Is grassroots organizing a snare or magic bullet for the reform of America?

Summary:  The term “grassroots” acts as trump in American political debate, evoking immediate obeisance. Too bad it leads to a dead end.  Our love of grassroot organizing, focusing on local communities and local action, makes the 1% smile. They have seen during the past few years how it allows them to continue gaining wealth and power in America with little effective opposition.

The 1% vs the grassroots
Place your bets on the 1% or the grassroots

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Today we look at an interview with John Stauber:  “Does the Left Have a Future?

Stauber is an investigative journalist, an author, founder of Center for Media and Democracy, and describes himself as a “public agitator”.
In CounterPunch, 25 December 2013. Hat tip to a comment by Steve H.

I agree with most of what Stauber says, but not this:

“The best way for people to make a difference is to personally work in organizations at the grassroots level around the critical local issues that most affect them…”

It is a common belief. Too bad it is a trap and delusion, on several levels.

(1)  Power is increasingly wielded at the State and National levels

The critical issues that mostly affect people are increasingly decided not by local politics, but at the State and Federal levels. For example, the State government rules in the conflict over Gogebic Taconite’s proposed mine in northern Wisconsin; for details see Charles Pierce’s articles at Esquire: private “security” at work, big money carries the day, profile of a plutocrat.

(2)  National organizations can build local units

Local organizations cannot easily appear across the nation without national sponsorship of some sort. The Tea Party movement shows how national organizations can spark the creation and drive the growth of grassroots organizations (details here). In the other direction, effective and spontaneous organization from the grassroots to a national level only rarely happens — and seldom succeeds.

(3) Relying on bottoms-up growth (local to national) is slow and clumsy

In politics we worship the invisible hand, hoping it will bless our works so that local organizations will spontaneously arise and combine into a force effective on a national scale. We hope in vain. Adam Smith cries at our folly.

Unfortunately, locally based organizations cannot easily or quickly unite to form an effective national organization. Power comes from strong leadership, ample finance, well-conceived doctrine and plans — culminating in coordinated action over years or decades. This requires intelligent design, noticeably absent in the Tea Party and Occupy movements.

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Lawnmower vs grass
Controlling the grass, not destroying it

(4)  Relying on grassroots organizing fights the tide

As the 1% grows in power, they force civil and political organizations to centralize at a national level, so as to maximize their influence and depower the local elites who formerly ran them. Noteworthy examples are the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. This will be a difficult trend to fight. I have tried in my community, and utterly failed.  For details see An Independence Day special report: I have seen the New America!, 5 July 2013.

Cautionary examples of weak organization

(a)  The Tea Party: Born in opposition to bank bailouts, adamant in their refusal to build a national organization, it was easily co-opted to become shock troops for the bank friendly GOP (notable for its opposition to bank regulation that can reduce the odds of another crash like that of 2008). Without leadership to craft effective political strategies, they’ve become tools of far right-wing extremists — increasingly feared and despised by their fellow Americans. The history of the Tea Party Movement follows that of the John Doe Clubs., in that both were loose locally-based organizations created by elites and captured for their personal goals.

(b)  The Occupy movement: adamant in their refusal to organize or craft coherent doctrine or goals, they became a typical peasants protest. Unable to command national respect. Easily crushed. Leaving little behind.

Conclusions

To reform America we must change our thinking — the way we see the world, ourselves, and our history. That’s a lesson of history, common to most successful great reform movements. But in terms of action, reform will begin as it always has — with organization. Organization begins by forging links with people sharing your goals.

In today’s America that means family, neighbors, friends, co-workers, fellows members of professional and fraternal societies, etc. Geographic proximity is only one of many dimensions of affinity; building a powerful force requires tapping as many dimensions as possible. Given modern communications and geographic mobility — the many tight regional and national networks that tie America together —  that means national organizations can and should arise naturally quite early in the reform process.

Allowing this kind of rapid growth is a design imperative for a political movement just as much as for a dot.com.

Real reform will require us to do better than we have done so far. We need to get over ourselves, especially our belief that American exceptionalism puts us above the need to learn from the well-proven methods of past reform movements.

For More Information

These posts look at reform from different perspectives, from high-level theory to the nuts-and-bolts details.

(a)  Posts about grassroots political organizations:

(b)  Solutions to reform America:

  1. Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America, 1 December 2012
  2. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance., 29 October 2013
  3. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America, 24 November 2013

(c)  Steps to reforming America:

  1. The sure route to reforming America
  2. A third try: The First Step to reforming America
  3. The second step to reforming America
  4. The third step to reforming America, with music
  5. How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America
  6. Swear allegiance to the truth as a step to reforming America

(d)  Other posts about reforming America:

  1. Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
  2. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
  3. The project to reform America: a matter for science or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
  4. Can we reignite the spirit of America?, 14 September 2010
  5. Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012
  6. We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
  7. Thoreau reminds us about one of the few tools we have to control the government, 24 June 2013
  8. The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy, 27 June 2013
  9. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not, 26 July 2013
  10. Understand our problem before you prescribe a cure for America. We’ve gone mad., 17 September 2013
  11. In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
  12. The missing but essential key to building a better America, 21 November 2013
  13. How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?, 20 December 2013

(e)  Posts about using music as a tool to revitalize America:

  1. A great artist died today. We can gain inspiration from his words., 26 June 2009 — About the Man in the Mirror
  2. The New America needs a new national anthem! Here’s my nomination., 24 November 2012
  3. Listen to hear the state of America (and its cure) explained in song, 8 February 2013
  4. The third step to reforming America, with music, 3 September 2013

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12 thoughts on “Is grassroots organizing a snare or magic bullet for the reform of America?

