Don’t mourn — organize! The classic union motto. So simple. We all agree with it, right? It is not something we need to seriously reflect on, right? We can just print it on a placard and stick it up on the wall by the coffee machine, right?
In fact, for the past few decades the progressive movement has worked under a different motto: Don’t mourn — mobilize! And we have gotten good at mobilizing. In the 2004 presidential election, we set the movement record for mobilizing. And we lost.
Out emphasis on mobilizing is structured right into many of our leading organizations, from MoveOn to Greenpeace, temporary voter coalitions, and more. But experience has shown that organization that are not built around organizing, per se, are ill-equipped for that task and will fail.
By “organizing,” I mean an approach that has at its core a day-to-day, direct relationship with the base, and that uses this relationship to challenge people’s core assumptions, to move them from individual to collective action, to teach workers and regular folks how to take on powerful foes and win on issues that matter.
There are simply no shortcuts to this. We know this because we have spent the past twenty years looking for one and have not found it. Right now, the fashionable shortcut is using the Internet. Ten years ago it was direct mail, robo phones, phone banks, opinion research, and “sophisticated media.” None of this is bad; of course it is a good thing to poll and message and phone and communicate in better ways. All of this is important, and all of it adds up to more wins and a stronger movement. But none of this can replace organizing. It must be in addition to it.
In sorting out the election, the right’s use of fear is emerging as a central theme. Unions deal with this every day — we are the antifear experts. Fear is a big factor in every organizing drive. Voting for a union and even fighting for it means overcoming fear of retaliation. This is basically loss of livelihood; this is not at all trivial.
The usual formulation is that fear leads people to vote against their own interests. So workers vote against unions, or Americans vote for a president who will lead them into disastrous wars and give away the treasury to the richest of the rich.
This formulation, however, is not helpful. If people really vote against their own interests, then there is no way out. But, in fact, people don’t do that. The problem is not that people vote against their interests but that their expectations of what might be possible to win are so low that they define their interests in a distorted way. For example, if voting out the union is the only way to keep food on the table, then that is in your interest. If you think having good wages, health insurance, a pension, and a safe work environment are things you have no realistic chance of ever winning, then you don’t risk the food on the table for them. Likewise, if you don’t think the federal government might ever do anything good for you, you might settle for a president who promises “security.”
The fear problem is, at root, a problem of low expectations. The key is to raise expectations — to get people to believe, through constant and direct experience, that they not only have the right to more, but that they can actually win more.