Good Political Parties are Good Community Organizations

dscn1993

volunteers making calls at night for the health care campaign

Amersfoort   Being embedded in the offices of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands for several days to help on the field programs involving their campaign to reform the private insurance-based health care system in their country, I have been able to sit in on a number of meetings with local chapter activists, leaders, and volunteers. After all of these days a lesson emerges that is surprising, but should not be: good political parties are good community organizations, and good community organizations create strong local parties. It seems simple to say that, but the task of getting it right is very difficult and complex.

There are forty different political parties in the Holland of all shapes and sizes. The Liberals are not liberal, but conservative. Labor is not all of labor. There is a Green Left Party which is building itself around social media. There is an Animal Party which is largely environmental. You get the picture. Interestingly, the health care reform effort initiated by the Socialists as a nonpartisan, national campaign has the support of many of these parties, even if not total agreement on each plank of the reform platform, along with a number of labor unions as well. 200,000 people have responded to the campaign at this point, and 75000 have asked for toolkits allowing them to take action and recruit more supporters. Just like any good, national organization, this is good, solid basic organizing where they have constructed a campaign around an issue with deep, broad-based support in order to win reform certainly, but also assuredly to build their party organization. That turns out to not be a simple task because of various privacy and database sharing restrictions in the Netherlands, but increasingly the glow from a popular and aggressive campaign is lighting the path to building a stronger party as well.

As interestingly to me have been the stories that lie at the infrastructure of strong local party chapters, because they are almost invariably stories of strong local campaigns. Chapter leaders from Utrecht, one of the largest Dutch cities, met the field and educational team for several hours. They told of having identified a particular neighborhood where they had little organization historically, but usually a solid vote. They wanted to build an organizing committee and door knock the area to build support. They even created a rudimentary application for smartphones with or without internet as a tool to use on the doors with pre-loaded addresses and a way to upload in the field or on a home computer the results of the visits as well as a ranking system from “a to e” to classify interest and support of their organization. The committee and the door knocking process turned up an issue around housing improvements that was compelling for many people. All of this is good, solid, basic community organizing. They had built a pool of 30 people who were willing to door knock and could reliably pull out 15 or so to do the work. This committee was largely from outside of the community and they did not ask people to join, so there were differences, but when they told of winning a housing issue that delivered a victory for about 240 families, it wasn’t so different from the best stories ACORN community groups would tell. When they did get around to asking for support in the form of selling a local newspaper, 90% of the folks were glad to pitch in a euro to do so.

They weren’t alone. Another chapter in a smaller city in the south won a local, neighborhood issue in a area with many elderly families. In a small suburb of Amsterdam, attendance at a local meeting soared to 200 on a national program where even the largest chapters were only pulling 80 to 120. The secret was no secret to any community organizer. They had knocked on the doors.

Historically, political parties were built like grassroots, community organizations. Where party members who are volunteers are still willing and motivated to do the work, that’s how strong local organizations are still built. The result is infectious and leads to things like a national healthcare reform campaign. It’s nice to be reminded that this is how politics can still work from the bottom up, since we witness too many campaigns, like the current one in the United States where everything is from the top down and local organization is mostly rumor and rarely fact.

dscn1994

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Organizing Props Matter in a Campaign

organizers for Netherlands national health care reform campaign against "own risk" admire their crowd magnet

organizers for Netherlands national health care reform campaign against “own risk” admire their crowd magnet

Amersfoort, Netherlands   We were meeting with the organizing team for the national healthcare campaign in Holland. The campaign has hit a deep nerve in trying to push private insurers back out of the market place and arguing that there is not a national healthcare system when huge numbers are not participating because of an “own risk” system requiring significant additional payments that are preventing people from using health insurance. Suddenly, someone opened the door of the conference room, and announced that the truck was here. In no time, any other business was deferred, as we all went down to the driveway behind the building to see the truck.

Being old school, I assumed we were all being dragooned down to help unload boxes of some sort or another from a delivery truck, but not this time. Instead we were greeted by a giant campaign prop. This was something else!

one of the organizers takes a punch at "own risk"

one of the organizers takes a punch at “own risk”

The truck was painted in the rainbow colors of the campaign with the cross signifying the health care fight. There were huge metallic letters fabricated over the bed of the old truck, an Opal Blitz, with theater lights spelling out Eigen Risico or Own Risk. When the designers started pulling stuff off the truck, I quickly realized that we hadn’t seen the half of it yet. Two more pieces were manhandled off of the truck. Once it was placed upright, it became clear it was a punching bag like one you would find at a state fair. But this one was rigged to a computer which made it much different. The operator would type your name into a computer. An IPad would spell out that “Nils is Hitting Own Risk.” When Nils took his swing, the lights began flashing on the truck spelling out the words Own Risk again, very dramatically. Meanwhile there was a camera mount aligned to the overhand bag, so that when Nils or anyone else laid a roundhouse on the bag it also took a picture. There was router and wireless connections behind the IPad structure which caught the picture matched it with the address and sent an attachment of the picture to the swinger’s email. Within minutes, Nils had an email that was a short video of him hitting the punching bag and an explosion of colors coming out.

the truck is something else

the truck is something else

What an intricate campaign prop. One of the designers told me it only took two weeks to build the contraption, as it was a lot more than that just “thinking it through.” Talk about bells and whistles. Old school carney act comes to the digital world!

