In addition to organizing Battlestar Galactica fans, Zack Exley has been pondering and pontificating lately. He’s written a post on the Democrats’ problems with organizing. I hopped over to read it, looking to poke holes in his idea, only to find he did it all for me with one paragraph (which I’ll get to shortly).
First, let me say it’s funny that his main contention is Democrats have to do all these things he lays out in order to win, but gives the GOP no credit for having done them. In fact, he actually discounts our success as a fluke – the lesser of two evils – rather than recognizing in his dissertation exactly what we do better.
It just so happens that even when you get down to 10 people who work in a nursing home wing or live on a cul-de-sac together, you find that one or two of them are very good at running meetings, another is a great writer, another is an astute strategist, and so on in overlapping and random fashion…
It might help if I was more concrete. When I was working in factories during campaigns, I saw that when the union came around, immediately workers began to look to certain individuals to get their opinion on the matter. Sometimes the leaders supported the union, sometimes they rejected it, and sometimes they abstained. Those leaders therefore had the power to come together and make the union — but only because the rest of the folks were giving them that power at that moment. Those leaders didn’t “run the workplace.” They weren’t power-hungry gang leaders. Many of them actually had very small social foot prints at work. But, for all different kinds of reasons, these leaders had built up credibility and respect among the workers with regards to this particular kind of turbulent political situation.
This isn’t breaking new ground. The idea of the Influentials was put forward by Keller and Berry. For every group, there are people within the group that the rest look to for opinions. The RNC, and the Bush campaign spent a lot of time trying to identify those influentials and make them champions. In politics, this is probably easier than in life generally.
However, if someone is spending a good deal of time on your website, sending e-mails to friends, looking for position papers, etc, they are probably the folks for whom you are looking. If they’re spending all their time on your website telling other people they’re stupid for disagreeing, they’re probably not influential, and are likely hurting your campaign.
If someone is calling the campaign office looking for materials, showing up at rallies, or doing things that indicate their desire to gather and disseminate information, they’re probably talking to people, whether that’s a small group or a classroom. They have the ability to shape opinions and you need to understand that.
When I was organizing nursing home workers, and asking them to vote for the union so that they could merely “have respect and a say on the job,” the leaders usually rejected us. But when we laid out a long term plan for organizing the whole industry in the state, and for using that power to transform the lives of care givers and patients — then the leaders chose to fight, and supported the union every time.
Think about that: In the first case, we were asking them to do almost nothing, but they wouldn’t do it; In the second case, we were asking them to commit to a 10-year ordeal, and they were all for it. The small campaign wasn’t worth their time or the risks involved; the big campaign was.
People will only fight for something they believe in. That’s not a surprise and many a battlefield commander has learned that lesson while watching his conscripted troops run away from the battlefield.
In 2004, the Bush campaign was successful because the GOP base believed in what Bush was doing. They may have questioned the situation in Iraq, but they firmly believed that the decision to go there was made for the right reason (whatever reason that may have been).
In my case, I was on board simply for the ouster of Hussein. I didn’t need WMDs and still don’t. Most of the people I talk to didn’t support the war because of WMDs. They supported it to rid the world of a bad guy that should have been displaced 15 years ago.
Getting back to Zack’s argument that people will fight for what they believe in brings me to the single paragraph in his post that unravels it all.
This principle also holds the answer to the inevitable question, “If the people are so strong and brilliant, then why did they vote for Bush?” First of all, they didn’t. Only about a quarter of U.S. adults voted for Bush. A lot of them were just flipping coins in their heads. Some were voting on just a few issues — the ones where the difference could be gleaned from the moments of news people catch between 11-hour work days, dinner and putting the kids to bed: Bush was going to kill the terrorists, Kerry was not so sure; Bush was anti-abortion, Kerry was pro-choice; Bush supposedly believed in Jesus, Kerry supposedly believed only in going to Church in an election season; Bush cut everyone’s taxes, Kerry was going to raise some people’s taxes.
This really gets back to the oversimplification that he claims to be addressing in his thesis. He claims you can’t right off people by saying, “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they voting against their own interests? How can they be so brainwashed?”, then proceeds to do exactly that.
I concede his statistical analysis that only half of the eligible population voted. However, 2004 saw a dramatic increase in voter turnout. How, if people couldn’t care less and are “flipping coins in their head” do that many people motivate themselves to go vote?
He says the people didn’t vote for Bush, yet Bush won the election. What does that tell us?
In his world, we’re supposed to assume people (collectively) are a brilliant group, but forced to assess the decision made by a motivated collective of more voters than we’ve seen in a generation, he falls back on ‘they’re dumb and just flipped a coin’.
It’s simplistic and insulting.
Bush won because he did exactly what Zack would like to see Democrats do. Bush gave people a reason to elect him. He told them what he wanted to do (almost none of which has been done, but ignore that for now). His campaign spent a lot of time talking to the Influentials in every group they could identify from Albany, NY to Zuzax, NM. Finally, the campaign provided tools for our supporters to make themselves heard. They wrote postcards to people in battleground states, they walked door to door with lists they had generated from the website without ever going to a campaign office. They called people from lists supplied online.
The “people’ saw a candidate they liked, heard an agenda they agreed with, saw an opponent who refused to discuss his plans (because they were easy to shoot down, apparently), heard from the Influentials in their circle that they should support Bush and mobilized to get him elected with more votes than ever, and a larger percentage of the vote than any Democrat since Kennedy (the era of Zack’s utopia, apparently) and any Republican since Reagan.
Getting back to Zack, what I do know is there is some really sound thinking that went into Zack’s post, but he is still drawing the wrong conclusion – stemming from a false assumption present in his argument. Despite his warnings against such behavior, he still makes the claim that people are stupid, apathetic, and “flipping coins” rather than seeing that one side is doing exactly what he suggests and one is not.
Unfortunately, his side is the side that’s doing it wrong.