Can Social Movements Save Democracy?
Lessons from grass-roots organizing
Feb 1, 2003
21 Min read time
I. Politics without People?
Several years ago a friend of mine rang the local Democratic Party organization to ask how he might pitch in. The person on the other end of the line took his name and politely answered that they didn’t really have much for him to do; he could send a check or perhaps call back during the campaign season. In an age when public communication is dominated by mass-mailings and expensive broadcast media it is certainly predictable, and may be inevitable, that the business of politics depends upon capturing large sums of money rather than harnessing the allegiance and talents of citizens. American politics is dominated on both the left and the right by political parties and interest groups for whom membership consists of little more than an annual contribution and a trip to the polling booth.
For years the American left has contended that this path can end only in defeat. While the medium of politics may change and require nimble adjustments, a fundamental truth endures: the only two sources of power in politics are organized money and organized people. While left-of-center parties, interests, and organizations may score some victories by focusing on the former, they forsake their legacies and natural bases of support in doing so. What they get is Republican control over the White House and both houses of Congress; large-scale war in Iraq; smaller wars in Latin America, Asia, and Africa; capital-gains, income, and inheritance tax cuts that benefit the very wealthiest amid unprecedented inequality, looming public deficits, and economic malaise; and state and local budget crises that will certainly starve public education and human services.
Several recent books argue forcefully that progressives need to embrace a people-centered style of politics. Exploring the strategies and methods of highly successful community organizing efforts, they argue that a broader acceptance of their principles of political mobilization would reinvigorate not only the American left but democracy in general. Paul Osterman’s Gathering Power and Mark R. Warren’s Dry Bones Rattling examine the marvelously successful and increasingly notable Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Richard Wood’s Faith in Action probes parallel efforts of the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing (PICO) and the Center for Third World Organizing in Oakland, California. Francesca Polletta’s Freedom is an Endless Meeting analyzes the role of participatory decision-making in a range of twentieth century social movement organizations.
Three major themes emerge from these books. First, organizing strategies can work, even in unlikely places like the border region of south Texas with its diverse population and widespread poverty. Warren and Wood led a national survey of faith-based organizations that identified more than 133 local networks that “plausibly claim to touch the lives of two million members of these institutions.” A major contribution of Warren’s book is to explain how the IAF generates political influence at the state and regional levels by fostering and combining rather than overruling the power of its local affiliates throughout Texas. The Texas IAF has secured living-wage provisions in the Rio Grande Valley, $70 million to support public health services in impoverished Texas counties, a $100 million bond package for clean water in Texas border towns, and tens of millions of dollars for community schools across Texas.
Second, following the central argument of Polletta’s book, these groups organize themselves in participatory ways because it works,not simply because of an abstract commitment to participation. They build power by organizing people through individual and group meetings, studying public issues that affect their interests, and by direct action.
Third, people participate in these organizations to advance deep interests and values often rooted in religious conviction and practice. The United States is the most heavily churched of all industrialized nations. Virtually all Americans profess some religious belief; the vast majority claim to be members of a church or synagogue, and almost half say they attend church frequently. Despite well-grounded liberal fears of too much religion in politics—fears that state power will be used to impose one set of beliefs over another or about the divisiveness of religious argument in a pluralistic society—progressives must find ways to appeal to religious commitments and institutions lest they forfeit this ground to religious conservatives. Osterman, Warren, and Wood contend that organizations like the IAF and PICO succeed by politicizing religion and religious individuals to advance the causes of poor people.
II. Social Capital with Fangs
According to one prominent contemporary diagnosis, alienation is the cancer that poisons our democracy. A society in which people do not know one another, do not trust each other, and are consumed with individual, private passions rather than social and public activities is a society in which citizens seldom vote, pay attention to the accomplishments or abuses of officials, or engage directly in politics. Such a society cannot breathe democratic life into the skin of self-government: political campaigns, elections, and representation. Robust democratic government depends not just upon the machinery of formal politics but also upon aspects of social organization such as networks that connect people to one another, individual propensities to join associations and cooperate with one another, and the degree to which people trust one another.
