At the reservoir I walk around many afternoons, a large paddling of ducks swam by, presumably having stopped to rest and refuel before a trip south. Ducks are famously workmanlike — their webbed feet race furiously under the waterline, belying the slow, stately cruise of the birds on top. Most of us pay less attention to ubiquitous ducks than to fancier birds. Ducks lack the mesmerizing rapacity of raptors, the allure of birds of paradise, or the audacity of toucans; they are humble birds. But ducks are, in their own way, beautiful — and it turns out they are essential to the endurance and renewal of ecosystems. Unlike some other birds, ducks move around in large groups — and there’s a charming vocabulary to capture all the ways they gather, in the air and on water: dopping, plump, paddling, badling, flush, raft, sord, team, and twack.

People-powered organizations are the ducks of our political ecosystem: common, under-appreciated, and by virtue of their emphasis on collective action, crucial. The real headline for this year’s election is that orderly and disciplined membership organizations of working-class people and people of color, community groups and unions, saved the country from authoritarianism. But too many candidates and campaigns, awash in money, failed to attend to the fundamentals of organizing, which may have been the crucial factor in Democrats’ down-ballot losses. 

This election should inspire a reappraisal and reevaluation of organizations that puts them at the center of our political strategy for the decade of struggle that lies ahead. Joe Biden won the critical states of Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin by a total of 44,000 votes, and the margins in most other swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Nevada were close too. Trump had the energy, the enthusiasm, the large crowds, the movement spark, and a clear program of revanchist white nationalism to motivate his core supporters. Biden had less passionate support, and yet, he won. How? Millions upon millions of organized, structured, high-quality conversations, most of them by people in independent organizations. 

The sheer scale of voter outreach by independent community and progressive organizations and unions — particularly to “infrequent” voters of color whom campaigns and candidates write off — was astonishing. National organizing infrastructures like Community Change Action, SEIU, UNITE HERE, People’s Action, MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood Votes, Color of Change PAC, Sierra Club, 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Black Voters Matter, Working Families Party, The Frontline, and many, many more reached millions of people on the doors, phones, and social media, mobilizing dense pre-existing social networks and providing a container for millions of volunteers to channel their energy in productive ways. 

The work of grassroots groups like LUCHA in Arizona and New Georgia Project broke through to national media attention this year. But the foundations for their victories were built over years without being celebrated or even much noticed except by specialists — and, of course, by Republicans, who did whatever they could to sabotage the work by suppressing the vote. Notably, in both states, the organizing happened outside the Democratic Party, which, with rare exceptions (as in Wisconsin), has been averse and even hostile to mass engagement strategies among “unlikely” voters. Quite the opposite of “moments,” these were long-term organizing efforts, built year by year and cycle by cycle, and they relied on recruiting and training thousands of volunteer leaders whose names will never be tweeted or celebrated in the New York Times op-ed page. Stacey Abrams is a genius, but what makes her so is not only her prodigious individual talent but all the other leaders she helped to gather, develop, and train, and the organizations she built for the long haul, beautifully portrayed in this podcast hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry and Dorian Warren

Arizona and Georgia were emblematic of the massive effort that happened around the country. Common Ground in Milwaukee, a 12 year-old broad-based citizens' power organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, organized 400-plus volunteers from July to November to engage 15,000 voters in and around its 42 member institutions through neighborhood canvassing and phone calls, targeting residents on the North and South sides of the city. Common Ground worked with the Milwaukee Elections Commission to help voters cure rejected ballots and partnered with the Milwaukee Bucks to turn out college students, Milwaukee High School students, Milwaukee Public School parents, and neighborhood residents to vote. 

