Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cut-Rate Community Organizing Disrupts Traditional Political Advocacy

Even the Anarchists are whining. The traditional methods of grass roots organizing are being challenged by the low cost community organizaing tools being offered by the Internet and the new technology.  Here's the problem as they see it. 

Advocacy groups with absurdly small budgets can have a surprisingly large impact on public opinion, on the vote and on the actions of politicians.  Where once large budget political groups could virtually buy themselves a grassroots movement, the new amazingly cheap communications technology has muddied the water with second opinions.

There is an old adage that "What is "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander."  When the Internet first appeared, pundits feared that the web would intrude into our lives in a downright Orwellian fashion.  To their surprise, the Wild West country of the World Wide Web, rather than supressing opinion and free expression, actually encouraged an incredible outburst of creativity, free speech and political debate. It seems few people care whether or not Big Brother is watching all this (and he probably is) Talented individuals have proved capable of influencing public opionion profoundly, creating high quality films, essays and promotional pieces that regularly get millions of viewers from being passed around on Youtube, Facebook and talked about on Twitter.  These rogue public opinion shapers are able to bypass all the traditional filters like network news media, editorial boards and publishers and speak directly to the public.  It's little wonder that the leaders of last century's great political movements are 'disturbed'.  All the tools they have worked so hard to establish control over are suddenly becoming obsolete. 

Technology has had a powerfully disruptive effect on good old boy networks everywhere, whether they be corrupt county judges and their cronies, unions, corporations, anarchists, Marxist progressives or the local garden club. I've been involved for some years with a small npo that teaches other small nonprofits how to do what I call "fund-raising without permission". This group helps train and organize collaborative projects that skirt the traditional "permission of the local elders" track that for decades has limited the numbers and types of charitable activities that are conducted locally. If you didn't have the blessing of the local equivalent of the Skull & Bones Society, you just couldn't raise money for your cause.
After almost 15 years of teaching grant-writing and community organizing, things have changed dramatically in the area. One bank complained that local groups were creating "too much affordable housing". Others complained that there were too many nonprofits in town for them to control. City officials, on finding out a group had applied for funds to develop affordable senior housing in a town that advertised itself as Texas' first 'certified retirement city' was quite upset. "We don't want to attract THOSE kinds of retirees!"

One group I worked with was actually able to co-opt a member of the ruling elite who called in a favor and got us federal funding for a transit project that helped people with disabilities get home from second shift jobs. Many such things were done that would have been impossible without the Internet and the technological tools that have burst upon our culture in the past couple of decades.

But as I said what is sauce for the goose......

As we've gained access to new more sophisticated communication resources, talented organizers have risen who care about doing what's good for the community. We work across political lines without stopping to ask who among us are Republicans or Democrats. The question, in an organization with an absurdly small budget tends to be, not what is good for my union, my party or my company, but what is good for my children, my community, the poor, people with disabilities or our seniors.

The troublesome Tea Party rose so quickly because of the Internet and social media. Social media provided a perfect organizing tool. Whatever you might think about the values and beliefs of the Tea Party, it is as thoroughly grass roots an organization as you'll find. If you don't believe me, check Craigslist under "nonprofit jobs" and see how many "re-elect Obama" paid jobs are being offered by organizations like SEIU and ACORN (or whatever it's calling itself now) versus how many paid "Elect Romney" jobs are being offered by the Tea Party. Hint: I have yet to find a single paid Tea Party job and I've looked.

I do agree that the new low-cost advocacy is going to be a disruptive development, especially for those with powerful ideologies. The ability of poorly funded groups to slug it out with massively funded political action committiees dilutes the power of the pursestrings to some extent. It's not entirely gone, but as an ever-larger segment of the population becomes tech-savvy, it's only goint to make political cow-herding more difficult. Demographics that certain political groups have always found "reliable" are no longer reliable as the Republicans found out in the last election when they pushed a moderate onto their conservative base and expected them to show up at the polls and vote as instructed. The Obama administration is discovering to its dismay this go-round that it's base is beginning to think for itself and may not just pull the lever because they've been told to.

As in every new cultural upheaval, there is potential for great good and great evil. If the wise amongst us don't keep their heads and learn to use these new tools for the greater good; if they keep using the old kiss some babies and vote the graveyard tactics, things will blow up in their faces.

And perhaps it's a good thing if they do. And perhaps with access to a better understanding of history, we footsoldiers in the infowars won't wind up in a political version of the first World War where the generals, using the tactics of the 18th century, marched blindly obedient soldirs into the guns of the 20th century.

Hopefully, we're smarter than that these days.We certainly have access to better quality information and organizational tools than we ever have in the history of the world. . One wonders whether the next war will be fought to preserve the freedom we've come to enjoy on the World Wide Web.

Tom King

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