Theorists such as Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol argue that communities and polities infused with such networks, norms, and trust—called social capital in the shorthand of social science—have more efficient governments, responsive representatives, politically engaged citizens, better schools, less crime, healthier populations, and vibrant economies. Unfortunately, democracy often lacks just what it needs. Putnam and others use a vast array of historical and survey data to sketch decades-long trends in which people are joining fewer associations, socializing with one another less often, and perhaps consequently voting, attending public meetings, and engaging officials less often.
From this perspective the most important function of community organizing may be to build social capital by connecting isolated individuals in low- and middle-income neighborhoods to one another so that they can act collectively in civic and political arenas. Warren, Wood, and Osterman all agree that these organizations build social capital. IAF and OCO organizers seem to share in this general view as well. They often cast what they do as “reweaving the social fabric.”
However, the IAF and OCO do much more to politicize andmobilize preexisting social capital than to build it where it is absent. Unlike a political party or an interest group, individuals cannot become members of the Texas IAF or OCO. Rather, these entities are composed of local organizations. Most of their “members” are churches and synagogues, but they increasingly work with other groups such as schools and unions. They are networks of organizations that take seriously the slogan, oft repeated by IAF organizer Ernesto Cortes, that “all organizing is re-organizing.” When a church affiliates itself with the IAF, for example, organizers seek to reorganize relationships within that congregation so that its members articulate the economic and social injustices they suffer, identify the political sources of that injustice, and work collectively to assert their interests in the political realm. Pragmatic organizers recognize that building social capital from scratch is much more difficult than utilizing existing pockets of it. They reorient, and to an extent develop, the social networks and bonds of trust that already exist in their member organizations rather than attempt to weave new relationships between isolated individuals.
Because much of the social capital that these organizers tap resides in churches, their approach challenges conventional left-liberal suspicion of religion. The charity work in which almost all churches engage, for example, advances values shared by progressives, but often requires no political power or confrontation. Osterman, echoing Dorothy Day, writes, “doing charity is not the same as working for justice.” Wood devotes much of his analysis to explaining how the existing institutional and cultural structures of various congregations provide the basis for political mobilization, but simultaneously constrain the range of goals and strategies that can be pursued. In one of the churches that Wood studies, religious activities focused therapeutically upon individual salvation. Political organizing efforts at that church foundered predictably.
The hard job of the organizer, then, is to concentrate the attention of congregations on religious beliefs and institutional activities that focus on social and economic justice, an inclusive community, human development, and earthly action. Moreover, the approach to these activities must avoid a destructive political sectarianism.
The political philosopher John Rawls thought that an overlapping consensus among people with different religious and moral outlooks could lead them to support the common institutions of a just, liberal society. Though Catholics, Protestants, and Jews disagree on many points of theology and practice and have different reasons for opposing injustice, many can nevertheless agree upon important dimensions of injustice in their communities and even about what should be done to correct those injustices. The IAF and PICO model of progressive synergy between religion and politics creates an overlapping consensus among different faiths. The work of IAF and PICO organizers, however, is more activist than Rawls’s notion suggests: they build a consensus about what is wrong with contemporary society and politics. That common denominator is social and economic injustice. For the IAF that common denominator must incorporate the self-interest of individuals in the congregations they organize. Since they organize in low-income and socially marginalized areas, self-interest and justice converge in demands for school quality, public services, and economic development.
This model of a progressive, overlapping consensus based upon interests and values successfully avoids the dilemmas that make many kinds of political-religious synergies unattractive. However, it has its own limitations. Coalitions built by the IAF and OCO have difficulty acting on issues of justice that lie outside of this consensus. Warren describes an incident in which a white skinhead killed a black man in Arlington, Texas. The court sentenced him only to probation, which enraged many African-Americans. The IAF organization there, a very effective multiracial coalition, failed to join in the subsequent protests. Warren interprets this failure as a symptom of a deeper weakness: these multiracial coalitions show much more consensus on issues such as job training, education, and community development than on matters of racial equality and inclusion. Similarly, the self-interested foundations of these groups may prevent them from acting on important but remote progressive concerns and from joining coalitions where the recognition is inevitably diffuse. If Warren, Wood, and Osterman correctly describe the organizing logic of the IAF and PICO, they would likely resist deploying their considerable networks and influence around issues such as an unjust war in the Middle East or national health care policy.
