The phenomenon occurs among activists on the Left and the Right. Regardless of their ideological perspective or particular cause, amateur activists sabotage their own effort at every turn. Whether due to ignorance of processes or – more likely – stubborn defiance of reality, citizen activists focus too much on grinding their axe and not enough on achieving a goal.
Three recent examples warrant consideration. First, in Maine, a group of libertarian Republicans including a National Committeeman authored an open letter to the state party secretary tendering their resignation from the GOP following a rules fight which didn’t go their way at a meeting of the RNC. Dave Nalle, former national chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus, an organization working within the party to steer it toward greater advocacy of individual rights, called the mass exodus a “betrayal” in a public Facebook post:
After years of working to gain those positions of influence and as a key component of a liberty coalition which controls the state party, they have thrown everything away because of losing one battle over the rules with the RNC leadership.
Did they go into this thinking it was going to be easy to change the Republican Party? I respect their efforts and commitment up to this point, but what they have done puts liberty movement control of their state party in jeopardy and hands additional victories to the malefactors who run the national party. It weakens the movement nationwide and sets a terrible example for others.
In Minnesota, the Occupy movement has splintered as Occupy MN announced that it was cutting ties with a spin-off organization called Occupy Homes MN on account of the latter becoming “commercialized” and “profitable.” City Pages reports on the schism, citing a public statement from Occupy MN:
Many of us helped create, volunteered with and were arrested with Occupy Homes, until unethical tactics serving the goal of evolution into a profitable Non-Governmental Organization achieved dominance.
Last but not least, activists made a stink following an incident at the Republican Party booth at the Minnesota State Fair. Volunteers arrived to work a shift at the booth wearing campaign t-shirts supporting a libertarian challenger to Congressman John Kline. The state party chair, fulfilling his fiduciary responsibility to protect the party brand, required the volunteers to turn their shirts inside-out while representing the party in an official capacity. The move sparked a firestorm of protest from liberty activists within the party. A former candidate for the state chair position rallied support on Facebook by noting:
Neither Kline nor Mr. [David] Gerson [the challenger] is endorsed for the 2014 race to keep MN CD 2 in GOP hands.
Apparently, political parties have no vested interest in promoting their elected officials or protecting their brand by not associating it with non-endorsed challengers. So goes the protesters’ argument.
Each of these examples and many more which could be cited indicate an activist mindset which I refer to as anti-activism. Like a gerbil running on its wheel, anti-activists expend tremendous energy toward getting nowhere. That becomes problematic for more thoughtful activists who focus on affecting public policy rather than protest for its own sake. Let’s consider 6 ways activists sabotage their cause.
6) Guarding Fiefdoms
I began my activism within the Tea Party in 2009. I contributed to an effort to build a national publication of citizen journalists coordinated by Tea Party Patriots. My editor put me in touch with the then state coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, who we will call Mona.
Mona suggested we meet for dinner. I figured the meeting would be dense with information and planning, a detailed briefing regarding Tea Party groups in Minnesota, their level of organization, legislative priorities, issue advocacy, things of that nature.
What I got instead was two hours of griping about everything from the perceived encroachments of the Republican Party to the eccentricities of other activists throughout the state. Nothing resembling a plan was presented. My role as a journalist wasn’t even addressed. Instead, the machinations of Mona’s rivals within and outside the movement were related in conspiratorial detail.
Mona’s primary concern was protecting her position within the nascent movement, rather than effectively promoting its cause. Maintaining control over who used the name “Tea Party” and to what effect was her highest priority.
As a result, Mona actually worked against the formation of Tea Party groups in the state. When I found that no group existed in my area, I took it upon myself to start one. When Mona got wind of it, I received a call which was borderline threatening, warning me not to host Republican candidates or otherwise form associations with those she disapproved of. Had I the experience then that I have now, I’d have told her in no uncertain terms where she could stow her directives. She thought herself the big fish in a then small Tea Party pond, but was eventually humbled and forced to resign.
Unfortunately, the politics of personality remains a nagging hindrance to the movement in our state and beyond. People want to control the Tea Party brand, to take credit for achievements not their own, to prevent the success of any initiative which does not originate with them, and so on. Of course, none of that helps fulfill the movement mission of affecting public policy consistent with the principles of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.
5) Attacking Efforts Without Offering Alternatives
Mona had a mantra which all who knew her heard frequently.
Don’t effort bash!
Ostensibly, this meant that you should either support an effort or try something else, not criticize from the sidelines. Indeed, were that sentiment universally applied, activism would be much happier and more productive.
As it turns out, Mona held a double standard. After her resignation from Tea Party Patriots, a group of local coordinators came together to fill the void and steer the movement in a more productive direction. Mona, striking from the depths of increasing obscurity and irrelevance, threatened us with a lawsuit over use of the name “Minnesota Tea Party Patriots,” which she had registered with the state. Pointing out that her obstruction did nothing to advance the cause had little effect upon her resolve. She just wanted to watch the movement burn.
