Community organizing is typically associated with large urban areas. Since the beginning of modern community organizing, the most disenfranchised low-income communities of color have been concentrated in urban America, so most social justice organizations grew within urban spaces.
However, today more black, Latino and Asian people live in the suburbs than in the urban core. For about two decades, young white urban professionals have been migrating back into inner cities to be closer to job opportunities and escape the long commutes of suburbia, finding them more appealing as planners and businesses have reinvested in downtowns and crime rates have fallen. The skyrocketing rents and evictions from urban gentrification have pushed low-income communities of color out to older suburbs, moves which were aided by subprime mortgages, the housing bubble and local openness to booming sprawl development. At the same time, new immigrants to the US are increasingly moving directly to suburbs and rural areas in search of jobs rather than entering in traditional gateway cities.
In this sense, California is a glimpse into the future of the rest of the country. The tech boom in the Bay Area drove working-class families out of San Francisco and Oakland and into Pittsburg, Antioch and Stockton. The housing bubble pulled black, Asian and Latino families from LA into cities on the outskirts like Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario in search of cheap housing and job opportunities. The vast agricultural regions of the Central Valley and the Central Coast have boomed in population with Latino immigrants. The result is that not only is California as a whole majority-minority, but every significantly populated region of the state is too.
I believe community organizers should be accountable to our people, wherever they live. The fact that the vast majority of social justice organizations are still in urban areas, while most low-income people of color are not, is a serious failure of the social justice movement as a whole. We need to build our capacity to organize in many of the places where our communities live and are suffering from regressive social policies, lack of public services, vicious attacks on immigrants, etc. due to the void of progressive political influence.
Half a year ago I made a conscious choice to move to a rural/suburban area to organize. Now as my organization goes through strategic planning, I’m thinking a lot about the challenges, but also the opportunities. I think that as more social justice organizations appear in rural and suburban America, we’ll learn to better adapt our organizing models to the unique conditions here.
I know it will take much smarter and more experienced people than me to figure all of this out, and I know I’m not the first person to delve into this subject. But here are some of my thoughts so far:
1. Scarcity of progressive organizations means groups can’t specialize. There are often only a handful of relatively small organizations willing to collaborate on campaigns, they are often more service or cultural oriented, and unions, churches and neighborhood associations are much more conservative than their urban counterparts. In urban areas like Oakland, SF or LA, there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations, all of whom have their own niches and strengths– this means some groups can focus on policy research while others focus on grassroots basebuilding while others focus on developing coalitions, messaging and strategy while others focus on electoral campaigns. Here an organization like mine has to spread itself between all of the above on multiple political issues.
2. Conservative elected officials. In most of these areas, city councils, commissions and school boards, the key decision-makers, do not yet reflect the recent demographic change. These towns have been run by “good ol’ boy” networks for a long time, and the elected officials are mostly old white men who are much more conservative than the people they now represent. They are skeptical of progressive policies and feel unaccountable to the majority of their constituents.
3. Low population density means organizing wide geographic regions. There is a pure logistical difficulty of having staff spread out over a wide rural area. My organization recently expanded to cover a region of over 100 miles. Since it takes two hours to drive from one end to the other, this means paying rent for multiple offices. Multiple offices also makes coordinating and supervising staff a huge challenge. And we have almost no ability to organize major actions where all of our neighborhood groups gather together for one rally, etc.
4. There are real Republicans here. And they’re angry. Although whites are now minorities in rural/suburban California due to younger migrants, the older generation that lives in many of these communities is especially conservative. Many openly express deep visceral anger about the demographic changes that have happened and still see the neighborhoods they live in as their homes that outsiders have invaded. Urban organizations are simply not used to encountering this type of opposition within their own base areas.
5. Local governments not prepared to provide services for low-income populations. The suburbanization of poverty has dumbfounded suburban governments who have never had significant numbers of poor residents who rely on buses to get to work, neighborhood parks for exercise, or community colleges for their children. Some services like public transit are simply more difficult to provide in suburban/rural communities, where low density makes it difficult to cost-efficiently run frequent bus routes.
1. Grabbing low-hanging policy fruit. Organizations in progressive coastal cities often try to develop new innovative policies to address issues like unemployment, environmental hazards, education achievement gaps, youth violence, etc. Many of the more basic victories have already been won years ago. In more conservative smaller cities, some of the best tried and true policies that make big impacts have never been passed. Rather than doing extensive research and convincing a local government to experiment with something new, organizations here can push for policies that have already been adopted in other areas and often have rigorous academic studies proving their success.
