Membership & Support in the Online Left

Matt Stoller has a long and thought-provoking post on two recent Democratic primary elections where ostensibly progressive candidates with strong support from online progressive organizations were handed crushing defeats. The whole post is worth reading, as it’s a chilling look in the mirror that reveals a lack of effective progressive infrastructure.

Noting that the IL-10 had 30,000 Democrats turn out to vote in the primary and MoveOn has 15,000 members in district, Stoller observes that MoveOn members simply did not turn out to vote for their endorsed candidate – Ilya Sheyman, a former MoveOn and Obama campaign staffer. Stoller notes:

If you can’t turn out your members to vote, then they aren’t really your members.

This is a hugely important observation. There is an assumption in online progressive organizations that the act of participating in one action online – signing a petition, RSVPing for an event, making a small dollar donation – makes an individual a member of their organization. Every online organization that you get emails from considers you a member. By this logic, based on today’s emails alone, I am allegedly a member of Rock the Vote, Brave New Films,, Courage Campaign, New Organizing Institute, Credo Action, New Bottom Line,,  and Demand Progress. This is not to mention emails from at least five unions, four Democratic party entities, numerous political campaigns, and two traditionally offline organizations who now complement that work with online campaigning – Students for a Free Tibet and Greenpeace. Of these organizations, the only one I think of myself as a member of is Students for a Free Tibet, on whose Board of Directors I serve. I like and admire the work of many of these other groups, but I would never self-identify as, say, a Courage Campaign member.

I can’t say with certainty how we got here, but I can imagine at some point the reach of an online organization was determined to be the most impressive way to measure its size. Since “We have 1 million email addresses” doesn’t sound as powerful as “We have 1 million members,” groups leaned towards description of an interaction along a model that was familiar to grassroots, membership-based organizations of the offline world. Unfortunately this lends itself to an overstatement of power and an overcommitment of what an individual activist is expected to deliver in the fraction of their life they devote to helping liberal causes. What is glossed over in discussions of massive organizational memberships – especially when defined by possession of an email address and not a deeper tie – is that of the universe of email addresses, the universe of people who open an email from an organization is smaller. Within that, the universe of people who click on a link is smaller and those that sign a petition is smaller still. Change the action ask to making a phone call or a contribution and it’s even smaller. If the ask is to host an offline event, the universe is again reduced in size. And so it is with each increasingly hard or time consuming action, the size of the email list who will do what the organization asks is decreased. The chain continues to the point Stoller notes, if a group asks the people on its email list to vote for someone and they don’t, they aren’t really members. The word is functionally meaningless.

To understand how this becomes a major problem for online progressive groups, read this passage from Stoller:

Two, the internet Democrats need to understand the basis of George Washington Plunkett politics, which is that votes come from getting voters turkeys at Christmas. Voters want stuff, information on how to live their lives, increased incomes, a better world, tax cuts, the trash picked up regularly, whatever – and if you can’t credibly get it to them, your message is unpersuasive. It’s not that your arguments don’t work, it’s that you aren’t a trusted messenger, and you can’t win in a low-trust fight because low trust channels are dominated by oligarchs. This is why the failure of the internet progressive space to focus on wages or foreclosures from 2006-2010 was so catastrophic. It’s why the fact that health care doesn’t kick in until 2014 carried significant political costs. There simply is no progressive advantage on economic arguments anymore. Sheyman laid out standard left-but-not-too-left policy prescriptions – reimplementing Glass-Steagall, lifting the Social Security cap on earnings, Medicare-for-All, gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan – and they didn’t work. Why would one really junior member of Congress without any substantive record of accomplishment really matter? Why would anyone trust the progressive brand on economics?

I would hazard that part of the reason that there is an absence of trust between online groups and the people they consider to be their members is that there is such a disconnection between treating the existence of an email address as membership and how individuals actually think of themselves. It’s not that there are weak ties between organizations and people on their email lists, it’s that there are no ties. This fact, before any discussion of actual political strategy or policy decisions by progressive groups, is likely the formative one that enables activists to apparently tolerate the sorts of failures Stoller describes. That is, it’s not that there is tolerance for them by activists, but that because activists don’t actually consider themselves members of these organizations, they don’t have a stake in these organizations being strategic and effective. How else can you explain the failure of ostensibly member driven groups to turn out their members on campaigns that they think will matter to them?

Challenging the assumptions of the membership model of online groups is hugely important. As Stoller says, these campaigns provide an opportunity for real reflection about what tactics are not working and why this is the case. The membership disconnect is something that needs to be deeply explored, as it is so important to the existence of activist organizations. Hopefully Stoller’s piece sparks some honest dialogue and self-reflection, as online organizers need to address these structural challenges to achieving what we want to achieve if we’re ever going to get to where we want to go.

