How We Can Inspire People to Care About Social Change & Feel Good About Themselves in the Process?

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice.

If the Wisconsin struggle between the unions and Governor Walker showed us anything, it was that the needs that animate people around progressive causes are not simply needs for money or financial security. The need for community and its accompanying feeling of belonging and the need to connect with something larger than the self, the need for meaning, were every bit as important in generating the special enthusiasm and emotional engagement seen for weeks in and around the state capitol in Madison.

This has been the experience of the Left for generations. Movements that engaged people at a deep level had the most staying power and the most impact. At this level, people are motivated by a range of needs other than those for economic security, including needs for meaning, connectedness, recognition, and agency.

Unfortunately, despite evidence that this is so, progressives are often blind to the importance of these needs.

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice. These needs interact, overlap and rise and fall in importance depending on the situation. The civil rights movement spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. But the institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, thrived on its power to provide recognition in dozens of way to its members.

The women’s movement initially based itself on the relational power of small groups, arguing that personal needs and suffering can form the basis of a political agenda. The highest periods of member engagement in the life of a labor union occur when people feel a sense of agency in standing up to a boss or during the height of a campaign. As Cesar Chavez once observed, “When a man or woman, young or old, takes a place on a picket line for even a day or two, he will never be the same again.”

And, yet, this transparent reality is hidden from view in the work of organizers and leaders of progressive organizations who too often treat their staff, members and public audiences as if most of these needs are irrelevant. Instead, members and potential members are seen as motivated only by narrow economic self-interest with staff treated as one-dimensional means to fight for that end.

Corporations have understood the crucial motivational role of so-called “soft” — that is, non-economic — needs apart from the paycheck for decades. Almost every book on leadership published in the last 20 years emphasizes the importance of relationships and recognition. Huge studies have been done on companies that have succeeded and failed in an attempt to come up with the secret sauce of success, and invariably, the answer involves the ways in which the culture of a company engages employees at levels above and beyond compensation. In a recent article, Arianna Huffington reports on a similar emphasis in advertising today, with more and more corporations explicitly touting their social engagement and desire to speak to a higher purpose.

Too often, the Left discovers its campaigns for economic justice and various aspects of the social safety net fall on cynical or resigned ears, even among our system’s greatest victims. Conservative groups, on the other hand, often seem better able to connect with these same “victims,” even though the connection seems to progressives as patently opposed to these victims’ economic self-interest. The growth of mega-churches, the rise of the evangelical movement, and the recent popularity of the Tea Party all involve people drawn to communities that support a political and economic system inimical to their own needs for material security. The reasons have little to do with anyone’s economic bottom line. They do so because they appear to address multiple levels of suffering and multiple needs.

So, what do people need? Are we saying they don’t need material security and economic justice?

Of course not. Recognition doesn’t put food on the table, and a sense of meaning won’t stop the bank from foreclosing on your house. The American Dream, an ideal in which work offers retirement security and medical benefits, and generates enough income so our kids can go to college and on to a better life, is still and always should be, central to a progressive agenda. Structural unemployment, mal-distribution of income and wealth, and the economically debilitating effects of racism and sexism are blights to the human body and spirit. A movement for social change that doesn’t target this blight will be irrelevant to a huge sector of the population.

When people’s survival needs, defined in this way, are frustrated, they suffer enormously. They get sick. In extreme cases, research shows their brains actually atrophy as the result of deprivation. Further, they often internalize their “failure,” blame themselves, and get depressed. They feel inadequate and inferior. They suffer from the meritocratic myth that one’s economic and material status is an expression of how deserving one is. A movement that doesn’t speak directly to economic suffering and deprivation, whether absolute or relative, will not only be irrelevant to millions of people, but will take its place among other pie-in-the-sky movements, usually religious ones, that offer moral or spiritual bromides to the victims of material deprivation rather than directly seeking to end that deprivation.

However, because the facts of inequality are obvious and objectively measurable, progressives tend to believe that if we rationally present these facts to people, they will endorse our progressive agenda. The narrative goes: If we could only tell our story about class privilege, Wall Street and government corruption, and economic exploitation to working people, they would see reality more clearly. This narrative is naïve and patronizing, and it’s as old as it is wrong. It suggests that if only we had enough organizers (get enough people “on the doors”) who could explain to people how the banks are screwing them, they’d want to join our movement. The implication is that “the people” are lacking knowledge or are suffering from what Marxists used to call “false consciousness.” Our job as progressives is to help people “see the light.”

This assumption is empirically false and at odds with everything we know about psychology, learning and neurobiology. Feelings matter, not facts. As political scientist Drew Westen and linguist George Lakoff have argued, the facts about inequality and injustice don’t necessarily drive people to the Left unless they are embedded in a message that speaks to deep feelings and values. Values and non-economic needs matter, not rational descriptions of economic reality. People have a range of desires and needs other than simple physical ones and unless these desires and needs are understood and addressed, logic, facts, rationality, and education will all land on deaf ears.

Thus, in our fight for economic justice, our narrow view of what people want and how they listen hoists us on our own petard. It systematically gets in the way of developing healthy organizations and strategies that have a chance of engaging people’s passions. And without engaging people’s passions, we will never create a movement that has real political power.

If we take our blinders off, we see or read about evidence of the foundational importance of non-economic needs and values every day. A terrorist commits suicide for the sake of Allah. A monk lights himself on fire to protest against a dictatorship. An Indian demonstrator at a salt mine walks directly into the violent batons of the British Army in non-violent resistance for the cause of independence. An African-American marcher sits down in front of Bull Connor’s dogs. A marine risks his life for his buddy; a parent does the same for a child. Babies who are fed but not held get sick and can even die.

People endure hardship all the time out of love for their families or partners. I’ve worked with investment bankers who have quit high-paying jobs for the benefits of working in environments that are more collegial, kinder and less fixated on the immediate bottom line. If given the choice between more money and more recognition and autonomy, most people give up the money. Many activists we’ve worked with in labor unions routinely give up higher paying jobs in the private sector to work for social change. The centrality of non-economic human needs and longings are hiding in plain sight.

To the extent that our “common sense” twists Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs to mean that we can’t gratify “higher” needs until we’ve addressed more “basic” survival needs, we’re misled and our organizations doomed to founder.

Such a bias not only ignores a mountain of psychological research, it also contradicts our own basic human experience. It’s not just they who have these five needs; it’s us. It’s not just workers who need more agency, or children who need more recognition, or members who need to have a greater sense of meaning; it’s us.

Too often, the organizers, activists, and leaders on the Left frame their work as being in the service of others. We’re trying to help other people, the less advantaged, the powerless, the victimized. In so doing, we routinely leave ourselves out. We deny that we have the same economic and non-economic needs of those we’re allegedly fighting for. We fight for their right to leisure time but deny it to ourselves. We try to help them feel efficacious and inspired, but work for organizations that provide neither.

