The Power of the Progressive Swarm

as requested

there is power in self-organization.  self-organization is the scientific term for the spontaneous emergence of similar interests and mostly independent organization around those interests.  perhaps the best example of this in politics comes from the howard dean campaign.  hundreds of thousands of people, often through word of mouth or just simple opposition to invading iraq, became simultaneously interested in dean's campaign for president -- and used the nascent organizing tools available to them (such as meetup).

there is power in the swarm.  one of the biggest barriers to action, whether getting involved or the simple act of voting, is the belief that one's act(ion) doesn't matter, that it won't change anything.  but when we act together, our influence rises exponentially.  this was one of the reasons why thousands of dean supporters flocked to iowa.

but some of us may be wondering whether or not we should get personally involved in campaigns that are outside districts where we live.  i, for example, live in a deeply blue district where the democratic incumbent is unopposed.  others face similar situations.  and we may ask ourselves, what about the dean experience in iowa?  we remember (or at least were exposed) to the push back that iowans (well, mostly the press and opposing campaigns) gave to the outsider dean supporters who went around iowa in their orange hats.  isn't this instructive?

i'd argue that it's not.  in fact, it's too easy to learn the wrong lessons from what happened in iowa.

first of all, it's a myth that only outsiders were given orange hats.  the orange hats emerged at the end of the campaign, during the "perfect storm" push.  anyone who showed up at a campaign headquarters and went out canvassing got one -- including iowans.  they were meant to be evidence of organization, but they weren't seen that way by everyone.

the media focused on the orange hat wearing outsiders, and stroked that meme.  it caught on, not without reason.  many of the outsiders in iowa were proud of the fact that they came to iowa from elsewhere, and talked about that readily.  for them, the orange hat was a badge of honor.  as the person who was tasked with getting dean volunteers to stop wearing their orange hats in the northeastern part of iowa, i know how proud they felt about their orange hats.  but it drove a bad narrative about the dean campaign, and our pride reinforced that narrative.  we didn't get in front of the message and we didn't respond when it got out there.  the hats had to go.

but that doesn't mean that progressives shouldn't swarm to campaign hotspots.  that would be the wrong lesson to learn from this example.  the orange hats weren't the problem, and outside volunteers weren't (necessarily) the problem.  the problem was one of culture, and dean's volunteers weren't given enough information about local culture in order to be effective.

locals in any electoral district could be offended by the presence of outsiders actively campaigning, but this was especially true of iowans who are proud and protective of their caucuses.  they treasure contact with the candidates and their families, not substitutes who proudly boast that they are from another state.  the message at the door (i'm here from another state) contrasted greatly with the ideal that is regularly touted  in the local media (presidential candidate went to podunk town to meet with a handful of locals at a coffeeshop or breakfast nook).

again, the dean campaign suffered from bad messaging.  while the blogs and the outside media focused on all these efforts elsewhere, the dean campaign allowed that to get internalized.  many dean volunteers in iowa thought that caucus voters knew or cared about such things.  you might be hailed on a blog for going to iowa from a different state, but you would not be hailed by iowans.  experienced canvassers know that you always present yourself as a local, regardless of where you come from, if only because voters are more likely to listen to you and take what you say seriously if you look and "feel" like them.  "hello, i'm from gigantic city elsewhere (someplace you can only dream of living in)" isn't exactly a way to win hearts and minds.

secondly, it's important to understand that volunteers (from both iowa and from out of state) were woefully trained.  given that so many people who were excited by dean had never done this before, it didn't help matters that the dean campaign in iowa spent so little time training their volunteers (it depended on where you went, but some volunteers got as little as 15 minutes training before being sent out) -- or their staff (one staff person i talked to had less than a day's training before going into the field).  it also didn't help that many of the people training volunteers hadn't done it (trained or worked in campaigns) before.

training is the point where message and culture is imparted to the volunteer (whether a local or an outsider).  anybody who's helped on one of my campaigns or the blue basin project knows that training is a big part of what we do.  during training, volunteers should be given instructions such as the script they are to use and how to deal with local situations.  whether or not the dean campaign had thought about such things, they didn't implement it on the ground in iowa.  

third, the voter contact program was uncoordinated in iowa.  in the programs i've developed, we plant visibility first, canvass that weekend, call those we couldn't reach during the canvass that week, and try to follow up with a personalized message to those we actually talked to the following week -- all to create buzz and reinforce the message in a specific location.  in the case of iowa, the campaign did not dictate the message, they had awful lists (i canvassed a empty lot that hadn't seen a house for 5 years), and many volunteers complained about voters saying they had been called or canvassed only recently.

