presented as a group method, as organizing.  For that reason, I also recommend the two booklets by Shel Trapp:  Dynamics of Organizing (Link:  http://www.tenant.net/Organize/orgdyn.html ) and Basics of Organizing. (Link:  http://www.tenant.net/Organize/orgbas.html )  These two booklets concisely provide simple how-to methods for implementing Fisher’s method through your local group.  Though Trapp himself is fairly Machiavellian in style, these booklets are essentially works of plain pragmatism, and easily adaptable to a variety of philosophies and styles.  They are also readily and immediately accessible, as both are available online.


There are several powerful pragmatic concepts in issue organizing that Fisher and his colleagues develop, and which I believe could be transformative for the peace movement.  Among these are a focus on the person who has the power to decide an issue and a serious effort to “think first about their decision.”  The power of influence is all about such persons and decisions.  You don’t beat seven out of ten western senators in five states without focusing very seriously on how they see the issue, which may be very different from how you see it.  Fisher provides the analytical tools for doing just that.

A second key concept is the “yesable proposition.”  The basic idea is that you thoroughly prepare a very specific decision so that all your Senator has to do, for example, is answer “yes” or “no.”  That is, you don’t simply blast them with a vague “do something.”  You make the case, on their own terms, for making one decision, yes or no, then another, and so on, winning your way forward step by step.  The yesable proposition includes a careful consideration and expression of the consequences for the power broker in responding either yes or no, and a plan for what you’ll do next.

Recently a group in Iowa City confronted Representative Jim Leach.  I asked them afterwards, “What did you ask him to do?”  Well, not specifically, it turned out. This, I fear, is all too common in the peace movement.  We’ve also had a number of “nonviolent” actions where peace advocates got arrested.  To my knowledge, in none of these cases did the “action” present a specific decision to a specific decision maker.

In contrast, using Fisher’s method we developed a local coalition and publicly confronted Senator Grassley’s Regional Director in Cedar Rapids on March 8 2003.  Each panel member made a specific demand for a decision from Grassley.  We also won a commitment from the regional director to personally expedite Grassley’s responses.

One final and crucial set of concepts in Fisher’s method involves being prepared for what to do “if they are more powerful,”  “if they won’t play,” and “if they use dirty tricks.”4  We faced each of these challenges in organizing against Grassley.  Tragically, when, at the end of our March 8 2003 session our leaders gathered to debrief, none of them expressed knowledge of answers to these questions.  Likewise when the reporter from the regional newspaper in Cedar Rapids called me that night, he told me I probably wouldn’t like his conclusion:  that we had tried something that hadn’t worked.

But I’ve read Fisher and Trapp.  I’ve worked as an organizer and been trained by two of the top organizers in the nation, Trapp from National Peoples Action out of Chicago, and Pat Sweeney from the Western Organization of Resource Councils, which has now expanded across six or seven western states.  And yes, I took the call from Banking Chair Leach.  I’ve tasted victory.  So I fed it back to him.  “You don’t think there’s anything we can do, do you?”  He agreed.  So I told him a little about my background and assured him that we had many, many options.  Then I asked him, “Well, do you want to know what we’re going to do next?”  As it turned out he did.  He immediately gave me his supervisor’s phone number.

Throughout the initial phase of my organizing in Cedar Rapids no peace advocate ever was willing to predict that we might win any of our demands.  Read that again:  none, ever, any!  About all I heard was the opposite, the prediction that we wouldn’t win anything.

And in truth, as an organizer, I find this state of knowledge and experience within the peace movement to be significantly challenging.  In fact, any individual peace advocate who studies and tries to implement the Harvard Negotiation Project’s methods in his or her local group may very well face this very challenge.

Fortunately Fisher has provided an answer for this very circumstance.  The method is broadly applicable.  It’s an effective answer to what peace would do internationally, instead of what Bush has done.  It’s also what we can do to confront Bush and Congress now, to win and to help candidates like Dean later.  Finally, it’s how one person can influence his or her local group to learn something new and try something new together.5  Yes, step by step, one person can start right there at home, thinking first about a peace group’s decision, making yesable propositions, and overcoming whatever they throw back at you until you’ve negotiated a change.  It’s a strategy to what an individual can do when your peace group, (especially the veteran leaders,) in cynicism and fatalism say no to your pragmatic approach.  In the end it’s really pretty easy, and it’s a lot of fun to be effectively winning the steps toward victory.

Consider what happened here in Cedar Rapids during our initial phase.  One person, mildly supported by two others, set in motion a process which, within about three weeks and with very little work, formed a major coalition to publicly confront Iowa’s top warmonger’s regional director (on three TV stations and in our regional newspaper) on five strategic issues prior to the war, demanding specific actions from the Senator on each one, and initiating a series of victory steps culminating in our winning our senior Senator’s response to our ultimatum “by Tuesday, March 18 at 5:00 PM, or before the start of the war, whichever comes first.”

It can be done, believe it.  And it must be done.  The election phase is winding down and being debriefed.  We must now listen, learn, leverage our power and lead our groups, our movement, our nation and our world.  We must work pragmatically onward until we win the victory which remains within our reach, but which still eludes our grasp.


1 Secrets, Lies and Democracy, Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian, Arthur Naiman ed., (Tucson, AZ:  Odian Press, 1994,) p. 105, https://zcomm.org/secrets-lies-and-democracy/ .

2 Cynthia Peters, “Talking Back to Chomsky,” Z Magazine, April 27, 2004, https://zcomm.org/zcommentary/talking-back-to-chomsky-by-cynthia-peters/ .

3 Roger Fisher, et al, Coping with International Conflict:  A Systematic Approach to Influence in International Negotiation, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), p. 142.

4 Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes:  Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (New York:  Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 99-149.  Cf. William Ury, Getting Past No:  Negotiating with Difficult People, (New York:  Bantam Books, 1991).

5 Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp, Getting it Done:  How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge, (New York:  HarperBusiness, 1998).


Roger Fisher, Getting Ready to Negotiate: The Getting To Yes Workbook.  Note, there are important worksheets that are not included in this book, such as the Currently Perceived Choice (https://image.slidesharecdn.com/9-27clovantagepartnersfinalslidesv2-120927145334-phpapp01/95/tackling-your-toughest-influence-challenges-tools-for-leading-and-influencing-in-a-matrix-27-728.jpg?cb=1348757788 ) worksheet and the Target Future Choice worksheet.  These can be found in other books, such as in footnote 3 and in Beyond Machiavelli.

Brad Wilson, “How to Win: My Organizers Checklist,” ZSpace, 8/1/08, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/how-to-win-my-organizers-checklist-by-brad-wilson/ .

Brad Wilson, “Effective Organizing to Stop War: An Outlining Based upon Experience in Iowa,” ZSpace, 2/18/09, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/effective-organizing-to-stop-war-an-outlining-based-upon-experience-in-iowa-by-brad-wilson/ .

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