These needs are what it means to be human. They are universal. They animate us to do good things and their unhealthy frustration can lead us to do bad things. The human locomotive of motivation carries these five needs, the existence or importance of which can no longer be debated. The only question for progressives is whether we get onboard.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is a co-founder of the Institute4Change, an interdisciplinary group aiming to provide help to progressive organizations around leadership development and organizational change. He has published extensively on issues at the intersection of psychology, politics, and culture (

The Arab Spring and the Changing Dynamics of Global Struggle

The Arab Spring, the Japanese nuclear accident, the progressive/labor motion in response to the rightwing attacks in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, and the demographic changes reflected in the 2010 U.S. census, are reshaping the U.S. and global political terrain.

These events are not immediately connected and each has its own particular dynamics. But together they advance and aggravate the two big world trends I outlined in my Notes on Election 2010: the global rise of the developing world and the relative decline of U.S. and Western power as well as the intense struggle within the U.S. as to how to navigate that global sea change together with the impending people of color majority. Indeed the IMF recently announced their estimate that according to one key indicator China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2016.

These notes address some of the new dynamics underscored and advanced by the Arab Spring, including its implications for U.S. politics.

Changing Dynamics of Struggle in Developing World

The Arab Spring was completely unpredictable in its timing, form, rapidity, politics and Arab-wide form, and it remains to be seen what its outcomes will be.

At another level, however, it was completely predictable. Much of the developing world, including the Arab world, has gone through dramatic economic development in the last thirty years. The corresponding socio-economic transformation has given rise to new social forces that the old repressive regimes, most of more than thirty years duration, proved unable to incorporate or suppress.

At different paces and in different forms, mass struggles by sparked by new social forces against reactionary regimes&#151whether Kings, military or military backed strongmen or former revolutionaries turned dictators&#151have swept Asia (1990s&#151e.g. Philippines, Indonesia, S. Korea), Latin America (2000s&#151mainly through leftwing electoral victories), parts of Africa (esp. southern and sub-Saharan Africa), and now the Arab world. One might even include the demise of the former socialist camp and the recent “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics in this context.

These uprisings are notably diverse according to national and regional particularities. But they are also remarkably different from earlier mass struggles in the developing world: they have focused on turning out local dictators as opposed to focusing primarily on anti-colonial or anti-U.S. aims. The Arab Spring has thus far not even targeted Israel.

These movements have been mass democratic struggles as opposed to mass anti-imperialist struggles. Of course, democracy and anti-imperialism are very often intertwined in the developing world. But the leading element seems to have switched to internal democratic struggles compared to the mass national liberation movements of the 1910s through the 1980s.  

Indeed a number of the revolutionary nationalist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s who ended up degenerating into undemocratic regimes are now the targets of democratic uprisings&#151Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad. And it is also they who are among the most violent defenders of their regimes.

The democratic uprisings in the developing world of the last twenty years have also been notable for their largely peaceful strategies compared to the mostly armed national liberation movements of the 1920s to the 1980s. Indeed, that wave of revolutionary nationalism, like Marxist-Leninist socialism (and European social democracy), was eclipsed in that latter decade. Most movements since then have different dynamics and different leadership.

Indeed, the Middle East, led by Nasser in Egypt but also the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party (including Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq) and the Palestine Liberation Organization, was one of the world centers of the revolutionary nationalist, socialist motion of the 1950s to the 1980s. Although these regimes made powerful progress in their early years, they or their successors eventually degenerated into narrow dictatorships and even allied with the U.S. In the 1990s radical Islamism emerged as the main rallying center of anti-imperialist sentiment.

In this context, the emergence of the Arab Spring is a welcome mass democratic counterpoint to Islamic terrorism. There are, of course, radical differences between mass-based Islamic political groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas compared to narrowly terrorist groups like al-Qaeda whose targets are often civilians. Nonetheless the Arab Spring’s mainly peaceful, mass driven and secular democratic flavor is a powerful development that seems to be eclipsing the al-Qaeda-like approach and having much more positive impact. Perhaps this will be strengthened in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Finally, as a result of the much higher level of economic development of the developing world compared to the past, these movements are largely urban-based rather than rural based, and extremely diverse and complicated in their social composition and political orientations. They cannot be fit into simplistic or outdated categories or theories. Instead they must be studied and interacted with based on a concrete analysis of each movement in its own terms.

The Developing World and the Intensification of the Fight for Energy

While primarily local democratic uprisings, the Arab Spring events, like the fights in Asia and Latin America, are reconfiguring global economic and political power. Many countries are rapidly gaining new economic power and are strengthening the economic ties among themselves, independent of the West.

The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are most notable in this respect. The IMF recently announced that it expects the Chinese economy to replace the U.S. as the world’s largest by 2016. And China has replaced the U.S. as burgeoning Brazil’s main trading partner: economic interaction among developing countries among themselves has exploded.

Fast on the heels of the BRIC are the Next 11 (the “N11”: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Korea, Turkey and Vietnam). South Korea is the first former colony to become an advanced capitalist country. No less an imperial leader than Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2050 only the U.S. of the current G8 will rank among the top eight economies of the world.

The rapid economic development of the Global South is creating massive new demand for energy, just as peak oil is reached. And, whatever the exact outcomes of the Arab Spring, oil political expert Michael Klare believes that with it the “old oil order is dying, and with its demise we will see the end of cheap and readily accessible petroleum&#151forever.”

Meanwhile the Fukushima disaster shows the pitfalls of turning to nuclear energy to fill the gap. Along with climate change, these developments underscore the importance of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable and safe energy sources.

Changing Politics of the Middle East

The Arab Spring is a turning point of global importance because oil has been central to world economic development and politics since WWII.  Over that time, the U.S. has spared little expense or scruple to cobble together a reactionary alliance of Arab police states with Israel to safeguard its interests. The formation of OPEC in the 1960s and 1970s was a critical turning point in world economic history, but the West managed to reconstruct a web of power. Now the Arab people are disrupting that arrangement.

Although the struggles are still intense and the outcomes not at all clear, the genie is out of the bottle for the old regimes. Some new level of democracy is likely in many of the countries, and that by itself is enough to disrupt the old straight up imperialist/authoritarian alliance. This has been duly noted by the Obama administration and outraged U.S. rightwing.

Unlike previous U.S. regimes that routinely, and often brutally, backed their allied dictators throughout the world, the Obama administration has addressed the Arab Spring with halting but nuanced steps in a new direction. Its aim remains the same: to advance U.S. imperial interests. However, Obama’s actions also represent an understanding of new limits on U.S. power.

Washington surprised many by early on calling for Egypt’s Mubarak to step down, despite the fact that Mubarak was a lynchpin of U.S. power. Indeed it was the second largest recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel) for three decades, to the tune of $30 billion. Washington then backed an orderly electoral transition only to see Mubarak unceremoniously thrown out by the people.

In Libya Obama eschewed traditional U.S. unilateral military action in favor of multilateral action, indeed multilateral action spearheaded by France and the U.K., not the U.S. He clearly hopes to circumscribe the U.S. effort rather than to be drawn into another long and likely failed war. I do not back his policy, but still take note of its new characteristics. Indeed, it is optimistic to think that the Libyan attack will lead to any stability in the short run, and Obama runs the risk of having his administration defined by Afghan and Libyan quagmires.

Meanwhile Israel, the Saudi Kings, and the U.S. Republicans hew to the hard line and hope to salvage the old alliances against the Arab masses and Iran (whose influence has risen with the U.S. stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan and alongside the Arab Spring) by using whatever force is necessary. The Republicans rail against Obama taking a back seat to France and want all out war in Libya, and cannot imagine peace with the Palestinians. The U.S. rightwing and the Israeli rightwing are lockstep.

