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].