There are three ways to have a voice in politics. You can cozy up to the existing political establishment — the path of political careerists. Or, if you happen to have billions of dollars, you can hire a team of lobbyists or buy politicians outright.
But for most of us the only way to have a meaningful voice in politics is to join with others — our friends and neighbors — and get ourselves organized into a force that can challenge the status quo.
This last option is called democracy. I’m proud to be part of an organization, Lancaster Stands Up, that has chosen this path.
Politics has left everyday working people behind. Everyone knows it: Our economy and our political system have been rigged to serve the few, over the interests of the many.
The leadership of both the GOP and the Democratic Party are culpable. They passed NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements that have thrown American workers into a race to the bottom. They lied us into the Iraq War, a military catastrophe that continues to have global consequences.
They allowed the country’s basic infrastructure to deteriorate — our schools, roads and transportation systems, our downtowns, and our health care system — even as they delivered one tax giveaway after another to billionaires. They drove forward disastrous criminal justice policies like “tough on crime,” “three strikes,” and the “war on drugs,” dramatically increasing the number of people in prison for nonviolent offenses and further straining the relationship between communities and police.
They failed to hold anyone accountable for the 2008 financial meltdown, or to help struggling Americans keep their homes, even as they bailed out “too-big-to-fail” banks.
In each case, millions of Americans were harmed, but no one was held responsible.
Thankfully, there’s some good news. These past two years we’ve seen a civic revival sweep America. Everyday people are stepping up, forming and joining local organizations, and volunteering time and money to turn it around.
And Lancaster County is leading the way. In the wake of the 2016 election, a few of us called for an emergency community meeting. Three hundred community members showed up, and Lancaster Stands Up was born.
Soon, thousands of us were raising our voices in the public square, holding our elected officials to account and taking action on important issues like health care, immigration, housing and criminal justice reform. In a single election cycle we built a formidable grassroots organization to put power back in the hands of the people.
In her run for Congress, Jess King — a working mom from Leola — embodied this revival of a people’s politics. King showed political courage by refusing all corporate political action committee money and by openly criticizing the stale leadership of both political parties. King gained more ground than any Democratic candidate ever has here, winning a greater vote share in every precinct.
Along the way Lancaster Stands Up brought thousands of volunteers into the political process, building up a bench of homegrown candidates, campaigners and volunteer leaders.
So, of course, the GOP establishment slanders us.
The latest attack comes from John Koons, the outreach director for the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans and now a regional field director for the Pennsylvania GOP. In his Tuesday op-ed (“Learning the truth about Lancaster Stands Up”), Koons employs a politics of fear, trying to make us afraid of each other so the greedy people at the top can keep consolidating their own power.
These days the GOP only interrupts its fearmongering against immigrants and refugees to make sure we’re also adequately afraid of “socialist” bogeymen.
It’s the oldest trick in the book. President Harry Truman saw through it years ago: “Socialism is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made. … Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. … Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
Meanwhile, Congressman Lloyd Smucker says we’re outside agitators who are “infiltrating” the community. He doesn’t want people to know that Lancaster Stands Up is comprised of thousands of his own constituents, from Columbia to Ephrata to Quarryville. As for me? I’m literally his second cousin, born and raised in Bird-in-Hand; I’m a Mennonite, who grew up working at my father’s farmers market stand.
Koons can hurl all the insults he likes, but we will not apologize for building a political organization that is of, by and for the people — rural and urban, white, black, and brown — and that exists to take on a political establishment that has failed us.
Politics is broken. We know that the people who broke it aren’t going to fix it. If we want to have a government that is accountable and an economy that works for all of us, it’s up to everyday people like us to get involved — to breathe new life into our democracy.
Jonathan Smucker is a Lancaster County native, a co-founder of Lancaster Stands Up, political director of Pennsylvania Stands Up, and author of “Hegemony How-To.”