in short, if you're going to use outside volunteers, you need to at least look professional about it.  the dean campaign in iowa didn't meet that criteria, and it saw a heavy backlash for it.

finally, outsiders should never be used as a substitute for local support.  campaigns that can't generate a local volunteer base aren't going to win.  outsiders need to augment, to reinforce, not supplant local supporters.  it's not an either-or thing, it's a both thing.  competitive districts will always see outside volunteers coming in to tip the scales.  both sides do this.  smart party organizations use outsiders (usually paid) to pave the way and narrow the universe, mostly because outsiders are less likely to react to canvassing a tough area or care about the rejection (outsiders as shock troops).  locals may be less willing to help if they canvass an areas where many of the responses are too negative.  and outsiders can fill holes where no locals exist.

this is actually how the republican party developed their base in the south.  outside activists were the main ingredient of the mix that went in and built organization in florida, georgia and virginia.  the specific emphasis of movement conservatives on building a doctrine that allowed them to win virtually everywhere was key to their success -- and one of the main reasons why conservatives/republicans are more evenly distributed throughout the country.  democrats, and progressives especially, are concentrated in major urban areas.  this has specific implications when democrats try to win congressional seats outside of their urban centers.

there are, i think, three reasons why republican activists are more evenly dispersed across the country.  first of all, the conservative movement committed itself to being competitive everywhere from it's genesis (in the aftermath of the goldwater defeat).  you can see from the map below of the 2004 election that they've broadly achieved that goal.  

but there are two other contributing factors, as well.  one, perhaps the most important, is that republicans have tapped into the churches around this country, churches that appear in every single town, village and unincorporated area in the land.  churches have long been a political force in this country, whether for prohibition, civil rights et al.  conservatives allied themselves with the "religious right" as they built the conservative movement, many of which were previously dubious about the role of politics in their religious life.  this coincided with two other linked characteristics: the re-emergence of evangelicals and the emergence of religion in the modern media.

the final factor behind this broad dispersement of conservatives and republicans throughout the country is that they encouraged and trained local activists and leadership.  as i've repeatedly said, the first foundation of the rise of the conservative movement is that they learned how to win elections virtually everywhere.  but they didn't just learn how to win, they encapsulated it into a standard campaign doctrine and taught it -- everywhere.  before the leadership institute built a training center, they conducted their campaign schools throughout the country, relying mainly on public universities for classroom space, to teach conservatives how to manage campaigns and win elections.  tens of thousands of republicans got trained, many in locations close to where they lived.

this dedication to training was not confined to morton blackwell.  when operation rescue took their anti-abortion campaign into a community, they started with a week long training session to prepare participants for what they'd face -- and leave a trained activist base behind when they left the scene.  this approach of leaving something behind (activists, knowledge and institutions) isn't necessarily the approach of all democratic groups.  because democrats are more interested in public service (whether as a candidate or just a job), it seems to me that they tend to be more restrictive of their knowledge and

inclusion in their institutions than i observed republicans to be.  i could be wrong.  it feels to me like democrats are more competitive amongst each other, while republicans were more interested in building the team.  democrats seem to have concentric circles for party involvement while republicans were flatter in their organizational structure.

regardless, as progressives and democrats seek to expand the democratic base into suburban and rural areas, they will depend on outside activists for much of their success.  while democratic activists may come from safe blue seats (like my own), their work outside their electoral districts increases the power and influence of their own elected officials.  while the ideal is still a neighbor knocking on a neighbor's door, the reality is that we don't know our neighbors like we used to, and if there isn't a neighbor to do it, someone has to pick up the slack.

that someone is us.  we have the power to expand the democratic base, to elect democrats where they haven't been elected in years (even decades or a century).  we have the ability to take our experience and training, and pass down our knowledge base to those who live in red areas.  we have the means to bring money and attention to ignored areas that are written off by the powers that be.  but only if we get off our collective arses and into the streets.  what the dean swarms knew, and what we must reiterate, is that no movements occur within our own walls.  no change can be had in front of our computers or televisions.  change only happens when there are enough people to create that critical mass that those in authority fear.  change happens one heart, one decision, one door at a time.  be that change...

Tags: 2004 presidential primary, campaigns, Howard Dean, Iowa (all tags)


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