In the 1980s the National Rifle Association pulled off one of the great lobbying/advocacy moves that is still remembered to this day. In an effort to defeat Congressional action, the NRA was able to organize over a quarter of a million calls and letters to Congressional offices within a 48 hour period. And this was during the 1980s! Before the Internet, before email, even fax for the most part! Since they proved their ability to organize members and generate interest, they have rarely had to do so again on such a mass scale. While there is debate as to whether they are still capable of organizing the required numbers of constituents to affect legislation, few offices in swing districts want to call their semi-bluff. Since it happened once, it can happen again. This week Congress saw the 2012 version of that NRA plan, and moving forward there are going to be some important lessons to be learned about grassroots advocacy and organization structure.
First, grassroots, like most legislative activity, can be divided into defensive (for example: trying to organize to prevent Congressional action) and offensive (trying to make changes to the current situation that will require some kind of active action). Offensive action is more technically complicated, since everyone needs to be on the same page, asking for the same thing, giving the same reason why it needs to happen, etc., but has the advantage of usually choosing the time it is required. This allows thing to be planned out and, more importantly, gives the upper tiers of the organization time to mobilize their members. Therein lays the weakness of most defensive grassroots organizational efforts: you don’t get to choose the time they are required.
The dirty little secret to real grassroots political power isn’t the number of members your organization actually has, but what you can do with those members and whether those members can be used at critical legislative times. If you have 10 million members that aren’t actually going to demi moore pokies do anything and can’t be mobilized, then they really aren’t going to make a difference in your legislative agenda when you need them. The number helps you get into meetings or maybe access to more resources, but when it comes down to generating letters or votes then the cat is out of the bag and the group can lose one of their main legislative tools.
However, a smaller group with a good top-down structure that can generate calls, letters, and e-mails, hold town hall meetings, contact other constituents, etc., in a timely basis can be much, much more effective. The question has always been how do you find a balance between an organization large enough to make a difference, but nimble enough to come together quickly, when needed?
This past week might answer that question. The opposition to the Senate’s Protect IP Act was able to passively organize a defensive grassroots movement. People go to Wikipedia on a daily basis, and when it blacks-out, they then want to know why. All Wikipedia had to do is shut down and post some info on what they want to be done, the site’s users do the rest. Google didn’t even have to shut down to generate interest and action; they just needed to black-out the site’s name. Most of the sites didn’t really provide facts or briefings for their users, just the message “Protect IP Act = BAD”. When people contacted their Congressional offices, they often didn’t have the correct facts on the phone or e-mail, but they were able to register their opinion with the legislation.
By shutting down, Wikipedia and others fulfilled the dream of every grassroots organization: they activated their members, and changed legislative policy. While black-outs aren’t a long-term legislative strategy, like the NRA they only need to be done once and then everyone knows that you can. Maybe the real lesson moving forward is the best way to organize your grassroots is to not go to work the next day.