The union of hotel and restaurant workers UNITE HERE, whose members suffered devastating economic losses, knocked on three million doors in four swing states when much of the rest of the progressive community made the mistake of turning away from in-person contact. My partner and I door-knocked with the UNITE HERE crew in Philly and were reminded of the granular ways that organization matters. We were trained in how to convey friendliness at a door when people can’t see you smile because you are wearing a mask (you wave), how to persuade someone to put on a mask (you ask and offer one, repeatedly), and how to listen and engage with respect and curiosity to understand what motivates people (could you get them to articulate why voting for Biden mattered to them?). We learned the brass tacks of how to help someone make a detailed plan to vote, how to vote if their mail ballot didn’t arrive, and how to recruit their friends and family members. In a highly confusing election with new and changing rules, these very detailed conversations about mechanics clearly made the difference for many voters. 

Equally important, we reported our numbers to each other every night in a motivating, collective exercise in accountability. We got inspired to go back out there after rough days, when we couldn’t find many voters or we got harangued by Trump supporters. We helped each other solve crucial technical problems — how do you deal with apartment buildings where you can’t get in, for example? We made meaning of what we heard and solved problems together. How do you respond to concerns from voters that Joe Biden supported the 1994 crime bill but Trump signed the First Step Act and did showy pardons for the TV cameras? How do you correct invalid voter data and get the right phone numbers for folks so that others can do a follow-up call later? All this detailed, nitty-gritty work of organizations — the craft of organizing — isn’t often the stuff of headlines, and it isn’t what gets exalted in election post-mortems, but it is the stuff of victories. We’re fond of chanting at militant demonstrations that “this is what democracy looks like,” but tough front porch conversations — less ecstatic to be sure — are also what democracy looks like. The unflashy, careful, disciplined, person-by-person relational work that good organizations teach matters just as much as the scale of contact. Any fly-by-night operation can send out millions of cold texts to annoy people. High-quality, rigorous, relationship-based organizing is what changes people’s minds and moves them to act.  

George Goehl of People’s Action wrote a moving tribute to organizers and the role they played in this election. He notes that they build trust because they “are curious about people, they listen and they show up, not just on election night, but 365.” I was reminded how much the accumulated history of struggle matters when the stakes are so high. The trust that gets built over long periods among people in organizations and the practical knowledge of veterans that can be transmitted to new recruits are the currencies of power that we draw on in times of crisis. Elected leaders of UNITE HERE led sessions of hundreds of people with the passion and exceptional skill that you only get from leading people through even harder organizing fights against bosses. They prepared us for what was to come if Trump tried to steal the election and had us practice responding with disciplined non-violence. 

The neglect of organizations’ role in social change is not a new problem. Charles Payne wrote about the “slow and respectful” rhythms of long-term organizing work by the leaders and organizers in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which was crucial to the success of the movement but was often eclipsed by flashier short-term campaigns and mobilizations. The patient work of organizations to recruit, develop leaders, and facilitate small “d” democratic deliberation, he argued, often operates far out of public view before it is widely understood and recognized. 

It’s not that other strategies don’t have a vital role. I love mass protest’s ability to redefine what’s possible and the way social media allows protests to reach a vast scale faster than ever. I appreciate sophisticated and innovative policy design. I’m intrigued by strategies to change narrative and culture. Charismatic leaders move me and have a vital role to play in generating energy. Disruptive protest is crucial to forcing elites to change their behavior. We need the full repertoire of strategies to win in the 21st century. 

But let’s take the occasion of the near-death experience we just came through to be brutally honest with ourselves. What saved multi-racial democracy this year were not the glamorous high visibility birds of the social change ecosystem. The grinding, hard work of organizing — the furious paddling against strong currents that happened way below the waterline — made the difference. Organizations differ in their methods and often fiercely debate best practices, but they share qualities of structure, leadership, hierarchy, durability, strategy, planning, and evaluation. Organizations are vehicles that organizers and grassroots leaders jointly create to harness talent on a big scale towards common purpose. As long-time organizer Arnie Graf argues in his new book, in the long battles ahead, we’ll need the crucial capacities that organizations bring: local knowledge, deep relationships, containers to hold and effectively mobilize millions of people, experience with conflict and winning, and on-ramps for people who aren’t already activists.

