By Will Conway
Among organizations interested in building power and influence, there tend to be two models of activism: a model which sees relationships with individuals as a means to a final end of success, and a true leadership model, which builds power by engaging and empowering supporters as ends within themselves. In her book, “How Organizations Develop Activists,” Professor Hahrie Han explains exactly how the latter model yields success by engaging and empowering individuals. By comparing successful, high-engagement chapters and unsuccessful, low-engagement chapters at two anonymous organizations, she explains that successful, people-oriented organizations opt for their model and become successful because it has become rooted in the culture and narrative of their institutions.
In the post-2012 political campaign world, much has been written about campaigns’ refusal to spend reasonable portions of their budgets on digital tools. A failure to spend on digital, though, is only a symptom of a larger problem, as digital engagement is not actually about engaging people digitally. Digital tools in politics allow organizations to identify how people are engaging with them (whether online or offline), and engage them where they are on topics they care about.
More than that, the best digital tools actually help organizers identify supporters and cultivate leadership among those willing to engage, and allow those supporters to build and grow their own networks of engaged activists and leaders. The articles that raise the alarm on limited digital spending, then, are actually circling a fundamentally deeper, more disturbing problem: the high-engagement chapters that Hahrie Han outlines are rare gems in a mostly disorganized, marketing-oriented field that fails to focus its efforts on building real relationships and empowering individuals.
This old political model is actually even scarier than it may seem on the surface. It used to be that a single human being was only capable of maintaining somewhere between 100-230 meaningful relationships. That meant that large-scale political infrastructures, geared towards changing people’s minds around politics and encouraging people to vote one way or another on issues and candidates, were institutionally limited to a set number of relationships. This forced parties and campaigns to build two types of conversations. The first type was meaningful relationships, which they reserved only for people who could deliver a major value-add. Traditionally, these people were high-dollar donors and local power brokers, who could provide them the financial resources to fund their operation and the social capital to build influence, respectively. The second type were far less meaningful interactions with the people whom they tried to influence, primarily through media like radio and television ads. When they tried to feign the construction of real, one-to-one relationships with voters en masse, they built field campaigns that tried to identify supporters and influence voters.
What happened next was a little scary. Because high-dollar donors and power brokers were guaranteed meaningful relationships due to their tangible value, they had influence over the political infrastructure. Then, the political infrastructure, which had ingested the values of the elites and was tasked with convincing the public to vote for candidates who had also ingested those values, influenced the public to buy in. Political infrastructure became a machine for elites to change the conversation. It still works that way and, realistically, it won’t change entirely.
But something changed recently that changes the dynamic and empowers political infrastructures to morph and adapt not just based on the views of the elites, but also based on the views of the general public. This allows infrastructures to adapt quickly, build strong coalitions, and ingest the views of the public. It allows them to mobilize more efficiently and effectively, and to charge supporters with leadership and autonomy.
What changed is that political organizations are now capable of using technology to maintain more than several hundred meaningful relationships. Technology has allowed political infrastructures to build, grow and organize thousands of genuine relationships like never before. More than that, political infrastructures can track and maintain relationships at scale across many different engagement platforms as they grow and develop anywhere—whether in the real world or digitally. They can empower locals to develop autonomous networks of leaders and supporters and build real, people oriented movements around issues.
The model these successful, high-engagement organizations use is not new. Organizing, engaging and empowering people as ends in themselves is an ancient approach. The technology that allows it to happen at scale, however, is a concept that revolutionizes democracy itself, as long as it is acted upon.
As a Lead Organizer at NationBuilder – an organizing technology specifically designed to help leaders engage and empower their followers – I help statewide political campaigns and party infrastructures build effective digital engagement strategies. I have seen firsthand that the culture and narrative among activists and political operatives has not yet adapted to the new technological realities of relationship building. Only a very small number of evangelists in the political space truly understand the newly acquired power of digital organizing.
There is hope, though. The people who truly understand – people like Professor Han – conveniently have the concept they understand so intuitively at their disposal to enact change. Indeed, it is the task of every political organizer in the modern era not only to organize around politics and issues about which they are passionate, but to organize around the concept of organizing itself.
It is actually in this effort – one in which people of all political persuasions, policy views or cultures can unite – that we can enact real change; change that can upend and recalibrate the very nature of our democracy. We political organizers have the power to shift the way of thinking of all activists from the old model of activism that empowers only those in a position of power already, to a new model, that allows those with passion and belief to empower themselves.