New Orleans More than 40 years ago I used to go downtown a couple of times a week to the Walgreens on Main Street and drink very cheap, very bad coffee with an Arkansas political savant named Max Allison. Max was a behind the scene political operator. He had run the campaigns that first elected Wilbur Mills to Congress and been involved in scores of other campaigns large and small. He would be there every morning. He had narcolepsy. Sometimes he would drift off in the middle of some story about beating a candidate for governor by putting in other candidates with the same name and other tricks in fashion in post-WWII politics in the South. He and his buddies, who would later win seats as county judges and congressmen and an organizer like me, would dissect the local paper, then the Arkansas Gazette, looking for what he called “invisible hand behind the new.” Often the riddle of the day would be whether it was Max’s own hand behind a story or someone else’s hand. I would pick up points in these discussions with Max and his cronies if I was able to correctly deduce the elements in what he called the “political equation.” It was a morning master’s class in politics for a young organizer trying to learn how to build power by understanding the reality of how politics really worked. Thanks again, Max and so many others, may you rest in peace!
I was reminded of this reading the spinning, self-promotion of a self-declared “dream team” of academic behavioral scientists in the morning Times. These kinds of pieces are common after every election in the “victory has a thousand fathers, and defeat is a bastard child” school of hustling and bustling. The point of the promotion was for the scientists to get more credit or more work or something, and their colleagues could say this was a breakthrough, I suppose.
What was more interesting to me is how much all of this simply confirmed long practiced, tried and true community organizing methodology applied to basic organizing and politics for literally decades! The real lesson is probably, how long does it take the big whoops to listen to field organizers on the ground?
Here’s a good example. Back to 2000 or more than a dozen years in political campaigns of all kinds starting in the first ACORN Living Wage Campaign on an initiative petition in New Orleans, organizers used a “Count on Me” form, which was signed by voters during the field contact work indicating that they would vote for the measure. This technique was then universally adopted throughout ACORN on all political campaigns and many other organizational efforts. The Times quote today on the new “breakthrough” of the Obama campaign:
Many volunteers also asked would-be voters if they would sign an informal agreement to vote, a card with the president’s picture on it. This small, voluntary agreement simplifies the likelihood that the person will follow through, research has found.
Here is another great example from the story. For over 40 years a basic element of the ACORN door-to-door organizing rap was to begin the conversation at the door and in the 1st mailing by essentially saying, “Many of your neighbors are coming together to form a community organization with ACORN and would like to have you join with them in doing so,” and then take the rap from there.
Another technique the volunteers said they used was to inform supporters that others in their neighborhood were planning to vote. Again, recent research shows that this kind of message is much more likely to prompt people to vote than traditional campaign literature that emphasizes the negative – that many neighbors did not vote and thus lost an opportunity to make a difference. This kind of approach trades on a human instinct to conform to social norms, psychologists say.
The examples are endless.
What is fascinating to me is how much these campaigns could learn from organizers now that the actual field work is finally becoming privileged appropriately. Field organizing techniques based millions of doors hit over decades by community organizers who live and die based on “what works” and how people “vote with their feet” is actually immeasurably more valuable than research studies!