21st century organizing in the health care debate

I’ve been revising my “MoveOn Effect” presentation recently for a couple of upcoming talks (Brown University on Tuesday the 17th, Columbia University on Tuesday the 24th.  Lurkers welcome at both!)  For those who don’t know, the “MoveOn Effect” isn’t so much about MoveOn-as-organization than it is about changes in the political economy of advocacy group engagement.  MoveOn defines membership as “we have your email address and you’ve taken some minor action with us.”  They fundraise around targeted actions in response to whatever issue stands at the public agenda (as discussed in this blog post from roughly a year ago).  Those fundraising and membership changes have important implications for the advocacy group population, which in turn is the central topic I explored through my dissertation work.

Two questions often come up when I present on this stuff is: (1) “how effective are MoveOn’s tactics compared to other advocacy groups?”  (2) “will the organization be able to switch from Bush-opposition to pushing a progressive agenda forward?”

Question 1 is a classic type of mess for a political scientist to answer.  The truth is, we know very little about advocacy group effectiveness in general.  With so many groups competing, and with so many other moving parts, it’s just impossible to systematically measure influence/effectiveness, making questions of MoveOn’s comparative effectiveness a potential quagmire.  But what I can talk about is tactical repertoire — how different is the MoveOn-style of political campaigning from older interest groups?

Question 2 is one which, when I was giving this presentation over the summer, I could only speculate on.  It’s an interesting puzzle.  Part of MoveOn’s strength is what you might call “fast-twitch muscle.”  They have a huge list, tons of data on what sort of appeals their membership will react to, a small team of creative organizers, and excellent name brand recognition.  That works particularly well in the role of political opposition, when the other side is largely setting the political agenda and it’s your job to mobilize and coordinate reactions to the latest proposal.  But what happens when you move from opposition of the latest outrage to articulation of a legislative agenda?  That takes time.  It’s built for lobbyists and organizers, large staffs with deep and enduring connections.  How does/can an organizational strategy built for oppositional warfare convert into peacetime articulation?  (note: I’m going to look back on the imagery in that last sentence and cringe someday, aren’t I…)

Recent events in the health care debate add fascinating detail to our answers to both of the above questions.  Let’s just take the major email appeals sent out by the organization over a recent 2.5 week period:

Thursday, 10/22: “Official MoveOn Ballot: Vote Today.” Highlighting the fact that a Republican Health Care filibuster would require at least one Democratic vote, MoveOn decides to hold a membership plebicite. “Should MoveOn refuse to support the re-election of any senator who helps block an up-or-down vote on a health care reform bill with a public option?

This is the type of strategic question that older advocacy groups would usually debate in among a closed set of staff and board members.  The Sierra Club, with its federated system of local groups and state chapters, will occasionally raise such strategic question for debate, but the process takes months to conduct.  Note that there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on here.  MoveOn members aren’t asked to vote on all strategic decisions, and there’s little doubt what their left-leaning membership will decide, so one could argue that this is the appearance of deliberation rather than real membership governance.  And of course, that’s exactly what it is.  MoveOn is using a membership vote as a political tactic, and it’s a brilliant one at that.

Tuesday, 10/27: “Big News.”  MoveOn releases the results of their membership vote.  93% of MoveOn members (at least those who voted) agree, MoveOn should refuse to support any Senator who votes with Republicans to block health care reform.  Along with this announcement is, of course, a related fundraising ask: “Can you donate $20 so we can hold Democrats accountable if they block an up-or-down vote?”  Notice the pivot from their old oppositional style here.  MoveOn is making itself part of the story.  Other internet-mediated organizations have employed similar (albeit smaller-scale) tactics, such as placing polls in the field on the public option in the states of conservative Democratic Senators, then trumpeting the positive results of that poll as proof that the Senators constituents want a strong public option.

Monday, 11/2: “What if we lose?” Having passed a health care reform bill in the House, attention turns entirely to the Senate and the looming threat of a filibuster.  Building on the previous membership vote, MoveOn teams with Democracy for America on a “Health Care Accountability Pledge.”  “Here’s how it will work: You tell us how much you’d give. Then, we make sure the media, Senate leadership, and conservative Democrats know just how many of us are willing to support a challenge against anyone who blocks reform. Hopefully, none of them actually do it, and health care gets an up-or-down vote.”

