A Labor Day Interview With the Good Lobbyist, David Cohen

The former president of Common Cause and the preeminent voice of public advocacy explains why he still has hope for the labor movement, surveys the state of modern partisanship, defends lobbying as a (potentially) noble calling, and declares there’s really nothing wrong with Kansas.
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This Town, Mark Leibovitch’s much-talked about book, skewers the Washington “player” as insensitive and narcissistic, the kind of person who goes to funerals to be seen, not to honor the deceased, as an empty person in a very expensive empty suit. True as that picture may be, it fails to include that player’s mirror opposite, the sincere activist who toils away in this town, usually under the radar, on behalf of good causes. A premier—perhaps the premier—example of this Good Washingtonian is David Cohen. The former president of the citizens’ lobby Common Cause and co-founder (with Michael Pertschuk) of The Advocacy Institute, today Cohen, 76, wears at least three hats: he’s a consultant to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids; the senior congressional fellow for the Council for a Livable World; and a senior adviser at Encore.org, which helps boomers find socially useful second careers. His signature causes, ones he’s fought for (and against) since the early 1960s, include trade unionism, civil rights, campaign reform, Vietnam, and the wars against poverty and hunger.

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What do you make of what has happened since the Supreme Court decision invalidating part of the Voting Rights Act, specifically the actions taken by the legislatures in Texas, North Carolina, and Florida?
It’s a return to the post-Reconstruction days, and is absolutely an abrogation of the 15th Amendment, which protects the right to vote. It is targeted at people who disagree with the powers-that-be, and instead of defeating them fair and square in an election they are trying to deny them the chance to vote. That’s what this is about. Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida all have different routes to do it, but that’s the effect of what they’re doing. Obviously, this is going to be battled out in the Congress and in the courts, but what the Supreme Court threw out had the support of James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), who has to be one of the 10 most conservative House members—a man very much in the Henry Hyde tradition, which means that of course he’s conservative but he believes in government, he believes in fairness. He was all-out fair and square on voting rights and he’s still that way. But this is what the Supreme Court has arrogantly denied with its interpretations.

And the Republican Party is so controlled by extremists that even sensible conservatives like Sensenbrenner cannot have an influence on changing the direction of their leadership, which is imprisoned by the extremists. [Speaker of the House John] Boehner and [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor are imprisoned by their extremists, as are [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell and [Senate Minority Whip John] Cornyn; Cornyn cannot separate himself from Ted Cruz and McConnell cannot separate himself from Rand Paul. It is no different from left-wingers following the Communist Party line. This is what the right wing of the Republican Party is doing; they’re following the party line of their extremists.

Is that similar to the problem Thomas Frank was describing in his 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas?in which he says that, because of the influence of conservatives, middle class Kansans have actually been voting against their own economic self-interests?
No, this is very different than What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which I thought was a very snobbish book. It was disrespectful of people who are able to often separate out their own self-interests, but they often don’t operate by bread alone, they’re not often operating by economic interests. And I think Frank did not listen to those people, was not respectful of people who were saying something different. I think the [question] is not what’s the matter with Kansas, but how do you engage in the kind of critical thinking and the kind of popular education that helps bring people to making informed and understood choices and decisions. Kansas is a schizophrenic state, politically. On the one hand they can elect a [Democrat] Kathleen Sebelius, and yet there are various extremists in the Legislature, and on the [state] school board. They can elect a Bob Dole, who was champion of civil rights. There was a whole legacy in Kansas of what I would call pro-civil rights Republicans. Thomas Frank’s listening gear didn’t allow him to hear what the people of Kansas were really saying.

We seem to be in the throes of “anti-bipartisanship,” as best exemplified by the U.S. House of Representatives. Is this to be an ongoing fact of life?
It certainly is, and into the foreseeable future. Let me give you an example of its historic opposite: I just went to Chicago to help with interviews of some old colleagues of mine who played a leadership role in passing the vote for 18-year-olds. The Congress was able to statutorily extend it to federal elections, but the Supreme Court said it couldn’t do it to state elections, so there had to be a constitutional amendment, which sailed through pretty quickly, as these things go. I was one of the mentors, being 10 to 15 years older, to the group of campaign lobbying  leaders—Common Cause, National Education Association, and the AFL-CIO. The campaign created an effective coalition, led by Patricia Keefer and Ian MacGowan, called the Youth Franchise Coalition. Pat and Ian are [now] doing an oral history [of the experience]. I’ve been interviewed for the history, but I went out to Chicago to help with the interview with Ab Mikva. Some of the others they’ve interviewed are Illinois Republicans Tom Railsback and John Anderson, and Barber Conable, a Republican member from New York who was a champion of public financing of congressional election to break the power of the special interests. As you can see, that was an era of true bipartisanship.

Today, John McCain still does it at times, and we saw it in the immigration bill vote in the Senate, which was really well done. But it’s aberrational there, and it doesn’t even exist in the House, except for odd things like the David Price (D-North Carolina)/Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania) letter on supporting diplomatic efforts in Iran.

