Can Democrats Be 'People-First' If Their Campaigns Value People Last?
Veteran organizer Marshall Ganz on the dehumanizing effects of the 'relentless nightmare of marketing in texting, in repetitive ads, [and] mind-numbing email driven ersatz urgency.'
Last Tuesday’s edition of The Connector, “More on the Poverty of Democratic Party Organizing,” which focused on a new report about the disconnect between grassroots Democratic party activists and the party’s campaigns, national organizations and state branches, struck a nerve. People shared it widely (which I always appreciate, and which is one big reason I have never put anything behind a paywall, since I want useful content to be able to spread as widely as possible). And some folks also wrote me privately to share similar stories to the ones collected in the report, or to offer their own analysis.
One person I heard from was Marshall Ganz, the veteran organizer and trainer who learned the craft working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and who for years has been teaching community organizing at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. (If you ever have the opportunity to do a training with Marshall or hear him speak, don’t miss it.) Marshall wrote to offer some encouragement and also offered a larger perspective that deserves greater attention. To him, the problem isn’t just that Democratic campaigns and party organizations are doing a lousy job embracing and channeling volunteers into activities like door-knocking or phone-banking. It’s that the whole approach that almost all Democrats are taking to getting out the vote is radically discordant with what Democrats claim to stand for. With his permission, let me share what he wrote me:
“Kudos on your persistence in trying to drive home the fact that commodified ‘organizing’ is not organizing, and does far more dehumanizing than humanizing - a ‘model’ that got going in the 80’s and, except the brief exceptions of Dean in NH in 2003, of Obama in 2007-8 and of anomalous campaigns here and there has simply grown exponentially in influence, sterility, abuse, profit and domination.
Reading your piece just got me pissed off all over again!
It’s hard to ‘message’ that the Democratic program is a ‘people first’ program and invest millions and billions in dehumanizing its ‘people.’ This goes well beyond the efficiency of voter contact methods (cost/vote) to the reality of daily abuse in practice of values claimed, but, as the Mexicans say, only “de los dientes afuera” (from the teeth outward).
People yearn for some leadership demonstrating authenticity, courage and efficacy not only in ‘messaging’ and ‘issues’ and ‘policies’ but in the lived experience of people who build real relationships, fight for shared values, and merit the training, coaching, and leadership needed to bring genuine efficacy to their work.
But what most people experience is a relentless nightmare of marketing in texting, in repetitive ads, mind-numbing email driven ersatz urgency and, worst of all, in their disrespectfully dehumanizing interaction with organizers, supporters and citizens who remain unseen, unheard, and devalued - human beings treated as a ‘renewable resource.’ In this case the ‘medium’ is the ‘real message.’”
But do campaigns really have a choice in how they engage voters? In pointing to Howard Dean’s 2003 campaign in New Hampshire and the Obama campaign’s community organizing in 2007-08 as alternatives to this dismal model, Marshall is being a bit modest, since he played a big role in both. Dean’s base in New Hampshire was built by dozens of field coordinators Marshall trained, who held more than 2,000 local house-party meetings across the state. In a typical meeting, a dozen local Democrats would first hear a field coordinator share their personal story along with their reasons for being interested in Dean, and then, in a free-ranging conversation that could take hours, they’d be gently prompted to do the same. He brought that same approach to the Obama field effort in 2007, which trained 3,000 full-time organizers and built thousands of local leadership teams in key battleground states.
As Marshall told Adam Nagourney of The New York Times back in late 2003, his approach, which he first learned with the farmworkers, was radically different from typical canvassing. ''The traditional kind of canvass is, you have a bunch of people who they are paying go door-to-door and deliver a message: the voter is still a customer and the messenger is still a sales person,'' Marshall said to Nagourney. Instead, he suggested, ''You're looking for people not only to agree with your message -- you're looking for people to become part of an organized constituency.'' The whole idea is to directly combat the alienation among voters that comes from campaigns heavily reliant on TV ads and top-down organizations, and to do so by involving locally-rooted volunteers intimately as partners building a movement, not just cogs in a machine delivering a message.
By the next presidential cycle, Marshall had expanded how he talked about volunteer engagement in the context of election battles. As he wrote in a 2009 post-mortem called “Organizing Obama: Campaign, Organizing, Movement”:
“It is the process of association – not simply aggregation - that makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. As de Tocqueville noted, through association we can learn to reinterpret our individual interests as common interests, an objective on behalf of which we can use our combined resources. Relationship building thus goes beyond delivering a message, extracting a contribution, or soliciting a vote. These ‘lateral’ connections, entirely missed in canvassing, telemarketing, or most email driven operations, are what create the ’glue’ – or social capital - that sustains volunteer engagement in the face of challenge, inspires creativity in the work, and supports reaching out to diverse social networks to engage the broader community.” [Emphasis added.]
House meetings, along with one-on-one conversations, were key to the process of activating supporters and motivating them to become leaders, who in turn activated their own real social networks. Contrast this approach to what the political technology industry currently refers to “relational organizing,” a model where activists are induced (or sometimes literally paid) to tap their contact lists or give them to campaigns, so potential supporters can be more efficiently deluged with emails, calls and texts.