Thursday, 11/5: “$3,578,117.” That’s the amount of pledged donations MoveOn and DFA were able to raise from 66,000 members in less than 3 days.  Note that these are pledges, not actual donations, so one could argue that its funny-money.  But it’s still news, and a credible threat at that.  MoveOn and DFA — the two leading “netroots” political associations — have fashioned a pretty big “stick” for health care proponents to wield.  The health insurance industry has donated millions to a few centrist democrats in recent years.  In the abstract, angry leftists don’t make up a majority in Montana or Arkansas or Nebraska.  And as both Mancur Olson and E.E. Schattschneider tell us, small well-financed interests are much better represented than large diffuse publics in our interest group system.  Here the new generation of advocacy organizations have not only created great fodder for a news story, they have also made it clear to centrist democrats that it is a bad idea to be the one left wearing a black hat on this issue.  A $3.5 million warchest is enough to create a well-funded primary challenge in any of those states.  Risk-averse Senators have good reason to hear alarm bells in their heads.

Lets return to the two questions I posed above, now. “Is this effective?”  Well, effectiveness is still notoriously hard to measure.  But compared to status quo behind-the-scenes lobbying, I see a lot of difficulty dismissing this out of hand.  MoveOn is influencing media frames on the topic, shifting the news cycle, and creating credible threats for blue dog Senators.  And regarding question 2, It’s doing all of this through a modification of its usual tactical repertoire.  Put another way, these tactics are not available to lobbyist-heavy interest groups.  Organizations with smaller, offline membership bases cannot keep pace with the hypermedia tempo of the modern political agenda.  Though lobbyists surely still have their place, as do the deep network ties fostered through relationship-building among elites, it appears that MoveOn-in-articulation is just as relevant to American politics as MoveOn-in-opposition was, if not moreso.

That’s all for now.  If any readers live in Providence or NYC, please consider coming to one of the upcoming panels, where I’ll present a more entertaining and polished version of this example.  Comments and critiques are, as always, welcome in the comment section.

3 thoughts on “21st century organizing in the health care debate

  1. Hey Dave,

    Interesting post. It really is quite crazy how little data there is on this subject. A few questions:

    1) Though it was implied in one of the emails you quoted, was the money pledged supposed to *specifically* fund a primary challenger and did MoveOn promise to follow through? I.e. if a Dem senator does vote against cloture, etc., will MoveOn send an email to their pledgers to make good?

    2) Is it impossible to measure effectiveness here? One of the MoveOn emails states “Then, we make sure the media, Senate leadership, and conservative Democrats know just how many of us are willing to support a challenge against anyone who blocks reform.” Did you look to see if the results of the pledge drive were widely discussed in the blogosphere or media? Especially in blogs/media in the conservative Dems’ states? (I have a continuing interest in seeing if blog and media data can be used as a proxy for at least one dimension of effectiveness of advocacy groups.)

    3) Have you ever been successful in getting Sierra Club or another group to give you access to their email response data? That would, of course, be a fantastic way to get at effectiveness of different types of appeals/organizing drives.

    4) Have you turned this lens on Organizing for America? I’m not sure which cross-cut of the OfA email list I’m on, since I don’t generally take action from them, but I did notice that they seemed to get a lot more active in organizing for a positive agenda on health care reform, to a degree I hadn’t seen them do before.


  2. Hey Conor,

    Just saw that your comment from a few weeks was stuck in the moderation box, sorry for the delay! Couple thoughts…

    1. The money was just pledges, not actual donations, so I’m not sure how much the specific language matters. The point is they’ve got a list that they can threaten to hit, and a number that they can trumpet in the media.

    2. Those are probably the right metrics to use if we wanted to study this in greater detail, but I still have trouble equating them with “effectiveness.” That just seems like a pretty weighty term to me. What we’d be going for in essence would be “how well are advocacy groups doing against the yardsticks they themselves set?” If we add comparative data — say, media mentions of a moveon tactic vs media mentions of a health care action network tactic — then we can say something pretty authoritative about which groups are *more* effective against shared goalposts. But the blog measure gets tricky because it’s difficult to defend against the “echo chamber” charge. If MoveOn takes an action that gets heavy play amongst progressive blogs, even in the midwest, does that necessarily move Ben Nelson? If it doesn’t, then it’s much noise signifying little.

    For that reason, the PCCC has been the group that’s impressed me most in the past 6 months, specifically because they’ve been taking out commercials that both get heavy earned media attention and because they’ve forced reactions from their targets. Likewise with Accountability Now PAC, which is the moving part I’ll be most focused on in the 2010 election.

    So short-version response on point 2: blog and media data definitely CAN be used as a proxy, but it’s only for one dimension of effectiveness and I think the research community needs to tread carefully with the data, because it would be extraordinarily easy to make too much of it.

    3. Nope, not yet. That’s the type of concerted push that I’m likely to make as a follow-up to the book project, so we’re talking a year or two down the road. It would be a multi-person affair, so if you’re in a place at that point where you’d want to engage with it, let me know.

    4. OfA is next on the agenda. You’re absolutely right that they’re the most important black box in this research area right now.

    Hope the semester went well for you, would love to hear your reaction (particularly on the effectiveness-measures point…)

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