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Earlier this year, when I was still recovering from a brush with the great beyond (or not so great beyond, depending on your points of view), and many months before the disaster of this past November, I wrote a couple of posts about the largely lost art of organizing. I was thinking about them recently, and decided to revise and update them in light of all that has happened since then.

One of the premises of this site is that we need not just more, but better Democrats as candidates and office holders. To the extent that we are frustrated by the way things are, we need to also consider in what ways we do politics in order to be able to reasonably expect different, and better,  outcomes.

We are entering a political era that I expect will not be for the fainthearted. And we are faced with the most difficult, challenging and probably painful thing any of us can do:  And that is to change the way we think, talk and act in our political lives.  There is nothing harder than changing ourselves. It is much easier to talk about the way other people need to change, and I think we can all agree that other people are certainly most of the problem.

Therefore, all present company will be excepted from that generalization for purposes of this conversation. (Unless you want to fess up.)

Thinking and talking about change, and being the change we discuss will be especially difficult for those of us who are professionally invested in the status quo -- even the status quo of doing social change.  What are we to do when the things we have done as political professionals turned out to be wrong? Nevertheless, even as we are troubled, troubled, troubled by so many things, we need to be able to evaluate our work, and the work of those we work with, to see what is working and what needs to be adjusted, or even fundamentally changed.

But I am not going to be the one to preach this sermon.  Fortunately, I have encountered people who have taken the long view for a long time. 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.

I want to highlight 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.

A few years ago, Jean Hardisty, a progressive scholar of the Right at Wellesley College; and social justice organizer Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the  Center for Community Change, teamed-up to publish an essay for The Nation, in which they dissented 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 -- and pointed to what they think better lessons might be.  

Here are a few excerpts:

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 -- they started not with "messaging" or "framing," two strategies 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.

Marshall 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 points 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.

Ganz describes how we structure an articulation of 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 en route to wider social and political change.  How we do that has everything to do with how we develop long term 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 Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 05:44 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Tipped and Rec'd (3+ / 0-)
    •  my narrative... (4+ / 0-)

      The cultural wars have tipped the scales in recent decades because of our failure to tend our democracy with electoral reforms.

      The most important electoral reform is the need to use a mix of winner-take-all(single-seated) and winner-doesn't-take-all (multi-seated) elections.  The sorts of options we give voters are of lesser import.  The ideal place to push for winner-doesn't-take-all elections is in state assemblies.  The easiest way to do it is to try to upgrade the 3-seated elections that were in place for 110 years from 1870-1980 and which Barack Obama tried to bring back into place with legislation that he helped to sponsor as a state senator in 2001.  

      I wrote more about the specifics of what I advocate for indpendently here.


      •  Regarding electoral reform (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The current theoretical gold standards, based on both theory and empirical evidence, are range voting (for single-winner elections) and reweighted range voting (for multi-winner elections).  Any form of party-proportional representation seems to be pretty good for multi-winner elections though.  

        For single-winner, nothing quite beats range voting (Olympic-style voting), though genuine runoffs are OK (instant runoff is terrible).

        Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

        by neroden on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:18:07 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Bayesian Regret analysis presumes too much. (0+ / 0-)

          Unfortunately, in the Olympics you have a simple athletic event done in public view that is then graded by professional judges in public view.  

          In elections, we have low-info voters making decisions about candidates that will be involved in many issues and the decision is made in private.

          Thus, it's hard to believe what the Bayesian Regret analysis says is the gold standard.

          Look at Lijphart's comparative analysis, the sorts of options in multi-seated elections don't matter.

          This is why all we need to do to improve elections from FPP(which is equivalent to single-seated Hare Largest Remainder election) is move to a 3-seated Hare Largest Remainder election. This wd work almost exactly like our current system and require little voter education.  And it's ability to "work" doesn't rest upon voters being terribly rational...


    •  oh yeah, and (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Simplify, neroden

      if you like thinking about rethinking organizing, here is a Kossack who has done it, is acting on it, and writing about his experiences. Right here at Daily Kos.

    •  Any Opinion on the "No Labels" Movement (0+ / 0-)

      supposedly a grassroots Independent political contra-party?