If you want to win a campaign, it helps to have props for actions and rallies, and here’s one that it is easy to imagine is going to be a hit when members are working marketplaces trying to get the word out to friends and neighbors.

This was pretty much one that it is safe to say most of us “couldn’t do this at home,” but as something advancing a campaign and creating a happening in town after town, this bad boy is going to be hard to beat.

campaigners debate campaign colors and clothing

campaigners debate campaign colors and clothing

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Fear of Immigrants and Others is a Global Political Monkeywrench

Riots police separate pro and anti immigration demonstrators as a man waves a flag reading "Islamists Not Welcome" during a Pegida demonstration in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Feb. 6, 2016.

Riots police separate pro and anti immigration demonstrators as a man waves a flag reading “Islamists Not Welcome” during a Pegida demonstration in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Feb. 6, 2016. VOAnews.com

Hamburg   Meeting with people in the Netherlands and Germany, conversation quickly comes to the Clinton-Trump race. People want to be reassured that Trump really can’t win. They don’t want to hear that the vote will be close, even though Clinton will win in the Electoral College. Interestingly with all the brouhaha that Trump has stirred up over closing borders, building walls, blocking entry to Muslims, and deporting millions, no one asks about the issue, mainly because these are issues too worrisomely close to home for them as well.

In Holland, a xenophobic, anti-immigrant leader has risen and created a “party of one” largely on this platform. Though he may not have much of a party, he clearly has a base. Political experts believe that he is taking votes way from the Social Democrats, long the dominate party of unions and some of the left. The Social Democrats are in a free fall for many reasons including the compromises they have made on healthcare and other issues as part of the ruling coalition government, but a piece of the problem, similar to the challenge for the Democrats in the United States is anger and desertion of some older, working class voting segments reacting to the anti-immigrant campaigning.

In Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel a year ago during a humanitarian crisis opened Germany’s borders to one-million migrants largely from the war-torn Middle East and Syria, there has clearly been a political backlash over whether or not German standards of living and services are being compromised by these migrants. An upcoming election in Merkel’s home state is being watched closely to see whether her center-right governing party has been able to re-position itself with voters by implementing agreements to hold more of the immigrants in Turkey. Merkel is not retreating from her conviction that Germans “can do this,” but she is equally clear in recently reported interviews that she cannot lead along this path for another year, as she has for the last year. Her party in the state elections is busily echoing rightwing themes of homeland and security as it scurries about trying to hold onto its base. A new anti-immigrant party is expected to take votes away from Merkel’s Christian Democrats as well as the more progressive Social Democrats.

And, what in the world is this urkini thing about in France? Courts there have overruled local municipalities over their burkini banning, but reports are indicating that the activity, right down to having police stop Muslim women on the beach and make them disassemble their outfits, were very popular with the general French public. The rightwing, anti-immigrant party there did not fare as well as they had hoped in recent elections, but continues to be a serious force nationally.

Country to country immigration, migrants, and refugees are divisive political issues. Muslim women in particular are reporting worldwide that they are being viewed differently and worse than in the past. Discrimination in large and small ways is increasing.

Today there are no hard questions for an American traveler on immigration, because embarrassingly, too many progressives and others are fearing that politically we may be more united by hate that any other national value. Everyone is living in glass houses now, so no one is throwing stones, and fewer and fewer are leaving their doors open.

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US-Like Health Insurance System Huge Political Issue

20160830_131857Amersfoort, Netherlands   In the exactly six weeks since I visited organizers of the national health funds campaign in Holland, the campaign has continued to explode. When I first sat down with them at that time they had about 40,000 responses to their campaign with a little more than half asking for tool-kits to take more action. Now, a mere six weeks later and during the summer when the pace of action, campaigns, and seemingly everything else in Europe dissolves into holidays, the numbers had ballooned to almost 120,000 responses and close to 50,000 requests for tool-kits.

