Reach Out for the Bill of Rights

Your Best Friends Might Be
on the Other Side of the Political Spectrum

By Aaron Zelman and Claire Wolfe © 2002



The phone rang at Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership in December 2001. A caller ordered dozens of Gran'pa Jack Bill of Rights booklets. Nothing unusual in that. But this caller wasn't a gun-rights activist, a conservative, or a libertarian. She was an avowed political liberal whose main cause was election reform in the wake of Al Gore's presidential defeat. She was organizing a rally whose theme was "Awake for the Bill of Rights." And as she said, "It's all for one and one for all. You can't separate the Bill of Rights and say, 'I want this part, but not that part' "


Before Aaron Russo even announced his independent candidacy for governor of Nevada in 2002, he already had the support of the Green Party, the Libertarians, the Reform Party, and the Natural Law Party -- a coalition almost unprecedented in American politics. 1


In February 2002 we heard from a European Socialist seeking some common political ground. He was as concerned as any U.S. Bill of Rights activist about the growing worldwide surveillance state and its implications for freedom.


A young woman who contacted JPFO in January 2002 identified herself as a lesbian and a Reform Jew. She also wrote, "I have long detested the victim mentality that pervades the souls of Jewish and other minority groups as though we deserve special protection. I've always believed if you want special protection, buy yourself a .38 Special."


The political spectrum has always been more complex than the media, with its simplistic emphasis on a left-right dichotomy, would have us believe. The above examples give a brief -- but significant -- glimpse of that complexity.

Events of the last few years have brought about even more complex philosophical alignments, further blurring the lines between right, left, liberal, libertarian, conservative, and none of the above. For example:

  • In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, some conservatives have abandoned their opposition to the surveillance state in deference to the Bush administration's "security" policies. At the same time, however, opposition has burgeoned on the left to national ID cards, facial-recognition cameras, detention without trial, expanded wiretapping and other losses of liberty.
  • The push for state-corporate-style globalization has aroused opposition from right, left, and libertarian activists, though these factions may have differing styles and reasons for their opposition.
  • Various groups, feeling disenfranchised, have coalesced around election reform, even though they may agree on little else. Similarly, the complex question of whether to use cloned human embryos in medical research has united both right-to-lifers and traditional liberal groups (including pro-choice and anti-technology factions) in opposition.

Individuals adopt their positions, or to shift them, for many reasons. Carla, the self-identified liberal who contacted JPFO, told us she had been completely unattuned to Second Amendment issues until recently, when the corruption she saw in the election system made her realize that firearms might be the last resort for citizens if every method of reform were to fail. Conversely, Erin, the young lesbian who doesn't fit the media mold, has held her views all her life. She explains, "I was raised pro-life and pro-Constitution and just as straight people don't normally change their political leanings as their sexual identities develop, neither did I."

The positions -- and the reasons behind them -- can be as complex and varied as the individuals holding them.

If your major aim is to bring back the Bill of Rights, there's a world of opportunity in today's varied, shifting, and untraditional philosophical alignments.

Why reach out?

People who value principles, or who want radical (that is, root-level) change, are often shut out of philosophical dialog.

Similarly, people who can't quickly be categorized as "moderate," "conservative," or "liberal," are commonly disregarded by the media. Or they're lumped as "extreme right-wing" (a category the press uses to hold everyone from neo-Nazis to mild-mannered libertarian scholars) or "radical leftists" (another catch-all category including everyone from Ralph Nader to black-masked protestors smashing the windows of Nike outlets). These are sound-bite categorizations which leave actual views unheard.

This is a tragedy in the making, particularly when the "mainstream" appears willing -- even eager -- to march in lockstep toward tyranny. Yet at the same time, the more people who feel shut out of the political process, the more chance and more reason there is for us to reach out to other potential Bill of Rights supporters. In coalitions, or even loose philosophical alliances, our voices are more likely to be heard.

When we think "coalition," we may assume it means a political coalition. Some of our alliances may be exactly that. But the primary change we must make to bring back the Bill of Rights is cultural and intellectual, not political. This means we must talk and work with people who value ideas and who have a concept of the future -- not merely a goal of pursuing the main, momentary political chance.

Cultural change, especially in its early stages, often takes place outside the view of either mainstream media or politics. As a movement of ideas, it may spread quietly for decades before finally being noticed and being politically effective. Once it is effective, the result might not be the type of straightforward legislative reform traditional political activists aim for; it's more likely to result in a reformation of institutions, a re-creation of institutions to fit a new paradigm of freedom. A renaissance, a rebirth. This can be a reinvigorating experience for a society, since it ensures that institutions are grounded in the ideals of contemporary people, while at the same time reconnecting with the fundamental principles on which all healthy citizen-government relationships must be based -- that is, the principles of bounteous individual liberty and limited government power spelled out in the Bill of Rights.