2. Filling electoral voids. As mentioned earlier, suburban and rural California is now majority people of color, but most local elected officials are still conservative old white men. Often these new diverse communities vote for the “good ol’ boy” candidates that don’t represent them because they’re the only ones on the ballot, or simply don’t vote for local offices at all due to a lack of worthwhile candidates. These elected officials aren’t used to competing hard for their seats and have yet to feel the heat of how the communities they represent have changed politically. Progressive, young, diverse candidates running for office fill a void and are relatively easy to elect.
3. Getting coverage in easy media markets. Although these areas have experienced rapid population growth, local news outlets have a small town mentality. They receive a fraction of the press releases, op-eds, or letters to the editor they would in urban areas and often have a sleepy civic life so actions organized by social justice organizations are shocking and newsworthy. Easy access to front page articles or the opinion page opens great opportunities to re-frame debates on local political issues.
4. Access to swing state and federal representatives. California’s most closely divided seats in Congress and the state legislature are in rural or suburban areas with changing demographics like the Central Valley, Central Coast and Inland Empire. Elected officials from either party have to compete hard for their jobs (now thanks to redistricting) and are often politically moderate, making them important targets on state or federal legislation. In comparison, organizations in urban areas with staunch progressive representatives have little ability to help pass state or national laws.
5. The community has a hunger for it. Places like West Oakland are a bit saturated with organizing. People are used to “the community man” from one organization or another coming and knocking on their door talking to them about some campaign, and are sometimes skeptical or have been burnt out by their previous involvement in a different organization. Not that any place can ever have too much organizing. But in rural and suburban communities, there’s a lack of engagement and action and people have a hunger for it.
So the bottom line: I don’t know what the ideal model for organizing outside the urban core is. But it needs to be done and an increasing number of organizations are doing it. I think there’s obviously a need for a stronger emphasis on electoral work. To some extent organizations may have to become jacks of all trades and not specialize in particular issues or strategies. Besides that I don’t know. Have any thoughts? Leave them in the comments.
For most people, the end of elections means listening to empty threats of moving to Canada, trying to fit lawn signs in trash cans, and finally returning to Pandora radio now that campaign ads are gone.
But for many political workers it means unemployment.
That’s one reason I didn’t work on a candidate’s campaign, but more importantly it reflects the fundamentally different approach that electoral campaigns take towards social change compared to community organizing.
Campaign people operate with what I call the Campaign Brain. On Election Day, there can only be two outcomes: total victory or ultimate defeat. The sheer overwhelming number of voters that need to be contacted to win an election means an election worker’s interactions with each person must be short, efficient and transactional. They can essentially only be engaged in three ways– voting for candidate X, volunteering to tell other people about candidate X, or donating to the campaign. Most people working on the campaign are parachuted in a few months before and sent off quickly after the vote is won or lost.
Even the Obama campaign, which put unprecedented resources into grassroots outreach, operated within the confines of the Campaign Brain. Despite using the language of community organizing during the election and building one of the largest organizations in the world, Organizing for America was for the most part abandoned. The void left by the Obama team’s weak engagement of its supporters after the election helped spawn the Tea Party’s rise to power. While the Obama administration folded OFA into a piece of the Democratic National Committee, the right-wing read Saul Alinsky and began community organizing.
I want to note that I don’t think electoral politics is bad– it’s a crucial element of successful social movements. And innovative groups like California Calls and Virginia New Majority are integrating electoral politics with community organizing in visionary, strategic ways. I don’t even think the Campaign Brain is bad– it’s not bad or good, it’s just how you win an election.
However, I think some people miss out on what working on campaigns won’t teach you:
1. Developing leaders for the long-term.
Organizers try to move people along a leadership ladder. As they work to transform society, they also work to transform individuals, so that over years of political involvement, a housekeeper or a farmworker becomes an important community leader. Cesar Chavez tells how he was recruited by an organizer named Fred Ross, who knocked on his door over and over and was met with refusal, until ultimately his persistence led him to the breakthrough conversation where Chavez changed his mind and began his involvement in activism. The Campaign Brain doesn’t allow for this kind of investment in people. Even with volunteers, the goal of the campaign is to increase their involvement in terms of work-hours, not develop them after the campaign is over as leaders of their own. They are given little decision-making power, training, or ownership, simply because campaigns can’t function that way– the clock is ticking and they have to win.
