Balancing Private Wealth With Public Voice

It wasn’t until after I had posted an article about big money in politics and the lack of civic engagement that I realized I had forgotten about a seminal article on the topic written by Marshall Ganz. In case you don’t know the name, Ganz is currently a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. As a young man, he travelled to Mississippi during the 1960’s to work with the Mississippi Summer Project as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1965, Ganz went to California to work with Cesar Chavez for 16 years on organizing agricultural workers. More recently, Ganz worked with the Obama campaign in 2008 to develop the Camp Obama training for field organizers.

Back in 2007, Ganz wrote an article titled: Organizing for Democratic Renewal. He begins with this quote from Sidney Verba.

Democracy is based on the promise that equality of voice can balance inequality of resources.

That indicates that this question about the influence of money in politics vs civic engagement is absolutely central to our understanding of democracy.

Ganz goes on to review some of the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy. He summarized those observations as follows:

In other words, he saw that we had learned that choices a few people make about how to use their money could be balanced by choices many people make about how to use their time.

But only by joining with others could we come to appreciate the extent to which our fates are linked, gain an understanding of our common interests, and make claims on the political power we needed to act on those interests.

This is an important reminder that our individual voices will never provide a balance to the inequality of resources. That only happens collectively. Ganz then goes on to provide a history of civic associations and social movements that have facilitated that collective voice. Rather than attempt to repeat that analysis or summarize it, I’ll suggest that those who are interested should go read it for themselves. But here’s where it all led us in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

About the same time a market driven approach to advocacy and electoral politics also emerged, fueled by new targeting, fund raising, and information technologies that replaced constituency based organizing with direct marketing techniques. Advocates of many causes also eschewed associational organizing around common interests to focus more narrowly on “issues.” Professional activists began mobilizing individuals to support their causes by contributing money rather than organizing them to act together. And familiar forms of association were shunned in favor of local, unstructured and spontaneous activity. The effect of all this was simply to reinforce the power of money over time and reduce collective action into the expression of individual “preferences.”…

By the time the smoke began to clear in the 1980s, the progressive social movements had won major changes in how we treat race, gender, youth, and the environment. But the conservative movement had seized the moral or ideological initiative, won control of major political institutions, including the Presidency, and channeled its energy into a deep restructuring of the relationship of public institutions – and the organized groups to whom they afforded influence – to private wealth. New challenges facing government, rather than providing an impetus to reform, became an excuse to outsource its functions – to the private sector if there was money to be made, to the nonprofit sector if there was not. And these institutions, whether for profit or not for profit — and whether large scale or small scale — assumed a traditional corporate form. As a result, the scope of citizenship itself as way to balance private wealth with public voice, narrowed, as we became “customers” of the private sector or “clients” of non-profit funders.

I appreciate this analysis because it indicates that the problem is more systemic than simply a matter of how MUCH money is involved in political campaigns and/or how MANY people do/do not vote in an election. It also shines a difficult light on the way progressive activists and nonprofits have bought into the idea of money as the necessary currency of politics rather than collective action. Finally, it notes that as “customers” and/or “clients,” citizenship is stripped of power and we become the objects who are acted on rather than the drivers of action.

Of course Ganz can’t write an article titled “Organizing for Democratic Renewal” without offering some hope. He identifies four signs that may be giving organizing a new lease on life.

1. First, elections have been very, very close. Even the most media oriented of political consultants recognizes that in close elections, effective grassroots mobilization can influence outcomes.

2. Second, the promise of “connectedness” via the Internet is an invitation to a dance that has yet to begin.

3. Third, the recommitment to organizing by the labor movement during the 1990s, especially by SEIU and its associates, afforded thousands of young people an opportunity to learn organizing skills, acquire experience, and make a real difference.

4. And finally, at some level, we may finally be coming to understand what De Tocqueville saw — the promise of democratic politics is in people’s ability to enter into relationships with one another to articulate common purposes and act on them.

And so I’ll end with the second quote Ganz used to introduce this article. This one is directly from De Tocqueville:

In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.