It's this quiet change that we need to effect.

How to reach out

  • Find others who are disenfranchised. For instance, Aaron Russo's gubernatorial coalition was made up of parties who on the surface had little in common. But all shared one important trait. Alone, they were disregarded by the media and most voters. Together they had more potential influence. Erin, a student, noted that while "the U.N. Club and the Socialist Club have booths on the campus mall, ... gun-rights ... organizations are notably absent. I believe the most effective method of education is through grassroots movements and a willingness to take a stand against the political positions of those who would claim to be 'leaders' of any group." In other words, finding activists who feel unserved by their leadership, or taking your messages to audiences who've had little chance to hear it, could both be effective forms of intellectual activism.
  • Emphasize common ground. Libertarians and Greens appear to have less in common than any two political groups. But both favor (among other things) de-criminalization of marijuana. And in Nevada, where Russo was running for governor, both oppose seeing their state used as a nuclear waste dump. Russo united the groups behind these issues -- and behind the Tenth Amendment, which confirms state government power to say NO to federal government policies that go against the will of Nevada residents. Likewise, gun owners and gays are mutually exclusive categories in the simplistic media view, yet there's a healthy and thriving movement -- as represented by our correspondent, Erin, and by the aggressive Pink Pistol movement ( -- to bridge this gap by emphasizing the need and responsibility for gays to protect themselves against violent acts of prejudice.
  • Keep the message simple. Although the issues we deal with may be complex, when reaching out to others who don't share our assumptions, it's best to frame issues in simple terms and in terms that reach our audience. If Carla were to approach a typical "conservative" gun owner and say, "We need voting reform because Al Gore's loss was unfair," he'd tune her out; he's glad Al Gore lost. When she says, "If you don't have honest voting, you don't have democracy," her message is more powerful. (We'll have more about that word, democracy, in a moment.) Similarly, when a gun owner launches into an account of what the founding fathers intended by the Second Amendment, a "liberal" might yawn; those Dead White Males may not be sacred icons to her. An argument based on the premise, "Guns enable women to protect themselves against violence from bigger, stronger male attackers" is more likely to get a hearing.
  • Work separately while working together. This one isn't an iron-clad rule. But it may help hold together some otherwise fragile alliances. People in different parts of the spectrum often have different personalities and styles of activism, in addition to having different long-term goals. Trying to force cozy working partnerships between such diverse people can be disastrous. The trick is to take advantage of each group's strengths (for instance, having some factions organize the public protests while others focus on intellectual debates). In Aaron Russo's case, the coalition parties weren't even working directly with each other. They simply agreed that each party would run a candidate for a different statewide office, that everyone would support the Reform Party's candidate for lieutenant governor, the independent, highly visible and forceful Russo, for governor, and so on.

Things not to do

The very first thing you don't need to do -- and should never do -- is compromise your principles. When working with people who have different philosophies, you can compromise on strategy and tactics to get things done. You can divide responsibilities, which each group pursuing the strategy it's best at. You should strive to express your principles in terms that a given audience can best understand. But if you give up your fundamental commitment to the Bill of Rights as an act of "pragmatism" -- if you move away from liberty and rights in the name of preserving them -- you may as well have joined the lockstep mainstream you're trying to influence.

Don't let ego get in the way. If you're working for the common good, focus on the goal and the best ways to reach it. In the heat of disagreement on tactics, it's easy to lose sight of the overall purpose. We've seen hard-core libertarians who, at the first sign of disagreement, will throw over any commitment to a group for the sake of "doing their own thing." They stalk off, raging that the group is a bunch of tyrants (They forget that a freely chosen commitment to a group isn't coercion.) On the other end of the spectrum, we've seen dedicated believers in teamwork doggedly forcing their individual will upon others in a group. They insist that anyone who disagrees with their personal wishes "isn't showing team spirit." These people won't usually walk out, but might, through their intolerance, force others out. The actions are different, but in each case, the real problem is the same: ego. Rule of thumb: Don't just leave your ego at the door. Lock it in the trunk of your car and don't let it out.

Finally, don't debate no-win issues. If your aim is to restore privacy, don't get into useless arguments over abortion or welfare -- issues on which you and the person you're reaching out to may be itching to disagree. If you're working to restore the Fourth Amendment, don't get sidetracked into a set-to on whether the U.S. should have troops in Country X or Country Y. The key to outreach is finding common ground, sticking to it, and avoiding the temptation to try to convert an alliance member to every other view you hold. That's not to say you should never attempt to persuade an opponent. But don't let attempts at persuasion divert you from the main effort.

