Contact Information vs. Commitment: Building Power Through Membership

Originally posted at the Web of Change blog.

 This past April, there was a primary election in Illinois that featured a former MoveOn staffer, Ilya Sheyman, running against a conservative Democrat. MoveOn had 15,000 members in the district out of a total of 30,000 Democratic primary voters. And Ilya lost, badly. As the discussion emerged following this loss, I wrote a piece, “Membership & Support in the Online Left.” My post focused around a comment from Matt Stoller, who wrote, “If you can’t turn out your members to vote, then they aren’t really your members.”

In online organizing, most organizations tend to represent the possession of an email address as the threshold to call someone a member. The email may have been acquired through a long forgotten petition, a long past event RSVP, or even a modest donation to a timely campaign. But once we have that email address, we have ourselves a member. 

It becomes fundamentally challenging to the concept of building power through the size of our memberships if it turns out the people we think of as members do not think of themselves as belonging to our organizations. I wrote in April:

[P]art 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?

This is not a small question, but one which has the potential to speak to movement-wide efficacy (or, as the case may be, inefficacy)…

There are many forms of power, but one most common to progressive organizations is power that’s derived from large numbers of people working together. An organization with a small budget may not be able to achieve their goals through the power of money, but if they have hundreds of thousands of people standing behind them, they can affect change. Groups with larger memberships tend to be considered as more powerful than groups with small memberships- they are viewed as speaking for large constituencies of people. Their leaders have the membership as a source of validation in public discourse. Indeed, the difference between an organization or a leader having a voice in public debate and being marginalized from participation in serious public policy discussions is often tied to the perceived power of an organization’s membership. Grassroots power is so attractive that corporate front groups set up AstroTurf campaigns, meant to look like the product of member-driven activism, but without any base beyond the industry which funds it. 

It’s not shocking, then, that we seek to speak for as large a membership as possible. 

An organization having an individual’s email address is not a benchmark seen with  how many offline organizations think about their membership. One common way community-based groups I work with seek to build leaders out of a larger community of constituents think about their membership is through concentric circles of engagement. The outermost is Constituents – the group of total people who could care about their work. The next is the Base – people who are engaged with the organization in some way, but aren’t really activists. The third smallest circle is Members – people who regularly do work with the group and think about it as part of their identity. The final, smallest circle is Leaders – people who have demonstrated a commitment to and responsibility for the stewardship of the organization. 

Implicit in this model of thinking is the recognition that only a small part of the universe an organization interacts with is a member they can count on. Membership has to be developed; the possession of contact information is not the same as organizational membership.

One powerful example of the promotion of an individual up through these circles comes from Occupy Our Homes Atlanta. Brigitte Walker came to Occupy Our Homes Atlanta after seeing a newspaper ad they’d put out seeking homeowners facing foreclosure. Brigitte, an Iraq War veteran, was on the verge of losing her home. She started working with Occupy Our Homes Atlanta as the center of a community organizing campaign against Chase Bank. After she won a permanent modification, Brigitte stayed involved with OOH ATL. She began canvassing her neighborhood for other people in foreclosure, hosting meetings of homeowners, and eventually taking a leading role as a member-activist with OOH ATL. 

Online organizers are certainly familiar with the idea that there are ever-shrinking circles of people  who will do what an organization asks them to do. Out of the universe of email addresses, a subset opens an email. A smaller subset will click on any particular link, but generally speaking more people will sign a petition than will refer a friend than will write a letter than will make a donation than will attend an event than will hold an event than will do a form of civil disobedience. 

Isn’t it odd that we would take the most insignificant and high-volume form of relationship – the possession of someone’s contact information – as sufficient for membership? And aren’t we missing the obvious when we conflate email list size for membership size? Worst of all, as we see with the MoveOn primary example, when individuals are talked to and talked about by an organization with the presupposition that they are in fact members, does that organization risk failing to achieve important goals based on these assumptions?

As we explore this problem of how to think about our membership, more questions arise. If possessing an email address isn’t sufficient for membership, what relationships between organizations and individuals is sufficient to deploy the power we need for organizing? How can organizations build up these relationships to increase the size of their committed membership over time? More importantly, how do organizations deliver value to people such that the people will feel compelled to lend these organizations the power of their membership? 

At a time when the right wing is advancing destructive policies of austerity, climate denial, union busting and bigotry, it’s more important than ever that progressives find ways to effectively build power and win. 