Despite the declines in civic participation that Putnam and others have documented, these recent books show ample evidence that there is a well of underpoliticized social capital in America. It exists not only in churches but also in civic organizations, neighborhood groups, schools, and labor unions. Many of these sources remain “untapped,” in Wood’s language, and politically “detached” in Warren’s. The IAF and OCO have developed techniques to harness the latent power of existing social capital that is embedded in local institutions like churches and schools to revitalize progressive politics.
Conversely, the OCO and IAF can’t tell us very much about how to generate more social capital where little exists. According to Wood, for example, PICO organizers shifted from a neighborhood-organizing model to a congregational one in the mid-1980s because the old model had “stagnated badly.” Neighborhood organizations were weak and neighborhood social connections in decline, so their attention was shifted to congregations and the new model turned out to be much more effective. But what about the people left in those Oakland neighborhoods who don’t go to church and don’t participate in other associations? Because the organizing strategy of groups like the OCO and IAF depend largely upon amplifying and leveraging existing organizations, the task of reconnecting and politicizing such individuals must fall to others.
III. Not Your Father’s Participatory Democracy
In Freedom is an Endless Meeting, Polletta examines the experience of an array of twentieth-century social-movement groups—those dedicated to labor, peace, civil rights, women’s equality, and antiglobalization—that organized themselves in participatory-democratic fashion. According to many accounts, these groups rejected hierarchical, bureaucratic forms of internal organization because they wanted to model the forms of egalitarian, intimate, and respectful human relationships that they sought to create in society at large. Polletta argues, however, that these groups chose participatory democracy over more conventional forms of organization—such as the corporate hierarchical mode adopted by many nonprofits or the representative model with its elected presidents, secretaries, parliamentarians, and treasurers found in many fraternal and other civic groups—largely because it was more effective and efficient for them.
How can bottom-up participation, with its endless meetings and debates, possibly be more efficient for any organization? Drawing upon by now familiar concepts from work in participatory and deliberative democracy, Polletta argues that grass-roots participation is effective in movement organizations for several reasons. First, members are more likely to accept group decisions as legitimate when they participate in making them. Legitimacy is especially important when members are asked to make substantial sacrifices—such as risking imprisonment or bodily harm—that social action sometimes requires. Second, wide participation in decision-making can generate more inventive and innovative decisions. Good, novel ideas are important because the success of social movements frequently depends upon tactical innovation. Finally, participation is especially important for the development of political skills and self-confidence of the people who have been socially and politically marginalized—like the parishioners in south Texas or residents of blighted Oakland neighborhoods.
These are very good reasons to reconsider the conventional view that participatory organizations are ineffective. Unfortunately, even for those sympathetic to her thesis, Polletta brings ambiguous historical evidence to support her case. A central example is her consideration of participation, hierarchy, and efficacy in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC—informed by figures such as Ella Baker and Myles Horton—employed a highly decentralized and participatory style of organizing to great success in the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s. SNCC organized tens of thousands of student sit-ins, participated in the freedom rides throughout the segregated south, and conducted massive voter education and registration drives. By 1964 SNCC had won for itself a place among the “Big Five” national civil rights groups.
But this success came with growing pains that shattered the organization over the following five years. One faction of leadership viewed SNCC’s decentralized and participatory structure as politically ineffective and accused its defenders of being “freedom high”: concerned with their own autonomy rather than political progress and with philosophical discussion rather than organizing and action. They favored a more centralized structure with a clear political program, not more talk. On the other side, many SNCC organizers viewed that same structure as essential to their community organizing work. They viewed centralized leadership as out of touch with the reality in the field. By decade’s end the centralizers had won a pyrrhic victory to dictate the structure of a frail organization that had been torn apart over the course of these struggles.
The case of SNCC is deeply unsatisfying; we will never know whether participatory or centralized organizational structures—or some hybrid—would have made the organization more politically effective in the long run. SNCC’s loose participatory form clearly brought problems of discipline and coordination. The organization might have embraced some alternative structure that retained participatory ideals without succumbing to the seduction of freedom highs, but Polletta does not articulate such an alternative.