…Adding, the occasion for this post is related to electoral defeats, but I don’t think this is a problem limited to progressive work in the electoral space. The strength of grassroots organizations is determined by many things – budget, strategic savvy and the quality of their leadership all come to mind – but engaged membership is certainly one of them. Figuring out what isn’t working with membership engagement strategies requires first acknowledging how the problems we see in this electoral context are manifesting themselves in non-electoral organizing (say, participation in a campaign on Issue XX is phenomenally successful but the subsequent one on Issue XY has huge drop-off). Groups need to gain a better understanding of how the people on their email lists think of them. To whatever extent a real disconnect is identified between people who identify as members versus people who occasionally enjoy updates from an organization, those audiences need to be talked to in different ways. Leaders need to figure out how to transition from a mentality of “Whose list is biggest?” to “How can we leverage our committed supporters to affect meaningful change?” This likely isn’t just about internal thought processes, but changing the way leader-activists talk to their donor base.

To put things differently, part of the urgency for figuring out how advocacy groups can build meaningful relationships with activists unto them considering themselves members is that there are always fights being waged. If a major corporation does something destructive or if an elected official introduces legislation that would cause major harm, are groups going to be able to stop them with their email lists? Or are large and always growing lists the Maginot Line of modern progressive advocacy, built to look impressive, but not effective at achieving their purpose?

Defeats create opportunities to re-evaluate our assumptions about how we can engage activists. This is as good a moment as any to evaluate how we build relationships with people we perceive to be supporters and how we honestly evaluate our capacities to affect change.

5 thoughts on “Membership & Support in the Online Left

  1. Totally agree on the need to better assess what “membership” means, and also think more needs to be done to move online memberships into more active roles. But I also think this and Stoller are overstating the case.

    Here’s a counter example. Registering to vote and declaring a party affiliation is a high-commitment act, as compared to, say, signing up for an online list. And parties rightly consider people who are registered under their brand as members of the party. In fact, we’ve all pretty much agreed to consider anyone who registers with party affiliation a “member” of that party. Parties, further, have on-the-ground infrastructure that’s dedicated, in election season, only to contacting and turning out those “members.” While the strength varies place to place, state and local parties often have considerable local, on the ground, in-your-life capacity. Yet only 60ish% of voters cast a ballot in the highest-profile elections, much fewer in something like primaries or local races.

    No organization that’s being honest or has an accurate sense of things believes it can mobilize 100% of its membership. An organization like MoveOn, that has invested heavily in data and analytics, has a very strong sense of how many people will be mobilized by an action. But if you say, “Hey, there are 15,000 members in this district, but we only reasonably estimate 4,500 of those will actually vote,” you give people an excuse not to turn up at all. You should absolutely be honest with yourself and your allies, of course, but anyone who actually thinks, “Hey, 100% of my members will do X” is a fool whether operating online or offline.

    I’d be interested to see some cross matching before jumping to conclusions based on these results. It’s perfectly possible that the online membership groups turned out at a higher rate than the general public, or at a comparable rate, or a lower one. But making sweeping assumptions that MoveOn or any other mainly-online org failed to mobilize its membership based on a comparison that lacks any concrete data strikes me as no better than orgs making assumptions or claims of strength based on “members” online.

    My final point would be that, even if people drop off at a dramatic rate once action is introduced, isn’t it better to have online organizations that give people who otherwise would take no action at all an avenue to at least have an option of engagement?


  2. I agree that there are avenues to do real, numbers based evaluation. But shouldn’t we know by now what rate MoveOn members turn out to vote for MoveOn endorsed candidates in heavily Democratic districts?

    For groups to actually wield power to affect change, they do want to be having as close to 100% participation as possible. Stoller’s question implies its opposite, which is why isn’t MoveOn succeeding in turning out all of its members to vote for a MoveOne staffer? I think the larger excerpt suggests that Stoller thinks it’s because the organization is not trusted and is not offering something that the people on their lists actually want or think is good. I’m suggesting that part of the reason for that is an internal thought process about what constitutes membership that leans more towards appearing big and powerful than actually being those things.

    And no, of course I’m not suggesting that online organizations couldn’t exist. But at a certain point there must be real evaluation of what is and is not working and why that is the case. An over-inflated sense of organizational reach is likely a big piece of it. There are surely others.


  3. Thanks for this. I think the actions people take and the outcomes they achieve together are more important in many ways than what labels are used to describe them. Do people consider themselves a “member” of something after doing one action? Almost certainly not. Can we expect 100% of people who do an easy, quick online action to do everything we ask them subsequently? No. I always try to think of online actions as an entry point. Once you’ve engaged a large number of people who care about an issue, the challenge is then to do the hard work of bringing them together, building offline action, and achieving results.

    Building a large list is a starting point, not an end in and of itself, and I do think reflecting honestly on how well things are working, and on how we build real, serious political power and engage people in meaningful ways so they have ownership and feel more and more like they are part of something is hugely important.


    1. Agreed that list building is a starting point, not an end. But even that presumes that the best way to organize for an issue by a particular group is having a large email list. It takes time and energy to do that and the reality is that it is not always the right choice for an organization, for a campaign or for a particular moment.


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