Indeed Israel is a dangerous wild card. Fearing the loss of its main allies in the region&#151Turkey and Egypt&#151it is faced with the potential of having to choose between making substantial peace with the Arab world, starting with the Palestinians, or an even more dangerous war stance including a possible attack on Iran. Such an attack would loose entirely unpredictable forces into a Middle East already wrought by U.S. invasions and mass uprisings.

The recent unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah is a major development that accelerates and deepens the Arab Spring and the various conflicts it involves. It was brokered by the caretaker Egyptian government ushered in by the overthrow of Mubarak, demonstrating the regional, indeed global, significance of the political shift underway in Egypt.

The new unity has been denounced by Israel&#151and the U.S. rightwing&#151who may now face a united Palestinian front for the first time in decades, one that includes Hamas which the entire Western establishment has labeled “terrorist.” Palestine is once again at the center of Middle Eastern and world politics.

The Pivot of Politics

The Arab Spring is the latest demonstration of the drive of the people of the developing world to democratize their governments and empower themselves. It also highlights the complicated, multi-layered process of struggle in the developing world.

The tremendous variance in politics of the developing world gives the U.S. and the West significant room to maneuver and divide. Yet there is little doubt that, overall, this motion is increasingly limiting the power of the U.S. and is ushering out the brutal phase of history characterized by Western colonialism and imperialist domination.

The fight over the shape and pace of this inexorable process is the main battleground of history in our time, shaping both world and U.S. politics.

The varying responses of different political forces in the U.S., both within the ruling circles and within the population as a whole, lie at the root of the sharp polarization of politics in this country.

International competition is one of the root causes of the rightward motion of the economic elite over the past forty years and its attacks on the living standards of working and poor people, especially people of color, in this country. Fear of the loss of U.S. supremacy is also fundamental to the powerful rise of far right populism in that same period, especially its latest incarnation, the Tea Party. The attempt to reassert U.S. supremacy has also given rise to the gigantic increase in U.S. military spending&#151which has more than doubled since 2000&#151and murderous military adventures.

The polarization between those who are determined to reassert U.S. dominance by any means necessary&#151an inherently racialized notion&#151and those that understand that such a policy is dangerous, destructive and unrealistic is the pivotal dividing line in U.S. politics today. The racialization of politics is particularly pronounced due to the tremendous growth of people of color in the U.S. and their clear leftward politics. The right cannot win without isolating people of color and the left cannot win without mobilizing them.

To be sure there are important divisions on the center/right, between reactionary Tea Partyists and old line Republican conservatives, and on the center/left between realistic elitists and genuine progressives. I would argue that the building of a powerful progressive trend inside and outside the Democratic Party is key to exposing, splitting, and defeating the right.

However, as we undertake to build that powerful force, we must try to avoid letting the right split us from moderate allies and thereby prevail. This will be complex given the right’s momentum and the elite realists (and affluent centrists) tendency to collaborate with the right in attacking progressive-leaning social sectors even as they do battle with the right electorally and otherwise.

Only a progressive bloc that is far stronger, more combative, flexible and strategic than what we have now will have a chance to navigate this terrain. Still, the old adage, “unite the left, win over the middle, and isolate the right” was never more relevant.

The stakes are enormous for the people of the world as we enter into the 2012 political season.

Bob Wing is a longtime activist and the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times/Tiempo de Guerras newspaper. He now lives in Durham, NC. Thanks to Max Elbaum for his usual insightful suggestions.

Populism & Hegemony (series)

The broad political Left in the United States has been plagued for decades now with a culture of reaction, fragmentation, issue silo-ing, and a chasm between insiders and outsiders.  Can the concepts of populism and hegemony help to explain these challenges?  What insights might we gain through an exploration of these ideas?

A series on populism and hegemony may sound nerdy, esoteric, and less-than-fully-practical for on-the-ground organizers, campaigners, and advocates for social justice (my intended audience), but I believe that understanding the patterns and processes of these two related concepts is key to effective long-term political struggle.  

In this series I’m digging in and attempting to work out some useful frameworks. I’m a student, not an expert, on these subjects &#151 and I’d love for other folks to weigh in on these ideas.

This is the landing page for the series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Anatomy of Political Identity
  2. Marx’s error
  3. Bonding & Bridging
  4. Long lefty laundry lists
  5. Wisconsin: How Populism Works

Wisconsin: How Populism Works | Populism & Hegemony pt.5

This is the fifth post in a series.

Teachers, students, firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, and even Green Bay Packers players, visibly aligned and defiantly mobilized together in Wisconsin last month, conveyed something very important and powerful. Okay, duh. That’s obvious. If we could orchestrate that kind of line-up all the time, we would, of course. But you can’t just pull that out of a hat.

I concluded Marx’s error saying that “we have some very powerful, very contemporary examples of … populist alignments.”  By which I especially meant Wisconsin.

What are the ingredients of this so-called populism? And how did it come about?

In this post I want to first briefly review a key challenge that makes this kind of alignment so difficult (and therefore, such an important and remarkable accomplishment). Then I’ll take a stab at the original $64 million question: What exactly is populism? What are its elements and processes? And how did it come about in Wisconsin?

The challenge

Our populist mobilization challenge, as I discussed in Marx’s error, is that our society is highly fragmented and heterogeneous. It’s not like a hundred years ago where there was a huge emergent “group” called the industrial working class, whose lifestyles and conditions were similar enough so as to signify similarity to such an extent that “working class consciousness” could emerge (in concert with a lot of remarkable organizing), which meant that a critical mass of people conceptualized themselves as part of a “group” called the working class. Today, even though the same class structures and relationships of exploitation exist, now we all have so many opportunities to express ourselves in such differentiating ways. When we walk down the street, when we get in our cars (or onto public transportation), when we go about our day-to-day lives, in important ways we’re constantly signaling difference:

“I’m a Christian.” “I’m an atheist.” “I’m a punk.” “I’m a golfer.” “I’m a Lady Gaga fan.” “I’m an existentialist.” “I’m an academic.” “I’m a graphic designer.” “I’m a mother.” “I’m an Asian American.” “I’m gay.” “I’m an activist.” “I’m a hunter.” “I’m an environmentalist.” “I’m a southerner.”

By adorning ourselves with distinctions&#151with those things that we feel are meaningful to us as individuals as we construct our particular identities&#151we are a more self-expressive society. And there are many, many positive things about such a shift. The challenge is that it makes the construction of active political solidarity difficult. By not signaling similarity, we’re not triggering those primal, preconscious parts of our brains that evolved to benefit the groups we’re part of (and to secure our individual places within those groups) &#151 those parts that stimulate instincts whose “script” is essentially, “Hey, you’re like me! We’re part of a group! You’re plight is my plight, and my plight is your plight! We’re in this together!” When our expressions indicate difference rather than similarity, we often trigger a negative side of our primal selves &#151 a part whose script is, “OTHER! OTHER!! DANGER!!! ANXIETY!!! FEAR!!!!” or a milder version: “Hey, I can’t really relate to you, so I’d just as soon avoid you and talk to my crew, who I’m far more comfortable around.”