      "ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption." -- Justice Kennedy (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010)

      by Limelite on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 06:30:35 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  y'know I think we're doing this online. (0+ / 0-)

      Lots of different communities organizing separately around different goals, discussing openly what we want, and eventually trying to unify around specific projects.....

      Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

      by neroden on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:13:38 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  thoughtful as usual (8+ / 0-)

    as I sit at home with five cats on an evening when school was dismissed early because of snow -

    at times I look at some of the dems for whom I have labored and find myself thinking of an old song -  is that all there is?

    Last night I was in a place full of a batch of Dem Congressmen who had just lost -  Harry Teague, Glenn Nye, Betsy Markey, etc. -  and out of the entire batch the only one whose lose I REALLY regretted was Tom Perriello.  That saddened me.

    thanks for diary.

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 05:59:25 PM PST

  •  Well said, Fred (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson, Dallasdoc

    We've been very good at sitting in our own preferred little "issue silos" and piss-poor at coalition building.

    Shop Liberally this holiday season at Kos Katalog

    by radical simplicity on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 06:01:02 PM PST

  •  Thank you for this invaluable diary (2+ / 0-)

    I've been fumbling toward finding a way forward in a social-political movement outside party politics.  It has occurred to me that other people have already invented these wheels, and perhaps I ought to educate myself.  To that end I've started reading Alinsky and also Piven-Cloward's "Poor People's Movements."  

    I appreciate your view and your additions to my reading list.  We have to get serious about building a movement politicians are afraid of:  that much is clear.  I find a lot of agreement about that around here (though hardly unanimous, needless to say.)  How we do that, and how we achieve the critical mass to break through into the national conversation is where I'm stuck.  It's nice to see fine minds like yours thinking along parallel lines.

  •  A Few Years Ago, Even (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dallasdoc, neroden

    Jean Hardisty may have been correct in her essay when she said (in part) "To the extent that conservatives were serious about ideas--and to be sure they were and are. . . "

    But I don't know where she'd go to find evidence to support that claim in the current political scene where the Tea Party is now the conservatives' rallying station.

    "ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption." -- Justice Kennedy (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010)

    by Limelite on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 06:29:11 PM PST

    •  Not anymore... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      neroden, aliasalias, KJG52

      ... but still a valuable observation.  Conservatives for many years now have been very fond of the veneer of intellectual rigor, until the need to defend the indefensible in George Bush sucked the life out of their movement.  

      Conservative bankrollers employed vast armies of conservative intellectuals to supply the theoretical underpinning of their movement.  The fact that many of us think they started with wrong premises, false assumptions and a blinkered view of reality -- thus producing nothing but piles of shit -- did not impede either the enthusiasm or the effectiveness of their effort.  

      The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is the previous creation of a powerful propaganda apparatus that could sell these piles of shit to the Beltway commentariat and the corporate media shills.  Once they created the reality that the conservative "intellectual" view was the only one heard in national discourse, it gained respectability through sheer monopolistic repetition.  

      •  Yes -- They Set Up a Wizard of Ahhs (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dallasdoc, neroden

        factory that lends a pseudo-intellectual cachet to their ideological spoutings and that has its common man outlet in Fox News.  It is but a veneer.

        I'm not saying that some of those wizards are not highly educated, and some of them are not intellectually honest.  What I'm saying is that conservatives in this day and age do not try to undertake legitimate research on which to base their underpinnings.  Instead, they undertake to legitimize their underpinnings with intellectually dishonest research.

        As you indicate, conservatives are less possessed of any credible views, while they are abundantly supplied with incredible marketing and sales skills which they can pitch to perfection.

        "ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption." -- Justice Kennedy (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010)

        by Limelite on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 06:44:23 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm not so sure they're intellectually dishonest (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          neroden, aliasalias, KJG52, Parthenia

          Most conservative ideologues appear to be overly fond of Aristotelian intellectual methods, in which they reason from first principles to build their logical structure.  

          When applied to mathematics, this type of logical proof is perfectly valid.  But that's because mathematicians keep their initial postulates to a bare minimum and have long examined those postulates for their validity.

