Now that the political campaign circus has finally left town, all of us should clear our heads and focus on the form of citizen participation that is far more important than voting.
The true cornerstone of successful democratic politics — its nuts and bolts — is not elections. It is volunteer-based civic organizations that advocate public policies.
In her recent book “How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century,” Hahrie Han calls this more sustained kind of political engagement “civic action.” A person who does this sustained political work is an activist. In her study of activism, Han looked at affiliates of two national organizations. One group focuses on medical issues, the other on the environment.
Civic action is the crucial training ground for the kinds of transformational democratic politics that gives people a voice. Civic action, if done the right way, develops activists. Elections do not.
It’s easy to go gaga about elections. Sure, voting gives people a voice (in Hawaii a tiny and tinny voice, considering our low voter turnout). The right to vote is one of democracy’s core values.
But neither the act of voting nor working on a political campaign hones the skills or aspirations that make democratic politics effective. An election is just a brief moment in civic time.
Volunteers are certainly essential in any political campaign, but there’s a huge difference between a campaign volunteer and a civic activist. What election campaign volunteers do is good work, important work, but not the sustained work that civic engagement requires.
Campaign activities require time and effort, but at the end of the campaign, that’s it for the volunteer. You did the work, and both you and the candidates move on. Mahalo and aloha.
Whether you like it or not, conservative groups are today’s most successful populist organizers.
Data mining and voter targeting have made grassroots politics more sophisticated and significant than ever. But the volunteers doing this work are still grunts.
In a campaign there is little if any interest in developing these volunteers into leaders or activists because once the campaign is over there is nothing to sustain.
In contrast, as Han describes it, an activist is someone wiling to commit to an organization not simply for particular tasks but over the long haul. An activist sees herself as a part of the organization’s mission and more significantly is willing to commit the time and effort that it takes to learn to be and become a leader.
Every civic organization is interested in attracting as many members as possible. And for many that’s enough. In their eyes, all we need is to get folks to sign a petition, or maybe give them some simple tasks that, thanks to the Internet, they can often do by working alone, and that’s it.
These groups get things done by keeping tasks as limited and easy as possible. Leadership development is not one of those simple tasks.
Other civic organizations add that leadership/activist dimension. They have policy goals, and they also want to cultivate and develop future leaders. Getting people to become activists is part of that mission.
That is quite a challenge. Han calls these groups “high engagement” organizations. And indeed they are.
Developing activists involves a conversion process from well meaning but unskilled volunteer to an organizational leader who sees herself as part of a long-term collective effort and is willing to develop and use the skills necessary to lead in the future.
Modern technology like huge data banks and social media makes it much easier to mobilize, but the ways high engagement organizations develop activists are surprisingly old school — offline as opposed to online.
These high engagement organizations focus on face-to-face group activities in order to build a sense of community and a culture of shared experience.
They constantly encourage people to offer narratives about their own and others’ experiences in this civic work. Talking about the work is as important as doing the work.
Shared work, shared stories, shared space.
At the same time, along with all the emphasis on group work, the high engagement organizations’ leaders give those future activists a great deal of autonomy in deciding how to carry out those activities.
The high-engagement, activist-cultivating civic organizations in Hawaii should bring their activities more to the public’s attention.
Two additional actions are integral to all of this. One is constant mentoring. The other is fostering an ongoing process of assessment and reflection.
Here is how Han describes one important way this constant self-questioning works: “These activists and associations persistently questioned themselves: what can we do to develop the quantity and quality of activism we need to win the victories we want?”
The stories they tell often consider that question.
These sorts of engagement have a nice old-fashioned community organizing feel to them — work that progressives did in the good old, more populist days: union organizers meeting with factory workers trying to get them to join up (solidarity forever); NAACP organizers convincing black people in the South to get involved despite the risks; or National Alliance of the Mentally Ill (NAMI) leaders convincing anguished parents of schizophrenics that collectively they could do something about mental health laws.
That tradition continues. Progressive-leaning community-organizing training organizations like the New Organizing Institute encourage these principles.
But there’s an interesting twist to Han’s study. She points out that today some of the most successful high engagement, activist-training organizations are the Koch Brothers-financed American Majority, the Tea Party, and the Christian Coalition.
Each of these conservative groups put a great deal of emphasis on developing activists. All three stress the importance of building relationships through face to face encounters like canvassing. American Majority teaches conservative activists to develop stories “of Self, Us, and Now.” Each do a great deal of face-face group work.
So what’s the lesson here? How can we encourage this kind of activism in Hawaii?
First of all, get off the voter turnout bandwagon. The constant lecturing about low voter turnout in Hawaii is tiresome and, as I have said before, not likely to succeed.
Developing activists involves a conversion process from well meaning but unskilled volunteer to an organizational leader.
The real problem with this is that voter turnout seems to be the only kind of citizen participation that makes it into our political imagery. If we want a more vibrant democracy, we, particularly the state’s opinion leaders, need to broaden our scope.
Second, people may have to learn from organizations that they strongly oppose. I am regularly amazed and disappointed at what people who oppose Christian social conservatives or the Tea Party assume about how these organizations work.
(To understand how the Tea party works, read Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s excellent book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”)
Whether you like it or not, conservative groups are today’s most successful populist organizers. Deal with it. Don’t wish it away with misunderstandings based on your ideological opposition.
Finally, the high-engagement, activist-cultivating civic organizations in Hawaii should bring their activities more to the public’s attention. These organizations should realize how important their work is for a democracy and, as a result, how they could become models for the public to learn from and embrace.
There is a broader message here about political engagement. Whatever the new communications and bells and whistles, successful politics have become more intimate.
Face-to-face encounters are the most effective way to get a person to vote. Talking to a potential voter is the most effective way to get her to vote for your candidate.
Similarly, getting people together for group work that simultaneously expands their aspirations and builds skills is the best way to turn a volunteer into a leader.