How to Organize to Win

How to Organize to Win

Rebuilding the democratic infrastructure is too important to leave up to the consultocracy.


This is an extraordinary moment. Tom Hayden once observed: “Change is slow, except when it’s fast.” In fast moments, chickens come home to roost, we confront inconvenient truths, small differences yield big changes, and the choices we make really matter. The promise of American democracy is at greater risk than at any time since the 1930s. The dangers we face are the result of reactive political responses to the challenges of globalization, financialization, and digitalization. Absent a compelling progressive alternative, a right-wing movement, rooted in reaction to role of the federal government in the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements of the 1960s linked with an anti-government “free market” reaction to economic challenges of the ’70s. Together, these forces leveraged control of the Republican Party into control of the federal government—the very institution they were hell-bent on ravaging.

This politics delegitimizes democratic government, marginalizes public institutions, and lionizes private wealth—of which Donald Trump is the poster child. Trump is unique in the depth of his moral and empirical nihilism, sociopathic focus on personal domination, and dangerously erratic narcissism. But he and his wrecking crew are more effect than cause. For many, his election was the moment they realized the United States was in trouble. For others who have known trouble all their lives, it was less of a surprise than a sudden and very direct threat.

This can, however, become a moment of unique opportunity to renew the promise of America. Can we turn our own reaction to the rawness of this moment into the chance to build the moral, organizational, and strategic capacity to strengthen our democracy?

Hope has begun to focus on November 6, 2018, when we can return to the polls to choose occupants of 435 House and 33 Senate seats, 36 governors, mayors of 23 of our largest cities, and 6,066 state legislators. Pundits speculate on whether this vote will deliver a verdict on the Trump presidency and, if so, what that verdict will be. Democrats hope for a blue wave and Republicans hope their tax cut will turn into votes. However, the real question that we need to ask ourselves now is about how we can organize ourselves to win. We have a choice: Do we invest millions of dollars in dueling algorithms, polls, and advertising that leave nothing behind after Election Day? Or do we invest in organizing millions of people to rebuild our power in city, state, and nation?

Political scientist Sidney Verba observed that liberal democracy is a gamble that equality of voice can balance out an inequality of resources. Can the power of public citizenship (expressed through democratic government employing the rule of law) level the power of private ownership (expressed though the deployment of private wealth)? Can the power of politics offset the power of money?

Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in the 1830s that radical individualism could threaten a politics of the common good; he argued that making democracy work would require “knowledge of how to combine.” Civic associations, parties, and churches could be “great free schools of democracy” in which citizens could learn to transcend their narrow self-interest in favor of the common good, develop the empathy to enable solidaristic action, and acquire the skills of interdependence necessary to self-govern; Tocqueville called these the “habits of the heart.” This is how individual voices could combine to exercise political power.

This balancing act got harder in 1976, when the Supreme Court decided in Buckley v. Valeo that money equals speech. The ruling doomed efforts to limit campaign spending, and stimulated the emergence of a new political business. The consultant class earned $11.4 billion in 2016 by turning politics into marketing, campaigns into advertising, candidates into brands, voters into data points, and debate into messaging. Transformation of the electoral means of production was driven by television, direct mail, computer targeting, and digital media—sources of commissions for the professional consultants who themselves make the buys. No one makes money by organizing volunteers.

But campaigns don’t have to be this way.

My first experience with voter-turnout organizing was with farmworkers in the 1968 Robert Kennedy campaign in East Los Angeles. Each organizer canvassed a precinct to contact voters, looking for a volunteer whom he or she could recruit, train, and coach to become a precinct leader responsible for contacting their district, turning their house into a headquarters, and getting their voters out to vote. As we contacted the voters, we also built the infrastructure to get them to the polls on Election Day. This kind of organizing enabled us to achieve historic Latino turnout in that California primary nearly 50 years ago.

