Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Direct Netroots Activism: A Movement, Taking Hold

Direct netroots activism is finally finding its legs.

As I wrote earlier today, MoveOn and similar organizations have done a good job of using the Internet to empower activists, but they tend to do so under a unifying organizational banner: "MoveOn", "Dean for President." And while liberal bloggers are doing invaluable service as pamphleteers -- modern equivalents of Thomas Paine who educate, inform, network, inspire, and evangelize -- they, like Paine, are not actually generals; they motivate the troops but until now haven't led them in battle.

We've had "grassroots organizations" and armies like MoveOn, and we've had thinkers and prophets like Markos. But we haven't had the one thing that the Web should be best at: Internet-enabled, truly populist, grassroots activism. We haven't had what I'll call "the virtuous mob": thousands upon thousands of individuals who find themselves all seeking the same thing and who move, simultaneously but not in lockstep, in unison but not in concert, to obtain it.

It sounds like a hair-splitting distinction, but it's an important one. It's the difference between VichyDems and MoveOn. MoveOn is a wonderful group. I can't express enough how much I support and appreciate it; I can't imagine the modern progressive movement without it. But, despite its sincere commitment to serving as an extension of the grassroots, MoveOn is still something of a monolith. It's easily labeled: "liberal." It has letterhead, its principals' names are well-known, it delivers petitions with "MoveOn" at the top. Truly populist grassroots, on the other hand, can't be labeled, and that fact gives them a different kind of power. It's the difference between MoveOn or PFAW handing a senator one petition with 1,000 signatures on it, and the same senator receiving 1,000 separate letters, each from a different individual, each speaking in its own voice, all asking for the same thing. I believe the 1,000 letters are more democratic and more effective than the one petition.

VichyDems has tried to play a role in enabling and coordinating, without directing or monopolizing, the nascent direct-action, individual-driven, populist progressive movement. In an earlier post, I described our objective this way:

"Our goal here is nothing less than helping build a new kind of movement that capitalizes on the Internet and other communications technologies that no citizens, in the history of the world, have ever had before. If the Dean campaign and MoveOn used the Internet to build "grassroots organizations," then we can use it to empower the grassroots themselves. We can bring a new thing into the world: Internet-driven, rapid-response, politically nuanced, direct grassroots democracy. I'm convinced that can be powerful."

Here's why I think this is a potentially powerful approach:

Those hammer taps, the voices of democracy recorded on voicemails and logged in daily reports by staffers, those hammer taps of democracy repeated often enough by enough people, will tip the edifice, so precariously balanced today, onto the side of democracy; and you, the virtual patriots, will be the ones that did it.

So please pick up the phone and make a call. Send an email. Shoot a fax... [T]ell your friends what we're up to here and encourage them to do the same. If you haven't signed up with our "updates" list (right sidebar), please do so, and ask your friends to do so. Kids home from school? Give them a civics class at home: sit them down with milk, a brownie, a telephone and a phone list. (Not even a Republican can withstand a child's voice saying, 'please, sir, I just want my country to be honest and fair.')

Inexorable democracy doesn't usually make much noise. It's not the raucous blare of quadrennial conventions. Rather, it's usually just a tiny sound: a tap, tap, tap.

Just in the last few days, these kinds of ideas seem to be catching on. People for the American Way ("PFAW") and MoveOn are starting to supplement their petition drives with emails asking people to telephone key politicians directly, and providing phone numbers. (Sound familiar?) Bill Beutler, who writes the National Journal Hotline's daily Blogometer column, recently wrote an article (based partly on VichyDems) that, while mistaken in some of its premises and conclusions, correctly observed that the spontaneous grassroots activism that actually gave birth to the Alito filibuster fight is turning into a broader movement -- one which he characterizes, narrowly, as a movement to oust Vichys, but which I see, more broadly, as one to reclaim America's progressive, populist values.

