Tactical Innovations and the Quickening of American Politics

Jake Brewer has a fantastic essay up on the Huffington Post today.  Go read it.  Now.  Seriously.

You back?  Okay, here’s what I want to add:

The puzzle Jake identifies isn’t actually about digital activism.  Or, more specifically, digital activism is only the latest instantiation of the puzzle.  I told this story at Netroots Nation this past summer, but there’s a hint of it in Don Green and Alan Gerber’s book, “Get Out the Vote.”  They tell the story of Harold Gosnell’s 1925 study of political mailers.  Back then, he found through randomized field experiment that sending a piece of direct mail before municipal elections led to a 9% increase in turnout.  Today, of course, sending a piece of political direct mail has… well, let’s just say it has less of an impact, shall we?

This is attributable to 2 effects.  First is decreasing marginal returns.  Voters are already getting 15,000 political mailers.  The 15,001st makes very little difference. (This may seem obvious, but it’s overlooked repeatedly by field operations.  I frequently hear Green and Gerber invoked as an explanation of why canvassers need to hit the same door for the 12th and 13th time!)

The second effect is background noise.  In 1925, people received far less junk mail than we do today.  As the value of mail became apparent, various interests (political and commercial) flooded the zone.  People tuned it out in response.  Today, political mailers often go in the garbage.  That’s why we see the parallel phenomenon of Prospect Direct Mail with “urgent message” written in faux-handwriting on the front envelope — it’s a little trick meant to increase open rates.

In the earliest days of political e-mails, e-mail was a novel form of political communication.  There was also less junk mail.  That meant that constituent e-mails had a bigger effect on decision-makers, and citizens were also more likely to pay attention to such e-mail (a puzzle Brewer has also commented upon).  Today, groups send a lot of e-mail, and both citizens and officials have recalibrated in response.

Reading memoirs of political activists gives an indication of the broader importance of this phenomenon.  Former Sierra Club Executive Director Michael McKloskey writes about his education as an activist, how in the 1950s he could personally approach Members of Congress and talk to them about wilderness issues.  That simply isn’t true today (nor was it true 16 years ago, when I first joined the movement).

It’s a phenomenon that I refer to as the “quickening” of American politics.  Quickening occurs in parallel with the “political thickening” described by Stephen Skowronek.  As government gets bigger, avenues for citizen participation get increasingly clogged, and this contributes to a set of strong incentives for new, innovative tactics that move faster, faster, faster.

From the perspective of Political Quickening, Brewer’s “Tragedy of Political Advocacy” takes on a slightly different hue.  Consider his proposal, for instance, that

Advocacy groups can commit to hand deliver all petitions to Congressional offices after they are solicited online (a handful of great organizers like my friend Adam Green do this, and it’s about the only time petitions have an effect).

I agree with him that Adam Green’s tactic is valuable.  But that’s a function of everyone else not doing the same.  If all advocacy groups hand delivered all petitions, Congressional offices would soon develop systems to weed out this tactic.  Astroturf groups can hand deliver a big pile of ginned-up petitions *at least* as easily as grassroots groups.  My guess is that offices would appoint a low-level staffer or intern as the recipient of these petitions, and they’d then be deposited in the circular file as soon as groups left.  As the tactic is widely adopted and background noise increases, we are left with the same problem we had, and the incentive to innovate further pops up once again.

This is a systematic property of the American political system, with political thickening and political quickening driving change.  It suggests that citizen political power/social movement influence can be found in those spaces where either (1) old tactics are used, but at a much larger scale [if a member of Congress frequently gets 100 letters on every issue, send 1,000], or (2) new tactics that mobilize meaningful citizen resources are implemented [instead of another 1,000 emails, bring 50 people to the in-district meeting that never draws any attendance.  Instead of holding your 80th consecutive political march with the same old, tired chants, host a “moneybomb” for a favored candidate who you’re trying to convince to become a champion on your issue].

4 thoughts on “Tactical Innovations and the Quickening of American Politics

  1. I couldn’t ask for a better response, David. This is exactly the kind of conversation I hoped would happen this morning. Thank you!

