Advice For the Resistance: Don’t Just Mobilize… Organize

Back in 2008 when I became curious about what was happening in the Obama campaign, I learned that Marshall Ganz was the man who was responsible for the organizing efforts known as “Camp Obama.”

Most of the six regional Camp Obamas held so far have been lead by Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz. Coincidentally, Ganz began his political career 43 years earlier at a seminary right across the street from the weekend’s training. He and fellow Harvard undergraduates had driven from Boston to join Freedom Summer. Expecting to find a late night strategy session in progress when they arrived, they instead walked in on a raucous “preach off” among young civil rights activists. And so began a lifelong career in applying story telling, emotion and faith to politics.

I became so intrigued by what I heard about/from Ganz that I actually walked through an on-line course from Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he has been teaching the principles of organizing for the last 30 years. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been wondering what kind of advice Ganz would have for the resistance movement that has sprung up since the election of Donald Trump.

Today, John Judis published an interview with Ganz on exactly that topic. It might come as a surprise to some folks that – as we prepare for the election of a new DNC chair tomorrow – Ganz completely dismissed the idea that we should look to the Democratic Party to lead that movement.

There are a couple of places to look for instruction on this. For one thing, the rise of the conservative movement didn’t happen through the RNC [Republican National Committee]. Conservatives successfully created a more or less coherent network of organizations linked to local, state and national politics, which is a traditional form of effective political organization in the U.S…

The point is that it didn’t happen through the RNC. It happened through movements and movement organizations structured outside that could develop a coherent or at least semi-coherent strategy. If you go back to the civil rights movement, there was the Leadership Council for Civil Rights, it was everybody from the Urban League over to SNCC, and it lasted for a number of years.

Here is the key message about a successful resistance movement:

Many Democrats confuse messaging with educating, marketing with organizing. They think it is all about branding when it is really about relational work. You engage people with each other, creating collective capacity. That’s how you sustain and grow and get leadership. That’s how you make things happen. Organizers have known this for years. But then Green and Gerber at Yale showed that face to face contact with a voter, especially if relationally embedded, increases voter turnout.

It is critical to move from mobilization to organizing.

The action in purple and red states has to be old fashioned organizing. There is an article in the Nation by Jane McAleevy that is really good. She distinguishes between organizing and mobilization, and she talks about Wisconsin and all this mobilization that took place, but that when it got down to the base, the capacity to defeat Governor Scott Walker wasn’t built. It’s like organizing a union.

When you are organizing a union, a workplace, you have got to organize who’s there. One of the troubles with the progressive groups is that they respond to those who already agree with them, but don’t have much incentive to actually go out and build a base by persuading and engaging and converting those who don’t. If you are organizing a union, you have to do that, because that’s how you win. Now ignoring all these red and purple states is like pretending you don’t need them to win, but you do. That takes organizing. it’s intense, it’s relational.

Personally I’m sorry that Judis seemed more interested during the interview in the past (i.e., Bernie vs Hillary) and his own views about the need for Democrats to get away from identity politics. I would have appreciated hearing Ganz expound on the particulars of how you move from mobilization to organizing. But it struck me that the story Andrew Cockburn told (and I summarized here) about how the group TOP went about organizing in Harris County Texas fills in a lot of those details.

Many of the points that Ganz made were similar to the distinction Al Giordano laid out back in 2009 between activism and organizing. Here is how he defined the latter:

It is based on attainable and quantifiable goals (be they small, as in, “put a stop sign in the neighborhood,” or be they large, as occurred last year: elect an underdog as president of the United States). Here’s a simple yardstick by which to measure: If it doesn’t involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with people demographically different than you, it’s not organizing. If it doesn’t involve face-to-face building of relationships, teams, chains of command, and, day-by-day, clear goals to measure its progress and effectiveness, it’s not organizing. If it happens only on the Internet, that’s not organizing either.

Because organizing means working from the ground up, it takes time and doesn’t put it’s leaders in the spotlight. But perhaps the threat is real enough at this point that people will be willing for forego their egos to actually get the work done.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.