This makes it difficult to mobilize “groups” in solidarity with one another. It’s not always because we don’t care at all about “each other’s issues”. But we all have only so much time and energy, and we tend to orient ourselves toward the things that are most important to the groups with which we primarily identify. So, while I may care about climate change, I may not come out to a rally to stop mountain top removal, because my union has been neck deep trying to pass health care reform legislation. There are only so many hours in a day!

So, back to Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker singles out public workers for his attack plan. Hey, maybe we all care about the issue, but we all care about a lot of issues, right? Only so many hours in the day. One can certainly imagine a scenario where only the public workers who are affected make any noise about the attack; them and the “usual suspect” radicals who come out to oppose everything. I can certainly imagine such a scenario. Indeed, this is more or less the scenario I have seen most of the time for most of my life. Sucks that teachers are getting screwed, but hey, what’s new, right? I’m a farmer, and we’re getting screwed too, but I don’t see anyone mobilizing to support me. I’m a firefighter, and I’m glad I’m not getting screwed. I’m with the Green Bay Packers, and we just won the effing Super Bowl! I’m going to Disney Land!!

It could have happened like this, but it didn’t. Instead Gov. Walker’s attacks were met with an overwhelming outpouring of resistance from many sectors, professions, and groups &#151 a populist alignment, if you will.

So, how did it happen?

Message in a bottle

The following series of illustrations is the result of trying to explain Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason to a friend over drinks.  (Thanks and apologies to Laclau, whose insightful work I am about to totally bastardize.)

Figure 1:

The above bottles represent social aggregations (commonly known as “groups”). Now, social aggregations don’t typically have such defined walls around them as these here bottles might suggest, but deal with it; these bottles = social aggregations. Moreover, they represent contemporary social aggregations/groups in Wisconsin. For example, one of these bottles represents Wisconsin public school teachers, another represents university students, then firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, Green Bay Packers, and so on. Not all the bottles in all of Wisconsin are included here. The figure leaves out inherently conservative groups (the hard opposition). It does not, however, leave out social aggregations that hold mixed&#151or less than fully defined&#151political dispositions. The above bottles are the groups that could potentially be in alignment. Think of them as potential allies.

Figure 2:

Enter group identity. Each group’s identity is represented by a different color filling each bottle &#151 to illustrate that group identities are indeed particular. As discussed in Bonding & Bridging, groups bond over what is common among group members, and these particular within-group commonalities also make the group distinct from other groups. Firefighters fight fires. Teachers teach. These are obvious defining features, but group identity can come to encompass infinite less obvious particularities, from fashion to rhetoric to organizational structures.

Group members feel at home in their particular bottle. That is to say they identify with their social aggregation, and they concern themselves with the affairs of their group &#151 much more so than with the affairs of other groups. A teacher may be thankful that firefighters exist, and vice versa, but that doesn’t mean either typically has the time or capacity to concern herself with the other’s situation.

To be clear, these bottles can represent all sorts of groups and aggregations &#151 not just professions (or unions representing professions). One bottle could represent Methodists, another could represent the NAACP. (And, to repeat, social identities don’t typically have such neatly defined boundaries as a bottle may suggest.)

So, these groups are each doing their thing. For particular reasons, the NAACP may be focusing on a particular campaign (that, no doubt, grows organically out of the group identity and reflects group-constructed values and priorities), and the Methodist Church may be focusing on other efforts. The AFL-CIO might have some other focus, and, within the AFL-CIO, different trade unions will have different priorities too. Students might be all over the place, clustering by their interests from hobbies and sports to academic disciplines to activist groups that focus on a variety of issues. Of course, any given group would probably love for all the other groups to concern themselves with that group’s issue. But, again, there are only so many hours in a day.

Thus the fragmentation and issue-silos I lamented at the start of this series really seem a pretty inevitable fact of life. We do not have a commander of a centrally coordinated Left who can say, “Hey, everyone, drop what you’re doing and focus your attention right here right now!”

Figure 3:

Enter Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature. What’s happening to those group identities? Something is bubbling up at the top of all those bottles. The groups are processing what radical Republican control of both houses and the governorship might mean for them and their interests. This layer of each group’s particular identity is common among these groups. They each develop a wary attitude toward the power structure, as they perceive how a Republican trifecta might interfere with the realization of group goals. The groups share that wariness in common. (Again, groups that are inherently conservative aren’t featured in this illustration. They’re piled up on some other table.)

This emerging layer of commonality creates a new opportunity to, as Robert Putnam would say, bridge between groups. Ernesto Laclau would say that this common component of each group’s particular identity creates an equivalential logic, which is to say that each group starts seeing each other group’s concerns as equivalent to its own. The ingredients for a new (or at least powerfully refreshed) public start to emerge.

Figure 4:

In this figure Gov. Walker et al single out a target: public workers, represented by the elevated bottle, which Walker wants to break. But that foaming red layer in each bottle&#151in each group’s identity&#151causes each group to see the attack on the teachers and public workers as equivalent to an attack on itself. The equivalential logic becomes an equivalential chain, binding the groups with stronger solidary ties, ultimately resulting in a kind of meta-group &#151 a new (or at least newly refreshed) public. This new public is a projection of proximate group-oriented instincts&#151the group-serving instincts that are a day-to-day part of our experiences with proximate groups&#151onto a more abstract conception of a group (i.e. a public). Thus the proximate group provides a level of commitment and solidarity that only comes through face-to-face, flesh-and-blood, strong tie organization, while the “equivalential chain” between many groups facilitates the projection of this strong within-group solidarity onto a broader public.

Figure 5:

This figure illustrates what I just described playing out. The red line represents the equivalential chain, which connects the freshly politicized&#151now fully adversarial toward Gov. Walker&#151layer of each group’s identity. The public workers “bottle” becomes a symbol that each group sees itself represented by. And almost overnight hundreds of thousands are mobilized in Wisconsin, constituting what we might call a quintessential populist alignment.

Lookin’ a little shaken there, Walker.

The “empty signifier”

The public workers became a catalyzing symbol in which each group in the emerging populist alignment sees a reflection of itself &#151 and to which each group sees its own prospects and future tied. Any populist alignment requires such a catalyzing symbol (or cluster of symbols). The symbol serves to “name”/crystallize the new public. It is the essential focal point that allows groups to extend their strong internal solidarity&#151derived from within-group bonding&#151beyond themselves.

I want to discuss three important things about such a catalyzing symbol: 1) the symbol is necessarily ambiguous, 2) the symbol is not inherently progressive in character or result, and 3) the symbol can take many different forms. I will briefly discuss these in reverse order.

The symbol can take many different forms. Paste George W. Bush’s face over top Scott Walker’s and think back to the waning days of the Bush Administration. The electoral campaign of then-candidate Barack Obama provides another case study of a populist alignment. Obama himself became the “catalyzing symbol in which each group in the emerging populist alignment [saw] a reflection of itself &#151 and to which each group [saw] its own prospects and future tied.” Bush had become such a villain to so many swaths of society by the end of his presidency that that red layer in those bottles&#151the layer of identity that is in opposition, typically to an authority&#151had profoundly shifted most group identities in the whole of US society. Obama the candidate&#151in large part through his brilliant oratory skills&#151emerged as the symbol to which so many social aggregations came to see their hopes tied.

