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Yesterday I wrote: "One of the premises of this site is that we need not just more, but better Democrats as candidates and office holders. As we look beyond the current policy battles and 2010 elections, we also need to consider how it is we do what we do. To the extent that many of us are frustrated by the way things are, we need to also consider whether if we continue to do things the same way, can we really expect different (and better) outcomes?"

This is a revised and updated version of "Dreaming of Better Dems."

We are entering a critical political time that is not for the fainthearted. It is easy to second guess what other people do, but it much more difficult to change our own premises about politics, especially if we are professionally invested in the status quo -- even the status quo of doing social change. It is time to invite ourselves to rethink our approach to political organizing.

We are torn by the debate about health care reform; and we wonder what happened with Ted Kennedy's Senate seat; and we are are puzzled by the teaparty thing. Even as we are troubled by all this and more, we need to be evaluating our work, and the work of those we work with, to see what is working and what needs to be adusted, or even fundamentally changed.

Fortunately, there are people who have been able to take the long view, and are able to write about it clearly and well. I was honored to be able to reprint or commission work from several such writers for my 2008 book Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America.

After having watched with horror as the debacle of the Massachusetts Senate race unfolded, and grew (as have many others) discouraged by the nature and pace of change in Washington, and the uninspired leadership of too many inside and outside of government, I find myself returning to two essays from that book. Both are about the art of organizing for social justice, and I think both take a view that challenges much of what passes for organizing. And because that is so, I offer some excerpts from their essays.

Change is not going to come from those whose livlihoods depend on not making change. These essays are about how to get it done.

A few years ago, Jean Hardisty, a progressive scholar of the Right at Wellesley College and social justice organizer Deepak Bhargava, president of the  Center for Community Change, teamed-up to publish an essay for The Nation, dissenting from several major trends on the liberal/left and the Democratic Party. It is one of the single wisest essays on contemporary politics I have read. Titled "Wrong About the Right," the essay debunked what they consider to be wrong lessons taken from the political successes of the Right in recent decades.  

Here are a few snippets.

Secrets of Their Success

1. Ideological Diversity. There is no monolithic conservative movement but rather a plethora of ideologies successfully harnessed together in a grand coalition.  In the 1970s, as the New Right emerged from the discredited old right, a fragile truce was drawn among libertarians, economic conservatives, social conservatives and neoconservatives.  Under the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the influential National Review magazine and host of TV's Firing Line, tensions were negotiated and a "fusion politics" emerged that allowed for cooperation across differences.  Such a truce is more easily maintained when a movement is winning, as the New Right was under President Ronald Reagan... the fault lines are reappearing.  

The implication for progressives is that we ought to tolerate a diversity of views and think strategically about how t align them to common purpose rather than seek a homogeneity we falsely ascribe to conservatives. Conservatives also found that it's not always the most mainstream or moderate voices who win. Likewise, progressives with a more radical vision, while working collaboratively in the larger movement, must not let themselves be sidelined.

2. Ideas, Not Messages. To the extent that conservatives were serious about ideas--and to be sure they were and are--the started not with "messaging" or "framing," two stratgies currently in vogue among progressives, but rather with inquiry into core beliefs about race, government, family, markets and global economic and military domination....

3. Active Listening.  ...[the Right's] masterstroke was not that they went off in a room and decided on a few cornerstone values and then aligned their work and campaigns to speak to those values.  Their genius was that they first engaged in a practice of active listening and found a core of resentment among large numbers of Americans... They did this at the time when liberals stopped listening... Today, liberals rely heavily on polling -- a shallow kind of listening -- or push ideas at the country without deeply engaging people first.

Organizing is central to any effective strategy for revitalizing the progressive movement.

Organizing, not to be confused with mobilizing, is ultimately what changes people's minds.   Whereas mobilizing is about moving people to take certain actions (voting, lobbying policy-makers, coming out to an event or calling your Congress member on an issue pre-selected by someone else), organizing is about developing the skills, confidence and practice among ordinary people to speak out in their own voice.

What ultimately forces change is human beings seeing fellow human beings act from a place of deep conviction.

Mashall Ganz currently teaches organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He has served as the top organizer for the United Farm Workers during the hey day of Cesar Chavez, and he has served as an organizing consultant to pols from Nancy Pelosi to Howard Dean and Barack Obama. His essay titled:  "Thoughts on Power, Organization and Leadership," is a hybrid of some of his writing and teaching materials.

No excerpting can really do justice to the essay, which is itself a distillation of a lifetime of political lessons.

But here are a few for your consideration in light of some of the current battles between despair and what Ganz calls "the delusion of optimism."