Likewise today, efforts to transition the Tea Party from a protest organization into an effective political entity are met with criticism from naysayers offering no ideas of their own. Old aversions to political action like endorsement and contribution are being re-evaluated. The value of perennial rallies and routine meetings which preach to the choir to little effect has been called into question. Be that as it may, deviating from established Tea Party culture, trying something outside the box in which the movement has confined itself, invites derision even from those offering no viable alternative.
4) Defying the Legislative Process
The Tea Party and the broader coalition of activists on the Right have earned a reputation as cheapskates, eager to applaud but slow to volunteer or donate. Candidates and other political organizers are welcome to speak and receive ample pledges of thoughts and prayers. But precious little tangible support emerges.
A detailed study of this behavior would be enlightening. Perhaps Tea Partiers generally have nothing to spare. Those showing up to rallies and meetings seem to be of mostly modest means, despite media characterization to the contrary. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the real reason for a lack of tangible support is a sense that it must first be earned. I base that speculation on several anecdotal experiences where activists represent their individual support as something sacred and holy, guarding it like a Victorian maid might her virginity. Supporting a candidate without thoroughly vetting their every thought and deed to ensure absolute compliance with an ideological litmus test risks dishonor and subsequent seppuku. Those libertarian Republicans who resigned in Maine characterized the move as “a principled preservation of our individual integrity,” as if their political support were some promise ring hurled at a cheating boyfriend rather than a tool for affecting public policy.
A cycle of ineffectiveness thus begins, where activists refuse to support good candidates, holding out for an unknown or unviable ideal, then harbor unreasonable expectations of the awful government their intransigence enabled. Consider the current effort to defund Obamacare. Tea Partiers, libertarians, and conservatives seem largely united in their expectation that Congress defy political reality and threaten a government shutdown in a last-ditch effort to stop implementation of the new healthcare law. Anyone who questions the wisdom of that course is immediately derided as a squishy moderate sellout. But where were all these activists when Mitt Romney was running for president on the promise to end Obamacare? Many had their arms crossed and their lips pressed, refusing to work to elect him because he was less then their ideal. As it turns out, you can’t withhold support from viable if imperfect candidates, then insist your agenda be implemented without the necessary political power.
Another way this irrational intransigence plays out is in the inflated stakes of individual campaigns. No example proves more instructive than the effort to elect Ron Paul as president. From the behavior and rhetoric of many supporters, you would think that electing Paul would empower him to eliminate statism in all its forms with the wave of a pocket Constitution. That, of course, is ridiculous.
Were Paul president today, he couldn’t achieve a fraction of the agenda he campaigned on with a Senate controlled by Democrats and a House led largely by moderate Republicans. Despite President Barack Obama’s actions to the contrary, that office is not a monarchy. A libertarian president would necessarily require a libertarian Congress, and that in turn requires a cultural sea change which has not yet occurred. No amount of righteous indignation is going to force it. Expecting legislative outcomes wholly out of sync with electoral outcomes proves silly and denies the responsibility of the activist to build the coalitions necessary to change minds, then offices, and finally the law.
3) Defying the Two-Party System
Let us turn to a more detailed analysis of our libertarian friends in Maine, who resigned their positions within the Republican Party in protest of several perceived deficiencies. The straw which broke their collective back was the tabling of an amendment offered at the August meeting of the RNC to neuter controversial rule changes which were enacted during the 2012 National Convention in Tampa. The new rules centralize authority over the appointment and seating of delegates and severely cripple the ability of grassroots activists to defy a presumptive nominee and thus ruin the pretty, televised coronation party leadership prefers. No doubt exists among proponents of grassroots party control that the Tampa rules ought to be repealed or replaced. That said, what does the exodus of party officers who hold that view accomplish?
Consider the concluding declaration in the Maine activists’ letter of resignation:
Therefore, for the above-stated reasons, we can no longer allow ourselves to be called nor enrolled as Republicans; we can no longer associate ourselves with a political party that goes out of its way to continually restrict our freedoms and liberties as well as reaching deeper and deeper into our wallets.
We instead choose the path that focuses on ways to help our fellow Mainers outside of party politics.
Some of us may be town officers or board members.
Some of us may leave all options on the table with regards to running for higher office as Independents.
Some of us may be small farmers and gardeners who desire to help feed their communities.
Others may simply want to just get part of their life back, catching up and spending more time with friends and neighbors.
The critical failure which informs this move manifests from activists’ perception of the party as a servant which ought to work on their behalf, rather than a vehicle which must be actively steered in a desired direction. You can’t change the course of a vehicle by bailing out of it.
As an activist both within and alongside the Republican Party, I hear all the time how the two-party system is “rigged,” or how both major parties are two sides of the same coin and there exists no meaningful reason to support either. Of course, any rigging occurs by those in control, who secure their positions through a system of caucus and convention elections. So if you really want to see the parties change, you have to change them. So long as good people sit around waiting for the a political party to “learn their lesson,” reform their ways, and come crawling on hands and knees begging for grassroots support, nothing will change.
