I know, I know, by now you’ve probably had your fill of this presidential election. But as I began to write my Dean’s Corner column this month, I thought it might be interesting to look at what’s happening from the perspective of those of us who call ourselves community organizers. There are many similarities between election campaigns and organizing campaigns, and also some key differences.
Elections are really a form of community organizing, that is, candidates organize people to vote in order to achieve preferred outcomes on issues. The difference between elections and other forms of organizing is that candidates seek support for themselves (for example, as a woman, someone to have a beer with, or as a business man), in addition to the issues. When elections get personal (as some political scientists would argue they always do), the personalities of the candidates can overshadow the issues.
Issues not personalities. The first task of an organizer is to identify issues that people care about. Organizers and electoral candidates look for things that affect many people, that people care passionately about, and that cut across traditional boundaries of race, class, and gender in an effort to create a heterogeneous constituency to support the issues. The broad based nature of the constituency helps in achieving a resolution. We try to pick issues that have a solution that can be achieved in a foreseeable timeframe, and that some person or group of people (like the Congress) has the power to solve. For candidates, the ability to work on issues begins with their election and is pursued according to a legislative timeline. Because organizers work toward outcomes on issues, rather than to elect an individual or on an electoral timeframe, they are free to garner support from various people over a long period. Their work on the issue is not dependent on an election.
The Bernie Sanders campaign appears to have faced some ambiguity between the electoral strategy to elect the candidate and an organizing campaign on economic inequality. After the Democratic Convention, Sander’s supporters appeared to believe they could not continue to work on income inequality. For an organizer the answer was clear—make the issue of inequality part of a party platform and compel other candidates to embrace the issue in her election bid. That is– keep the issue but switch the target of support, and that is what Sanders appealed to his constituents to do.
People. To organize successfully on an issue or to win an election, organizers and candidates must find, appeal to, and motivate people to support the issues that have been identified. In many cases, organizers have conversations with people in neighborhoods, schools, churches, or workplaces that uncover the issues that people care about. An organizer must identify some people with some interest to move forward on an organizing campaign. On the other hand, electoral candidates back positions and then appeal to people to support their candidacy based on them. In order to achieve their goals (to get elected or solve the issue), organizers and candidates must both build and broaden support during the campaign. Organizers generally do that through developing arguments that attract new people to support the issue. Candidates also offer new arguments but may try to soften their positions or “move to the middle” so they can broaden their appeal. Seldom is there consensus on any subject, and so without attracting more followers neither organizers nor candidates can succeed.
We’ve heard a lot about this idea of building support during the election season. You may have heard Republican primary candidates or Hillary Clinton being criticized for moderating their positions so as to bring in independent voters. That is not the same as “flip flopping” or taking an antithetical position on an issue. They have sometimes been called “inauthentic” while Trump voters value the genuineness of their candidate. Yet, to an organizer, the task of building the base is necessary if one is to succeed. Without increasing support, no victory is possible. Polls suggest that this is exactly what is happening with Donald Trump as he chooses to “secure his base” without broadening his appeal.
Pressure or Persuasion. One of the big differences between organizers and candidates is the tactics that are used. Candidates are primarily limited to persuasion and collaboration, this is why you see so much advertising activity and campaigning with “down ballot” candidates. Organizers, on the other hand, have a menu of options from collaboration to persuasion to protest, depending on many variables like the extent of opposition and support, the timing, the existence of allies, and the prospects for change. Many people have been uneasy with Trump’s exhortations to his audiences because they seem to suggest tactics other than persuasion.
Negotiation and Compromise. Organizers recognize they will not get everything they want on an issue immediately, and understand that they need to “play the long game.” They expect that they will have to negotiate to reach a compromise that advances the issue forward toward its desired outcome, and anticipate revisions to follow. Candidates talk about their skill in “working across the aisle,” a phrase that references compromise. For example, when social security, our most successful and popular social program, was first enacted, exclusions exempted nearly half the working population including women, people of color, government employees, teachers, nurses, social workers, and hospital employees. Social security was litigated in the courts for many years, and has been amended consistently to broaden coverage for retirement and long term disabilities to the program we have today.
Again, compromise is considered a necessary task of organizing and electoral advocacy. Ardent supporters, however, may insist on an “all or nothing” approach, and resist compromise. This approach poses a problem in advancing towards change. Most organizers and candidates help their constituencies move past this intransigency with a “we live to fight another day” message. Bernie Sanders, with some success, seems to have delivered a conciliatory message to his supporters, noting their influence on the Democratic Party platform. Clinton has emphasized her ability to “work across the aisle” as a senator. Trump has stressed his acumen in business negotiations, although he has resisted compromise in other ways.
Action. However the issues are defined, organizing requires action, in this case voting. Whatever you do, please vote on Tuesday, November 8th. Bring your friends and family with you to the voting booth. It is not hyperbole to say that people have lost their lives for the right to cast a ballot in a free election. Nor is it an exaggeration that elections make a significant difference in our lives. Think for a moment about social security, affordable housing, public education, public transportation, highways, Medicaid and Medicare. Congress and presidents debated these programs over many years, with different outcomes depending on who was in office. Your vote expresses your interests and your views in a deeply meaningful way. So as Lin Manuel says best in the musical Hamilton, on November 8th “don’t throw away your shot.”
My best wishes,
Jacqueline B. Mondros, DSW
Dean and Assistant Vice President for Social Determinants of Health