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Are we moving on, or engaging?
Jon Lebkowsky, 20 Nov 06
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Matt Parker at politicalaffairs.net says he believes "we're in the middle of a massive reengagement of the American working class," and gives moveon.org as an example.

MoveOn set a goal of making 5 million GOTV phone calls during this election cycle. They had two primary phone banking methods: physical phone banks via weekend house parties and much larger virtual phone banks made up of volunteers calling from home. The only requirement for those that called from home was the ability to talk on the phone and use the Internet at the same time.
Matt works for the Communist Party USA, and I picked up on his post via Network-Centric Advocacy... this is a surreal combination - communism plus network advocacy plus moveon - exemplifying the generally weird forces swirling and tumbling in the new political stew of the information age or network society or whatever label you choose. But this ain't your grandpa's noõsphere. It's all part of the cosmic unconsciousness....

We're in an age of complex transition, and we've adopted a technology that makes the complexity more visible and accessible, but also more difficult to sort out. When I read posts and articles extolling the virtues of moveon and associating it with "massive reengagement," I realize how much confusion there is in the air. In fact, Moveon is not revolutionary. Moveon has taken direct mail online; it's essentially a broadcast phenomenon in a post-broadcast environment. It's effective advocacy based on the old Voters Telecommunication Watch email alert model, and though it does leverage network effect to build attention, its primary goal is to establish and hold an audience that can be encouraged (some would say manipulated) to take action. Where Moveon is concerned, we're talking about soliciting a response that will have political influence, and this can be extremely effective. It's not that different, though, from soliciting a television audience to buy bars of Ivory soap or boxes of Cheerios. I wouldn't call that civic engagement. Engagement is what you get when citizens become informed and develop a real understanding of the issues, and this isn't what Moveon does. Moveon is an advocacy organization and a very effective one, but advocacy isn't after engagement or deliberation. It's about winning.

There are definitely those who are interested in using technology for engagement and deliberation. Tom Atlee is one, when he talks about automation to support co-intelligence and the tao of democracy. Brian Sarrazin has created a concept for deliberation by large groups, which he calls Synanim. At the League of Technical Voters Code-A-Thon, Hunter Ellinger and others were working on a consensus wiki. There's the concept of Civic Action Networks, which combine advocacy with engagement. There are also, of course, the countless other blogs and wikis, forums and chats, social networks etc. that are all about processes of engagement.

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Comments

Great point, Jon. It's really important to not mistake highly-efficient advocacy for engagement. I think MoveOn has been trying to figure out what deeper engagement looks like, but are ultimately limited by their top-down command structure and focus on national issues.

I'm not sure that writing blogs and wikis is really engagement either. But maybe that leads us to define what "engagement" really means.

For me, there definitely has to be some sort of face-to-face, community-based component.

There is lots more left to learn, for sure.


Posted by: Jon Stahl on 20 Nov 06

Jon, thanks for the feedback. I suppose I should have said that blogs and wikis can be (but aren't inherently) platforms for engaging or participating in a bigger way in political and governance processes. I should also have noted (and this is worth a longer post) that we're doing better all the time. It wasn't too long ago that we were worrying about voter apathy and lack of debate. Voter turnout is improving, and we're seeing passionate debates in public places, many of them either online or hybrid (online/offline). Interactive online tools are clearly making a difference. I think we just have to be clear about advocacy vs democracy. Ideally a more democratic system would result in a meeting of minds, and debate where different views are represented, and it's possible to have consensus. Participation is hard, overcoming polarization is harder.


Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 21 Nov 06

The article makes valid points about advocacy vs deeper engagement with the issues, but I think it places too much onus on MoveOn and similar movements. The Net has indeed changed the way we communicate and its ultimate political/social effects are still unknown. MoveOn uses a forum to try to make decisions on a democratic basis -- perhaps too much so, as a massive online forum does not lend itself to detailed policy debate or the development of alternate what-if scenarios. This is a real problem, but moving the discussion online seems to me an improvement over the alternatives: top-down policy by a few pundits and pols, followed by lying attack ads on radio and television.

As far as I know, virtually all online issue-oriented sites, including World Changing, have the same deficiencies and promise as MoveOn and the rest. Topics and discussions that need months of intense engagement scroll away, and either there is no one responding or so many are participating that exchange and criticism of ideas becomes impossible. MoveOn raises issues and calls for action on them. How do you see that role as substantially different from World Changing or any other blog-type website?

For the record, I spent a fair amount of time at the local (Chicago) MoveOn office doing caller recruiting and direct voter calls. It was exhilarating to see, at long last, an operation on my side of that political fence with excellent planning and organization, savvy use of technology, and an effective electoral strategy. I think it's beyond dispute that MoveOn, the reenergized unions, and similar groups made the electoral outcome possible.

MoveOn struggles with the same issues you raise. Its next phase, Operation Democracy, seeks to build on the momentum it gained in this election by emphasizing local-based organizing around issues. I hope they prove as effective in creating a bottom-up, neighborhood/city-based constituency as they were in getting out the vote. I'd be interested, Jon, in knowing what you think would work better toward achieving the real debate and discussion we both want.


Posted by: DaveW on 21 Nov 06

Dave, the point of my post was not to criticize MoveOn, but to clarify what it's not.

I think many confuse better opportunities for advocacy with a more democratic system overall, and I guess the question is, democracy for whom? You say that Moveon tries to make decisions on a democratic basis, and I'm sure that's correct. Howeer you also note that Moveon was targeting a particular partisan outcome... which is advocacy, not democracy. Moveon is very effective at what it does, but advocacy is at odds with democracy, inherently so, because there is advocacy for a particular outcome, rather than an attempt to find consensus (which is more difficult, as you know).

I did make some notes re what I think would work better... look at Atlee's work, or Synanim, or some of the deliberative projects that have appeared around the world.


Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 22 Nov 06

Jon, I can't agree that advocacy is at odds with democracy. Seems to me advocacy from many sides is the very essence of democracy. If MoveOn has a problem, it's excessive democracy, to my mind -- it bases its issue positions on voting and the forums, when the hard fact seems to be that articulate leaders are needed to present and debate their ideas. The problem is that, as in the rest of the political process, there is no way for 3 million members to discuss a topic in depth, whatever communication-tech gizmos and schemes might be tried. You end up with either entirely top-down leadership, as in the flashmobs phenomenon; directed outcomes as in commercial and political advertising and propaganda; or ludicrous cyberglitz gimmicks like the Amazon recommendation system and all its progeny.

To put the MoveOn process clearly, first it tries to find consensus among its members, however imperfectly, and then it moves to advocate for issues the consensus determines. I can't think of what's more democratic than that. MoveOn and similar groups are now trying to build ground-up processes by focusing on local/regional person-to-person organizing.

I agree that this does not necessarily fill the need for deeper debate in the US, but I don't understand why the onus for this should be put on MoveOn and similar outfits when the deficiency results from the utter failure of the US government, media, political parties, and institutions to support basic democratic processes. To me, far from being antithetical to democracy, MoveOn, resurgent unions, and similar activist organizations are the last hope for the survival of democracy in America.


Posted by: Davey on 22 Nov 06



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