Organizing people is not only about solving immediate problems, like making sure your candidate gets the most votes or putting up a stop sign. It is about doing this and, at the same time, developing the leadership, organization, and power to take on structural challenges in the long run. It is not about fixing bugs in the system, like a safety net. It is about transforming the cultural, economic, and political features of the system. One of the main reasons I got hooked on organizing in the civil-rights movement was that it allowed me to work with people to find the resources within themselves and each other to create the power they needed to change the institutions responsible for their problems in the first place. That is what healthy democracy requires.

This kind of organizing, however, is a far cry from the political marketing campaigns run by the electoral-industrial complex today.

More people than ever are running for office as Democrats. Of the 237 House challengers who raised at least $5,000 for the 2018 midterms by the end of June 2017, 209 of them (88 percent) are Democrats, suggesting real potential for a progressive tide. So, the issue is less about how much money can be raised—although this is what the consultantocracy would like for us to think. It is about how the money is spent. Candidates compete for the “best” consultant they can buy, relying on donors, scuttlebutt, or peers for information. They find themselves in thrall to this consultant as they get branded, told how to market “their” message—rather than build relationships with members of their constituency—and, of course, get on the phone raising money for at least four hours of every day. Each consultant also often advises as many campaigns as possible, meaning that minimal time is devoted to any one campaign. Right after the election—win or lose—the stage is struck, everyone goes home, and nothing survives except for the campaign debt and, perhaps, a list.

Campaigns like these may give lip service to people power, but rely on the media, technology, and marketing to win. This is puzzling, given consistent findings that person-to-person contact helps persuade and turn out voters. Perhaps it’s because most consultants have little competence or interest in organizing. In a consultant-driven model, volunteers show up but get no training, receive slipshod or inaccurate materials, and are ignored by campaign higher-ups, who could care less about what they learned by talking with real voters. Who cares? It’s all taken care of by polling, targeting, and modeling. The role to which ordinary citizens are relegated in most campaigns is that of “real people”—RPs in campaign-speak—props for a photo op.

This political pathology is not limited to electoral campaigns. Many progressive advocacy groups have become enthralled with similar technologically driven marketing campaigns. They often contract with the same political firms that are active in the electoral domain and the private sector. These methods confuse numbers with impact, mobilizing with organizing, and top-down management with grassroots leadership.

Mobilizers only turn out people with whom they agree. Organizers engage these people in reaching out to other people with whom they don’t agree. Mobilizing spends down resources. Organizing generates new ones. In a recent New York Times editorial, scholar Hahrie Han pointed to the consequences of the former approach with respect to gun violence. Han distinguished between the power deployed by the organized NRA, versus the caring—but relatively powerless—array of entities on the other side, which mobilize from time to time, crisis to crisis, but do little organizing. Mobilizing individual resources—a signature, an hour, a contribution, a tweet—can be useful. But unless it is grounded in the organizational capacity to follow through, it comes and it goes—a major challenge the Parkland students are faced with now.

Just as mobilizing is not enough, neither is resistance. It must morph into a proactive campaign in which participants articulate what they are for, not just what they are against. Enthusiasm is not enough to turn grassroots energy into effective organization, volunteers into skilled leadership, or aspirations into concrete results. Enthusiasm is a valuable, precious, and rare political resource. Turning it into durable, powerful, and effective organization is quite another matter. For good reason, resistance groups and individuals are hungry for the tools, coaching, and organization that can enable them to turn their motivation into results.

This is not the work that political consultants do. They profit from ad impressions or the productivity of a list, but not from the building of political power. They lack the know-how and they focus primarily on short-term marketing. This is one reason progressive candidacies often lack the organization of such value to the right wing on Election Day and beyond.

Even the Obama campaign (not consultant-free, to be sure), which succeeded in bringing millions of people into active citizenship, failed to realize this promise. The 2008 electoral movement was not the result of digital sleight of hand or modeling, but of people engaging with other people in the work of politics: organizing. The campaign invested in recruiting, training, and coaching organizers who, in turn, developed the volunteer leadership teams that were sources of motivation, accountability, and capacity—some 1,100 in Ohio alone. That Obama chose not to put this capacity to work after he took office remains one of the great missed opportunities of his presidency. It also makes the point that organizing is too important to be left to the campaigns alone.