    I’m particularly intrigued by the diminishing returns notion of hand delivery. You’re right. When everyone acts in one way because it worked, it becomes far less valuable for any one group to take the same action again – and the recipient of the action in the system almost always then takes measures to circumvent the new action being done to them. It’s a pretty basic omission from what I wrote, and that “arms race” of escalation (or running in circles may be a better analogy) has to stop somewhere.

    I do think if we’re going to further the ability of advocacy to have any kind of political impact, we at least need organizations to get over the hump of committing to actually engaging real Capitol Hill staff in some meaningful way – rather than just ask for names on their list. As you said, the reason it works is because so few actually do it, but doing an in-person delivery doesn’t have to be the way to move people in that generally more positive direction.

    And by “positive direction,” I’m actually just saying “raising the bar to weed out more of the crap.”

    Certainly a big open question. Love the moneybomb idea – though I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen one led by an advocacy group. Typically just campaign staff and supporters, no?

    Wish there were more folks like you thinking about all this. I’m eager to hear/learn more …from you and others!

  2. Thanks Jake. Likewise, I thought your post captured some central issues.

    Regarding the advocacy moneybomb, I think Adam Green and the PCCC can claim they planted the flag already. When Polis and Pingree circulated the public option sign-on letter, PCCC responded with a fundraiser for them.

    I agree with you that getting groups to establish personal connections rather than engage in no-impact list-building is an important first step. I’d categorize that as signifying another classic distinction in the advocacy community, actually:

    One of my rules when studying the internet and political action is to keep in mind that the lowered transaction costs of the medium make ALL types of organizing easier. The distinction you’re point to is the difference between good organizing and bad organizing. Good organizing follows the Midwest Academy’s 3 principles [(1)create real, concrete improvements in people’s lives, (2)change the balance of power, (3)give people a sense of their own power]. Bad organizing… well, doesn’t.

    There’s tons of bad organizing out there, and I’d join you in encouraging progressives not to support any of it — the background noise problem means that it has at least a slight negative impact.

    What I want to highlight, because I think there are plenty of very good organizations that don’t quite realize it, is that the political quickening phenomenon means they MUST keep innovating. It’s the inverse of Malcolm Gladwell, actually. Rather than constantly saying “let’s try to perfectly replicate the 60’s,” we instead need to recognize that what was innovative in the 60s is standard today (last time I checked, big progressive marches weren’t leading to the passage of landmark legislation…), and instead support high-talent organizations in trying smart, new tactics.

    Great conversation, I hope to keep it going (and maybe chat at Rootscamp in December).

  3. I can’t think of any organizations that ask people to sign online petitions and don’t have staff lobbying as well. Can you name one?

  4. Interesting article — both this one and Jake Brewer’s.

    As someone who works in a State Legislature (a place where a fairly small number of constituent contacts — less than 100 in some cases — can actually make some difference) I’m constantly amazed by how poorly thought out many ‘contact-your-legislator’ campaigns are.

    Although I agree that organizations need to innovate, try new tactics, etc — I’d also suggest that many organizations need to just learn to get the basics right first.

    There’s the shall-remain-nameless animal rights group that insists on having their members from all across the country contact our office (I even called them to suggest they focus their work on having actual constituents call us, and they rather rudely told me that “wasn’t their strategy).

    Or the groups that set up their automated system in such a way that all we get are email addresses – no names, no addresses, no phone numbers.

    Or the email campaigns that start way too late to actually make a difference. (Hint – if session has already started and the vote is happening in a few hours, chances are good your email is not going to make it through the system in time to have any effect on the outcome.)

    Small things that make a big difference when it comes to advocating effectively via email.

    I always wonder why folks designing these campaigns don’t stop by a friendly legislative office and say “hey, what could we do that would be most effective?” It helps the office too – we’re a lot happier if we’re not sorting through emails from folks in Texas and California trying to get to the emails that are actually from our constituents.

    And at least on the state level, the old adage about a handful of sincere, unique, personal emails making far more of a difference than dozens of auto-generated form emails remains true.

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