Walking into the Socialist Party of Netherlands building in Amersfoort, which is housing and managing the campaign thus far, a giant conference room is filled with tables, one after another. The first night of my visit when I walked out of the building at 8:55 PM there was a crew of 15 members walking up and down in assembly-line fashion collating the packets for mailing. When I walked in early the next morning, looking to my left at the conference room a half-dozen volunteers were still walking along the tables putting the packets together. I jokingly asked them if they had been their all-night, and they responded they were “slaves” to the task. The flipchart indicated they now had close to 50,000 packets assembled.

20160830_131905

Later in the day the head of the IT department displayed the health campaign analytics on a screen behind him. There had been a spike to 7000 unique visitors the previous day in reaction to a news conference where one of the campaign activists, a health care worker, had talked about the peril to “on risk” citizens who were paying the mandatory annual fees to the private company insurers, but were part of the 20% of the population who avoided going to hospitals at all costs in order not to pay the additional 385 euros when they actually accessed the system.

Disapproval of the plan is not only driving the campaign but increasingly becoming a central issue in the political environment of the Netherlands. In a multi-party system where there are as many as forty political parties of all shapes and sizes in this small country, positions on change to the privately directed national health plan is becoming the line of demarcation between the parties. As the campaign has grown several of the larger parties have argued that they will change the payment system and lower it in some way. The SP/N has been the most aggressive, not surprisingly given their role in supporting the campaign, in saying that the “on risk” payments should be eliminated and the system returned to its previous situation as a national health fund, and in fact caused some stir recently by saying that it would not join a future government without such a pledge. With national elections distributing parliamentary seats only a bit more than six months away, healthcare is clearly at the center of the debate just as it has been in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries in recent years.

Most of the meetings I have been in have been focused on how to scale up a field program that maximizes the opportunity for change on this campaign. Predictive dialers, robo-calls, large scale door knocking efforts, extensive networks of house meetings are not as common in Dutch campaigns as they are in the US and Canada, and organizers are looking to master much of this organizing methodology in coming months in order to scale the campaign sufficiently to leverage the political season to create extensive change around national healthcare in the country.

This may be a small country along the water and under sea-level, but they may make waves all over Europe with a victory on this issue.

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Dutch Fight to Take Health Care Away from Private Insurers

Holland-plus-medicalBrussels   What is the old saying? Something like, I’ve seen the future and it is in the Netherlands at least when we are talking about the inevitable fight to come someday in the United States to seize control of our national health care programs from big health care insurers. On the way between Germany and Belgium, I had the opportunity to meet with several organizers and campaigners who have built a powerful effort in Holland on this issue and are finding the response amazing with the potential to dominate the campaigns in the country’s elections in the spring of 2017.

If you were paying close attention during the health care debates in recent years over the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, as it is known popularly, you often heard about the health care insurance scheme in the Netherlands which was better in its broad coverage of the population but, unlike many other countries, was provided by private, rather than public, insurers. Meeting with the organizers, I came to understand the situation a bit better. Everyone pays the equivalent of about one-hundred euros or $112 per month to private companies for insurance. I was fuzzy on exactly how this part works but the fact that they mentioned that much of the Dutch public’s opposition was rooted in disgust at the millions and millions spent by the insurers in advertising and promotion leads me to believe that a family chooses an insurer for their coverage.

There’s also a hammer to the head in this program along the lines of the deductibles that come under Obamacare. Everyone has coverage and everyone pays, but when they actually use the insurance, they have to come up with another 385 euros or $429. For some reason it is called an “own risk” payment, since if you don’t need to buy medicine or go to the doctor, your monthly payments are more like a healthcare tax or donation, so that when you do utilize the system, this is more like an admissions fee. Similar to the US experience with high deductibles blocking utilization under Obamacare, estimates are that 20% of the Dutch people are avoiding accessing the healthcare system, even when they need it, because they cannot afford the additional payment.

So the campaign is seeking to get rid of that payment of course, but also to move to a national healthcare fund more along the lines of the national healthcare program enjoyed by other countries. The support for their campaign has surpassed all expectations, and that’s part of what brought us together in this exciting conversation. In less than two months about 60,000 people have signed up to support the campaign either online or directly, and, amazingly, almost half of them are taking the additional step of asking for an “action” package on steps they can take in their communities to build the campaign.

With elections happening in mid-March of next year, this campaign couldn’t have been timed any better, so if it continues to build momentum in the summer, this could be the issue that dominates progressive debate at every level during the election. Meanwhile, regional meetings throughout the country are also pulling in crowds double, triple, and quadruple of organizers’ expectations, more are set coming off the summer with big demonstrations and other actions planned in the fall. They are riding the whirlwind here, and while they are doing so, as I said earlier, they are running the pilot program that organizers in the United States and elsewhere will need to be studying and copying in order to deal with many of the same issues involving national – and better – healthcare in our countries.

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