All of these questions are areas I’m hoping to explore at Web of Change 2012. Marianne Manilov and I are hosting a  session, “Membership & Building Power,” that will seek to address them, as well as look at organizing models which have proven successful for building relationships and power through grassroots membership. As much as these are questions connected to our systems of organizing, they are also problems that challenge how we think about the people whose power we seek to deploy to change the world. In other words, the perfect sort of fodder for Web of Change’s community of practitioners.

NYT on Obama’s housing vulnerability

Binyamin Applebaum of the New York Times has a long piece looking at how the failure of the Obama administration to adequately confront and stop the foreclosure crisis could be a drag on him politically.

Reaction to the piece from people who have been following the foreclosure crisis since its inception has been fairly negative. Yves Smith sees it as a defense of Obama’s failures to take action to help homeowners. David Dayen sees some value in it, while noting that it misses some things pretty dramatically. I tend to agree with David – while this isn’t a strong piece and it offers far more cover than Obama deserves, putting the idea that the administration left hundreds of billions of dollars on the table that could have helped home owners is really important. It’s not something that has shown up in the mainstream media much at all.

Smith and Dayen both note – and again I agree – that it’s odd for Applebaum to totally ignore recent reports from Neil Barofsky’s book that Tim Geithner made clear that the whole plan for the administration was to “foam the runway” to make it possible for banks to survive the massive wave of foreclosures we are now experiencing. The goal was not to help homeowners, but to make sure the banks could make it through the mess without another round of massive bailouts.

Dayen writes:

All of these [excuses for Obama] fall short, and by the end of the article – and this has been confirmed to me – the President is telling his economic team that they screwed up housing. But the excuses really are an insult, and they are ripped from the context, the real context, that the Administration trod slowly on housing to avoid putting the banks in any jeopardy. The fact that they had all this leverage from the fraudulent use of false and forged documents in state courts, and managed to sew it up in a slap-on-the-wrist settlement, tells you all you need to know. The White House didn’t want to go there because they were afraid they would find something that would force them to act against the banks. So they didn’t, and here we are.

Millions of people are losing their homes because the Obama administration – notably Tim Geithner and the President – did not think it was important to help them stay in their homes. I don’t think stopping this crisis is suddenly going to be a major issue in the presidential election, but it would be nice to know how both candidates plan on stopping the five to seven million foreclosures we’re likely to get in the next few years from happening.

Tom Morello on Paul Ryan

Rage Against the Machine guitarist and general badass activist Tom Morello takes on Paul Ryan in an op-ed in Rolling Stone. Ryan has famously said that Rage Against the Machine is one of his favorite bands, but he likes their sound and not their radical left wing lyrics. OK then. Morello writes:

Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.

I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of “Fuck the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!

Don’t mistake me, I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta “rage” in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.

You see, the super rich must rationalize having more than they could ever spend while millions of children in the U.S. go to bed hungry every night. So, when they look themselves in the mirror, they convince themselves that “Those people are undeserving. They’re . . . lesser.” Some of these guys on the extreme right are more cynical than Paul Ryan, but he seems to really believe in this stuff. This unbridled rage against those who have the least is a cornerstone of the Romney-Ryan ticket.

The Housing Market

David Dayen makes some very good observations about the ongoing debate of what’s happening in the housing market, noting that we should not just be having a conversation about housing prices, but the market and its impacts on whole.

But ultimately, all of these are issues about housing prices. They are not issues about the housing market as a whole, and its relative health. Should we be OK with the fact that institutional investors like hedge funds are becoming absentee slumlords all over the country? Should we be OK that banks are holding these properties for years, waiting for the moment to dump them on the market, leading to blight in communities, disrepair, lowered home values for the neighbors, and a mark-to-myth accounting, where the bank never has to take the actual loss on the loan? Should we be OK that large states and regions are subjected to these practices, and as a result will see their economies recover far more slowly than the rest of the country? Should we be OK with low housing starts and diminished construction jobs? Should we be OK with current policy, letting housing hit bottom and clear, with years of suffering going unaided?

We shouldn’t just focus on prices in this housing recovery debate, in other words. We should look at what kind of housing market we have in the aftermath, and whether it works for the country.


Two Ratchets

Duncan Black describes the way of the world in a very similar way as I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while. Though his articulation, as always, is much more direct.

I just assume that going forward we basically have two ratchets. The one ratchet keeps getting nudged in the direction of giving more goodies to rich people, and except for possible temporary blips, those goodies aren’t going away.

The other ratchet gets nudged in the direction of fewer goodies for the rest of us. And once gone, they’re gone for good.

This is the process of how class warfare in America is actualized. And odds are if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly losing.