Who Organized That?


Before this blog existed, I had an earlier on called IraqWarReader.com, which started out as a place for me and Christopher Cerf to post stuff related to our 2003 book of the same title, but over time it also evolved into covering more of my personal journey into the internet-politics arena. In October 2004, I started this blog, micah.sifry.com, and promised to transfer over the old posts after I managed to clean out the comment spam. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. But now that I’ve finally got this blog on an updated platform, I’m going to go back and figure out how to restore some relevant posts, fitting them in where they belong date-wise.

That said, I wanted to post this item, from my experience at the February 2004 Digital Democracy Teach-in held at E-Tech in San Diego. The Howard Dean campaign had just fallen apart, but there was a lot of talk in the air of what comes next to this net-powered movement. As you can see from the post, I was a bit frustrated by how much emphasis people seemed to be putting on tools rather than organizing. There also was this endemic problem of seeing movements from afar, and thus not really understanding how much they are actually organized by people and institutions with real names and structures. Today, with all this talk of “Twitter Revolutions,” I think the arguments I made seven years ago are still relevant.

Notes on the Digital Democracy Teach-In in San Diego. [Originally posted on IraqWarReader.com February 10, 2004]

Reality check
It’s wonderful to be immersed in a welcoming community of searching minds, to meet a lot of new and interesting people, and to get such an intriguing peak over the horizon at what’s ahead. (And to bask in the glow of good will generated by my little brother, on top of that!) Thus it’s a little hard maintain distance, and even worse, to have some critical things to say. But this community seems to thrive on strong debate, so here goes. For all the intense discussion going on online and in the hallways about what the Dean campaign did or didn’t do right, and on how social software tools can empower people, I’m amazed by how little interaction this community seems to have with people who actually know something about social movements, political organizing and power analysis. Perhaps that’s a reflection of how new to politics so many of the people here seem to be, and that’s ok. After all, DeanforAmerica (my shorthand for the decision to try to run an “open-source”-style campaign, as opposed to Howard Dean the candidate for President) clearly inspired many people both in and outside of the hacking community and the A-list blogging community to get excited about personal political participation, and hopefully that will be a lasting thing.

But people here talk like all that’s needed is better tools, and then people will pick them up and take back their country from the powers-that-be. There’s almost no sense of how hard organizing actually is, or why. Britt Blaser, who I’m getting to know and like a whole lot, is talking about “one-click politics,” as if mobilizing people for collective action might be made as easy as buying a book on Amazon. Last night at the open participant session on continuing the Dean campaign, someone said something about how change can take place in an instant, as if it were simply a matter of spreading the right meme or something.

Umm, sorry, but change is hard. There are no shortcuts. If this–empowering average people to have a genuine say in the decisions that affect their lives–were easy, it would have been done already. (More on that thought below.) And this isn’t simply because Howard Dean wasn’t what folks hoped he was. (My pal Doug Ireland has a characteristically tough take on that notion here [Note: Unfortunately, TomPaine.com's archive from 2004 appears gone.]) That is, no doubt, a big part of the reason his campaign foundered, but there was also an awful lot of wishful thinking going on about what was happening at the base, too. For example, I keep hearing about the magic of Meetups, how 80,000 people supposedly showed up at Dean Meetups at the beginning of February, and how empowering all this is. There’s almost no empirical backing for these assertions, but they’re accepted anyway. I know for a fact that the number of people RSVPing to go to the Meetups in my area in Westchester, N.Y., dropped dramatically this month, and my local Meetup group was significantly down in attendance, according to the young woman volunteer coordinator who I’m in touch with. Names on a list, even people in a room, do not equal well-organized change agents. The Iowa caucuses were just another example of this, come to think of it.

Also, there’s no discussion or analysis of how you build a coalition to alter power relations in America. The closest we get is general criticism of “broadcast politics”–the webocrats catchphrase for top-down, capital-intensive politics, where the main goal is having or raising enough money to buy broadcast power to send a message to the passive masses. We’re all against that, for sure. But that isn’t the WHOLE problem. If we don’t talk about the enduring facts of racial and class division and act as if they’re not critical to the maintenance of the status quo, any movement for change these well-intentioned folks are going to construct is also going to founder well before it achieves critical mass.