Expecting campaigns to do the organizing to build organizational power is a pipe dream. It is really up to community-based organizations, social movements, and labor unions with the leadership, discipline, and craft to turn an urgent need for organizing in the short run into sustainable organization in the long run.

This is what the craft of organizing is all about. Organizers recruit, train, and develop leadership; build a constituency with that leadership; and enable this constituency to turn its own resources—time, energy, imagination, money—into the power it needs to effectively pursue its goals. The test of effective leadership, in turn, is not in how many hats one can wear but in how many others one can get to wear hats. This is how you get to scale.

Although organizing is rooted in our everyday capacity for relating to each other, it is also a craft that requires training, learning, and coaching to bring intentionality, skill, and purpose to the work. It is not about providing services to dependent clients or marketing products to paying customers. It is about bringing individuals together to form constituencies exercising their voices. “Constituency” derives from the Latin con (with) and stare (stand): people who can stand together learn together, work together, and win together.

I began this essay with a reflection on how we arrived at this crisis and on the need to organize and deploy our resources to win every election we can on November 6—and to do so in ways that equip us to reclaim our government as a powerful democratic instrument through which we can make our voices heard. Turning this moment of outrage into a real opportunity will take three steps:

§ First: Progressive organizations, groups, and individuals who want to turn this into an opportunity for organizing must accept responsibility for making this happen, and recognize the limitations of electoral campaigns. 

§ Second: These organizations, groups, and individuals need to join with each other to collaborate in developing a shared strategy, a common narrative, and a coherent structure, including the training and coaching capacity to support it.

§ Third: Following November 6, these same organizations, groups, and individuals must build upon this work without expecting any of the candidates to sustain the organization. This organization can then become a mechanism for holding the elected accountable.

To be sure, the work is challenging. Organizational politics and competition for donors fragment our potential, as does the focus on this or that single issue. Organizations that do equip people with the tools they need are few and far between, with little coordination among them and many of them hobbled by financial constraints and labyrinthine restrictions on civic engagement in electoral politics. A search for silver bullets can be a distraction. But we need to start with support for these organizations by joining with others to develop the power needed to impact structural conditions. We need to develop the coherent strategy, compelling narrative, and functional structure to turn the urgency of this moment into the organized power of a movement.

PICO, the national community-organizing network, has developed impressive relational voter-mobilization methods, especially in communities of color. Indivisible groups across are active locally, and in some cases, at regional and state levels, as their leadership strives to equip them with the skills, structure, and coordination needed to make the most of their potential. As Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, one of the leaders of France’s 1848 February Revolution, put it: “There go my people. I must follow them for I am their leader.” is combining online and offline training in support of leadership development. Planned Parenthood could scaffold such work, given its roots with local groups in most states. The ACLU, enacting its new motto of “we the people” has launched an ambitious effort to link the mobilization of new activists to more traditional, but long-standing, local chapters.

Locally based organizations like ISAIAH in Minneapolis have inspired effective statewide coalitions. The successful Larry Krasner campaign for Philadelphia district attorney shows the potential of multiracial, cross-class local coalitions. Some unions can take advantage of this opportunity to regain their organizing capacity, especially given the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take away the automatic-dues deduction.

In organizing campaigns, success should be evaluated not only in terms of whether or not the immediate problem was solved, but also if it was done so by empowering a constituency with new political, economic, and cultural capacity. Successful organizing develops leadership that enables a constituency to grow, get to scale, and build the power to achieve the structural change it needs.

This is a moment of fierce urgency. Thousands of groups and individuals are hungry to acquire the tools to turn their outrage into action and their hope into results. We need to bring people back into politics with strategic coordination, organizing not only to win elections but to build the capacity to renew our democracy. People do matter—in the short term, especially in close elections, and in the long term, for their role in democracy itself.

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