While the political world is fixated on the presidential campaign, an important fight has been brewing between progressive activists and online organizers. Those two groups are not mutually exclusive, of course, so this debate upends some traditional ideological boundaries.
It started last week, when The Huffington Post reported on change at Change.org. Now, you don’t need to know the name Change.org, as a website, in order to care about this fight. In fact, when Change.org succeeds, you should hardly hear about it all.
That’s because Change.org is about other people. It provides a platform to empower citizens with free organizing and petition drives, using the hook of viral campaigns to amplify the voices of unknown activists. The model can work really well. If you follow progressive politics, you probably know about some of the people who have used the site for unlikely breakthroughs.
There was Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old woman working two part-time jobs who launched a petition against ATM fees last year, which sparked a national network of outrage and led Bank of America to reverse its policies. Or Jenny Holcomb, a Brown university freshman who protested the overzealous prosecution of an autistic 15-year-old who hit her teacher, sparking national concern over the felony charges, which were later dropped. Or three high school students who posted a petition sharing their “shock” that a woman journalist had not been selected to moderate a presidential debate in twenty years. (Pictured at right.) Candy Crowley ended that record this month, but only after the male-dominated debate commission faced bad press and unusual scrutiny when the petition took off.
Each of those efforts have a few key elements in common. The petitions were started by young people whose idealism—and even potential naïveté—was a plus. These young people appealed for support as amateur citizen organizers, not members of the professional political class. Their calls to action were clear and essentially pure, in contrast to larger organizations, which balance activism with competing interests like fundraising and “list-building.” And, crucial for any unfunded political organizing, the proposed outcomes were precise and final—Cancel the fees, Drop the charges, Pick a woman. None of these campaigns suffered, in other words, from the pressure on permanent organizations to perpetuate their existence by maintaining the problems they are supposed to solve. (Robert Michels, the famous critic of elite political behavior, would probably approve.)