The key to understanding the power of citizens’ organizations is that representative democracy doesn’t respond to the will of individuals; it responds to pressure exerted by groups. Those who organize to put pressure on the system generally get at least some of what they want, and the longer and harder they push, the more of it they get. Those who don’t organize, by their lack of organization, make themselves irrelevant to the political process.
You know this perfectly well, dear reader. Odds are you’ve grumbled about the influence of pressure groups in Washington DC, or your state’s capitol, or city hall, or wherever. You may even support a pressure group or two yourself with the occasional donation. The obvious question, then, is why the torrent of vocal dissatisfaction with the political status quo these days or so hasn’t resulted in another round of citizens’ organizations rising from the grassroots, as the Abolitionists and the Grange and the Progressives and the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement and so many others did in their time, to influence the political process by turning popular dissatisfaction into a force for change. If it takes a pressure group to have a voice in American politics, why not organize a pressure group to give voice to those who consider themselves voiceless? For that matter, instead of griping about the lack of a viable third party, why not start one, instead of waiting for some political equivalent of Wal-Mart to package one in plastic and display it enticingly on a convenient shelf?
I’m not sure I entirely agree. We do need better organizations–that was certainly the case with Swifthack (‘Climategate’) and the Stupak-Mills amendment:
Which brings me to what I think a major, and mostly unmentioned source of the failure in Swifthack: professional environmental groups.
Where were they?
They, as have the pro-choice organizations in the healthcare debate (i.e., Stupak-Mills), have gone completely AWOL.
But I’m not sure the conditions are conducive for new mass movements. The women who would be today’s suffragettes are working–and providing a critical second income. We have many progressive organizations, but these professional organizations are largely inept. Many of these organizations need to go under (e.g., NARAL). Others have to radically change how they do politics–instead of alerting people to the presence of a problem, they have to figure out how to campaign to solve it.
Most people don’t have the time to be semi-pro activists, and, in the current economic climate, they also don’t have the money. The following applies to the Democratic and to many of the progressive organizations: “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be that other fucking guy.”
Chris Hayes describes the causes of this phenomenon:
In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties. He was motivated by a simple question: why were parties of the left, those most ideologically committed to democracy and participation, as oligarchical in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right?
Michels’s answer was what he called “The Iron Law of Oligarchy.” In order for any kind of party or, indeed, any institution with a democratic base to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. As this bureaucratic structure develops, it invests a small group of people with enough power that they can then subvert the very mechanisms by which they can be held to account: the party press, party conventions and delegate votes. “It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors,” he wrote, “of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.”
I’m pretty convinced we need new progressive organizations–at best, many of them have outlived their purpose. They certainly aren’t redeemable.