Who Zephyr Teachout Is

Zephyr Teachout is a living reminder that phrases like "speak truth to power" can be more than cliché.

She helped to create Howard Dean's Internet campaign in 2004, which shocked and galvanized the Democratic Party and laid the groundwork for Barack Obama's grassroots victory in 2008. She is a major scholar of campaign-finance law. Her book on political corruption, out soon from Harvard University Press, recovers an old American ideal of self-government and shows what's wrong with money in politics today. She's the sort of person who, when she walked down to Zuccotti Park in fall of 2011 to check out the Occupiers, ended up embedded in the movement -- not as a tourist or a bomb-thrower, but helping with the hard work of setting up an institutional structure.

I've had the good luck to call Zephyr a friend for seven years. Intersecting jobs and friends threw us into a series of the same places. I've read her scholarship on money in politics, canvassed with her in South Carolina trailer parks, and raised my voice beside hers in Zuccotti Park's community mike, the democratic chorus that stood in for an amplifier during meetings of 500 or more people. We've taken long walks and stayed up late talking.

So I know a few things that are worth saying.

Zephyr is humble. In her bones, in the way that you can't help. When we showed up together at an Obama canvassing center in Dillon, South Carolina (hometown of Ben Bernanke, by the way), we meekly took our clipboards and walk-lists from the college-age organizers and headed for the back roads. Those kids had no idea that their new volunteer had built Version 1.0 of the system in which they were now deploying us. She didn't so much as drop her own name, let alone hint that she was some kind of slumming baller. When I pointed out the irony as we drove to our turf, she just laughed. She simply is more interested in making things work than in being celebrated for it.

Zephyr loves America. I feel like Colbert on a middling night, hanging out that sentence naked at the start of my paragraph. But it's just true. When you know people well, and get a little older with them, you start to understand the disappointing range of human motivations, not least in politics. There are vanity, narcissism, fear, and greed. There's religious zealotry, and ideological zealotry, too. There's overcoming bad parenting by convincing your constituency to love you like the parents didn't. There's boredom.

But Zephyr is the kind of person who knows the Declaration of Independence like the lyrics of her entrance music, reads the Constitution with the care you'd give a love letter, and thinks about how the founding generation and 19th century judges understood democracy because these things are who she is. She has that old-style patriotic feeling that, if you can't help your country to be its best possible self, then you can't be your best self either. She lives the idea that a country is a shared fate, another cliché that she may help to electrify back into life.

Zephyr respects people. A poisonous subtext of American politics is regular people's suspicion that the elites who come around (or send their college-age kids around) every few years to ask for their votes secretly don't think much of them. Actually, not so secretly. This is why Mitt Romney's covertly taped speech talking down 47 percent of Americans as lazy, selfish takers was so explosive and memorable -- like Barack Obama's covertly taped diagnosis of blue-collar and rural voters "clinging to" religion and guns.

Respecting and really seeing other citizens, even across deep differences in values and experience, is a democratic virtue whose rarity is highlighted by shoddy substitutes: superficial patriotic language and the pretense that our audience, our friends, are the real and only America. No wonder many people cynically dismiss it.

The strange and slightly wondrous thing is that Zephyr doesn't. Calling her a populist is right but also not enough. She deeply and instinctively respects, listens to, and is interested in all kinds of people. She knows that people are experts in their own work, lives, and struggles, and that she can learn from all of them, bankers and yard workers and mechanics and health care aides. There are politicians who can't wait to get away from people, and there are politicians who have to be pulled away from people because they love being adored. Zephyr is the rarer thing, a politician who will listen to people because she believes they know more than she does about many important things, most of all about their own lives, and understanding what they know is her job.

This is because Zephyr is a democrat. That's with a small d. She thinks the idea that people should govern themselves, not take orders from their betters or their richers, is the most radical and important to arise in human history. She knows it is still more of a precious possibility than an accomplished fact, and that if we take it for granted -- for instance, by shrugging cynically about economic inequality and big money in politics -- then we could lose it.

Zephyr understands that being a democrat means caring about economic power, the power of big banks and big media and big donors, because economic power turns into political power. For her, being a democrat means being a progressive because equal democratic citizens need good public schools, health care, and jobs that give them dignity and a chance to rest, learn, and engage in civic life. They need a country where they and their children are full members of the society, real equals, not prison fodder, presumptive dropouts, or someone else's help.

Actually, not they. We. We need that.