As Marshall noted in his 2009 post-mortem, most campaigns see volunteers as “’flaky’, difficult to control, and easily ‘off-message,’” preferring to rely on paid canvassers or, at best, to give volunteers scripts for what they’re supposed to say to voters on the phone or at the doors. If you’ve ever phone-banked or used MiniVan to door-knock, you know the drill. Instead, he suggested that we can absolutely do better, writing:
“The factors that motivate volunteer engagement are well known if rarely practiced. Three conditions must be met: experienced meaningfulness, autonomy, and feedback. To the extent volunteers are charged with achieving a ‘significant’ outcome (it makes a real difference in the world), a ‘whole’ outcome (not just turning a bolt, but building a machine), and one that engages the ‘whole’ person (head, hands, and heart), it is experienced as ‘meaningful.’ When coupled with the autonomy to hold real responsibility for the outcome, along with real time feedback, the intrinsic rewards of participation outstrip the effects of extrinsic reward (money, recognition, etc.)”
…. Investing in building a volunteer base early on makes it possible to achieve scale, as well as depth, without paying large sums for less effective paid canvass and phoning operations. Finally, recruiting, training, and developing the local community members is not only a cost, but an investment in civic capital, an investment that may pay off for years – election after election, cause after cause, etc.”
That’s, in very brief form, the argument Marshall has been making for years. But his note to me suggests a deeper extension to his critique. By choosing to organize and campaign in a radically alienating way, one that treats volunteers as little more than direct marketers and voters as customers, and that prioritizes extraction of resources (votes, money, volunteer time) from communities over investment of resources (year-round organization, network-weaving, leadership development), today’s Democrats are showing voters who they are, and it’s not a pretty picture.
Does this then contribute to voters not believing Democrats’ promises to enact programs that will better their lives? Or vice versa, is there evidence that a more Ganzian approach strengthens the bond between voters and their party? This is a different question than one we’ve examined before, about whether particular methods of voter engagement demonstrably affect voter turnout.
The only study I’m aware of that comes close to examining this question is a 2013 paper by Michael Bailey, Daniel Hopkins and Todd Rogers titled “Unresponsive and Unpersuaded: The Unintended Consequences of Voter Persuasion Efforts.” In it, they assess a 2008 effort by the Obama campaign where 56,000 Wisconsin voters were randomly assigned persuasive canvassing, phone calls and/or mailings and then followed up by phone to record their preferences. It found that persuasive canvassing made some voters less inclined to talk to a pollster and turned them away from Obama’s candidacy. As the paper explains, the persuasion message was very much in the traditional “marketing” mold:
“It involved an initial icebreaker asking about the respondent’s most important issue, a question identifying whether the respondent was supporting Senator Obama or Senator McCain, and then a persuasive message administered only to those who were not strong supporters of either candidate. The persuasive message was ten sentences long, and focused on the economy. After providing negative messages about Senator McCain’s economic policies—e.g. ‘John McCain says that our economy is ‘fundamentally strong,’ he just doesn’t understand the problems our country faces’—it then provided a positive message about Senator Obama’s policies. For example, it noted, “Obama will cut taxes for the middle class and help working families achieve a decent standard of living.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the study discovered that this outreach backfired with some voters, particularly those with the least propensity to vote based on their past history. As a Wisconsin Democratic party chair commented and the authors note, in persuasion efforts, “[y]ou’re going to people who are undecided, who don’t want to hear from you, and are often sick of politics.” Being canvassed, the study found, made them less likely to vote.
Unfortunately, this paper didn’t explore whether a different form of communication, more akin to what Marshall is suggesting, could have produced a different effect. Earlier today, I managed to reach one of the paper’s authors, Dan Hopkins, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and he agreed that it was an interesting question and not one that has been studied. In his view, this was because “the American political landscape incentivizes both parties to not develop long term relationships with voters, but to contact them on an as-needed basis.” He also shared that a great deal of academic research into voting behavior was done in partnership with willing campaigns, and that the funding environment for Democratically-aligned groups also tended to incentivize research on the variable effects of various short-term “treatments” rather than the kind of qualitative shift expressed by Marshall.
Perhaps that will change as more money has flowed toward year-round power-building organizations thanks to the efforts of groups like the Movement Voter Project. But in the meantime, if Marshall is right, this is another reason why “deliverism” may not be working, and why the debate between “deliverism” and “popularism” misses at least part of the picture. After all, if the very methods that Democratic politicians and the party use have the effect of turning off voters, who cares whether you’re putting the emphasis on getting stuff done or talking up popular policy proposals?
—Related: It is not surprising at all that President Biden’s re-election campaign is lagging in its efforts to raise money from small donors, as Reid Epstein of the New York Times reported Sunday (gift link). So far, he noted, it has raised just $10.2 million in donations of under $200, which is less than half the $21 million President Obama raised at this point in his re-election effort twelve years ago. Epstein notes several factors that explain the drop, including changes in how Google and Apple handle bulk email, inflation, and the fact that “Donors are exhausted by the unending flow of emails asking for money, and recipients are responding to far fewer of them.”
Biden’s campaign told the Times that of its current pool of 394,000 small donors, almost a third were new ones who hadn’t given to him in 2020. And contributions from small donors are down across the board, according to an analysis by Middle Seat, a Democratic fundraising shop with lots of clients. He’s raised more than Trump, DeSantis and Pence combined, so it’s not like he’s struggling for cash, a point lots of people made in response to the way the Times piece was framed by the paper.
But that’s not the point. The Biden small-donor gap is just another sign that a whole way of doing politics is running out of gas.
Odds and Ends
—The good folks at Fight for the Future want your help fighting a suite of bad internet bills and they’ve made a website to make it easy for you to learn about them and take action called BadInternetBills.com.
—A cross-partisan group of House lawmakers are sponsoring the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, hoping to close an loophole that now allows police and intelligence agencies to collect sensitive information on US citizens from private data brokers without getting a court order, Dell Cameron reports for Wired.
—Attend: The Media Economies Design Lab is holding an all day conference on Local Tech Ecologies (part of which will be livestreamed) on August 8. Register here.