          As Aristotle himself showed, though, if your initial principles are incorrect you can build nothing more than a gigantic pile of bullshit.  This, I think, is the closest analogy to today's conservative intellectuals.  Their foundational principles are mostly wrong, and they don't trouble themselves to examine those priniciples.  They also fail to check their conclusions against empiric evidence as well, as Aristotle's followers also failed to do for millennia.

          It's how you find yourself marooned in a Dark Age.

          •  intellectual consistency (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Agree with Dallasdoc.  They are intellectually consistant and thereby honest.

            •  Some are not intellectually consistent. (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Dallasdoc, Limelite

              Try Michelle Malkin or Megan McArdle for the "not intellectually consistent" side.

              But you're right, a lot are intellectually consistent but simply running on false principles.

              Read pp. 1-7 of Krugman's _The Great Unraveling_ (available from Google Books). NOW.

              by neroden on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:14:59 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

          •  I understand your hesitancy; however, after... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            reading your analysis of what is a set of postulates that are consistant with reality only in that they are self referential, it seems to me that Aristotle would describe this as cynicism not philosophy. Clearly a system of thinking supported by hypotheses that contravene the data they are based upon is Lysenkoism not honest intellectual debate. A system of thought that depends on ignorance of reality or propagandistic substitution of "truths" that are lacking in any empirical relations to the world as it is clearly result in debates about the substance of "Cloud Cuckooland" not reality. Being internally consistant is not being intellectually honest just systematic in the application of propagandistic thought.    

            "Intelligence is quickness in seeing things as they are..." George Santayana

            by KJG52 on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:30:49 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Not Only That, Aristotelian Reasoning (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            takes you so far and no further.  It is not the best way to determine how the natural world works (how global warming is an actual phenomenon, for instance).

            If, as you assert, Republicans are mired in those methods, we know they marked the end of intellectual advancement when the scientific method proved useful ("honest") in that arena.

            Considering that our real political problems today are greatly problems revolving around the natural world and our relationship to it -- water supply, food supply, genetic engineering, weapons, energy, and climate change -- it is wiser and certainly most honest to derive one's political ideas based on scientific methods rather than limitedly useful philosophical ones.  Your ideas about how to solve those problems have a greater chance of validity if they're based on scientific "reasoning."

            However, we all know how Republicans feel about science.

            More and more, they will repeat lies, because lies are easily arrived at by Aristotelian methods.  There is no protection of your conclusion when you reason from a false premise.  Hence, no claim to having right ideas.

            "ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption." -- Justice Kennedy (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010)

            by Limelite on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:37:13 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  easy (0+ / 0-)

      there are lots of conservative ideas out there; some of them in creative tension with one another.  

      That the Teapartiers adopted the demonstrative and disruptive tactics of the left of another era, and read Saul Alinsky to fuel their political imagination, was smart politics. Would that we had come up with better responses.

      •  You Cannot Respond to Such (0+ / 0-)

        Because their "intellectual underpinnings" are anchored (pun intended) to a single basic principle:  When progressives cut the ground out beneath our position, move the goal posts.

        "ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption." -- Justice Kennedy (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010)

        by Limelite on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 06:46:07 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Well First the Rightwing WAS OrganizED (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson, Simplify, neroden

    it didn't organize itself.

    Second the Democrats are basically two parties, the conservatives and the progressives. The Democratic Party can't be a social movement for the people because it can never get enough backing from its conservatives.

    That has to be done by an independent progressive movement that does more or less what the rightwing conservative movement did wrt the Republican Party.

    I don't know if that's even possible. We don't seem to have progressive leaders corresponding to those the right has had so long. We certainly don't have comparable donors for a peoples' movement. And we don't have a comparable religious movement. We can't, philosophically; progressives are opposed to taking over the world. It would help if the progressive religions would acknowledge the attack they and our society are under and fight back with some gumption.

    For the meantime we're on our own so we may as well start. Maybe a drum major will see a growing parade and decide to jump in front.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 06:37:05 PM PST

    •  Two important truths here (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Frederick Clarkson, neroden, KJG52

      The will to power is much stronger among the right than it is in the majority of the left by definition.


