As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Role Of Grassroots Action In Policy Debates

I've seen a lot of buzzing about this story from Harold Meyerson, about the faltering of Barack Obama's online army when it comes to health care:

Organizing for America (formerly Obama for America), which maintains that list within the confines of the Democratic National Committee, has asked those 13 million Obamaites to "create a conversation within their communities," in the words of one DNC official. Specifically, the DNC has asked them to collect health insurance horror stories and put them online, to support a set of broad health-care principles, and to go door-to-door among independent voters in their neighborhood and talk to them about those principles. On June 27, some activists participated in what the DNC termed a "day of service," working in blood banks, volunteering at health clinics, raising money for medical research.

All very commendable, and about as likely to affect the outcome of the health-care deliberations as the phases of the moon. "What made the presidential campaign so potent were clear goals and a strategy that made sense to people," says Marshall Ganz, one of liberal America's foremost organizing geniuses (who led training sessions for Obama campaign staffers and volunteers last year). Such goals and strategies are hard to discern today, and the participation of Obama volunteers has declined accordingly.

Even when the battle for health care finally comes down to a single bill, the plans to activate Obama supporters are conceptually modest. "We can't target individual members of Congress," says one DNC official. "To tell people to target certain Democrats puts the party in a weird position." Not even 13 million supporters, apparently, can instill party discipline into a political culture that scarcely knows the meaning of the term.

Meyerson thinks we need a mass movement strategy to win the day on health care. Well, that can never possibly come from inside the party machinery. In a 60-vote environment, Republicans have no part in the debate. It will rise or fall based on the actions of conservative Democrats. And a DNC-based organization, as the official says, won't go after Democrats, at least not in public.

Now, Organizing for America has built a large list of health care horror stories that activists can use. And their architecture of calling and canvassing tools is more than available to anyone to start their own independent push toward particular legislators. In fact, I know that some grassroots groups have already done so, whether OFA likes it or not. And they are really in a capacity-building phase right now, and there's going to be a learning curve. Things are happening that columnists in Washington might not see.

As for the efforts by outside groups to push recalcitrant lawmakers, Meyerson thinks they are pursuing a legislative strategy and not a movement-building strategy. Well, that's not entirely true. There are health care rallies at Congressional offices tomorrow. Health Care for America Now put 10,000 people in Washington for a rally. I don't really know what he wants. Meyerson hints that single-payer advocates are actually building a movement, one I believe will endure no matter what reform bill passes, but it currently lacks critical mass.

Even if we grant Meyerson these points, I'll say this. Health care is a maddeningly complex topic. Everyone's for fixing this broken system but they have about 100 different ways to do so. If Meyerson thinks that ordinary Americans can actually impact that debate at the granular level, I'd love to see his blueprint. When elements of reform - like single-payer, like a public insurance option - have been used to stand in for reform, it has moved a couple legislative mountains. I believe in movement politics, but on health care reform that movement, unlike with "civil rights now" (the 1960s) or "We're in a Depression" (the New Deal era) there's just no bumper sticker for health care reform that's going to turn it into a mass movement. You're seeing the best digital-age equivalent of it - online organizing, grassroots ads, etc. - but it doesn't throw people into the streets.

I don't totally disagree that OFA isn't a great model, it being situated inside a party infrastructure. But I really fail to see a vision of a million people on the Washington Mall shouting "national health insurance exchanges with subsidies up to 400% of the poverty level now!" And, activism circa 2009 is different than activism circa 1963.

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