So in the case of Wisconsin, a huge grouping of people served as the catalyzing symbol&#151under the label “public workers”&#151and they were thrown into this role overnight by forces beyond of their control. While in the case of the 2008 election, one person&#151Barack Obama&#151served as the symbol, and he emerged as such over a longer period of time.

The symbol might also be neither a group nor a person. It could be something like a label or a brand. Take Obama out of the catalyzing symbol role and paste his face in the place that Walker and Bush had occupied in the previous examples. He is now the authority figure that another set of identities is aligning against. The label “Tea Party” is constructed/resurrected (/manufactured by Dick Armey et al) to serve the purpose of the catalyzing symbol, which leads to the next point about catalyzing symbols…

The symbol is not inherently progressive in character or result, which should have already been apparent to most readers through my discussion of Barack Obama as a catalyzing symbol. But the Tea Party as catalyzing symbol makes this even clearer. All sorts of populist moments are possible &#151 from the French Revolution, to the New Deal, to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Populism is a kind of formation; a pattern and process of political alignment between social forces in relation to opposing alignments.  All shades and stripes of political ideologies can and have strategically engaged in populist strategy &#151 sometimes ushering in profound advances in social equality and human welfare; sometimes resulting in the worst horrors of human history.

The symbol is necessarily ambiguous. For a catalyzing symbol to appeal to a lot of different groups at the same time&#151for a diversity of constituencies and interests to see themselves and their hopes reflected in the same symbol&#151it must necessarily be ambiguous. The symbol is more about a general, ambiguous direction than it is about detailed solutions. The more you dig into the details&#151the more you try to nail down the symbol’s precise significance&#151the more the myriad differences between groups’ particular visions and goals come into focus. You risk emphasizing difference in a political moment that demands an emphasis on “universality”. You risk exposing fissures in the tentative populist alignment.

This is why Ernesto Laclau calls this catalyzing symbol the empty signifier. I’m not too fond of that term, but what he’s getting at is this necessary ambiguity. It is conceptually useful to think of the contents of the symbol/signifier as empty, and to focus instead on its function in naming/signifying/crystallizing the new populist alignment. A populist alignment will not crystallize without this necessarily ambiguous symbol. You could try to write a document that spells out all of the concerns of a myriad of groups with diverse interests, but in the writing you will undermine the tentative unity of the groups. You might realistically be able to get some radicals from the edges of multiple issue areas together to write such a document, but it’s not going to unite anyone other than radicals; by trying to spell out everything, you lose nearly everyone. This is one reason why sectarian groups that try to organize “the masses” by first trying to refine everyone’s political analysis are perpetually not getting anywhere (other than in the way).

Consider for a moment candidate Obama as empty signifier. The consistent Republican strategy throughout the campaign was to attempt to overly associate Obama with particular constituencies and concerns&#151to “nail him down” and fill in the contents of the signifier (in very calculated ways)&#151in order to prevent other groups in the emerging populist alignment from being able to see their own identities and hopes in the symbol of Obama. Obama dodged metaphorical bullets like Neo in the Matrix. His steady retort&#151most remarkably demonstrated in responding to his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright&#151was to associate himself with universal elements of multiple identities. This feat was performed with tremendous skill (and self-conscious preparation, utilizing Marshall Ganz’ “story of self, us and now” framework).

All of this is to demonstrate the critical importance of the ambiguity of the catalyzing symbol in the construction of a populist alignment. This idea of positive strategic value in ambiguity may offend some progressive sensibilities. We want clarity. I sure as heck do. There are certainly times when clarity is precisely what is called for. And, to be clear, there can be a tremendous cost to this necessary ambiguity. But effective social change agents must befriend ambiguity; we gotta “get intimate and comfortable” with it. If you can’t turn off your need for clear definitions in some moments, you may well attain your clear definitions. But you’re not likely to build the kind of collective progressive power we need to start turning this thing around.

PolitiFacts’ Pants On Fire: Who Will Fact-Check The Fact-Checkers? Part I: Rachel Maddow Calls Foul

    In February, PolitiFact said that Rachel Maddow lied about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. But in making their argument, PolitiFact itself lied about what Rachel Maddow actually said.  In fact, they completely misrepresented and distracted from her actual argument.  Thus, they materially helped support the GOP’s fraudulent narrative about what was going on in Wisconsin.  Now PolitiFact is at it again, supporting the GOP’s fraudulent narrative that they’re “saving” Medicare by doing away with it and replacing it with an inadequate private voucher-like system.  When Democrats ran an ad saying that Republicans in Congress voted to end Medicare, PolitiFact rated it “Pants on Fire.”  But PolitiFact itself is the one who’s lying.  It has now turned into the exact OPPOSITE of what it pretends to be. In this 3-part diary series, I look at these two examples, and then discuss the backstory of fraudulent GOP politics which PolitiFact is now actively supporting.

On Feb 17, during the first week of massive protests in Wisconsin, Rachel Maddow did a segment (transcript here) in which she fundamentally challenged the dominant narrative about what was going on in the state. “It’s Not About the Budget” was her theme in that segment, and it was a theme that she would return to again and again in subsequent programs-both about Wisconsin, and about GOP shenanigans elsewhere as well..  

Her logic behind her argument was fairly straightforward:  If the battle in Wisconsin was over a budget crisis, then at a minimum, (a) there ought to actually be a budget crisis and (b) the actions taken ought to be about resolving that crisis.  But both these propositions were false.  What was not in doubt is that public employee union’s political power would be severely undermined, and public employee unions were the only significant institutional power left supporting the Democratic Party in the post-Citizens United era.

In presenting her case, Maddow did make one broad claim that was mistaken, because it relied on data that needed more interpretation.  What’s more, that occurred at the very beginning of the segment. But that lead-in was not implicated in the central logic of her argument.  Indeed, there was other information she did not address that further supported her argument (more on that below), and the central thrust of her argument was not only substantially true, but also vitally important for an accurate understanding of what was actually happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere.  

The basic truth of Maddows’ analysis was clearly confirmed within a matter of days, when the public employee unions in question agreed to all the financial concessions being asked of them, but demanded that non-financial changes in state law be dropped from the “budget repair ” legislation-and the Republicans refused. From that point forward, it was no longer deniable that the Wisconsin “budget crisis” was not about the budget at all: it was about destroying the targeted public employee unions as political actors.

And yet, on February 18, the “fact-checking” organization PolitiFact ignored the main substance of Maddow’s argument-as well as her very own words and claimed that Maddow’s take was “false” because she lead off by saying, “Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.”  However, PolitiFact both ignored the main thrust of Maddow’s argument and ignored the fact that Maddow later said, ” Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus-now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall.”  

In fact, PolitiFact went out of its way to create a false narrative about what Maddow had said, conflating her reporting with “A volley of e-mails, blog posts and inquiries to reporters [that] followed a  Madison Capital Times editorial on Feb. 16, 2011, that said no state budget deficit exists for 2010-’11 — or if it does, it’s the fault of Walker and the Republicans in the Legislature.”