2. Building relationships to organize communities.
Campaigns’ relationships with community members start a couple months before Election Day and end immediately after. Campaigns know very little about their supporters because their conversations with them tend to be under five minutes. At most afterwards they get email updates about what the candidate is working on in the Capitol. Organizers know that to get people to overcome their fear and be interviewed by a reporter or speak at a city council meeting, the organizer has to build a close personal relationship with them and understand their deeper motivations. This involves a lot of sitting down and talking with them about their life that the Campaign Brain has no time for.
3. An analysis of power and its transformation.
Campaigns don’t really talk about power. The candidate would probably seem creepy. But ultimately all attempts at social change are about the distribution of power. Period. You build an organization with a hundred thousand members because it creates power that didn’t exist before to accomplish change for the lives of those people. Social movements seek to transform systems of power– like creating a union so workers can negotiate with their boss rather than passively accepting working conditions. Campaigns seek to win within the existing systems of power– if suburban white professionals are more likely to vote, resources and messages will be mostly targeted at convincing them. This is just practical. But it means that campaign workers don’t spend much time analyzing what creates power in their community, growing organizations and bringing together coalitions.
My point here is not to dismiss electoral work. It’s just to say that if you’re like me and want to learn a diversity of skills needed to create social change, there’s no substitute for spending some time as an organizer.
American progressives act like a teenager who’s gotten so used to being rejected for prom and picked last in dodgeball that we just keep our heads down and try to make it through another day without getting our asses kicked. The message I want to send to the American political left is similar to what I want to tell all disaffected and awkward teenagers. I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and say “Chill the fuck out! You got this!”
It’s fair for progressives to feel like losers. After all, we’ve mostly been fighting defensive, losing battles for a solid forty years, leaving us with a nation of gaping income inequality, a tattered social safety net, and immense corporate influence over elections and lawmaking. We’ve been beat not only in the arena of laws and government, but in the arena of ideas: The commonly accepted worldview in America every day seems to bear a closer and closer resemblance to the Hunger Games, with ruthless competition and inequality accepted as the necessary conditions for the prosperity of life’s winners.
So when the Supreme Court upheld health care reform, setting the stage for the rollout of arguably the most historic victory for the left in a generation, many of us were stunned. Not because we thought Obamacare was actually unconstitutional, but because we’ve seen the right wing consistently dominate nearly every major American institution, including the Supreme Court, and expected a losing vote along ideological lines.
But progressives, get your boots on, because we’re entering a new era of ass-kicking. And no, the asses being kicked won’t be ours. I believe we’re going to win this round of history and here are my three reasons why.
1. Their Coalition is Falling Apart, Our Coalition is Coming Together
The right’s coalition is essentially made of three parts: working-class rural evangelicals, wealthy pro-business social moderates, and national security war hawks. All three loved Ronald Reagan, a unity that lasted through much of the Bush years, but ultimately ended in fracture best seen in the 2008 GOP presidential frontrunners: Mike Huckabee (working-class evangelicals), Mitt Romney (Wall St. types), and John McCain (war hawks).
Like any coalition, it was built over time. In the late 1960’s, the Republican Party created the “Southern Strategy”, a plan to wedge working-class Southern whites away from the Democratic New Deal Coalition that had held dominance since the time of FDR. Nixon and his strategists used racial issues and the Democratic Party’s passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s to make white Southerners place their political allegiances with the side that served their racial interests, not the side that served their economic interests. The emergence of the Christian Right in the late 1970’s pulled working-class rural whites further into the coalition. The religious establishment embarked on a campaign to politicize their base and move into partisan politics and media, starting organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority. Through much of American history, war has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. But neoconservative war hawks gathered under the banner of the right in opposition to the peace movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. They argued that a powerful American military presence was necessary to secure global freedom in the face of communism, and later Islam. Thus national security interests became aligned with the religious and economic interests of the right wing, as protecting the Christian American tradition and free market capitalism became the main motive for use of US military force around the world. And Wall St. pro-business types? Well, they’ve been with the right since the days of Herbert Hoover. By 1980, the modern conservative coalition was solid enough to usher in decades of social change according to their demands: deregulation of industry and finance, slashing the social safety net, and dramatically lowering the top tax rate.
