In Search of Democracy's Movement
Building on last week's edition, we go looking for proto-political groups that bring people together around shared passions. Plus, GOP community centers, crypto flops in El Salvador and much more.
I want to start this week’s newsletter by lifting up a comment left on last week’s edition, which focused on the gap between the national groups fighting to preserve democracy from on high mostly by using lawyers and media strategists, and local civic organizers and entrepreneurs who do daily work knitting their communities together but don’t have a way of plugging into the national fight. The question I left on the table was where a more robust local pro-democracy infrastructure might come from. The comment came from Haley Bash, the founder of the Donor Organizer Hub. She wrote:
“I've been making a routine of asking friends what types of hobby-based groups they think could be particularly fruitful to go from apolitical to politically left (strengthening the community bonds rather than alienating them). A few ideas that've come up so far: CSA [community supported agriculture] members, community garden volunteers, outdoor cycling clubs, body positive/liberation focused sewist groups, hiking/backpacking groups for BIPOC and/or LGBTQ people.”
These are all intriguing ideas, which hint beautifully at the wide range of local public and private activities that large groups of people do which have what we could call “proto-political” content. Haley’s mention of cycling clubs is apt: here in NYC there is a deep connection between the civic tech community and bike riders. As Daniel Onren Latorre, another Connector reader and longtime fellow traveler (and placemaker extraordinaire) commented to me after reading last week’s post, “Mark Gorton, the creator of brokerage software and of the infamous Limewire P2P sharing app, was the original sole funder of Streetsblog/StreetFilms/OpenPlans … and his origin story about that was his frustration about how his own life experience in how streets were taken over by cars, the classic NYC story of how he played stick ball in the streets and later when he had kids noticed how dangerous streets were and the connection with reduced community connection.” City bikers had an early and intense interest in open mapping platforms because of the connection between transit and their own personal safety; Noel Hidalgo, the founder of BetaNYC, is an avid BikeNYC-er too and Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, the co-authors of Tactical Urbanism, root their Street Plans Collaborative work in the Miami biking scene.
Daniel also points to the NYC direct action group TimesUp: “A bike advocacy org but their whole mission is radical change. They have/had a bike repair workshop (which held many workshops of political topics), and last I saw have an art gallery space.” But TimesUp, he notes, is hyper-local to NYC and doesn’t have a mission to grow and replicate. “Perhaps due to the mostly anarchist tilt of members,” he speculates, “they stay local/idiosyncratic in limited small organizing ways.” That’s not exactly true; Critical Mass, a monthly unauthorized mass urban bike ride pioneered by TimesUp, now takes place in 200 cities around the world as a way of popularizing the push for car-free streets. And the global bike-sharing movement has its roots in the 1960s Amsterdam-based anarchist prankster group Provo. Daniel adds, “One thing we saw in Placemaking is that community empowerment was often sparked by bicycle activism, we joked it’s one of the main gateways to urban participatory democracy.”
Just for argument’s sake, now that the Biden Administration is investing billions in alternatives to carbon-dependent transportation and more Americans are buying e-bikes, could local bike stores and clubs become the organizing hubs for more climate-friendly policies? Is riding a bike anything like owning a gun, in terms of the identity one builds around the hobby? I have my doubts about this approach, as I experience e-bikers selfishly taking over my favorite bike path with machines that move almost as fast and dangerously as motorcycles; Hunter Thompson isn’t the patron saint of motorcyclists for no reason.
One sign that we’re not (yet?) in a movement moment for democracy is how few “Xers for Democracy” groups have surfaced. Right now, the librarians fighting book-banners and the school board members trying to defend inclusive curricula are largely on their own dealing with well-funded rightwing groups like Moms for Liberty, which claims more than 100,000 members in hundreds of local chapters. Today the backbone for much pro-democracy organizing can be found in the kind of power-building groups curated by the Movement Voter Project, though notably MVP categorizes its beneficiary organizations either by geography or identity; it has funds for building immigrant power or LGBTQ+ power or climate justice organizing but none for local groups explicitly centering democracy itself.
What’s happening in New Hampshire right now in response to the hyper-libertarian Free State movement might offer some clues. For example, after a Free Stater in the little town of Croydon, NH, used a sparsely attended town meeting to cut the local school by more than half, locals organized a massive response, which Dan Barry documented for The New York Times in July. Their new group, We Stand Up for Croydon Students, drew nearly 400 people to a special meeting to overturn the budget cut, registering 75 new voters along the way (out of a town of less than 800 population!). Now called We Stand Up for Croydon, the group continues to work hard for “robust, non-partisan civic engagement by helping to inform and mobilize town residents around common ground issues related to supporting, maintaining, and funding community services” and its members are educating themselves about the anti-government forces they’re facing, holding public events on books like Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School.
There’s been a similar dynamic in Republican-dominated Belknap County, where the Free Staters have been trying to privatize the county-owned Gunstock Mountain Resort. Not because Gunstock is poorly run or costs taxpayers money; the resort actually makes a big surplus that goes into the county’s coffers. Free Staters just hate the idea of government running anything. But after harassing the resort’s leadership into temporarily quitting their jobs over the summer, the libertarians have been put on a back foot by a local resurgence of organizing, with a new cross-partisan PAC, Citizens for Belknap County, leading the way. “Many of our citizens are appalled by the behavior of our county delegation toward the Gunstock Area Commission,” Al Posnack of Alton, who chairs the PAC, told the Keene Sentinel. “But our concerns are not just about Gunstock, but about health care and public safety as well.”