Right now in the House there’s hard-edged partisanship that is based on trying to be destructive. I’m struck by the fact that so many people who have been seen, over the years, as even-handed and who fit the [David] Broder model of holding everyone to the same high standards, have put the blame right on the Republicans. Even Norman Ornstein of  the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute put the blame on the Republican extremists. Now if that came from me, it wouldn’t even be credible, but when it comes from Ornstein and Mann, that’s really credible. So I think we’re in a very different state.

So that will be a factor for quite some time to come?
Yes, and for two reasons. One, Republicans are frightened of the primary. In other words, you can have safe districts, but, as Elizabeth Drew has so cogently pointed out in her writings, you can get “primaried,” as began with Senator [Jacob] Javits in 1980. That’s how Senator D’Amato got to serve, [and] was the beginning of showing what happens. That’s one reason, and the other is it leads to an ugliness in which the only way you can win is to be totally destructive. So, after a decision is made democratically, via an election or even a statute like the Affordable Health Care Act, the idea is to defund it. Not just to reduce funding, but to defund it. Or not to confirm appointees, bringing the National Labor Relations Board to a halt as a way of crippling labor. Not one Republican voted for Tom Perez as secretary of Labor; the vote was 54-46—straight party lines. And only five Republicans voted for [EPA nominee] Gina McCarthy. It’s all disproportionate.

These days "lobbyist" often has a negative connotation. Does that bother you—as a well-known "good lobbyist"?
Lobbying has always had a negative reputation in popular American culture. I have never heard a parent say, “I want my child to be a lobbyist.” We all know the cartoon character of the fat guy with a big cigar passing out oodles of money. That's not the full story or anything close to it. About 10 years ago I wrote an essay for the Non-Profit Lobbying Guide (PDF) entitled “Being a Public Interest Lobbyist Is Something to Write Home About.” I pointed out how my family was proud of what I did, and so am I.

Lobbying is about representing people's interests as they work to redress their public grievances. We all have special interests and they should not be dismissed or castigated. But we also have public interests that go beyond our occupational, regional, and economic interests. Those go to the way we govern ourselves and the common public spaces we need to share and help decide how they are used. We have a responsibility to help comfort the afflicted—those without food, shelter or clothes. What's more, we need to have a fair democratic playing field where we sort out our various interests—public and private and competing private interests.

I don't expect or want the image of lobbying to change until we find and agree to separate the corrupting influences of money on our political and policy system. It means transparency in lobbying, which has improved since the time I started but is a long way away from what's acceptable. Lobbying should be fully disclosed, including expenditures for grassroots spending whether it's special interest or public interests. That includes who an organization's major contributors are. Recently I read where liberal non-profit groups in New York state are seeking an exemption from such disclosure. Disgraceful. There's no excuse not to disclose who the large contributors are. By doing that, they are bolstering, even strengthening, Citizens United.

We need zero tolerance for gifts to elected and appointed officials. The Virginia story of its governor and attorney general is a disgrace, and I would argue a permanent disqualification—to be applied to Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives—[for those accepting unreported gifts].

We need to have a purposeful and surgical separation of lobbyists from money: no campaign contributions over some small figure, maybe $100, but no higher than $250. Of course we need public monies to match small [campaign] contributions—stuff that is working well in New York City and Connecticut.

Lobbying is part of practicing democracy. My mission is to take the mystery out of its tribal rites and make it sufficiently understood that others will enter the fray to pursue public interest ends. That's good enough for me. I don't need to be blessed for having done what I did.

Let’s switch topics, and go from specific to general: Is social justice a rights-based philosophy?
It is a rights-based philosophy, but it’s not limited to being rights-based. Underneath it is something much greater, which is a covenantal relationship. It’s our being responsible for one another; it’s recognizing that there is a public place for compassion and kindness, and how we treat one another in how we distribute the resources of society so that there's some sense of equity. That’s what social justice is about, so it includes rights but it is not limited to rights, because with rights comes responsibilities. And the responsibilities include [figuring out] how you build a more perfect union. Bending the arc toward justice includes being covenantal, compassionate, and kind. Covenantal includes taking care of one another, and that means multi-generational. So it’s important to recognize children, and that the playing field should be level for them, but older people as we live longer should live in dignity as well. And that places special responsibility on people in the middle. Even people my age still have parents who are living. As for people 10 years younger, a lot of them have parents—or one parent—still living. And there’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that.

How do you feel about the future of the union movement, which, to put it mildly, is not as healthy as it once was? Any signs of hope?
I see numerous changes for the good. For example, the growth of non-profit workers centers that organize groups of low-income workers is a positive thing. [AFL-CIO President Richard] Trumka recognizes that the AFL-CIO has to move beyond its traditional organizing practices and build allies where more imaginative organizing is taking place. These centers do two things that are reminiscent of union activities in the past. They teach English to immigrant workers and they provide a recreational space and outlet that builds cohesion and provides workers with a rich sense of community. I’m a big believer in participatory movements that involve people on the community level, and you see that with the day laborers movement.