There are many reasons why organizations are less valued and respected than they should be, by the Democratic Party establishment, some on the activist left, and the culture at large. Some of them are valid. Organizations can be parochial, short-sighted, narrowly self-interested, lumbering, cautious, clubby, and slow to adapt. Many institutions have failed us. Some rose to the tremendous challenge of the Trump years, but others failed the test. And there is a natural tension between activist culture — which values righteousness and taking unpopular, dramatic stands — and organizational culture, which is messier and depends on building agreements among diverse stakeholders through negotiation and compromise.

But some of the reasons organizations are not given their due are far less benign. Our country’s celebrity culture glorifies performative individualism; this culture has penetrated the social change sector, fed by a dysfunctional media and social media ecosystem. Check out cable news or political Twitter, and you’ll see intense debates about candidates, policy positions, the right way to message something, or the latest outrage or betrayal. We rarely hear about the nerdy, pedestrian, vital work that organizations do — how they recruit members, train organizers, and facilitate meaningful conversations between neighbors. Even on supposedly progressive platforms like MSNBC, the amount of time devoted to innovative organizing for change is miniscule compared to coverage of the latest outrages and scandals. In this environment, the media and also some activists are prone to glamorize eruptions, moments, personalities, candidates, radical demands, narrative and message techniques, and dramatic gestures — all to the detriment of deep organizing.     

The undervaluing of organizations has had devastating consequences. People were led to pour millions of dollars into an objectively unwinnable campaign for Senate in Kentucky — while organizations that will be positioned to consolidate gains with new voters will be laying off organizers in 2021. The way money flows readily to moments and candidates that galvanize energy but not to slow, patient building strategies remains an enormous challenge — one that the right has solved by building and financing infrastructure for the long term. As a recent profile of the Koch brothers’ Latino organizing initiative argued, “Libre has been playing a long game: training activists, building relationships and nurturing a new generation of conservative Latino leaders.” It also remains the case that, partly for reasons of financial sustainability, our organizational roots are mostly shallow outside big cities. We must build more organizations in small town and rural areas that work year round on issues if we’re going to win down-ballot races and build a governing majority, not just a presidential majority. We’ll need new models to finance large-scale organizations that depend on small contributions, like those being tested by Progressive Multiplier. And even if you don’t think that progressives need to reach out to some Trump voters, the hard truth is that millions of people who voted for Biden or didn’t vote at all have a very tenuous relationship to politics and need much deeper engagement on issues that matter to them outside of the electoral cycle. 

As we confront a decades-long crisis of democracy, our hopes for victory depend on whether millions of people see our indispensable task clearly: a return to the craft of building durable vehicles for collective power.

People-powered organizations are certainly not a panacea. If Democrats do not find a way to deliver for working-class people and use the power they have to strengthen civic organizations and unions, I am doubtful that any amount of door-knocking can save us from a more competent and disciplined reboot of Trumpism in 2024. If we don’t see boisterous, disruptive movements around crises of evictions and unemployment, it’s doubtful that organizations can win meaningful concrete gains at the scale these crises demand. There is a necessary, often inelegant dance between organizations, movements, and parties — and all three need to be on the dance floor at the same time for social change to succeed. 

It is actually good news that few are likely to swoon for Biden in the way that millions fell under Obama’s spell, resulting in demobilizing complacency. Most of us are under no illusion that Biden will be able to defuse a radicalized, racist, and authoritarian opposition by calling for healing and a return to norms that were destroyed long ago. A. Phillip Randolph, a hard-nosed organizing genius in the Civil Rights Movement, famously enjoined, “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.” 

The decade of struggle that lies ahead is the habitat in which organizations, and the sobriety and discipline they bring to the project of social change, are most needed. The pretty show birds have their place. But after a hard year in which a flock of organizations rose to defeat an existential threat with guts, savvy, and discipline, this should be the decade of the ducks. 

 
Click here to read the entire Elections 2020: Strategy Debrief issue.

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