(This is the second part of a three-part TDS Strategy Memo. A PDF version of the entire memo is available here)
Democrats must face the unpleasant reality that that from now on any significant local or national political meeting anywhere in America is going to be attended by conservative activists who are mobilized and directed there through a pyramid of online social networks. At the apex of this pyramid is Freedomworks and directly below it is a second tier of a dozen other lobbying organizations.
Immediately after the April 15th Tea Parties it appeared that the local activists who had been mobilized might attempt to form permanent “bottom-up” grass-roots committees in communities across the country. Instead, the rather different framework that has emerged is a kind of permanent “on-call” cadre of activists across the country – individuals who are willing to download talking points and slogans from the online social networks and be directed to local meetings in their area or to national protests in Washington D.C.
The simple but unpleasant fact is that in every one of these local political town halls or other community meetings that is not contested, the conservative point of view will dominate. Therefore Democrats have no choice but to build their own version of this kind of online social organization — a “Democratic Activist Corps” or corps of “Democratic Minutemen” – dedicated activists with a similar “on-call” capability.
At first glance this would appear to be the responsibility of Organizing for America, but in fact, for two reasons, that organization is actually not well suited to manage this task.
First, Organizing for America cannot avoid following a very broad, “big tent” approach because of the huge, extremely heterogeneous group of people in its database. In order to avoid schisms and conflict among its members, it must stick to the most elementary and widely shared views. This is reflected in the rather bland slogans it recommends e.g. “Health Insurance Reform Now: Let’s Get It Done!”, “Stand up for Reform”, “Standing Together for Health Insurance Reform”
Second, because it is directly connected to the DNC and the Obama administration, OFA has to conduct itself in a way that does not reflect negatively on Obama. This makes it necessarily very cautious and highly averse to direct conflict and confrontation. This is reflected it its preference for organizing what are essentially non-confrontational “pep rallies” of its supporters rather than directing them to directly engage and challenge opponents of reform.
Given the huge, ten million member e-mail base of OFA, these choices are not necessarily wrong. OFA is metaphorically speaking a political oil tanker, only able to move and turn only very gradually and cautiously. But as a result of these two characteristics it is impractical to expect an organization like OFA to be able to successfully direct a Democratic counterpart to a fierce and combative organization like Freedomworks that has complete freedom of action. It is therefore preferable to organize a “Democratic Activist” or “Democratic Minutemen” network outside the formal structure of government or the DNC, just as Freedomworks and the other conservative online activist groups have done.
Although the issue agenda of such an organization will be the same as the official Democratic organizations, to be effective its ethos must more closely resemble that of a passionate social movement and its staff must be composed of people with the background and perspective of union or civil rights organizers – men and women with both the passion and the experience to tackle a bitter, well-financed and determined adversary.
Freedomworks has a 14 person Washington staff, six full-time field coordinators or state directors and an annual budget of 8 million dollars. Its economic model is based on obtaining contributions from the industries that derive benefits from its grass-roots organizing activities. To effectively compete with this, Democratic organizations like unions, environmental and other social issue groups, professional associations and similar pro-democratic forces will need to contribute substantial in-kind resources — of staff time, office space, supplies and technical support — to a Democratic Activist Corps of this kind. Even with significant in-kind support, however, a core of paid, full-time employees and a significant operating budget will still be needed.
The key demographic target for an “on call” activist network of this kind will be mid-sized, second and third tier cities and towns. The major American cities and urban areas already have more than sufficient pro-democratic organizations and social networks to mobilize activists when necessary for meetings, marches, demonstrations and so on. At the other end of the spectrum, modern conservatism is disproportionately concentrated in small towns, urban fringes and rural areas – so much so that in many cases any effective competition is simply impractical. It is in the mid-sized cities and towns across America where significant numbers of Democrats live but where there are relatively weak pro-Democratic organizations and institutions that an online social network of committed Democratic activists could make a substantial difference.
The April 15th tea party movement claimed that they held events in over 1,000 cities and towns and Nate Silver documented events in around six or eight hundred. Because of the more concentrated geographic distribution of the Democratic coalition this project can aim to achieve lower numerical targets. The project should, however, set clear timetables for creating “on-call” networks in first 50, then 100, and ultimately about 200 smaller U.S. cities and medium-sized towns. If possible, at least the first two and preferably all three of these goals should be achieved before the 2010 elections.
Also, by next spring, some of these Democratic minutemen will also need to receive a certain amount of training in non-violent methods because by that time it is virtually certain that there will be young right-wing “skinheads” and other quasi-military groups openly participating in anti-Obama demonstrations. The strategy of intimidation and physical aggression employed by such groups can best be defeated by disciplined non-violent tactics