Leading social movements requires learning to manage core tensions, tensions at the heart of what theologian Walter Bruggemann calls the "prophetic imagination": a combination of criticality (experience of the world’s pain) with hope (experience of the world’s possibility), avoiding being numbed by despair or deluded by optimism. The deep desire for change must be coupled with the capacity to make change. Structures must be created that create the space within which growth, creativity, and action can flourish, without slipping into the chaos of structurelessness, and leaders must be recruited, trained, and developed on a scale required to build the relationships, sustain the motivation, do the strategizing, and carry out the action required to achieve success.

A social movement tells a new "story." Learning how to tell that story, what I call public narrative, is an important leadership practice.

Public narrative comprises three overlapping kinds of stories:  a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.  A story of self communicates values that call one to action. A story of us communicates values shared by those in action. And a story of now communicates the urgent challenge to those values that requires action now. Participating in a social movement not only often involves a rearticulation of one’s story of self, us, and now, but marks an entry into a world of uncertainty so daunting that access to sources of hope is essential.

Telling one’s story of self is a way to share the values that define the people we are -- not as abstract principle, but as lived experience. We construct stories of self around choice points – moments when we faced a challenge, made a choice, experienced an outcome, and learned something. What is utterly unique about each of is not a combination of the categories (race, gender, class, profession, marital status) that include us, but rather, our journey, our way through life, our personal text from which each of us can teach.

You can hear some of the approach of a certain famous political orator in this section of Marshall's essay. It is a structure of how one articulates vision, hope and strategy. If we are going to go somewhere difficult together, we have to believe not only that it is desirable, even necessary to do it, but that it is possible to get there (hope). We need to  understand the project (the vision) and the broad principles of how it will be achieved (strategy).

In a social movement, the interpretation of the movement’s new experience is a critical leadership function. And, like the story of self, it is built from the choices points – the founding, the choices made, the challenges faced, the outcomes, the lessons it learned.

A story of now articulates the urgent challenge to the values that we share that demands action now. What choice must we make? What is at risk? And where’s the hope?  In a story of now, we are the protagonists and it is our choices that will shape the story’s outcome. We must draw on our "moral sources" to respond. A most powerful articulation of as story of now was Dr. King’s talk often recalled as the "I have a dream" speech, delivered August 23, 1963.  People often forget that he preceded the dream with a challenge, white America’s long overdue debt to African Americans. King argued, it was a debt that could no longer be postponed – it was moment possessed of the "fierce urgency of now." If we did not act, the nightmare would grow worse, never to become the dream.

In the story of now, story and strategy overlap because a key element in hope is a strategy – a credible vision of how to get from here to there.

What I take away from these essays is that organizing for politics is necessarily still a primarily a human endeavor:  one in which we engage and change one another enroute to wider social and political change.  How we do that has everything to do with how we develop longterm political capacity for ourselves in our own communities.  And it is how we do this, that I think will make the greatest difference as we relearn the art and science of organizing in ways appropriate to our time.

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Sun Feb 07, 2010 at 06:21 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  come to Twitter (4+ / 0-)

    Come to Twitter and check out the new organizing stuff that the Progressives are doing. I'm Stranded Wind there, too, and we've got all sorts of messaging, organizing, some analytics, etc.

    "Not dead ... yet. Still have ... things to do." -Liet Kynes

    by Stranded Wind on Sun Feb 07, 2010 at 06:45:55 PM PST

  •  Good luck (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sberel, Larsstephens

    more than typing is a hard task

  •  Thank you, Frederick. (8+ / 0-)

    I always take something away from your diaries!

    I've been studying active listening (to get congregations to engage with their communities) for some time now, and am amazed at how little attention we pay to those around us in almost every arena of life!

    Schools don't listen to the real needs of their students and communities today, nor ask themselves what their goals REALLY should be.  Mainstream churches don't go to the streets around them, or to the grocery store or doctor offices to LISTEN and ask.  Politicians are too busy talking to ask.  We're too busy signing petitions and being outraged to listen.   And taking a survey isn't LISTENING to what the questions should be in the first place!

    It's not necessarily having the best answers that makes a winning's knowing what the questions are.

    "Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand." - Thomas Carlyle

    by revsue on Sun Feb 07, 2010 at 06:48:46 PM PST

  •  Boots on the ground. It's as simple (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    as that. Unfortunately, getting the local ahem "progressives" here out of their barcoloungers and down to Dem HQ isn't as easy as it would seem. But, it really just boils down to them boots on the ground.

  •  Some questions I'd like to ask (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson, Elise
    1. In the aftermath of Martha Coakely's loss, which pollsters, consultants, and strategists have been fired?
    1. Which firms that consulted to the Democratic Party lost their contracts?
    •  some analysis and accountability would be good (6+ / 0-)

      but I think at least part of the lesson of MA is that we have to learn to do it for ourselves.

    •  Said here that bigwig Dems in MA didn't want (0+ / 0-)

      the win.

      So they didn't help her.

      That's what a gal was told by her mom, who's been a Dem volunteer in that state, apparently since ice cream was invented.

      So - why would they fire anyone?