Some of the best bloggers in the business are starting to think and talk along these lines. In particular, Glenn Greenwald of Unclaimed Territory, Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake, John Amato of Crooks & Liars, and others are trying to figure out how to convert talk into boots-on-the-ground activism. As Glenn wrote on Monday:

I've become a vigorous believer in the notion that the blogosphere is a uniquely potent vehicle for large numbers of people to act in concert in a meaningful way. National political advocacy organizations and party-based entities are, by and large, useless. They have become stagnant, entrenched, obsolete old relics of the political wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Many people who stay in Washington too long lose their ear for anything outside of Washington, and many of them become satisfied with status quo perpetuation, because they are so comfortable with their little niche, even if it's a losing one. The blogosphere has really become the venue for vibrant, novel and impassioned action. I hope to find a way to spend as much time working on these matters as I can because I believe the effect they can have is limitless.

The point is, this is a movement. Two weeks ago, Bill Beutler's Blogometer asked with regard to VichyDems, "Are there second acts in American political movements?" Beutler's question astutely took for granted that the bottom-up Alito activism was the beginning of an actual political movement. And the answer to his question, depending on how feisty you feel, is either "Hell, yes, and wait for Act II" or, from my perspective, "What do you mean? Alito was just first sentence in Act I. Act I's just barely getting under way. We've got much, much more up our sleeve. And Acts II and III, when we finally get there, are gonna blow your everlovin' mind!"

So watch Glenn, watch FireDogLake, watch C&L, watch the other action-oriented progressive blogs, and watch here to see what happens. I think you -- yes, you, out there -- are going to help us translate talk into action. I think you're going to make a huge difference in the fate of our nation. And I think it's going to be a lot of fun.


Wendy Thomson said...

I absolutely agree. I wrote to MoveOn, PFAW, the ACLU, DFA, and PDA, during the anti-Alito campaign, urging them to mobilize their membership to the phones the way Vichy Dems was doing, but even as I wrote, I suspected that these groups are too large (with the possible exception of PDA); too ponderous in their planning and implementing to be as nimble as Vichy Dems. To the credit of both Moveon and PFAW, they have just, as Thersites writes, started to get in the game with some targeted phone call directions in their Alerts.

I, too, am enormously admiring of Moveon, and have been an ardent supporter, financially and through activism, from their very early days. And they've spearheaded some very successful telephone-Congress campaigns. But I don't think they're structured to be able to provide the kind of "rapid response, politically nuanced" mobilizing that Vichy Dems (and others Thersites mentions) have. And this is an essential piece of the movement to turn this ship of state around.

It's essential not only from the perspective of giving many individuals the power of good information delivered quickly and strategically, so that many more *personalized* messages and conversations with government representatives can take place quickly, in a game where timing is close to everything. But it's also essential because it spreads the power among the grassroots, thereby making it much harder for the adversaries to sabotage, undermine, and respond. And it can help move some citizens from occassional and limited political participation --as in, say, petition-signing-- to a more engaged form of activism.

I hosted a Constitutional Vigil last night, as part of Moveon's nationwide campaign to put politicians on notice that the public is paying attention to the NSA unwarranted spying, and all the other intrusions on our civil and Constitutional rights. (It went well; 125+ people, with some local press coverage) In my thank you note to those participants who signed up to attend the vigil, I put in a shameless plug for Vichy Dems:

"P.P.P.S. I commend to you a totally terrific, fiendishly funny, and extremely well-informed, savvy citizen activist blog I discovered while fighting the Supreme Court nomination of Alito. It is.... ....
A small group of "Patriotic Democrats, Doggedly Resisting the Vichy's, DINOs (Democrats in Name Only), Triangulators and Accomodationists." These folks have been calling Congress in a very strategic way to push for comprehensive, transparent, broad Congressional investigations into Bush's National Security Admin unwarranted domestic spying."

I hope to turn lots of folks on to Vichy Dems.

Thersites D. Scott said...

Wow, Wendy! Thank you. And thank you, even more, for going to the effort of hosting a vigil. Tap, tap, tap!