Since the 1960s progressive organizers have developed participatory democratic organizational methods into two separate branches: one stresses the direct equality that inclusive deliberation and participation manifests; the other uses participation primarily to develop organizational power.
In the first vein, North American antiglobalization and other movement groups seem more or less naturally to adopt participatory-democratic ways of running their organizations. Embracing the same values of equality and community, these activists have learned from the mistakes of their progenitors of the 1960s. They take pains to avoid the subtle forms of racial, gendered, and cultural domination that afflicted earlier efforts to create participatory equality.
Polletta describes meetings of the Direct Action Network (DAN) against globalization:
[participants] apologized when they jumped the queue. . . . A 1960s activist would be surprised by the procedural paraphernalia that accompanies democratic decisionmaking today. There are formal roles in the process—the timekeeper, stacker, facilitator, vibes watcher—and sophisticated hand signals. Waving one’s finger as if playing a piano in the air (“twinkling”) signals agreement with a point made; forming a triangle in the air with the forefinger and thumb of each hand indicates a concern about whether the deliberative process is proceeding according to form; a raised fist indicates one’s intention to block a decision.
While indicating a profound desire to foster inclusion and sensitivity to subtle kinds of inequality, such participatory advances don’t necessarily make organizations such as DAN more politically effective. In the not-so-distant future, if these groups continue to grow, they may well face the same criticisms that proponents of participation in SNCC faced: that they are freedom-high and equality-high process junkies.
No one can make that criticism of the IAF and PICO. The hard-nosed organizers in these groups also foster participation, but of a very different kind than DAN. For the IAF and PICO the goal of participation is to develop individuals into effective leaders of collective political action. Participation in organizational decision-making, elaborate political training events, actions sponsored by the group, and relationship-building exercises is more important than member influence over internal decisions of these organizations. As individuals participate they become more capable, and so the IAF and PICO organizations grow more powerful. These groups have perfected a set of participatory methods of individual political development that is worthy of understanding and emulation.
Importantly, there is little presumption of actual equality in the work of the IAF, PICO, and similar community organizations. Though these groups demand that their members receive equal regard in the larger society this commitment does not necessitate internal equality. The point of participation in this model is todevelop the skills, knowledge, and leadership abilities of individuals. To that end organizers must be able to specify with some precision the degree of inequality among individuals. In the IAF a leader is a person who is active in the organization but not on the paid staff. Osterman tells us that the
IAF distinguishes among several levels of leaders. Primary leaders are committed to building the organization and their own development and also have a substantial following whom they can deliver. Secondary leaders are committed to raising funds and building the organization but have somewhat less reach, whereas tertiary leaders have smaller followings and work on narrower issues such as local schools, parks, or events at their workplace.
This hierarchy of participants reflects a sophisticated procedure for developing individuals as political actors. These effective schools of democracy, to use a phrase from de Tocqueville and Mill, treat their students differently because they must progress through different grade levels as they learn and grow.
Polletta is right that participatory forms of organization can model equality between individuals as well as enhance political effectiveness. The tension between these ends, however, is more profound than she acknowledges. The forms of participation that manifest equality may not be those that best develop individuals and make organizations effective. It may be possible to reconcile both of these ends in a single model of participatory democracy, but that model is yet to be discovered or invented.
IV. Beyond the Beloved Community
Despite their limitations, faith-based participatory organizing strategies of PICO and the IAF are inspiring successes in their domains. But can they, as the titles of the books by Warren, Wood, and Osterman indicate, save progressive politics and American democracy?
If capable IAF- and PICO-like organizations sprang up in all of the nation’s cities and towns the disenfranchised would come to exercise much more power and influence than they currently do. In this pluralist view, the problem with American politics is that the poor have little voice and no punch in the political cacophony of clashing interests. Advanced community organizing could mitigate this problem by amplifying now-silent voices. Organizers themselves—always focused on building power organizations—hold a view like this. Coming as they do from social movement sociology, Warren and Wood share this perspective about how the experiences of the IAF and PICO contribute to American democracy.