It’s important to note that I’m bending over backward to be fair to PolitiFact here, even though they showed no such consideration for Maddow.  At the root of whatever genuine controversy exists, there was a state-level CBO-like document stating that Wisconsin had a modest budget surplus at the beginning of the year-which was cited by the above-mentioned Capital Times editorial. However, this was only part of the analysis, which evidently is always less clear-cut than actual CBO documents are.  So PolitiFact had a point, if their only criticism of Maddow was that she had mistakenly taken part of the admittedly unclear document to represent the entire budget outlook.

However, that was not what PolitiFact actually argued–nor was it in any way central to Maddow’s actual argument. Instead, they made at least two demonstrably false claims: The first, implicit, that Maddow never acknowledged there was a budget shortfall, and the second, explicit, that Maddow blamed the 2010 shortfall on actions Walker initiated in January, which only impacted the 2011 budget.

Maddow’s executive produce, Bill Wolf, wrote to PolitiFact, seeking a correction on February 21, by which time the union’s wage and benefits concessions had already been rejected by Walker and the GOP, thus validating the main thrust of Maddow’s argument.  In part, Wolff said:

In your effort to challenge a Capital Times editorial you have mistakenly ascribed the argument therein to Rachel Maddow. In so doing, you have half-quoted her in one instance, misquoted her in another, and misrepresented her overall.

Ms. Maddow is well aware of the Wisconsin budget shortfall. She said so just a few sentences after the line you decided to single out for “truthometry”:

“Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus-now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall.”

To suggest — as your headline does — that we somehow neglected to report on the state’s real budget shortfall is absolutely erroneous. 

We recognize the journalistic value in writing a “where did the budget shortfall come from” piece, but, if you need a bogeyman to deny the existence of the shortfall so you can make your case in the Politifact truth-o-meter gotcha format, you should pick someone who didn’t explicitly say, “there is, in fact, a … shortfall.”

Your piece concludes with this summary:

“There should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall … We rate Maddow’s take False”

There isn’t any debate on that.  To suggest that we stated otherwise — while simultaneously leaving out a key part of our report — is a mistake on your part that damages the reputation of Ms. Maddow and MSNBC and therefore warrants immediate remedy.  Ignoring that Maddow did state the facts correctly is irresponsible and inaccurate and must be corrected.

More egregious, however, is Politifact’s false assertion– stated as fact, over and over again– that our report blamed Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature for the current budget shortfall: 

“She added a kicker that is also making the rounds: Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature this year gave away $140 million in business tax breaks — so if there is a deficit projected of $137 million, they created it.”

That synopsis of our report is a complete fabrication. Maddow never stated — not once– that Governor Walker’s tax breaks were the direct cause of the budget deficit this year. 

To state unequivocally — as you do here — that Maddow blamed Governor Walker directly for the current budget shortfall is a complete and utter distortion.  And, yet, it’s an assertion that is made repeatedly throughout your post….

Later in that same email, Wolf went on to explain how completely PolitiFact had misunderstood the segment:

The point of that whole introduction to the show is that the budget isn’t the real issue.  That’s why Maddow says, “What’s happening in Wisconsin right now is not about a budget.” The point of the segment is not to correct the governor’s math because it’s not about the budget. She’s not trying to find blame for the budget shortfall because — again — it’s not about the budget.  Maddow’s argument is that one way we know it’s not about the budget is that the governor was willing to give away roughly the same amount as this year’s possible shortfall. So, regardless of what the Governor says, the shortfall must not be so dire…

PolitiFact never responded to The Rachel Maddow Show’s request for a correction-despite a second email from Wolf, after a response from the media outlet that posted PolitiFact’s “analysis”. As a result, The Rachel Maddow Show later devoted a segment to debunking PoltiFact’s false accusation-and it was a doozy.  But it’s not enough to leave such debunking up to the aggrieved party alone.  When so-called “fact-checkers” become part of the propaganda war they’re supposed to be refereeing, everyone has an interest in crying foul.

So, just to be perfectly clear, here is a direct quote from the transcript of Maddow’s Feb 17 program, which PolitiFact severely misrepresented:

The state is not bankrupt.  Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus-now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall.  Republican Governor Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office.

Hey, wait.  That’s about exactly the size of the shortfall.

What is happening in Wisconsin right now has absolutely nothing to do with public workers.  The headline here, the way this keeps getting shorthanded, is workers angry after state is forced by budget crisis to crack down.

That’s not what’s going on.  The state is not being forced to crack down.  A lot of states do have budget crises right now, but heading into this year, Wisconsin was not one of them.

As is perfectly clear from the above, (a) Maddow does say that there is shortfall-contrary to PolitiFact’s claim;  (b) she does not say that the $140 million in business tax cuts caused the $137 budget shortfall, only that the two are “about exactly” the same size.  Bill Wolf’s email is spot on.

Perhaps a bit less clear-but equally important for the big picture, Maddow is drawing a distinction between a $137 million shortfall, and a full-blown budget crisis.  This is a very sensible distinction for anyone familiar with the overall landscape of state budget problems. In fact, a November 2010 “State Budget Update” from the National Conference of State Legislators said there were no major crises looming for 2010 budgets, though further cuts were going to be required for 2011 and 2012.  Its only mention of Wisconsin involved higher-than-anticipated cigarette tax revenues, along with Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Not only that, Walker’s “budget repair” bill actually contained a single non-controversial item to restructure Wisconsin’s debt that all by itself would have closed the shortfall without requiring any labor concessions whatsoever.  Indeed, the press release for the “budget repair” bill clearly stated:

“The budget repair will also restructure the state debt, lowering the state’s interest rate, saving the state $165 million.”

Yet, somehow all the major media outlets managed to overlook this, an astounding failure of basic journalism that I pointed out in an email quoted at length by Sam Smith at Scholars and Rouges (“Journalism Accomplished: why aren’t news organizations telling the whole truth in Wisconsin and why aren’t the state’s conservatives demanding secession?”)

If a single non-controversial action can close a budget shortfall, there is clearly no sense in which the shortfall itself is a crisis.  The only crisis is a political one-and that is precisely the main thrust of Maddow’s reporting and analysis.  It’s bad enough that PolitiFact focused on a relatively inconsequential part of what Maddow said, and worse still that PolitiFact lied about what Maddow said on air in the heart of her argument.  But worst of all was the fact that PolitiFact completely obfuscated the most important thing that Maddow said-and that virtually everyone else in the commentariat had missed: That the “crisis” was political, not economic, and that it was manufactured by the Republicans.

Here’s Maddow’s on-air refutation of PolitiFact’s false accusation:

In Part II, I look at PolitiFact’s attack on Democrats for correctly charging that Congressional Republicans had voted to end Medicare.  

Tacking Into the Winds of Change | Narrative Strategy for Building Transformative Movements

Lessons from Cairo

“I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand.”

~Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and creator of
online persona “El Shaheed” (The Martyr)

The seemingly spontaneous, Facebook-fueled uprising in Egypt was the endgame of years of smart organizing. After all, it takes more than a Tweet to turn the oppressive material conditions of poverty and corruption into the launch pad for a transformative movement. A generation of youth activists developed their skills and leadership over time: adapting the theory of strategic nonviolence (as articulated by Gene Sharp), building alliances with organized labor, and exploring new strategies outside of traditional political parties.