All of this is in keeping with the philosophy and teachings of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, as delineated in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he proposes a movement made up of teachers, students, and society. The day laborers have to be organized in some fashion that allows them to bargain for their rights. My first job out of college was with the Upholsterer’s Union, a small industrial union that was swept away by changing economic forces and lost its relationship with its membership. Leadership means you have to lead—and that’s how you bring your people along and bring them up.

Do I miss the old days? Some of it sometimes, provided we don’t turn those days into nostalgia reveries that shut the mind to innovation and the sense of the possible. But I generally approve of new initiatives—except for recalls. I’m not a believer in recalls. Every organizer I know, including those in Wisconsin that I’ve spoken with, thought the [failed] recall of Governor [Scott] Walker was a monumental strategic mistake. That what’s wrong with recalls; they are part of an unthinking passion, almost viral, that resulted in increasing Walker’s power rather than limiting or ending it.

Is the era of mass movements by the people, such as the ones you’ve been so deeply involved in—i.e. civil rights, anti-war, congressional reform, and social justice—a thing of the past?If not, in what area of contemporary life and politics might we see a new peoples’ movement for reform? And, how do we compare these U.S. or Western movements with things like the Arab Spring or even the current unrest in Egypt?
Let me deal with the second part first. By the way, that’s a terrific question. As you know, I have done a lot of work outside of the country with social justice movements and groups, particularly in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Israel, Palestine (West Bank and Gaza), and South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, also some of the former Communist countries, particularly Ukraine, Bulgaria, and a little bit in Russia. This work was a great awakening for me, because I think I learned a lot, especially in the southern countries, meaning South Africa, participatory stuff in Brazil, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, as to how democracy works beyond elections and traditional issue campaigns. I think that’s a fantastic experience for Americans, and one of the things that really excites me is when we were doing the work at the Advocacy Institute for Leadership for a Changing World, and we were recognizing unrecognized social justice leaders in this country, I could see the South Asian and the Latin influences, particularly on African-American communities and lower income white communities of dealing with what I call "popular education," the Paulo Freire idea of people really learning themselves, taking responsibility for their learning in community. So there’s a tremendous amount to be learned from these movements outside of the country. And I have found myself in my own work and in some of my own writing, trying to interpret that in terms of an American experience.

And what about the Arab Spring?
The Arab Spring was exciting, but the work of democracy can’t be grafted on. What people forget is that in places like South Africa and India and other places there were long histories of various forms of movements that were very much democratic and participatory, even if they didn’t follow the Western standards of representative government. You just can’t graft representative and institutional democracy on. One of the unfortunate things that happened is that there was this effort of trying to consolidate power by exclusion, rather than build power up to bring along people who haven’t quite made up their mind. And as a result of [ousted President Mohamed] Morsi’s handling it badly, the consequence was to turn it back over to the military, and that was not a good outcome. No one can say that turning things back to the military is a good outcome. But there are reasons for it.

In a perhaps related question, what about the peoples’ movement in this country, the Occupy movement? Does it have a future?
There’s only a future if its leaders learn the great lesson in what Bayard Rustin wrote 50 years ago, about the civil rights movement, “It’s moving from protest to politics.” And what does politics mean? It means more than elections, it means policy, doing the nitty-gritty work of organizing, of having a say, of being engaged in democratic governments. That’s the only way it’s going to happen. The Occupy movement raised questions. It pointed out the 99 percent, but to get to be able to deal with some of the real problems of inequitable distribution, you have to begin to do the hard political and policy work stuff. That’s what Harry Boyte calls “public work.” Long ago I learned it takes persistence and stamina. That’s how you organize, do critical thinking and be informed and educated.

So what’s happening here in Washington, D.C., on the Walmart issue is an example of that, an example of the living wage thing, and things that actually result in results and improve peoples’ lives as the minimum wage increase would. Those become the stuff of building organizations. So you have to go beyond protest. What the Occupy Movement did was to protest very well [but] we still need a cohesive set of ideas that show what the promise of a good life is, so it’s not just being angry at CitiBank or angry at Larry Summers for his role in the attempt to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, but it involves showing what the promised life can be. We’re not there yet. But can we get there? I think so. And I hope I live long enough to see some examples of it.

You are one of the few people your age who deal regularly and often with younger people. Does what you see make you hopeful?
Absolutely. As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that younger people don’t have the attitude that younger people had in the 1960s, that if you’re old you’re not to be trusted. So I find that young people are willing to listen, but you have to listen to them, too. And they teach me a lot. I don’t mean technologically, though they’re wonderfully helpful in that respect because I’m a dunce. (They tell me I don’t have to type www every time, but I still do it. It’s a habit.) However, you may be surprised to learn that I tweet. I rarely have time these days to write anything lengthy, but I love the discipline of having to force my ideas into 140 characters.

Years ago, you chose to drop out of law school [at Penn]. Any regrets—about that or anything else?
No. I think I’ve been lucky because my whole life I’ve been able to work on things I believe in. I’m proud that I helped make some constructive changes happen and helped block harmful ones from happening. Obviously, you compromise all the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to do anything I was ashamed of. And I’ve enjoyed it all—immensely. It’s what John Adams called “the public happiness.”

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