Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU, where she has been a lecturer and done research at the intersections between U.S. literary and cultural history and social and political activism.
The more technology they accumulated, the more profoundly powerless they felt. That was the paradox Hahrie Han and Elizabeth McKenna discovered as they interviewed political organizers and operatives, researching the impacts of the increasingly complex digital tools available to activists. The more she talked to organizers in particular, Han could hear how "they were struggling to make it all add up into something bigger."
Why was this happening? And what should civic participation in the digital age look like? Han and McKenna, associate professors of political science at Wellesley College, set out to explore those questions and the technology disempowerment paradox on two fronts. They co-wrote Groundbreakers: How Obama's 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America, which, instead of detailing the tired narrative of the Obama campaign's data and technology capacities, focused instead on the stories of volunteers on the ground; she found their work to be symbiotic with the campaigns' data and technology innovations. In another recently-published book, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century, based on two years of research trying "to get into the guts" of organizations, Han attempts to "to understand what make some better able to generate and sustain activism than others."
Her conclusions? Quoting de Tocqueville, she said at a recent New America event that the most vibrant and successful civic associations are those that act as "great free schools of democracy." In our 21st-century moment, Han says, this means "blending contemporary online and offline tools" and "build[ing] breadth and depth of activism by developing citizens" through a combination of transactional mobilizing-hitting the numbers of volunteers, donations, and registered voters you need to win-and transformational organizing-expanding participants' capacities for future activism by empowering them in ways that endure after election day.
Although she wrote both books before the surge of protests around the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Han pointed out, "I think of what we're seeing right now in response to those events is emblematic of a larger sense that power in our society is becoming increasingly concentrated." This transformational element, the ability to create spaces for individuals to change their feeling of agency in the world, is the key to engaging people in "activism that hat actually builds power."
One challenge to organizing effectively in the face of consolidated power is that, as digital tools have proliferated and electoral participation in presidential elections jumped 10 points from 1996 to 2008, the number of available spaces for people of differing viewpoints to meet each other and discuss issues has dwindled, explained Mark Schmitt, director of New America's Political Reform Program and Anna Burger, former Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU.
Creating those spaces is critical, according to Schmitt, to building the personal connections and trust that make organizing possible. For Burger, who began her career as a social worker, these spaces are also key to finding new ways to foster consistent political engagement, "day in, day out." Han gave two examples of how investment in creating spaces for discussion yields results, pointing to Alex Watters, a paraplegic recruited to be an organizer for Obama's 2012 campaign. When Watters expressed incredulity at his ability to organize from his wheelchair, his supervisor let him know that Watters' job wasn't to pound the pavement. "He said, ‘Your job is to inspire commitment in your neighbors,' Han says Watters-one of the campaign's most impactful organizers-told her, ‘so that your neighbors are the ones talking to their neighbors, organizing the community.'" Han also cited an example from her book, in which she compares two different letter-writing campaigns. One organization designed an e-mail template that was easy to use but impersonal, while the other paired up two community members who both wanted to write letters to work on one together in their own words. The latter organization, because it invested simultaneously in advocacy and community-building, had greater long-term success.
So where are the barriers to creating those opportunities to activate citizens and give them agency? For Jeremy Bird, National Field Director for the 2012 Obama Campaign, the "biggest problem in our democracy right now" is the systemic effort to hinder access to voting rights. "To come to this event, if you had to - 30 days ago - print something out from a DMV-like web site, fill it out, put a stamp on it, and mail it in in order to be registered to participate, none of you would be here," he said.
Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that undid government restrictions on organizational campaign spending, has also impacted opportunities for organizers. Schmitt warned that catastrophizing Citizens United has done a disservice to organizers by dismissing and de-valuing the effectiveness of volunteering and making small donations. When you tell people that what they do won't matter, he said, "don't be surprised if they don't do anything."
What about forcing them to do something - in other words, mandatory voting?
"We have to do more than make it easier to vote, we have to make people want to vote," Han said. One way to do that could be through creating "civic ecosystems," where an array of opportunities for political engagement-such as civic lotteries, which have been used in Canada-converge, explained New America Civic Innovation Fellow Hollie Russon Gilman. The Gettysburg Project on Civil Engagement, which Burger co-chairs, is one current effort to centralize such experimentation collectively among academics, political operatives, and experienced organizers.
Whether democracies are established or emerging, Han says they share a question in common: where is it that people learn to be citizens? "Being a citizen isn't something you're born with," she says. "It's something you learn."
This piece was originally published in New America's digital magazine,The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.