These classical elements of a social movement were accelerated and amplified by the effective use of social media. However, what made this a revolutionary moment was not the tactical usage of platforms like Facebook and Twitter-but rather how these technologies became a force multiplier for a unifying narrative strategy. Social media spread video and messaging, and was integrated into Al Jazeera’s coverage of the uprising, so as to create a chorus of the narrative of “Liberation Square” that reached across the world into the west.

There is an ever-evolving ecosystem of applications, outlets, and social networks offering a range of tactics to reach different target audiences. In this increasingly complex and fragmented media environment, we must not confuse tactical tools with an actual strategy. Media tactics – old or new – can only leverage the impact of grassroots organizing when aligned with an effective narrative.

Storytelling has always been central to movement building and successful campaigns, but now being strategic about how we tell our stories is more important than ever. Framing, messaging, building an inviting movement brand and crafting the right memes–or “viral frames,” like the Egyptian uprising’s “We Are All Khaled Said”–is the critical strategy work that determines whether social change vision, demands and mobilizing rhetoric will spread virally across platforms.

Tacking Into the Wind

“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”

~Catherine the Great

It’s hard to believe that it was only two years ago that millions gathered in Washington for the inauguration with chants of “Yes we did!” 2011 is already roiled in turbulent political winds, with regressive budget cuts, immigrant scapegoating, attacks on the rights of women and the attempted roll back of Health Care Reform. The dominant response from the progressive establishment has been to ride the winds of change to the right, and build a cautious strategy disproportionately focused on polling and “messaging to the middle.”

If the Egyptian democracy movement had been relying on the U.S. progressive playbook of 2011, they would have been spending their time and resources doing market segmentation polling with questions like, “Are you ‘somewhat’ concerned about police brutality?” Would carefully selected focus groups in Cairo have approved the message, “Mubarak must go?”

Egypt’s democracy movement knew that in order to activate the aspirations of the people, they couldn’t rely on a message that spoke to status quo assumptions. The problem for Egypt’s reformers was not a lack of information about their conditions. The barrier was a collectivized fear of the regime. As one of the movement’s key strategists Wael Ghonim describes, they had to “break the fear barrier.”

Likewise, in the U.S. one of the primary barriers to stronger movements is not a lack of information but rather the lack of coherent framing strategies that can challenge the dominant right wing narrative and build a broader progressive base across different issue fights. The current piecemeal, specialized and top-down approach to communications-along with the siloing of issues-prevents the overall strategic coordination needed to craft a coherent arc for a meaningful progressive story to move a set of frames across multiple media platforms. To our detriment, progressives have left a narrative vacuum where our movements’ story should be leading the day.

No place is this more painfully obvious than in the ongoing public discourse around the economic crisis. Progressives have always fought for strong regulations and an economy that prioritized the needs of working people over corporate greed. But when Wall Street’s predatory financial speculation blew up our economy, right wing ideologues and corporate apologists drowned out the fact that progressives were right. Remember memes like  “Too big to fail” justifying bailouts, and the narrative that blamed the Community Reinvestment Act for the foreclosure crisis?

As strategists and communicators working in social justice movements, our job is not just to calculate the best response to public opinion. Our job is to shape public opinion to support real solutions and structural change. To succeed we must develop strategies to reframe the debate and then commit to the time and resources needed to change the story.

Unfortunately, the Facts Are Not Enough

“There is a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”

~Maya Angelou

The Tea Party has shown time and again that they have no regard for facts and have a fairly successful meme machine: Climate change? It’s a big government conspiracy. Health care reform? Death Panels! Obama? He is a socialist! Plus, he’s just “different.”  (Psst: Is he really a Christian? Was he really born in the US?)

Matters of fact are attacked with an organized right wing narrative strategy. Never mind that the narrative is ripe with contradictions, bankrolled by billionaires, and is designed to play to a base of aging white men with racist assumptions. It’s power is in both the narrative itself, which has had 40 some-odd years of development, and the force-multiplier effect of a right wing infrastructure and corporatized media ecology.

This is the Battle of the Story-the wide-ranging fight to frame the big debates and assign relevance and meaning to current events and issues. Whose stories will be heard? Which points of view will become accepted as conventional wisdom? Which will be marginalized and dismissed? Will collective desire be harnessed for the common good, or hijacked for private gain?

So why haven’t progressives built a unifying narrative or invested in the infrastructure to spread it? We contend that one of the most fundamental reasons is a failure to understand the central role of narrative in social change strategy. This failure stems from progressives’ outdated attachment to the idea that facts alone are an effective method for persuading someone of a political point of view.

There is a crucial difference between delivering data or analysis, and making meaning in the minds and hearts of human beings. The prevailing tendency in our sector is to emphatically state something factually true, and assume that it will be meaningful and persuasive to our audience. But the innate human capacity for narrative means that our experience of “truth” is much more complex than a rational weighing of the facts. As every advertiser knows, we are guided by our hearts and guts much more than our logical minds. Most importantly, we are deeply influenced by what we already know; our existing frames tend to filter out inconvenient facts that don’t reinforce our existing beliefs.

In other words, while progressives have been busy winning the battle of the facts we’ve been losing the Battle of the Story. Having the facts on our side and the relevant policy proposals is important but it’s just the starting point. Next we need to tell the larger stories that make the truth-the truth about poverty, racism, environmental destruction about the possibility of collective action to create a fairer, saner, better world-meaningful to the people we are trying to reach and resonant in the larger cultural sphere.

To work at the necessary scale, we must get beyond the idea that messaging is a technical assistance category, and understand narrative as central to an overall social movement strategy. The model of delegating such critical political work to outside experts-in the hopes they will “fix” the way social movements frame issues-has too often sacrificed vision for perceived reach. The result has been a failure to contest dominant frames and a stunting of our collective progress. Instead we need messaging strategies that both challenge the status quo and resonate with a larger audience. To develop these types of transformative narratives requires communicators who are actively embedded in grassroots struggles and can help impacted communities build their story from the bottom up.

Story-based Strategy: An Invitation for Innovation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In smartMeme’s eight years of fieldwork we have found that there is a fundamental lack of communications leadership and capacity in the grassroots organizing sector. While many young organizers are “digital natives” who have grown up using online and mobile technologies, and they understand how to communicate in their online environment, they actually often lack the traditional communications and media skills needed to reach beyond their base. At the same time, veteran organizers can easily feel left behind by the fast changing terrain and feel pressure to chase the latest communication technology fad without getting the support to meaningfully integrate it into their organizing strategy. Meanwhile, there is a prevailing lack of literacy about narrative and framing in the sector, combined with a deep hunger for an effective response to the way the right wing is shaping discourse.

In order meet these vast capacity shortfalls, and to satiate the appetite for a more offensive, pro-active strategy to narrate a progressive vision, we will need scale-up.

In this day and age every organizer’s toolbox and every social change campaign should include an applied understanding of story-based strategy: how to analyze dominant culture stories, reframe issues, and craft effective messages. Our movements desperately need a ground force of story-based strategists who are both versed in traditional media skills and equipped to experiment with online environments.