But while the rise of such poor-peoples’ organizations would dramatically improve the quality of democracy, does it offer a democratic ideal? The best that we can do in this view is to allow poor people to enter the brutish fray of politics with knives instead of bare hands.
A deeper lesson of the IAF, PICO, and many of the groups studied by Polletta is that human interactions, including political interactions, can rise above the knife fight altogether. These organizations, with their participatory practices and language of relational power, have invented modes of communication and decision-making that contrast sharply with familiar forms of interest-based bargaining and hierarchical command. As we have seen, they build power by reorganizing their member institutions—such as churches and schools—in participatory and sometimes deliberative ways. In the view of many organizers, activists, and scholars, however, these participatory and deliberative modes of decision-making can flourish only in safe spaces that the hard work of organizing carves out.
Extending the circle of participation and deliberation—the circle of a deeper kind of democracy—to a wider community that includes the unanointed or even one’s foes risks co-optation and dilution of power. Thus, social-movement groups and community organizations tend to make a sharp distinction between insiders, with whom deliberation and participation is possible, and outsiders, with whom confrontation and hard-nosed negotiation are the only safe modes of engagement.
Yet a more fundamental democratic transformation must reject the dichotomy between cherished relationships inside movements and battles outside of them. A deeper transformation would create participatory and deliberative relationships not only within social-movement organizations but also in the very structure of government itself. The IAF, PICO, and other groups show us how to create participatory and relational power within movement organizations. One remaining task is to discover how analogous channels of participation can be created within the much larger institutions of local, state, and even federal government. Even if they are marvelously successful social movements can only hope to count a small fraction of the population among their members and supporters. A worthy democratic revitalization must reach further than social movements can hope to; it must engage and transform the state itself.
But these books about democracy have very little to say about how government itself might be made more democratic. The social-movement perspective is a supply-side view—the quality of democracy depends upon the character of society. Fair enough, but the quality of democracy and the character of society also depend upon how government is organized. Osterman comes closest to developing this point when he describes how the IAF organization in San Antonio pressed for state support for a job-training program called QUEST and how that support reciprocally strengthened the IAF organization by providing new opportunities to organize people, raise issues, and allocate economic development funds. “It is not hard to imagine,” Osterman writes, “a similar process of broadening out and interaction with government in other arenas of interest such as education reform and water resources planning.”
Indeed, recent reforms to the governance of some school districts, police departments, and ecosystems have created avenues of popular participation and control. In every elementary and high school in Chicago, for example, a Local School Council—composed of six parents, two community residents, two teachers, and the school principal—decides who will be that school’s principal, what the school’s mission will be, and how discretionary funds can be best spent to advance that mission. In the same city, residents of any neighborhood can attend open meetings with police officers to discuss public-safety issues and crime priorities. On average some five thousand Chicagoans attend 250 such meetings each month. Across the Pacific Northwest, councils of local regulators, environmental organizations, and citizens husband fragile watersheds. Such participatory-democratic political reforms are not limited to these areas; they have also emerged in urban planning and budgeting, economic development, social service provision, and health care.
Such public reforms hold great promise. However, just as the shell of self-government—elections and representatives—becomes empty without an active and politically engaged society, these and similar participatory democratic forms can easily be subverted by haughty officials or powerful, narrow interests when people fail to participate effectively because they are unaware, unequipped, or unmobilized. But social-movement groups can extend the scope of participation and deliberation in American politics by mobilizing and enabling people to take advantage of such institutional opportunities.
Social movements can thus advance two complementary transformations. They can press governments to reorganize their decision-making in ways that allow the direct and indirect participation of many more voices in areas such as economic development, education, social services, and the environment. They can reorganize community institutions—churches, unions, and other civic associations—not only to engage effectively in traditional political arenas but also to create and take part in a new, more encompassing democratic politics. Social movements must look beyond the politics they know to help effect these changes. But their contributions, in both the realm of power and the realm of ideas, have already created the vantage from which we can glimpse a rebirth of American democracy.
February 01, 2003
21 Min read time