Building Prisms of Power, Not Sandcastles that Get Washed Away Each Election

What the current debate over Democratic strategy leaves out: why groups that invest in long-term constituency organizing win. Plus

Welcome back to another weekly edition of The Connector, where I focus on news and analysis at the intersection of politics, movements, organizing and tech and try to connect the dots (and people) on what it will take to keep democracy alive. This is completely free newsletter—nothing is behind a paywall—but if you value it and can afford a paid subscription at any level, please hit the subscribe button and choose that option. Feel free to forward widely; and if you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please sign up!

With last week’s elections setting off yet another round of handwringing among Democrats and progressives about political strategy, Prisms of the People, Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna and Michelle Oyakawa’s new book that is aptly subtitled, “Power and Organizing in Twenty-First Century America,” should be required reading. That’s because they offer a fundamentally more valuable way to think about the challenge of building people power than the stale and repetitive debate between those who want Democrats to downplay social justice issues and merely focus on policies that poll well with swing voters (the so-called “popularists” like David Shor and James Carville) and those who want Democrats to tailor their messaging towards expanding their base (like the “race-class narrative” messaging strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio and the folks at Way to Win who I wrote about a few weeks ago).

To be clear, in that particular debate, I agree with Tory Gavito (president of Way to Win) and author Adam Jentleson, whose takeaway from the Virginia election defeat of Terry McAuliffe was that Democrats can’t win tough elections by ignoring racially coded attacks wielded by Republicans. As they wrote in The New York Times last week, “Democrats must separate our (accurate and necessary) analysis of structural racism from our political strategy in a country where the electorate remains nearly 70 percent white — and as much as or more than 80 percent white in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Instead of ignoring race while Republicans beat us silly with it, Democrats must confront it and explain that powerful elites and special interests use race as a tool of division to distract hard-working people of all races while they get robbed blind. Then pivot back to shared interests. The pivot is critical: Without it, Democrats are simply talking past voters, while Republicans play on their racial fears.” That’s the race-class narrative in a nutshell.

The problem I have with this debate, which consumes most of the oxygen in the room, is that it’s largely about marketing. Whose ads said what? What line in a debate turned into a gaffe? Which moment went viral? It treats politics mainly as a form of theater and treats people as an audience being sold a performer, the candidate. It also reinforces the notion that commenting on and sharing the messages that we like or dislike is a useful form of political engagement, resulting in the phenomenon that Eitan Hersh cogently criticizes as “political hobbyism.” One-third of all Americans say they spend two hours a day on politics, Hersh found in a 2018 survey he conducted. But 80 percent of those people say that they use that time on spectating, consuming news and social media, and sharing content with others. Hersh says this is just for self-gratification. “We click and post and share not to take a civic action … [but] to convey an image to our social networks and ourselves.”

The most that comes out of this form of political engagement is donations to candidates and organizations, along with other forms of relatively low-commitment and atomized involvement like individual sign-ups for phone-banking or canvassing. It’s politics as a form of consumerism. And it’s highly understandable, given that the main audience for a lot of the people opining in these debates is donors, big ones and small ones, who keep campaign consultants so gainfully employed. If you’re an average voter, this kind of politics probably feels very far away, because it actually has very few entry points or positions for you to fill other than to kibitz and write checks or likes. At its absolute worst, this way of doing politics does little more than build what Liz McKenna, one of Prisms of the People’s co-authors, calls “sandcastles”—edifices of momentary campaign organizing built by gushers of money that get washed away as soon as an election is over.

When it comes to power-building, this consumerist version of politics sees it mainly as a numeric contest, “stockpiling resources like people, actions, or money,” Han and her co-authors write. Instead, they argue that “collective action is more than the additive sum of individual actions.” What Prisms of the People offers is a way of understanding power-building along a third dimension, which is the fostering of organizations that bind people to each other in common cause, in authentic relationship to each other, doing ongoing political work together that is strategic, nimble and capable of a much wider range of creative tactics and strategies for winning social change than just message refinement. They call these kinds of organizations “prisms” because they “refract[] the actions of a constituency into political power” and because their internal design allows them to deal well with complexity and uncertainty.

Prisms of the People makes its case by digging deep into six recent examples where creative leaders organized local constituencies into standing organizations that took on difficult political challenges and won: the decade-long pushback by Latino rights advocates, led by the group LUCHA, against the anti-immigrant wave in Arizona, which not only beat back the xenophobes but also won a minimum wage ballot initiative fight; the successful push by New Virginia Majority to reinstate the voting rights of ex-prisoners; the work of AMOS, a faith-based organization, in successfully passing a ballot initiative for universal pre-K in Cincinnati; the work of ISAIAH, another faith-based organization, in shifting the narrative of the 2008 gubernatorial election from one that pitted different liberal interest groups against each other to one that centered race and class; a coalition in Nevada that passed a corporate profits tax to support public education and services; and a multiracial coalition, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, that has a highly democratic internal process.