    1. Duncan,

      “Apparently you do not consider the Taliban to be “grassroots organizing.””

      Rather, I do not consider the Taliban to be a US group. That is all I mention in this post. Posts of a thousand-plus words (gigantic by Internet standards) must have a narrow focus if they’re to have any meaningful content — when written by us regular folks (Hemingway could do the definitive analysis in 100 words).

      Longer posts don’t get a worthwhile audience, so discussion of how this applies in the vast reaches of space and time are left for you all in the comments.

      As for the Taliban… It is outside my area of knowledge. How much of this is an expression of the Pastun tribes? How is this a grassroots organization in the sense we use the term in the USA? Interesting questions, part of the larger and important field of grassroots organization (I.e., group mobilization) in other societies, other times.

  1. Interesting point Duncan; however, the Taliban was the state in Afghanistan for a long time.

    Kind of like the Southern Insurgency after the civil war. They never really gave up political power. They simply went underground for a bit.

    FM- Another failed example of grassroots organizations could be Native Americans. Because the tribes could not effectively mobilize as a unified front against the fledgling US government, they lost big time.

  2. “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

    My concern is locus of control. What can I do that actually makes a difference?

    On the large scale, the multinational companies (Industrial Capital) are now at odds with Financial Capital and the Federal government/Reserve.

    “Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith took to his company’s blog and called the NSA an “advanced persistent threat” — the worst of all fighting words in U.S. cybersecurity circles, generally reserved for Chinese state-sponsored hackers and sophisticated criminal enterprises.”

    “During IBM’s earnings call a month ago, CFO Mark Loughridge tried to put a positive spin on it but got tangled up in rigmarole that no one believed. In China, hardware sales, nearly half of IBM’s business there, had fallen off a cliff: “We were talking 40%, 50%,” he said. They’d expected to see double-digit growth rates! Sales had collapsed so fast that IBM didn’t even have time to concoct a credible excuse – but like Cisco, it never once mentioned the NSA”

    “[Cisco’s] top five emerging markets declined 21%,” Chamber said, “with Brazil down 25%, Mexico down 18%, India down 18%, China down 18%, and Russia down 30%.”

    The problem being that Financial Capital is dollar-denominated, but Industrial Capital wants Pounds and Rubles and Renmibi.

    Larry Summer’s IMF speech basically said that investing in production (which is what Industrial Capital does) will be selected out, since the cash could be directly leveraged to 60 to 100 times its face value without the material investment.

    The Federal Reserves’ Magic Wand of Moneymaking appears to have utterly subverted Federal policymaking. In response to this, our household has been working to implement John Robb’s suggestion:

    “Localize production. Virtualize everything else.”

    The advantage of having fresh food, knowing how it was grown, means we’re healthy from fresh vitamins and lowered cortisol.

    The problem is if speculation jacks up land prices to the point where we can’t pay the taxes.

    I don’t think any of this is exclusive of what you’re saying. “Geographic proximity is only one of many dimensions of affinity” aligns with ‘virtualize everything else’ in a way not possible twenty years ago. And in thinking about what you said, I have to agree that current civil liberties issues (privacy, drug war, marraige) are implemented at the State and Federal level in a way that the local level cannot match.

    So here is the problem: politics seems to have a first order of ‘best liar wins,’ and those politicians who try to implement reforms get sandblasted by the positive feedback loop of cash and incumbency in D.C. So the question is: is energy better spent trying to reform the system, or insulating from its instabilities?

    1. Steve,

      “On the large scale, the multinational companies (Industrial Capital) are now at odds with Financial Capital and the Federal government/Reserve.”

      Your quotes show no such thing. They show that the partnership between the a state security apparatus and tech industry has encountered a conflict. That is a smaller thing than you describe.

      Such conflicts happen in even the closest of partnerships. It is too soon to assess the long-term effects, especially as the significant discussions take place in the shadows.

    2. Well, then,

      What shall we do?

      I don’t mean this rhetorically. The last time this country was in anything like a similar situation (in the 1920’s) the economy crashed, utterly. But this time we have a much better informed populace and a communications capacity which is incomparably better. We have polls which show policy being created which is opposed by a majority of Americans. Mea culpa, I thought electing a Constitutional scholar would push an interpretation more individual-oriented, less corporate; oops.

      You’ve done a lot of hard work and processed a lot of feedback in this blog. What could work?

    3. Steve,

      See the posts in the For More Information section. They provide considerable detail.

      Devising a process for reform is a process, not like the flash of inspiration one sees in movies. For many of the great reform movements it took years to arrive at a successful combination of goals and methods. The Committees of Correspondence wrestled with such questions for years.

      BUT nothing will happen so long as Americans see reform as entertainment. To most it is just a long-running story, about which they read daily chapters on National Review and Naked Capitalism. Of no more personal significance than our parents read “Brenda Starr” or “Dick Tracy”.

      So it is no surprise that posts about the mechanics of reform get few hits. That is logical, since few readers have any interest in participating.

  3. Thank you, I will look deeper, and I appreciate your work.

    Let me leave (for now), with a quote from a local guy named Greg Travis, concerning local politics:

    “Hence the political reality: local governments are land-based growth coalitions, not just junior editions of state and national government. They’re a political species unique to themselves. And that’s why local government is so important to you.

    “Every decision made, every initiative, everything done by local government is ultimately about some piece of land, somewhere. “

    1. Anthony,

      Your comment raises a question I have asked many times: why have we lost the capacity for collective action?

      Many of the major changes in US history resulted from decade-long — or multi-generational — grassroots mobilization and organization.

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