However, in the aftermath of the Bush years, the mess of the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008, and finally the crushing loss to Barack Obama, this coalition began to unravel. With politics focused on the economy, the main fissure came at the seam between rural evangelicals and the pro-business establishment. Many conservatives, suspicious of Wall St.’s ties to government, believed the Mitt Romneys of the world had sold out their small-government conservative principles for corporate welfare and might even secretly not quite believe in their social values, only embracing them at arms length in order to get the votes of rural evangelicals. (Now why would they think that?) Grassroots conservative activists saw this as part of some larger morality play, where the reason the right had lost in 2008 was a lack of faithfulness to its right-wing principles. This tension finally erupted into the Tea Party, a movement of raw anger not just directed at Obama, but also the Republican Party establishment. The schizophrenic GOP primary of 2012 made clear that a large portion of conservatives could barely stomach Mitt Romney and everything his part of the right wing coalition represented. The coalition may remain intact as long as they are united by a common enemy (Obama), but it seems to be inevitably on the verge of collapse.
Meanwhile, a modern progressive coalition is uniting closer than ever before. Throughout world history, the left has mostly been a ragtag team of disenfranchised groups who through some miracle (and a lot of hard organizing) managed to band together under some general values like equality, community, compassion etc. Yet this coalition is often fraught with arguments over who is more oppressed and whose progress should be the priority, like a pissed off hydra whose multiple heads can’t decide which enemy to bite and often just bite each other. Environmentalists sometimes find themselves at odds with organized labor, who sometimes take positions against immigrants, who sometimes vote in opposition to LGBT people, who sometimes help gentrify black neighborhoods. But I think we’ve recently seen a historic consolidation of our progressive coalition. Just this year, the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza both endorsed marriage equality for gays and lesbians for the first time. In 2009, the two federations of labor unions in the US for the first time came to an agreement supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalist groups teamed up with unions in 2006 to create the Blue Green Alliance advocating for green jobs. Meanwhile, mainstream environmentalist groups have begun to adopt the principles of environmental justice. Urban community organizations have been doing groundbreaking coalition work between blacks and Latinos, fighting the narrative that pits American born low-wage workers against immigrants.
Like the right wing coalition that was built over a decade from the late 60’s to the late 70’s, this modern progressive coalition will take some time to reach its true strength. But the signs are clear: there is more unity on the left, and less unity on the right, than any time in recent history.
2. Modern Communication Technology is Eroding the Right’s Advantage in Messaging
Over the last few decades, conservatives have won the war of ideas. The basis of right wing ideology (individualism is the natural way of things, government is always bad, racism doesn’t exist anymore, etc) has become the basis of American political thought in general. For a long time, the right has simply had stronger, more cohesive messaging. I’ll acknowledge some of it is just that their communications people are smarter and more strategic than ours. But I think much of it comes from political psychology, and the different ways that conservatives and liberals approach political communication. Studies have shown that people who identify as conservative have stronger impulses to respect authority and more group discipline. They also think more in the language of abstract values and principles than policy analysis and comparing outcomes. Thus the right has a natural advantage in top-down, highly cohesive, simplistic messaging. In other words, they’re bred for the age of talk radio and cable news. Thus, as talk radio and cable news eclipsed print newspapers and as people began to prefer TV commentators shouting at each other over the old boring evening news anchors, the effectiveness of conservative messaging grew. Right wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch learned how to use the media effectively as a political tool and built an empire of news outlets that reached millions of Americans. The TV commentators of the left were no match for the titans of conservative cable TV (think Keith Olbermann vs. Bill O’Reilly). Republican Party political figures coordinated their messages with conservative activists and media pundits much more closely than the Democratic Party did with left-wing activists. It all relied on the willingness of conservatives to all roughly stick to the same set of messages and talking points distributed from the top down.
On the left, cohesive messaging has never been our strong point. Most of us hear a simple, powerful political argument and say something like: “Well what you didn’t mention is how this group is affected, and the potential unintended consequences of that policy. Here’s a series of statistics and a great Noam Chomsky book to explain what I mean.” We’re a less homogenous group, so we tend to craft messages in ways that help mobilize our own communities. The way we talk to a middle-class white college student about health care reform is different from how we talk to a middle-aged black mother or an uninsured immigrant service worker, and the different parts of our coalition have a hard time sitting down at the table to come up with some talking points that work for everyone. If the Democratic Party tried to hand down talking points to progressive journalists, nonprofits, and professors they would get smacked upside their collective heads. When we try to communicate our message to political moderates, it ends up being full of wonky facts to contradict the dominant conservative worldview (“GDP growth has no correlation with marginal tax rates!”) or fringe-sounding arguments that use unfamiliar academic language (like “reproductive justice” and “intersectionality”). What we don’t do is collectively articulate our own values in words people understand and clearly frame our vision of a different world. Without strong, unified messaging, we quickly lose ground in major policy debates. For example, when you poll Americans on individual parts of the Affordable Care Act, virtually all of them get solid public support, including majority support among Republican voters for many major provisions of health care reform. However, when you ask Americans whether they approve or disapprove of the law overall, it remains widely unpopular. We managed to take something the American public liked and wanted, and let the right convince them that they hated it.
