This post is my assessment of where we are at post Upton /Murphy and some ideas about what is next. Some points made below have been made in a different form in other posts Some have not.
Let me start with what is perhaps a strange point. It is a perfectly legitimate decision for any advocacy group to decide that it is not important to their cause to make a legislative impact. Perhaps they are about educating the public, perhaps they think making a legislative impact would require things that threaten their integrity or identity and they are not willing to do that. Perhaps they just don’t think they are ready to take that step yet. There are probably countless reasons.
But I think it is a choice that you need to make consciously. My fear is that if we keep doing what we are doing in the way we are doing it we will have made the decision to have little or no impact whether we mean to or not. This is not a criticism of anyone in any way. Very gifted people are trying very hard. Val Marsh the new executive director of the coalition is doing a great job with little or no resources at her command. It is hard for me to picture anyone trying harder. The problem is that I don’t think that she alone can try hard enough to make a difference.
We have reacted to the New Murphy at times in ways that don’t help. They don’t build our credibility with the people we want to listen to us. I think the bill sucks in multiple ways but it is not the “worst mental health bill in 40 years.” It is not the worst catastrophe that could have happened. The original Murphy Bill was far worse and this one and that one are not the same thing. The changes the Democrats got did not begin to make this a flawless Bill, not even a little bit, but they were not nothing either. AOT as a federal law the way Murphy originally wrote it had the potential to do major evil. Extending the funding for a pilot project already funded in another law is simply not the same thing. That change is not a superficial change. The same is true of other changes. Saying the changes mattered doesn’t begin to mean it made it okay. It didn’t. But saying nothing happened is not accurate and as I said before it affects our credibility as people whose opinions need to be taken serious.
In my last post the most important point I made was towards the end…. “Advocacy is basically a competitive sport. Passion and moral outrage is not enough. The other side had that also.”
Enthusiasm is necessary but not sufficient. As much as advocacy is about what you would like to do it is even more about what you are able to do. As many different causes as I have been involved with I have come to believe movements must develop the capacity to advocate. I have seen people win who I don’t think deserve to win simply because they are more successful in presenting their case.
The rules of the game have changed. In the initial Murphy battle a lot of people were doing the heavy lifting with us and I don’t know that is so now. The first Murphy Bill raised the bar of disgusting so high that many people, as indicated by the House vote think what we got ain’t in comparison so bad. The ones more politically minded in particular see politics as compromise, not conquest. Get what you can get but know you must bend.
A friend with some knowledge of what went on with the Murphy Bill becoming the Upton Bill told me she was astonished that the Democrats got what they got. Murphy was not a good loser and intense pressure was put on Upton by several heavy hitter powerful organizations not to bend. She said if the Democrats had not fought like crazy the New Murphy and the Old Murphy would have been remarkably similar.
Several things stand out for me….
1. We don’t have a clearly defined thing we want. No only goes so far. Many of us see things differently and our willingness to compromise and come up with a baseline standard is sometimes really challenged. People who don’t stand together seldom impress many with what they stand for.
2. We must have the messaging skill to express what we want in terms that the people we are trying to influence can buy into. Some terms are non starters within the United States Congress. They are not going to win any allies.
3. We can not let our opponents own key values. Murphy and company early on staked their claim to being the ones who really cared about suffering people and even if that was fast less than the truth their message of caring was seen as credible by many people.
4. We simply didn’t have enough boots on the ground. Many of our organizations do not have many people directly involved. When people are counting calls and emails and tweets numbers count. We didn’t have the numbers. But how good were we, how focused and successful were we at turning out those numbers.
5. We had no legislative champion. Who was our Tim Murphy? How many legislative allies did we really have and how good were we at building those relationships?
6. Our media impact was remarkably slight in comparison to our opponents. It was their greatest strength I think.
7. How many allies did we have with enough legislative punch to make a difference? I really don’t know but I wonder.
There are I am sure many other things that affect our capability to effectively advocate our cause. I am sure you can think of some.
We need to get better at what we do if we are to be effective at making the difference we want to make. To win we must build the capacity to win. All of our weaknesses can get better.
I think there are really three keys if we don’t do anything else:
1. Have a clear message (something more than no).
2. Share that message in a way it is likely to be heard.
3. Unite behind that message.
Perhaps the most we can hope for in any legislation is that it not do harm. I don’t see how any of this legislation really affects the experience of the ordinary person in the mental health system.
We need a system that is honest, whose guiding principle is to help and not protect the status, the territory or the role of anyone whose sole purpose is to protect that status or role. We need to have a system that is honest about its own ignorance. We need to have not just a system but communities that are trauma informed. We need to have a system that deals with the chronic sources of injury in the lives of those it serves. We need to have a system that assumes the worth of those it serves rather than measuring their worth by their compliance with treatment. We need to have a system that believes people are more than what is difficult for them or that everything they do or say is a symptom of that difficulty. We need to have a system that believes that better life is possible and that empowers people to make the choices in their life to find it. We need to have a system that makes a difference without labeling the people it serves as what is really different.
We need a lot and I don’t know how much of any of that is likely to be something that can be legislated.
I believe there will be an Upton(Murphy) Bill. It is unclear if there will be a Senate bill. If there is everything rides on the conference committee. We need to begin working now on what needs to happen for us to make a difference.