A wise organizer friend of mine, Becky Glass, who runs the Midwest States Center, once told me, “It’s awfully hard to be invited to dinner after the first course has been served.” What she meant was, if you want your movement to be inclusive and diverse, it has to be so from the very beginning. You can’t invite blacks and Latinos and working-class people to join you later, as so many well-intentioned middle-class white progressives so often do. The Dean campaign’s social base was white well-educated boomers and their college-age kids (Jay Rosen and his nephew Zack Rosen, if you will). This isn’t a huge surprise, as high-intensity Internet users are disproportionately whiter, younger and better educated than the general population, and antiwar activists were also very white, middle-class, etc (a truism of antiwar movements in America going back quite a ways). Yet no one seems at all worried about plunging ahead with grand plans and visions, without stopping to think that they haven’t got everyone you need on board this ship, not yet, anyway.

Not that we shouldn’t plunge ahead. But a little more humility and a little more exploration of the insights of others couldn’t hurt.

Why Social Movements are So Rare

I love that Joe Trippi keeps talking about getting two million Americans to each pitch in $100 to build an independent organization to take back the country from wealthy special interests. It’s a valuable echo of Ross Perot’s United We Stand America (1.2 million people who gave $15 each, until they realized what a scam that was), and of Ralph Nader’s call for a million organizers each willing to put in 100 hours and/or $100 to change the country. But Trippi, who I’m sure knows better, talks as if all it would take is people waking up one morning and doing this. Poof! Actually, he’s not thinking big enough.

What I have in mind is something like Solidnarsc (Solidarity) in Poland, which emerged from within the totalitarian Communist system and signed up 10 million members out of a population of 40 million around the demand for a “free and independent trade union,” something they built–in the face of fierce repression. Try to wrap your minds around that!

One of my intellectual mentors, Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of American populism, has a book about Solidarity called “Breaking the Barrier,” in which he unearths the real history of that movement’s construction. I wish I could point to a link for what follows, but believe it or not, it ain’t on the web! (The horror, the horror!) The questions he asks are, or at least ought to be, central to the question of the moment,IMHO.

How do people move from thought to action? Goodwyn’s answer is deceptively simple. “Protest moves from idea to action when it becomes social–that is, when it is organized so that people are acting rather than writing or talking about acting.” [hello, fellow bloggers!] But, Goodwyn points out, large-scale social movements for change are extremely rare beasts:

Societies are not routinely afflicted with ‘movements.’ Things are usually ‘normal’ and people behave in conventional ways. A relatively small number of citizens possessing high sanction move about in an authoritative manner and a much larger number of people without such sanction move about more softly. Some among the multitude may be seen energetically to be doing all they can to acquire a measure of status, but in the meantime, they join their less-energetic neighbors in behaving with conventional deference.

Movements disrupt this normal order. A considerable number of unsanctioned people appear publicly in a new guise; they present petitions or voice demands; they suddenly arrogate to themselves the right to criticize inherited customs and may even issue manifestos proclaiming the precise way they intend to rearrange received habits. Moreover, they have a pronounced tendency to conduct activity out-of-doors where everything is visible. People march, they strike, they demonstrate, and they may even suddenly riot and burn down or otherwise dismantle certain physical signs of established tradition.

How do we get large-scale protest?–what Goodwyn calls “unusual acts of unsanctioned assertion by previously little-known persons.” This is where our ignorance begins. We have been trained by decades of received historical tradition to not understand this crucial issue. Our observers–journalists, academics, etc–rarely explain how social movements are created and sustained. As Goodwyn notes, they borrow heavily from the weather school of writing. “Movements ‘flare up’ and ‘gather steam.’ They ‘boil.’ They can then ‘burst into flame’ and ‘burn like a prairie fire’ before, in time, ‘flickering’ out. A social movement can also be understood as a ‘gathering storm’ that when gathered ‘sweeps like a cyclone’ through vulnerable regions.” This, he says, is “a view from afar.” It is, for all the talk of “granularity,” the primary view we’ve been taking of the DeanforAmerica phenomenon.

“Large scale democratic movements do not happen in any of these easily characterized ways,” Goodwyn writes. “Democratic forms are ordered. To function well, they must be experientially tested. Their construction requires overcoming many culturally based hierarchical impediments. They happen, then, when they are organized. They happen in no other way.”

That’s why I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.


2 Responses

I enjoyed your original essay from 2004 as I am contemplating an interesting idea around enhancing voter activity and my basis for its success is contrary to your well-reasoned opinion. So, the question I have, is do you think that our modern society – with all the demands on working people and living one’s life – creates too big an impediment to real “change” because the free time to organize and physically meet away from home and work, to participate in marches or protests, or to find time to meet one’s political representatives (on rare occasions they are around) is just too much effort in a “normal” world?

  • http://www.ambrosiasw.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=32042

    Hey Micah, I just wanted to let you know your topic is still going strong over a decade later. Looks like you’re doing well, good to hear. Send me an email at ellobfo at gmail, let me know if you got this. Good luck with your book and everything!


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