But the light at the end of the tunnel is here! We are entering an age of new media. Having conservative TV pundits, radio show personalities, Republican politicians, right wing advocacy groups and think tanks all arguing from the same set of talking points is becoming less and less advantageous. The era of Rush Limbaugh is over! All hail the era of the viral infographic! And we’re great at viral infographics! Anyone can create their own content that would appeal to their own social network, and thus micro-target our messages to the narrowest of socioeconomic, demographic or regional categories. Policy wonks and political junkies can share news and data in a way that is visually appealing and accessible, and have it spread virally out to the grassroots. Here, the top-down approach of strict adherence to a set of talking points will fail. People don’t click on a link to the same dogmatic argument they’ve heard for years. People don’t obediently share memes made by the Republican National Committee.
Of course we’re still at the beginning stages of this change. Most people get their news from the traditional sources still, and although the Bill O’Reillys and Glenn Becks of the world are on the decline, they remain powerful. However, we know where things are headed and it can only be good for us on the left. What social media is allowing us to do is crowdsource our messaging. In fact, it’s what we progressives have been doing all along, it just wasn’t working before.
3. Our Base is Growing, Their Base is Shrinking
We are a demographic bomb that’s going to explode in Rush Limbaugh’s face. The best part is, he knows it. Even between the 2008 election and the 2012 election, the voting bloc of young people, single women and people of color identified by liberal strategists as the “Rising American Electorate” will have grown by millions. In fact, the RAE accounted for 81% of the population growth in the country between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census. Progressive-leaning demographic groups are steadily rising as a share of the voting population, and conservative-leaning groups are declining. No one believes this trend is going to turn around any time soon. Soon enough, America will look like California and California will look like LA. And astonishingly, the GOP and the right as a whole are proving themselves either a) laughably incompetent at appealing to anyone other than straight white males or b) actually crazy enough to be willing to shrivel up and die rather than give up racism, sexism and homophobia. Maybe it’s just that people are smart enough not to trust an ideology that’s been trying to screw them over for all of human history just because they get a Cuban senator who offers up a watered down version of the DREAM Act. Either way I think it’s safe to say that everyone saw this coming and in 30 years what’s left of the Republican Party will be wondering why they actively chose to dig their own grave generations ago.
Rather than moderate their views on issues like immigration or women’s rights, conservatives are making last ditch attempts to ensure this demographic change does not lead to political change. They know if all those immigrants’ kids whose parents they tried to deport, all those young single women whose ability to sue for equal pay they filibustered, and all those young people whose college tuition they raised, actually register to vote, turn out at the polls, and get politically organized, they’re totally fucked. It might explain many Republican members of Congress’s reversal on the (formerly) bipartisan DREAM Act, or any other proposal that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens and vote. Today’s slew of voter suppression laws and voter registration purges spreading across the country, supposedly designed to address some nonexistent wave of rampant voter fraud, are a transparent attack on young people, immigrants, and low-income communities. UFO sightings are more common than voter fraud in the US, but somehow conservatives around the country have decided this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with, preferably before November 6, 2012. The right has also developed an obsession with taking down organizations that enhance the political power of those progressive-leaning groups: ACORN, Planned Parenthood, unions, etc. Perhaps the scariest is the Tea Party vigilante “True the Vote” groups that are traveling all over the country to intimidate voters at the polls, again under the strange assumption that there’s some epidemic of illegal college student voters trying to ruin America.
These kind of tactics might work for a while. They succeeded in the post-slavery South for a few generations between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. But in the end, they’re a desperate short-term strategy that will fail. Eventually the right will have to concede that they ignored the writing on the wall and have spent most of history trying to limit who was defined as part of the “real America”, as Sarah Palin would say. But as their idea of “real Americans” becomes a smaller minority of the population, they will either have to acknowledge the humanity of others or shrivel away into the margins of the history books.
However, demographic change does not automatically produce political power. If California is a predictor of what the national population will look like soon, it is also a warning that conservatives can have an influence far disproportionate to their share of the population if they remain more politically organized. Voter education, registration and turnout efforts will help win political battles. But this must be combined with stronger stances to make real progress on issues like college affordability or immigration reform (I’m looking at you, Democratic Party establishment). A voter taken for granted is a voter who has better things to do on election night. However, with some tough organizers and some accountable elected officials, we can change the electoral map in the United States, and thus the realm of political possibility, forever.