      Your point about the lukewarm response by the Christian Left to the hijacking of their core beliefs by the Rightwing is critical. Personally I would have thought that they would be pretty pissed off about the whole turning of Jesus into a poverty = sin free market thug. Suspect that much of the submission is connected to anti choice arguments.

      I have long thought that if we could find a way to unite the Christian moderates and the secular liberals we could be onto a winner. These two groups form a natural enough coalition in other countries.

      Sanctimonious, Self Satisfied, Liberal and Proud.

      by stevej on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:10:04 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  a corollary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson, neroden

    I suspect that we will need our religious left to help define and make visible the dream.   You mention Walter Bruggemann too.  Visions/stories/dreams are poetic stuff that religions are good at.  I think this is why your writing and PastorDan’s are so helpful.

  •  Thank you for stating what needs to be said... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson, neroden

    repeatedly in the political discourse, messaging is a way to frame core principles and ideas, not a foundational idea in itself. The Democratic Party has been advancing a middling position with no clear ideological framework since the rise of the DLC and "New Democrat," which is in my opinion just a way of saying "abandon the New Deal all ye who enter here."

    The "New Democrat" is simply a poll driven Libertarian with a "D" behind his/her name on the ballot. Being a "fiscal conservative" and  a "social liberal" has brought us to this pass where our primary concerns could be lifted from the talking points of Everett Dirksen or Nelson Rockefeller in the mid 60's. We have not progressed as a Party because we have lost our way in our reactions to the "Reagan Revolution" which was in fact a devolution.

    The process of organizing indeed begins with listening; however, it is also a selective process, who you listen to is just as important as listening itself. It is time to start listening to our traditional constituencies again and abandon the monied elite. Clinton's embrace of "Wall Street" and neoliberal economics, the DLC's decision that the new focus should be on the exurbs not the cities, this whole turn to expediency and embrace of technique over substance, has brought us to this miserable pass where the Right defines the dialogue and Democrats adopt the watered down or incrementally modified thinking of Republicans.

    I agree we need to organize, but first we need to have an internal discussion about who we are, what we want and where we want to go, as a Party, as a people and as a nation. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," Lincoln in other circumstances stated the plain truth in this argument and until we can stand together on a firm foundation of common ideas, we cannot build a lasting Party or influence America to follow us into an uncertain future.  

    "Intelligence is quickness in seeing things as they are..." George Santayana

    by KJG52 on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:06:51 PM PST

  •  An extremely important diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Frederick Clarkson, KJG52

    and one that is much more in line with my thinking than the ones that emphasize the top down tools of messaging and language over listening and distilling.

    Sanctimonious, Self Satisfied, Liberal and Proud.

    by stevej on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:12:22 PM PST

    •  thanks for the kind words (0+ / 0-)

      and of course, the wise, pro-people perspective. Some years ago, I made the mistake of telling a reporter that a certain Inside the Beltway organization wouldn't know a grassroot if it stepped on one. I thought it was off the record, but it found its way into print, and there was a certain chill in the air for a long time afterwards.

      Unfortunately, the term grassroots still usually means top down manipulations. I'd like to see the pyramid inverted.

      •  funny how many people (0+ / 0-)

        want to run a bottom up organization.

        As a criminal lawyer friend (who I did some freelance work for in England) used to say to me frequently - There is no such thing as off the record.

        Sanctimonious, Self Satisfied, Liberal and Proud.

        by stevej on Thu Dec 16, 2010 at 07:32:43 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  one of the things Ganz talks about (0+ / 0-)

          is identifying good leaders, but also learning how to be good followers. Too many people fancy themselves as strategists and PR wizards and so on.  Too many of us are filled with hubris and watch too much cable TV.

          There are indeed alot of folks who would like to see bottom up organizations get off the ground.  But if they are waiting for funding, they have got a long wait. Having been involved in a botton-up organizing effort, I can say that if it is not largely self funding, relying on little to no cash, it has little chance of success.  Best just to get started. Ganz said of our modest effort at the time that we were trying to drive the car while we were still building it. True. But we had no other option. Many rivers to cross. Many lessons to learn.

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