No one has ever “learned their lesson” from an activist resigning in protest, a voter staying at home, or a ballot cast for a third party. The concept ignores political reality and smacks of a narcissistic valuation of one’s political worth. “Oh, you resigned?! Well then, let me completely realign my entire worldview in order to get you back,” said no party officer or elected official ever.
It would have been far more effective for Maine’s libertarian Republicans to author a letter wherein they committed to recruiting like-minded citizens into the party structure. Those in power only respect others with power. Libertarians must build high-value coalitions whose support is worth earning. Abandoning the party to walk the Earth and grow carrots changes nothing.
2) Rejecting Organization as an Elitist, Hierarchal Affront to Democracy
There was a time in Minnesota, after the resignation of Mona from her state coordinator position with Tea Party Patriots, when several local coordinators got together to plan a Tea Party state convention. We met two or three times a week for weeks on end with no structure, leadership, or emergent direction. Lots of good ideas were thrown around, but decisions were never made because we had no process for making them aside from unanimous consensus.
Eventually, some of us realized that organization of something as grandiose as a state convention needed to be tabled until we could first agree upon an organizational structure. North Star Tea Party Patriots was born, a coalition of local groups which we hoped would speak with one voice and move with one purpose when appropriate.
I remember my realization, as I first considered Robert’s Rules of Order while drafting the organization’s constitution, that we were like cavemen reinventing the wheel. As then inexperienced citizen activists, our rebellious Tea Party impulses informed an aversion to structure and organization. Yet, as we meet and attempted to accomplish something, we learned through doing that any corporate effort requires structure and organization.
Alas, our coalition suffered from the same vulnerability which undid the Articles of Confederation. Fear of centralized control had so dominated our founding that our coalition emerged too weak to be of any practical use. On the one hand, our organization was berated by activists for not doing anything. On the other, any attempt to rally action was decried as tyranny.
In many ways, the schism befalling Occupy MN reminds me of those days. Only I imagine the troubles prove worse within Occupy, since that movement fundamentally rejects the means through which value is created and the processes through which goals are accomplished. City Pages reports of the movement:
Dissent between the two groups [Occupy MN and Occupy Homes MN], ostensibly part of the same nationwide protest movement, first heated up over the summer, when OHMN hosted a national conference in Minneapolis and limited the number of “delegates” who could attend. The group argued that the attendance cap was necessary to facilitate a productive discussion; certain members of Occupy MN, however, saw the move as antithetical to a movement founded on transparency.
Sounds familiar. “Transparency,” “fairness,” “democracy” — such words are euphemisms when used by certain activists which actually mean bullying and disorder. What too many activists refuse to acknowledge is that any deliberative process depends upon the consent of all parties concerned. As an individual, my time is valuable. I get to exercise my freedom of association to determine whether I want to spend my time listening to an endless procession of soap box speeches covering a variety of pet issues I may or may not care about. While I can’t speak directly for Occupy Homes MN, I imagine their desire to limit the number of delegates to their conference was informed by that impulse. Indeed, productivity necessarily requires some limitation upon deliberation. Such limitations are agreed upon by any deliberative body, and consented to whenever an individual chooses to participate. If you want to start your own group that’s all about listening to you talk about what you care about, go ahead. Good luck attracting attendance.
1) Refusing to Dirty the Cause with Money
On this final point, the Occupy movement faces inherent challenges. Among the chief complaints driving a wedge between Occupy MN and Occupy Homes MN is the former’s objection to the latter’s fundraising and provision of stipends to staff. From City Pages:
The stipend for OHMN organizers is “just enough to support people’s basic needs,” [Nick] Espinosa [one of six stipended OHMN activists] says. “I live at home. This isn’t a way for me to make money off the movement, but it’s a way for me to sustain my basic needs while committing 60 to 80 hours a week to this work.”
“It’s important for us to build a stable financial base that doesn’t rely on corporate donors or institutions,” Espinosa continues. “We do share that critique that funding sources often have the potential to co-opt movements, but we believe the way to combat that is to have a member-led and member-funded organization.”
In this way, Espinosa finds himself in the awkward position of defending the fundamental principle his movement otherwise defies. Production generates value which deserves compensation. For Espinosa to commit 60 to 80 hours a week toward campaigning against value, he has to be compensated for his effort so he can provide for himself.
Comical though it may be to witness such cognitive dissonance within the Occupy movement, similar obstacles plague the Tea Party and many citizen activist organizations. For some reason, people tend to think of volunteering as morally superior to earning a paycheck. Yet, for someone to consistently fulfill a role at professional quality, they simply must be paid for their time. Political work generates real value which can only be sustained with compensation.
The gauntlet of political activism tests its champions with sobering reality. Operations require money. Efforts require organization. The passage of legislation requires majorities. Constructive criticism requires viable alternatives. Movements thrive on causes, not self-indulgent personalities. The humble work required to truly get something accomplished requires acknowledgement of value, the recognition of how individual rights apply within corporate bodies, and respect of others when votes don’t go your way. We call the threading of that needle professionalism. Too few citizen activists exhibit it, which undermines an untold number of efforts to better the world in which we live.