The Roadmap to Victory
From the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s, conservatives built a powerful movement that fundamentally altered the course of the nation’s history. They stood upon a bedrock foundation of America’s strongest institutions: big business, the church and the military. Unified, clear, and values-based right-wing messages echoed through millions of homes in the era of talk radio and cable news commentators. Elections still mostly hinged on who could win the votes of older white males, and conservatives rallied monolithic support from this base.
But at the beginning of the 21st century, this movement has begun to stumble. A rift has appeared between the grassroots conservatives of America’s heartland and the business elites that dominated the Republican Party. The media megaphones of the right, Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, are beginning to fade from prominence. And their single-minded focus on older white voters is backfiring, as a more diverse and progressive generation comes of age.
I believe that the history books will one day read that starting in the late 2000’s, the progressive movement began to shift the balance of power. The books will say that starting around this time, a series of stunning alliances formed between groups with historical tensions. Unions, immigrants, civil rights groups, LGBT activists, environmentalists and more began to stick together under a banner of solidarity based on the basic values of fairness, community and dignity. They ultimately failed to come up with anything resembling a cohesive message, but in the age of social media it didn’t matter. Their ideas spread like wildfire across social networks, with millions of grassroots activists and everyday supporters writing blogs, sharing news, creating graphics that communicated the values of their movement. And starting in 2008, something changed: the presidential election didn’t depend on who won the votes of older white males, but on black and young voters turning out to the polls like never before. From then on, the tide began to shift, and a new growing majority looked at the politicians who had dismissed them in favor of the “real America”, and this new majority declared: “We are the real America.”
Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the Left. Those trying to predict the movement’s impact should stop wondering whether the protesters will adopt “clear demands” and look instead at strategy and structure. Pundits speculate the movement might sweep into power in Congress, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But for many of the protesters, winning the upcoming elections or passing bills is not the goal of the movement. They have a deeper discontent, struggling against the very structure of modern American society.
The Tea Party knew what it wanted immediately and took it. Far from a motley crew, the Tea Party is actually a highly regimented election machine run by some of the sharpest conservative political operatives in the country, which has harnessed the power of corporate money and grassroots organizing to relentlessly push a single legislative goal: cut everything. Occupy Wall Street’s greatest strength, its democratic spontaneity, is also a natural disadvantage that will keep it from ever becoming the Tea Party. But it could rival it by forming membership organizations to sustain networks of supporters, using an electoral strategy run by experienced progressive strategists, and rallying around spokespeople who can powerfully convey the vision of the movement.
Politicians are driven by fear and opportunity. Members of Congress will not take action unless they fear Occupy Wall Street as they did the Tea Party. If OWS rejects a legislative/electoral strategy, its absence in November 2012 will not be the fault of the protesters, but the fault of establishment progressive politicians, donors, and strategists for sitting on the sidelines.
The difference is not in type of strategy, but in the existence of a centralized strategy itself. Beneath the surface the Tea Party is run by veteran Republican Party political operatives, such as Dick Armey, who runs FreedomWorks. It is funded with a deep war chest from long-time Republican campaign donors like the Koch brothers. These strategists were the architects of the monumental grassroots pressure during the summer of 2009 that put healthcare reform on life support. They crafted the talking points that shouted down Democratic members of Congress in town hall meetings across America and jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill. By November 2010, they had built powerful voter mobilization networks of canvassers and phonebankers, and recruited, trained, and funded candidates that swept Congress, knocking out Democrats and traditional Republicans alike.
Veteran Republican politicians like John McCain dropped their moderate leanings and moved to the right, fearing more conservative primary challengers. Democrats in swing districts feared the power of the Tea Party’s electoral machine even more. Even the Republican congressional leadership feared the threat of rebellion from the Tea Party Caucus at any hint of moderation. The Tea Party pushed their demands relentlessly, through ruthless brinksmanship over default on the national debt, government shutdown, unemployment insurance, even hurricane disaster relief. And they won big again and again, forcing trillions of dollars in cuts.
Congress does not fear Occupy Wall Street the way they feared the Tea Party. The feeble lip service of Democrats and the scornful shrugs of Republicans show they feel no urgency to meet their demands. This is not an underestimation of their strength, but a calculation of their strategy. OWS is built on disillusionment with Washington that may extend all the way to the ballot box. No one can be sure how many of the protestors will even vote in November, let alone build something like the Tea Party’s campaign juggernaut.