Of all their case studies, the one that I found most evocative was how immigrant rights organizers took on the hard work of confronting the anti-immigrant wave that crested in Arizona with the passage of SB 1070, the “show my your papers” law that painted a target on every person of color living in the state. The local leaders who began the fightback didn’t start with a petition campaign aimed at the state’s governor; they didn’t want to see what leaders in Washington would say or what funders might be prepared to back. Instead, they started with a very public vigil on the lawn outside the state capitol. It started with seven people, all of them immigrants who were directly impacted by the bill. Less than a week later they had 300. A week after that local students staged mass walkouts to support the protest. The vigil ultimately lasted 104 days, and while it didn’t prevent the governor from signing the bill into law, it was the crucible for a new generation of young leaders who became committed to each other, not just a fleeting legislative fight.

Among the book’s insights:

-“The way that the organizations in our study engaged with constituents is distinct from the way that organizations that believe people need only be moved episodically engage constituents.” The ability to consistently deliver their constituents matters more for a group like ISAIAH than groups that claim tens of thousands of members but can’t deliver them.

-Internal culture is why these organizations succeed in holding onto people, not the issues they work on. One organizer in Virginia told the authors, “People come because they want to work on restoration of voting rights, let’s say, but they stay because of the vision [and] the relationships, the family atmosphere, the team. It’s the culture of the organization that holds people.”

- They write, summarizing much political science research, “there is no linear relationship between any given resource and political power, whether that resource is numbers of people, amount of money, or intensity of adherents.” The leaders of the groups under focus in the book understand power as something built from commitments and relationships, not scale.

-Actual political power can be measured not only by outcomes, but by how the efforts of a given group changes the costs calculations of its targets. The authors also offer a number of new methods for measuring the power of an organization by how centrally it is viewed by other powerful actors in a particular state.

-Frequently, in order to win the campaigns featured in the book, leaders had to go up against other powerful actors on their own side, like funders or Democratic party officials. For example, in Arizona, LUCHA had to fight to ensure that its own organizers and grassroots organizing strategy were in the lead of their minimum wage ballot initiative, rather than a digital-funded media campaign favored by funders.

-Being rooted in an authentic, loyal base allows leaders to act independent of other sources of institutional power, like corporate influence or foundation money.

I’ve ranted many times over the years against the claim made by so many digital organizations that they have millions of “members,” because of how much that has degraded the real meaning of the word. So listen to this leader from Arizona in Prisms, talking about their actual members:

“When you asked [how big our] membership [is], I’m going to tell you 300 people, and I’m going to be super proud of those 300 people, because those 300 people come to the meetings, those 300 people. I know their children, they know my family. We know their stories, what they went through, and it’s taken us ten years to develop those 300 people….I could tell also tell you [that] we have 20,000 likes on Facebook. I could also tell you that our email [list has] 120,000 [names], all those sorts of things, but those aren’t real.”

The leaders profiled in Prisms are also refreshingly clear about the problems created by well-intentioned philanthropists who want to be seen as helping frontline organizations. Here’s Doran Schrantz, one of the leaders of ISAIAH in Minnesota, describing in an interview from 2014 what she saw as the pitfalls of becoming flavor of the month in foundation land:

“I’m of the opinion that there’s not going to be a significant, people-powered, independent movement funded by foundations. . . . It’s just that [the philanthropic world] has its own momentum and its own set of priorities. . . . The thing that’s depressing is that you take . . . some of your most talented organizers and you turn all their strategic energy . . . on milking that thing [the world of philanthropy]. . . . And then, that thing can also defang you. It turns you into a celebrity, turns you into a commodity. So, I’ve also seen that happen to people—that they do really good organizing that becomes this big thing. . . . And then, you get positioned inside that whole system and all of a sudden you could raise ten million dollars ’cause you’re the new celebrity. So then you build a big national thing and now you’re a hustler. I mean, you hustle—you hustle and broker. But the minute you float up into that thing and you get ungrounded from the base, you turn into something different. And you’re still dependent on the base, but instead of it being an authentic relationship, you’re essentially buying it.”

What I most appreciate about Prisms of the People is how its authors speak explicitly about challenging the conventional wisdom about collective action, which most funders and strategists alike seem to think is all about generating activism at scale. How many people can you register to vote, or turn out, or call your Member of Congress, per dollar spent? They write that “this reflexive focus on scale undermines the importance of strategic thinking, which leaders working in dynamic environments need, and directs attention to habitual efforts to generate collective action instead.” It also fosters a narrow approach that leaves organizations without meaningful options when the one thing they are designed to do well, say, deliver a million petition signatures, is ignored.