As part of avoiding no-win debates, we should recognize that each side has its own ways of expressing itself and each side (however much we may hate to admit it) has some valid points. For instance, liberals often use the word, democracy, to describe the U.S. system of government. Conservatives bristle and point out that our government is a republic. In fact, both sides are right, as Alexis de Tocqueville recognized more than 170 years ago when he wrote Democracy in America. The form is a republic; the process by which it's built is democracy -- power derived from the people, rather than nobility or monarchy. Unfortunately, both sides are often too busy arguing with each other to see the larger picture. The solution: Stop looking at one lone philosophical tree and start looking at the whole panorama, which includes trees, lakes, clouds, mountains, canyons, and a beautiful blue sky of freedom.

Keep your eyes on the prize

One thing all sides can agree on: The Bill of Rights is a list of things that an honest government, a government truly of and by the people, cannot do, now or ever. The Bill of Rights is the line in the sand beyond which government dares not tread. It is the barricade that protects the people's liberties against the encroachment of tyranny. The fact that the government is encroaching on the Bill of Rights on so many fronts is a sign of danger - and it is precisely the reason so many diverse groups need to come together and are coming together.

Remember that your ultimate goal is to restore the Bill of Rights -- not to win an argument or an election. To bring back the Bill of Rights, we must change the culture. Along the way, we must win incremental victories. But we must be able to tell a real victory from a false, perhaps even destructive one.

If you win an argument but lose an ally, what have you gained? You've won a battle but may have lost the war.

If you win an election but expend resources that could have been better spent, what have you truly won? If you win an election, but your candidate can't get anything done for freedom (either because he's broken his promises or because his principled legislative proposals can't even make it out of committee), what have you truly won?

Freedom doesn't need watered-down, compromise legislation. It doesn't benefit by us scoring intellectual points off our opponents over lattes at Starbucks. It doesn't need us bending over backwards to sacrifice our views for the sake of "getting along." And it most certainly doesn't need us clannishly sticking only with those who agree with us on nearly everything. We can agree to disagree on many issues, find common ground on others, and move ahead toward liberty.

"The Bill of Rights," as Carla reminds us, "gives the parameters for a dialog that has been agreed upon as fair. For 200 years, everyone has agreed that the rules set out there is the fairest set of rules. We need to put aside specific differences. We need to frame issues so that we bring the dialog to people on their terms -- and on terms that are reasonable, not propagandistic."

Russo adds, "Both sides have to understand that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have to work regardless of ideology. People on one side have to say, 'I believe in the Constitution even if I don't like guns, so I have to live with that.' The other side has to say, 'I believe in the Constitution even if I don't like marijuana, so I have to recognize that the federal government has no authority to pass drug laws.'"

Increasingly, people of vision are understanding that we must have all of the Bill of Rights for all Americans, and that we can't just pick and choose those parts we like. What's needed today, tomorrow, and in the future is a committed, long-term effort -- from freedom lovers right, left, and elsewhere -- to change the culture and bring back the Bill of Rights. Only by restoring the entire Bill of Rights do we restore freedom and justice for ALL.


Some Web sites that reach across the spectrum:

The following Web sites have a civil libertarian viewpoint, regardless of where they fall in the traditional political spectrum. We welcome readers' suggested additions: (
Mother Jones ( (
Civil Liberties at ( (
The Jewish World Review (
Electronic Frontier Foundation (
JPFO Bill of Rights Day Page (


The following are some of the Bill-of-Rights oriented publications from Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. They are all available at .

Gran'pa Jack booklets:

"Can you get a fair trial in America?" (Gran'pa Jack #2). Know the historic and present benefit of a fully informed jury.
"It's common sense to use our Bill of Rights" (Gran'pa Jack #3). A simple, fun-to-read explanation of the Bill of Rights.
"'Gun control' is racist" (Gran'pa Jack #4). Supporters of "gun control" in the black and other minority communities really need to read this one.


Death by "Gun Control": The Human Cost of Victim Disarmamentby Aaron Zelman and Richard W. Stevens. It begins with "reasonable measures" to control the unruly; it ends in the death of a thousand cuts -- and millions of disarmed citizens.

1. Unfortunately, Aaron Russo was forced to drop out of the race due to health problems. His minority-party support, coupled with the strong support he'd received from Republicans in the 1998 gubernatorial primary, would have made him a powerful contender and a voice for the under-represented. [back to text]


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