It’s impossible to foresee what impact the movement will have on the next election, but without a significant change of direction, it may be almost none. If this happens, don’t blame the occupying protesters. They aren’t the cause of a lack of faith in government, they are a symptom. We should blame the James Carvilles for not building electoral campaigns around this movement, and blame the George Soros’s for not funding its operations. Michelle Bachmann formed the Tea Party Caucus four months before the elections that swept the Tea Party into power. A charismatic young progressive member of Congress should be forming the “99% Caucus” in Congress right now.
The Tea Party gained influence even before the election because members knew that it would soon be at their doorstep. They were already feeling the mounting pressure of citizens who packed their events and flooded their offices with calls. This gave Tea Party organizers short-term victories, such as the watering down of health care reform and the abandonment of capping carbon emissions.
Short-term victories keep up the momentum in social movements, energizing participants who can easily lose focus or faith in their own efforts. People participating in the political process for the first time can be inspired by a new movement they identify with, but easily let down when it runs up against the wall of political inertia.
We’ll see if the Occupy Wall Street movement can win any short-term victories. It will need a clear immediate battle to focus on. This is much more important than whether or not they choose to develop a laundry list platform of demands. If they choose not to take up a legislative agenda, they could use direct action tactics like recruiting millions to switch from banks to credit unions.
If they do want to take up battles over specific legislation, like the Tea Party did with health care reform, it will require them to be feared and respected in Congress. They will need to create a situation where Democrats are genuinely afraid that if they don’t stand behind a dramatic increase in taxes on the richest 1% of Americans, they will be thrown out by a popular primary challenger from the left. Republicans in swing districts will need to be afraid that if they don’t vote against their party, a grassroots opponent will mobilize volunteers and energize donors to take their seat.
This is unlikely to happen with OWS without a significant shift in direction. They would need one short-term issue focus, a few Congressional champions to write legislation for them, a strategy for pressuring members of Congress to vote their way, and the electoral muscle to back up their threats if they don’t.
The Tea Party has a key advantage over Occupy Wall Street: easy messaging. The Tea Party has a message of destruction. Get rid of government. Take it out with a chainsaw, not with a scalpel. They don’t care how, they just want it big and they want it now. $200 billion is better than $100 billion in budget cuts. $300 billion is better than $200 billion. They don’t need a ten-point platform. They have a one-point platform.
What does OWS want? Do they want higher taxes on the top 1% for deficit reduction, job creation, social services, or lower taxes on the rest of us? The weakening of corporate influence in Washington? Stronger financial reform to prevent another meltdown? Or do they want a society that simply gets rid of big financial institutions? Do they envision the ultimate overthrow of modern multinational corporate capitalism and a return to simple regional economies, expansive social safety nets, or some sort of cooperative system?
The truth is, “they” don’t want anything. Individual people within the movement want different things—they are each disparate pixels in a picture that has yet to emerge in clarity. Whether or not to draft up specific demands is one of the main contentions between rival camps within the movement.
Of course the minute details of financial regulation or campaign finance reform should be worked out by legislators and policy experts. They can analyze the Volcker Rule and leverage ratios and disclosure requirements for independent expenditure-only committees. Those who say the people in Zuccotti Park need to work them out are ignoring the history of social movements. But unfortunately, the problems of political and economic inequality this movement seeks to solve will require extremely complex solutions, unlike the perceived problem the Tea Party seeks to solve, which only requires budget cutting.
Eventually, as the Wisconsin protesters coalesced around “Kill the Bill” and the Egyptian protesters demanded the resignation of Mubarak, successful protests will need a clear short-term demand that can be met by their targets. This gives them the first decisive victory they need to grow.
If OWS develops an immediate goal, their next challenge will be selling it to the public. The movement started with a much steeper uphill climb in getting media recognition than the Tea Party. It took hundreds arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge to be taken seriously by the press. The Tea Party had national spokespeople, such as Glenn Beck, who could articulate and broadcast their goals to millions from the mountaintop of the most widely viewed news network in America. This gave them message control, in addition to the natural message control that comes with wanting something so simplistic.
Think of any major social movement in American history. The first thing that comes to mind is often its spokespeople. Why? Not because Martin Luther King Jr. himself singlehandedly delivered civil rights to America. But because he was the spokesperson that articulated the movement’s vision to the average American. He provided a coherent “dream”, an idea of a more just world that people could picture in their minds, an imagined world that seemed better than the existing reality.
