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, SaveOurEnvironment.org, Courage Campaign, New Organizing Institute, Credo Action, New Bottom Line, Presente.org, 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.