If our movements are going to win the Battle of the Story-and create more fertile cultural ground for movement building and organizing-we need to expand our skills, our strategy and our connectivity infrastructure. The best way to build this scale while keeping it anchored in democratic and accountable organizing is to grow it from the ground up. We must invest in helping base building organizations build and integrate communications into their grassroots organizing, resulting in louder voices for justice that can resonate in the popular discourse.

But reclaiming our space in the cultural debate will take even more than skills and sound bites. We’re going to need to invest the time and resources into building an “echo effect” of shared frames-spread through coordinated and connective media infrastructure-that can articulate a broader progressive vision across sectors.

We live in fast changing times, and people-powered movements are poised to shatter notions of the politically possible. Indeed, the grassroots uprising spreading out of Wisconsin is a powerful indicator of the potential for new narratives to emerge and unify a broad base. So what does it take for social justice forces in the US to go from a defensive stance to an offensive strategy? How can we build movements to win the Battle of the Story?

Now is the time to experiment and find out. This is a moment to tack into the wind, rather than ride the draft of the right wing narrative. Let’s set sail.

Originally published at

About SmartMeme: SmartMeme is an emerging social change strategy center dedicated to building movements for social and ecological justice with the power of narrative. The organization bridges the gap between strategic communications and grassroots organizing by reimagining methods to achieve fundamental social change with story-based approaches to strategy and framing. Over the past eight years smartMeme has trained over 3,000 organizers and partnered with over 100 high impact organizations to frame issues, strengthen alliances and win campaigns. In 2010 smartMeme released Re:Imagining Change – How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World on PM Press. Learn more at:

Wisconsin: people are organized = politicians have spines

Hats off to the good people of Wisconsin who are standing up.  I’ve been glued to the screen and tweeting about it all day.

It’s great to see some courage from progressive Democratic office holders.  It’s a good reminder for all of us who are working for social justice – that we on “the outside” are the source of courage for allies (and potential allies) on “the inside.”  As my friend Zack Hershman posted this afternoon: “people are organized = politicians have spines.”  Our task is always to build and leverage grassroots people power that is strong enough to counter the formidable power of our very resourced opponents.

Right does not equal might.  It’s great that the teachers and public workers and their allies in Wisconsin have truth and justice on their side, but I’m pretty happy that they’re also packing a punch, aren’t you?

What are you reading about what’s going down in Wisconsin?

Orienting New Members & Volunteers to a Local Group

Three Tips for Plugging People In

Bringing in new members or volunteers is essential to any local group that wants to grow in size and capacity. However, attracting or recruiting new people to your group is only the first step. Getting them to stick around can be a much bigger challenge! The good news is that there are tried and true methods you can use to plug new members and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the group, and will increase what your group is capable of achieving.

Click thumbnail image on left to download this post as a PDF worksheet.

1. Schedule one-on-one welcome interviews.

When someone says they’re interested in finding out more or getting involved in your group, don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting. Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders. To increase your new member retention rates, schedule one-on-one intake interviews with new folks before they come to a group meeting. Get to know the person. Find out about what attracted them to the group, what kinds of tasks they enjoy or are good at, and how much time they have. Then tell them more about the group and discuss with them what their involvement could look like. You can use and adapt the questions on side two of this sheet. While this level of orientation requires more time in the short-term, it saves time in the long-term; people tend to plug into the work faster and stick around longer. It may make sense for one or two members of your group to take on orienting new folks as an ongoing role.

2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.

In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting this as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them.  Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.

3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.

If you want to inspire people to stick with your group for the long haul, you’ll need to make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! If social movement groups want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well and take care of each other.  Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often:What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.

Welcome Interview Template

Below is a basic welcome interview template to help you orient new members and volunteers to your group. Add questions or adapt these according to what information is most useful to your group. A welcome interview is as much about relationship building as it is about information gathering. For this reason it’s better for the “interviewer” in your group to fill out the form, rather than to just hand it to the new person.

Meet over coffee or lunch or whatever is most comfortable or convenient. Schedule an hour, and spend the first half asking the new member/volunteer about herself or himself.  Start with the basic getting-to-know-you stuff (are they from the area? in school? working? involved in other causes or groups?) before moving into the more formal questions below. Spend the second half of the meeting telling them more about the group and discussing with them possible ways they may want to plug in.

Enter the information into your member database and keep it safe.





1. How did you find out about the group?

2. What attracted you to the group?

3. Are you interested in volunteering time? If so, what is a realistic and sustainable amount of time you would like to commit (a number of hours per week or per month)?

4. Are there specific days or times when you could be regularly available? 5. Do you have skills that may be useful to the group (e.g. finance, book-keeping, fundraising, design, photography, public speaking, writing, management, facilitation, mediation, DJing, performance, other)?

6. Are there areas of work that you are particularly interested in helping with?

7. Are you interested in skills and leadership development opportunities?

8. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Wisconsin | Lost & found: a hegemonic progressive narrative

Every once in a long while something comes along that inspires progressives all across the country – all at once – and that has the power to reach beyond the boundaries of our progressive circles, to break out of the cognitive boxes we’ve been placed in, and to associate fresh meanings with old labels, such as: organized labor, unions, workers’ rights, collective bargaining.

These once powerful terms and labels have been systematically slandered (negatively branded) for decades – so that too much of the public has become inoculated against them – but in Wisconsin there’s an opening to make these concepts powerful again to a new generation.

Chris Bowers spells it out at Daily Kos today:

Recent surveys from Pew and Clarus (PDF) do not give unions, in the abstract, very high marks from the public. The Clarus poll is particularly brutal. However, when the abstraction is removed and the people fighting for unions are your neighbors, your friends and your children’s teachers, then people tend to side with the union.

This point is demonstrated by the first non-partisan poll to ask Wisconsin residents what they thought of Governor Scott Walker’s controversial plan for public sector unions. According to the poll, a majority of Wisconsin residents don’t like it…

I wonder how we’ll see this moment when we look back on it five years from now.  Perhaps it will dissipate as other openings have.  But maybe not.  There’s a lot of potential here.  When we positively and popularly rebrand the core concepts and vehicles of progressive power, we accomplish many things at once.  We suddenly have a compelling solidarity-based narrative.  Such a narrative (and cognitive frame) is always available to the usual suspects, but it is rare in recent decades for it to take on a hegemonic quality in society.  Such a narrative is precisely what the Democratic Party has been so lacking these past three decades – and it is the very narrative that had awarded the party the hegemony it had enjoyed for four decades before (from FDR nearly until Reagan).  

It is a narrative that potently exposes the contradictions of a conservative coalition that is comprised of fractions that do not really make sense together.  As Tom Tomorrow tweeted today:

Just so I’m clear on this: Tea Party is siding decisively with government in its battle against middle class Americans?

Sure, the cognitive dissonance will be lost on the hard core, but social change isn’t about persuading the hardest opposition.  It’s about isolating them.  The banner of economic populism belongs to organized labor and organized civil society – not to the concoction of the so-called Tea Party.  Popular uprisings like we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Ohio – and who knows where next – take that banner back for us to wave loudly, proudly, and powerfully.  So powerfully that some Democratic politicians finally find their words and their spine, as Wisconsin has so clearly illustrated.