A spokesperson can make a radical idea make sense to everyday people. Without spokespeople, reporters delight in interviewing the most ignorant person they can find in a crowd and portraying an entire movement as insane. When reporters know the leader they need a quote from for every new political development, they interview them. Malcolm X was a communications genius, explaining the tenets of Black Nationalism with remarkable clarity and denying the media the ability to portray his followers as disorganized and confused.
This kind of message discipline requires spokespeople, and will be hard to enforce on a movement that is so democratic it resists using microphones. This highlights the real difference between OWS and the Tea Party: OWS is actually grassroots, while the Tea Party is artificial. Most Tea Party members are not regular struggling Americans who suddenly turned against Obama’s economic policies; the vast majority of Tea Party members are longtime registered Republicans who were excited about hating Obama. Their movement briefly captured the imagination of the country, but lost popularity as Americans recognized it as a cheap reproduction of old ideas. However, many OWS protesters are disillusioned people who are participating in political action for the first time in their lives, who didn’t even vote in the last election. They emotionally connect to new recruits in a way the Tea Party simply can’t, using the language of those who feel voiceless and helpless in the new American Gilded Age.
They are fiercely against hierarchy and wary of leaders of the Democratic Party who might proclaim themselves spokespeople. But movements tend to gravitate to charismatic leaders, and sooner or later, one will likely emerge. Elizabeth Warren seems like an ideal pick. If she risked her Senate bid to step into the front of this movement, she might become much more powerful than a regular US Senator. Whether someone like her can organize OWS to have focused message control will determine much of the movement’s success.
In retrospect we imagine nebulous movements, but they are built on institutions. No one joined the Civil Rights Movement. They didn’t come to a Civil Rights Movement meeting or take a Civil Rights Movement flier. They came to a SNCC meeting or an SCLC meeting or a CORE meeting. Those organizations created long-term strategies around specific issues, built networks of members on personal relationships, and executed actions around which they could mobilize people and pressure decision-makers to act.
Movements are sparked before institutions. Oddly enough, the Tea Party was ignited by an on-air rant from a stock trader turned financial reporter. OWS was launched by Canadian activist magazine Adbusters.
But sooner or later, without institutions to actively organize members, the rallies start to get smaller and smaller, while elected officials dismiss yet another has-been movement which lost its glamour. Some activists are professional rally-starters who know only one tactic: mobilizing, which they confuse with organizing. The difference between mobilizing and organizing is the ability to drive something long-term through relationship building and continuous leadership development. It takes little more than putting up posters or making a Facebook event to start a huge rally the day the government announces an unpopular decision. The question is: can you bring out a few thousand people again when lobbyists try to silently kill your bill in committee? Do you even know the names of the people you mobilized?
If I Google “Tea Party,” on the first page of results I find the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, Tea Party.org and the Patriot Action Network. I can sign up to volunteer, donate and find events in my area on the first page of each of their websites.
This may happen with Occupy Wall Street, but it hasn’t yet. To win long-term goals like abolishing corporate personhood, requiring a constitutional amendment, OWS needs a sustainable movement. It will need to create organizations, which may not be able to function on general assembly consensus-only decision-making. A movement should never have one central organization. But OWS could, like the Tea Party, end up with several core organizations.
The Tea Party is an unusual movement with its ranks of millions ready to hit the pavement, but the checkbook of a movement whose goals coincide perfectly with corporate America. I don’t think this advantage is unbeatable. A “99% PAC” could raise Obama-esque money online from small donors and potentially go head to head against big oil, banks, and insurance companies. With the movement behind them, a fiery populist candidate could run for senate raising money online from individuals, not corporations.
This movement may build institutions as it matures. But it also may reject institutions as undemocratic and stifling. Many people, probably a few of my friends, would read this essay and complain that I’m attempting to introduce hierarchy, bureaucratize the movement or let it be co-opted by unions or the Democratic Party to win elections. But if this movement is still standing strong two years from now, it will have built long-lasting institutions to carry on the fight.
This country needs a new powerful and enduring grassroots movement with fresh ideas and passionate energy. It has not been political parties, but movements like these that have changed history. But for every successful movement, there have been ten revolutions that suffered quiet deaths of irrelevance, movements which have flashed and disappeared, slipping into the footnotes of history. If America has any chance of reversing our rampant political and economic inequality, it will need a movement like this to be strategic, to move us, to last, and to make us feel like we own our country again.