      This health care system is a moral atrocity. Dr. Ralphdog

      by AllisonInSeattle on Mon Feb 08, 2010 at 01:10:16 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  frankly (0+ / 0-)

        I don't believe that story. And there is no substantiation for it.

        While a lot in politics is certainly about personality and faction and so on, Coakley overwhelmingly won the Dem primary.

        The problem was not certain Dem power brokers. It is that there was no campaign to speak of, and what there was, was often just not very good. The Brown campaign out organized the Coakley campaign and various Dem inerests were caught flat footed.

        In any case, that comment was directed at the DNC and the various pollsters and campaing consultants working for Coakley, not a certain big city mayor whose office is under investigation by the AG.

        •  I found believable, check it out. I wasn't there (0+ / 0-)

          that's for sure.

          Tue Jan 19, 2010 at 07:50:30 PM PST

          My mom has been a Democratic machine operative in Boston since the 70's. She knows about Massachusetts politics, and she knows about this election. Here's what she says happened:

          First of all, this is not a referendum on Obama or Washington.

          This is about local infighting in the Massachusetts Democratic Party, plain and simple.

          In this particular race, there has been a great deal of conflict between the Democratic insiders in Western Mass and the Democratic insiders in Boston.

          During the primary, Western Mass backed Martha Coakley (who is from Western Mass) because her primary opponent, Mike Capuano, a current U.S. House Rep from Somerville, was from Somerville not Western


          As the race went on, she (mom) asked around as to why she hadn't been called out to phone bank, check lists of registered voters, etc, for the campaign as usual. She was told "we're not backing anyone" by "someone on the committee" (she is not telling me what committee because this blogging thing is making her uneasy).


          Whether you accept that analysis as reasonable or not, one thing is certain. She didn't get called to campaign like she does for every other local, statewide, or national campaign. The machine volunteers did not deploy from Boston.

          and more, at the link.

          Ultimately, of course I don't know.

          This health care system is a moral atrocity. Dr. Ralphdog

          by AllisonInSeattle on Mon Feb 08, 2010 at 10:12:45 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Sounds a lot like what happened in MD when (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        KKT ran in 2002. Many key Democratic powerbrokers were lukewarm, if not, hostile to KKT and refused to endorse here. A few endorsed Ehrlich and even campaigned for him.

  •  The long view. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson

    Where did "Si se Puede" come from while we're telling stories?
    Who appropriated it for a political campaign?
    Which movement in the end was the more impressive?  More enduring?

    I was much more impressed with immigration reform and the Mexican Americans who came out in 2006 - 2007 than with Hope and Change™ electoral euphoria.  That has been a trap of unrealistic expectations built around executive office.

    The long view is organizing people to look after REAL change in their neighborhoods, communities, families, churches, unions, and THEN state and local offices. Only that empowers people.  The rest - national politicking, blogging, party affiliation (if that's really that important these days) are only extensions.

    •  yes and no (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Yes the immigration demos were impressive. Kety Esquivel discussed it in her essay in Dispatches, noting that she was unable to get the suburban peace and environmental activists and the immigrant rights activists to work together to build a greater progressive movement.  So there were important lessons about the limits of the success of that effort.

      And yes, we imbue presidents with excessive expectations.

      And I agree, and it is clearly a major purpose of this diary, and certainly the distinguished writers I quote, that the skills of organizing belong to anyone and everyone and not just national pols.

      That said, I disagree that there is a sequence or even necessarily a hierarchy of applied organizing. I think that progressives have made an artificial and often counterproductive distinction betwee issue and community organizing and the reponsibilities of citizenship, by which I mean electoral politics. One group I consider to be an excellent model of intergrating electoral knowledge and skill building with community advocacy is Neighbor to Neighbor.

      Organizing is what one does to carry out a strategy in pursuit of goals. Teeny ones, or great, historic ones. Citizenship is a normal part of life in America. It is an important avenue to power for those who do not have any.

      This is one important aspect of the philosophy of organizing that I think needs to be rethought.

  •  Frederick, I can't read in detail or respond (0+ / 0-)

    that way cause I'm exhausted... but I have been think ing along this line... in particularly about that crap R in the Governor of VA. That was psychologically a very big loss and it's going to be bad for VA and all of us.

    Terry McAuliff would have been able to take that state but there was a lot of ?? not hate but close here on this site and other "netroots" sites.

    Deeds may have be more pure, but he wasn't real impressive even in the primary.

    So we got rid of the DLC guy and got — a real horror who is really anti women.

    That has bothered me. We were self indulgent and very pure and committed ...

    and shot ourselves in the face.

    I am not happy with that.

    I'm going to bed now... I look in again in 6-9 hours and read it more slowly.

    Sorry if this isn't quite what you were about.


    We are in a time where it is risky NOT to change. Barack Obama 7-30-08

    by samddobermann on Mon Feb 08, 2010 at 06:06:29 AM PST

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