To Haley’s list of proto-political hobby groups, we can add projects that explicitly seek to convert people with a social hobby into people taking action together using their hobby as the vehicle. For example, take “craftivism” as exemplified by the Craftivist Collective led by Sarah Corbett, which has been around since 2009 and which organizes via small group “stitch-ins” that aim to gently engage passersby and bystanders for causes ranging from living wages to gender equality and fighting climate disaster. Or “kayaktivism” which encompasses everything from big Greenpeace-style efforts to much more modest protests that pull kayaking and canoeing enthusiasts and other paddlers into environmental campaigns like this one out on Long Island this past July.
I’m sure there are many more examples that readers of this newsletter know about. Take a moment to share what you know. Haley and I are building a list!
Related: Check out All Vote No Play, an initiative that grew out of the racial justice awakening of the summer 2020 founded by college basketball coach Eric Reveno that urges athletes to take Election Day off from practice or games so players can vote and volunteer. “We’re trying to help all athletes see, flex and grow their ‘civic muscles’ like they do their athletic muscles,” the group says on its website. Its playbook offers a set of “civic drills”—nonpartisan activities related to civic and citizen empowerment—that teams can easily add to their training regimen, all with the goal of achieving 100% student-athlete voter registration and participation by Election Day. They’re having an “all star meeting” tonight aimed at students across the country with speakers like NBA star Stephen Curry and (gag me) former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, hopefully doing penance for her years in the Bush Administration.
Also related: September 15 is the International Day of Democracy and here in the US journalists are lining up to provide a whole slew of original reporting centering that topic.
As of last week, the Republican National Committee has held more than 5,000 outreach events at the 38 community centers it has funded across 19 states since 2021 to try to connect with more minority voters. At least, that’s what RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told Rafael Bernal of The Hill. “The RNC’s purposeful engagement forges the way for stronger relationships with minority communities and a stronger Republican Party,” she said. “Unlike Democrats, Republicans do not take minority communities for granted, and we will continue to work to earn each vote ahead of November.” The centers, which I’ve written about before, do more than host phone-banks for candidates; events include toy drives, movie nights, and sessions on financial literacy.
Most interestingly, according to the Hill, they also are hosting something called the Republican Civics Initiative, “an education program for immigrants who are eligible for naturalization.” It’s deeply ironic that the GOP is offering immigrants classes in how to pass their naturalization exam, since it includes questions that a majority of current Republicans would get wrong, like “What is the name of the President of the United States now?” and “What is the ‘rule of law’?” But with close to a million immigrants becoming citizens every year in America, this kind of outreach isn’t dumb.
Google for “Democratic Civics Initiative” and you won’t find anything, the same way you won’t find any Democratic party funded community centers. But you will find millions of dollars being spent on print and broadcast advertising aimed at minorities like Latino voters, plus some training of Latino volunteers to be social ambassadors for the party online. The DNC website is also available in Spanish, which is nice but of no use to the millions of potential voters who speak other languages at home, like Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Creole, Arabic or French.
Odds and Ends
—This is civic tech: FloodLight is crowdsourcing information on the massive floods that have hit Pakistan (using the Ushahidi platform). You can use the map to find info on where to donate locally to help people get tents, mosquito netting and the like.
—Color of Change, the big online racial justice organization, has just released its 2022 Black Tech Agenda. It focuses on six issues: antitrust action that would benefit Black-owned small businesses; federal privacy protections to crack down on biometric surveillance and discriminatory uses of data; algorithmic accountability; expanded broadband access; net neutrality; and more robust efforts to combat political disinformation.
—The Omidyar Network has just announced a new initiative: “The Tech We Want, a four-year, $8 million portfolio of work focused on connecting and empowering a new wave of leaders, companies, and technologies that are built on inclusivity, mutualism, sustainability, accountability, and responsible innovation.”
—Why has Neville Roy Singham, the founder of Thoughtworks, the progressive tech company, allegedly put more than $65 million over the last five years into various entities devoted to defending the Chinese government by downplaying or denying documented human rights violations committed by Beijing against the Uyghur and Turkic Muslim minorities? That’s the question raised by this investigation by Alexander Reid Ross and Courtney Dobson for New Lines magazine. In 2017 Singham sold Thoughtworks to Apax (the same private equity firm that bought NGP/VAN/EveryAction). There’s a lot of dark money floating around in this story and connections to everything from Code Pink to the NY-based People’s Forum. Dig in!
—Truth Social, the Twitter clone launched by the Orange Cheetoh earlier this year, is close to bankruptcy, as Jack Shafer reports for Politico. Isn’t that the norm for Trump’s businesses?
—Thanks to Wilfred Chan of The Guardian, I now know about Buttcoin, and so do you. It’s a Reddit subforum dedicated to making fun of cryptocurrency. (The moderators of Reddit’s pro-crypto forums tend to delete critical posts.)
—More seriously, as veteran economist John Hawkins writes for The Conversation, one year in, El Salvador’s highly touted embrace of Bitcoin has been a “spectacular failure.” Fewer than 20% of the country’s citizens are using the country’s Chivo Wallet to manage Bitcoin transactions, even though the 2021 legislation setting this experiment in motion requires all economic agents to accept crypto transactions. And the more than $100 million El Salvador’s government has spent buying Bitcoin is now worth less than half that.
—Don’t miss evolutionary biologist Darshana Narayanan’s in-depth critique of best-selling futurist Yuval Noah Harari in Current Affairs. She writes, “I tried my hand at fact-checking Sapiens—the book that started it all. I consulted colleagues in the neuroscience and evolutionary biology community and found that Harari’s errors are numerous and substantial, and cannot be dismissed as nit-picking. Though sold as nonfiction, some of his narratives hue closer to fiction than fact—all signs of a science populist.” Read it all, Harari’s a compelling story-teller but many of his nostrums are dangerous.