Right now, the Democratic consultant industrial complex is engaged in another one of its biannual debates over electoral strategy, even though all the literature on political persuasion and mobilization finds that what political campaigns do—field, TV, candidate qualities, etc—have only marginal effects on outcomes. Despite that, these debates are hugely important mostly because whoever wins this narrative battle is set up to get lots of business in the next political cycle. Han and her co-authors correctly point out that these debates harden into conventional wisdom and institutional myths about “the right way” to run campaigns, and that today this means utilizing complex data-targeting tactics and counting voter contacts and actions taken. What this then means is that “strategy is handled not by leaders and constituents but by experts who direct canvassers based on large voter databases.” The value of building a constituency is invisible to this debate, even though it may be the most effective way of building power.

So, as much as your attention may have been riveted this past week to the post-mortems about Virginia, New Jersey, and local races around the country, try to turn it elsewhere. Think about the taxi drivers union in New York City, whose two week hunger strike at City Hall (on top of years of organizing) produced a tremendous victory last week, eliminating hundreds of millions of crushing debt on thousands of drivers. Or the Starbucks workers in upstate western New York, whose bid to unionize has drawn the attention of Howard Schultz, the company’s former CEO, who has flown in personally to try to head them off. Or the community organizing group near you that you can join and keep building, because that’s where your impact is always the greatest.

-Bonus link: The short report by Hahrie Han and her P3 Lab on understanding and building people power is a great introduction to their work.

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Voting Disconnect     

--This newsletter is called The Connector, but sometimes we have to talk about disconnects, too. Here in New York, we just experienced a big one. Three ballot questions on expanding voting rights that had been moved, with great fanfare, by state Democratic leaders in Albany, went down to defeat last week because, um, those very same leaders forgot to make sure voters heard why they should vote for them. The Conservative and Republican parties spent at least $3 million on a smear campaign, claiming that enabling people to register on election day and vote more easily by absentee ballot would increase voter fraud. Democrats and their allied groups on the national stage, who have been pushing activists everywhere to rally for the Freedom to Vote Act in Congress, did nothing to support similar measures here in what should have been an easy win.

Susan Lerner, the long-serving hard-working head of Common Cause NY, told me that she was sounding the alarm for weeks before the election, but couldn’t get much help. Members of Congress did more to talk up the issue than did local state legislators. Only on the Sunday before the election, she says, did she manage to get Senator Chuck Schumer and two state legislators to show up for an event promoting Questions 1, 3 and 4. She’s still steaming about the failure of the three measures. She told me, “If the Democrats insist on playing croquet on the rugby field, we will always lose. They don’t take the threat to democracy seriously - here we are.”

Odds and Ends

--The Bitcoin bubble keeps getting bigger, with New York City’s wacky new Mayor-elect Eric Adams announcing that he wants his first three paychecks to be in the cybercurrency. As Dave Troy points out in his useful weekly situation report, crypto is the revenge of gold bugs still unhappy that the Federal Reserve sets monetary policy. He also notes Miami’s mayor has already said he wants to be fully paid in Bitcoin, noting that the city’s enthusiasm for it “pairs well with [Miami’s] deep and storied relationship with organized crime, drug smuggling, money laundering, and importation of illegally-mined gold.”

--Read Vu Le on why mega-nonprofits like charity:water are harming other groups with their claim that 100% of funds donated go to the cause, not overhead.

--Even though it’s a fundamentally quixotic gesture, I’ll be logging out of Facebook and Instagram from tomorrow through Saturday. #TheFacebookLogout has organized some engaging activities you can do instead; on Friday Kaliya Young and I are hosting an unconference on what comes next, tickets are still available.

Deep Thoughts

--Adam Tooze’s essay in the London Review of Books on Andreas Malm’s post-pandemic climate books still has me thinking. If other strategies for heading off catastrophic climate change are blocked by the political economy of fossil fuel, will demands for prohibition on new carbon-burning projects lead to direct action? Malm invokes the Jewish resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto and the camps in a way that blows my mind: “Better to die blowing up a pipeline than to burn impassively,” he writes. Is that where we’re headed?

Department of Self-Promotion

Starting this month, I am writing twice a week for Medium as part of their contributing author program. If you enjoy the mix of topics that I cover here, then please sign up to be a Medium member. Basically, if you want more Micah, you can get it from Medium for just $5 per month of $50 per year (and roughly half of that accrues back to me if you sign up through my partner link). Here’s a “friend link” to my most recent post on Medium, looking at how both conservatives and progressives made gains in last week’s elections.

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