the political geek

because all politics is online

The Difference Between Compromise and Surrender

Posted on | November 17, 2009 | No Comments

Jeffrey Toobin has an excellent piece in the New Yorker (dated next week) about the significance of the Stupak amendment, its significance for health care reform, and the tendency of feminists and pro-choice advocates to cede the moral high ground to their opponents. He explains:

…as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed not long ago, abortion rights “center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.” Every diminishment of that right diminishes women. With stakes of such magnitude, it is wise to weigh carefully the difference between compromise and surrender.

Strength in Numbers: Eli Pariser Talks Online Organizing

Posted on | November 15, 2009 | 2 Comments

I had the opportunity to be part of a fascinating conversation with Eli Pariser last week, as part of Gina Glantz‘s study group at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Eli, who currently serves as President of the Board of and is the founder of, came to speak about the politics of engagement and its implications for advocacy and organizing.

Eli talked about the wisdom of the crowds and how large groups can often be smarter, more thoughtful, and more creative than individuals in the decision-making process. For MoveOn, this fact is an essential element of the organizational philosophy, and therefore the strategy. He talked about how MoveOn emphasizes a strategy of using online activity to mobilize offline activity like raising money, voting, or calling members of Congress. Eli said that, although he is passionate about these issues, his job as Executive Director of MoveOn was not to push his own opinions or ideas about strategy, but to listen to MoveOn’s members and take his cues from them about the important issues, and then about creating innovative and effective campaigns.

He also talked about testing strategies to determine empirically which were the most effective. The Obama campaign was also known for this, and it’s a clear area where nonprofits can and should take advantage of relatively inexpensive tools to make a big difference in their outreach. As Eli noted, “expert opinion” is often no more than a hunch. Good data is more useful than hunches.

The power of MoveOn’s approach is obvious: it is one of the most successful advocacy organizations in pushing issues to the center of the political debate. Its power is its members, and with more than five million members, it has done extraordinarily well at harnessing the power of its members and their passion, enthusiasm, and commitment.  Eli made an argument at the study group that this is a template that can work for many different organizations, and I think he’s got a good point. He also noted that there is a significant part of the process of advocacy where MoveOn has not yet figured out how to tap into the wisdom of its members, and that technology offers all sorts of interesting opportunities to do so in new ways.

Eli also made the point that activism is not zero-sum: people don’t have a limit on how engaged they are with the political process (and even if they do, that limit is very far away). I was so glad to hear him say this, because I think it’s easy for us as activists to think that if people put their energy toward climate change issues, they’ll have none left over for health care reform. This ties directly into the point I made about thinking about how to engage people and their creative thinking and passion for their issues.

The Difference Between Urgent and Important
The conversation got me thinking about some of the challenges even for nonprofits that really understand how to integrate members completely into the organization’s work. Eli spoke about the responsibility of advocacy organizations to find or make space in the political atmosphere for their issues. I agree with him, and this is particularly challenging work when dealing with issues that aren’t naturally an attention draw even for committed activists. The international community has recently fully recognized that rape is often used as a weapon of war in violent conflict around the world. This constellation of issues, which includes medical care for survivors, child soldiers, infant mortality, and related problems, is a hard one to make actionable for the American people. International aid in the US is an incredibly complex system.  Funding is often buried in a much larger appropriations bill and split up into multiple streams, and it’s a challenge to show activists that all of those little streams add up to a powerful river that can have a real and positive impact on the lives of people around the world if it is designed well. And then even if the language is good, implementation can be a completely different story.

So even if gender violence is an issue of importance to many activists, nonprofit organizations have struggled to make it concrete in a way that provides opportunities for their members to engage with the issue. This is clearly one of those areas where we don’t have it figured out yet, and it is critical that we start thinking about it. Nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to ensure that urgency isn’t the only criterion for attention.

Marriage Equality and The Limits of Activism
The conversation with Eli also made me think about this past Tuesday’s defeat of marriage equality in Maine. Gay marriage has been defeated every single time it has been sent to the voters; all of the progress made on this issue has been made in legislatures and with judges and governors. Jesse Ventura (of all people) reportedly said “You can’t put a civil rights issue on the ballot and let the people decide. You have to have elected officials to who have courage to make the right decision. If you left it up to the people, we’d have slavery, depending on how you worded it.”

What does this mean for advocacy organizations working to move the majority of the country toward better, smarter, more compassionate government when the majority isn’t there yet? MoveOn often emphasizes elections, but that emphasis doesn’t make sense for issues that we know (at least for now) are box office losers. Do the same strategies for engagement still apply, or do we need to think differently about these kinds of issues?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(Because the conversation was formally off the record, Eli Pariser gave his permission to publish this blog post.)

Another Perspective on Health Care Reform

Posted on | November 13, 2009 | No Comments

This Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article is old, but it’s useful to consider the debate over health care reform with an understanding of the difference between a social insurance and an actuarial insurance model. (My econ professor sent it to us because we’re examining moral hazard in class.)

Thanks, Veterans

Posted on | November 13, 2009 | No Comments

A belated thanks to the veterans out there. I am so glad that I have had the chance to get to know a few of you this semester.

I think it’s important that anyone involved in public policy, especially international policy, get to know some members of the armed forces and listen to their perspectives on policy issues. At the very least, there’s a whole lot of foreign policy implementation that is actually done by those men and women, regardless of where the responsibility might technically lie. There’s much more to be said about the topic (and, as we have learned from our ethics class, it is important to treat people as ends, and not as mere means), but I’ll leave it there for tonight.

The People Who Click

Posted on | November 8, 2009 | No Comments

A bit more about clicking patterns online. The datais parallel to that in the eNonprofit Benchmarks Study, indicating that these insights are important for not just nonprofit organizations but anyone trying to get attention online. Hat tip.

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