Symposium: Organizing and Therapeutic Politics

Symposium: Organizing and Therapeutic Politics

Organizing & Therapeutic Politics

We have asked a number of organizing scholars and practitioners to comment on Zelda Bronstein’s “Politics’ Fatal Therapeutic Turn” (and exchange with Marshall Ganz) from the Summer 2011 issue of Dissent. The responses were written either before or during the incipient stages of the occupations now taking place across the United States—events that carry with them the potential for a remobilization of the American Left. We hope that the arguments below will help carry forward discussions about where (and how) to go from here.

James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher, and Eric Shragge – More Ideological Organizing

Randy Shaw – Unclear Mission Leads to Organizing Conflict

David Walls – Relational Organizing or Therapeutic Politics?

Erik Peterson – How Good Storytelling Can Help Save the Left

Zelda Bronstein Responds

More Ideological Organizing

We are pleased to participate in this online symposium on the nature of contemporary organizing, not because we seek to take one side or the other, but because we agree that the issues raised are important. Clearly there isn’t just one way to organize or to teach organizing, but in a world focused on “best practices,” as if organizing were a matter of simple technique, we think it is worth discussing the potential and limits of current trends in organizing, including some of the ones Zelda Bronstein criticizes and Marshall Ganz defends.

We agree with Bronstein’s critique of the depoliticizing of contemporary community organizing, of which the overemphasis on “relationships” and “storytelling” are but one aspect. Ganz certainly isn’t the sole practitioner and proponent. For close to two decades, renowned organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (founded by Saul Alinsky) have presented organizing as being about relationships. Ganz and organizing networks such as the IAF do extraordinary and well-documented work. Their approach to organizing is complex and sophisticated. Their shared emphasis on the concepts of relationships and personal narrative and their public framing of organizing fits with their efforts to build community, public connection, and “small-d” democracy. But for us it also reflects a moderation of community organizing that has redefined it and in so doing limited its goals and outcomes, not to mention its politics. This shift caused organizer Mike Miller to wonder, some years ago, if the heirs of Alinsky were likely to title their next book, Reveille for Moderates, as distinct from Alinsky’s classic Reveille for Radicals.

Even as grassroots initiatives have proliferated worldwide since the 1970s, there has been a global political-economic transformation that has loaded responsibility for solving social problems onto communities while reducing resources to address them, all in a context of growing inequalities. The political transformation also marginalized and regulated community efforts, pushing them to be more moderate in their theory of change and practices. In terms of the debate in this symposium, we find the moderation of organizing evident in (1) a turning away from conflict-oriented community organizing to more depoliticized, capacity-building forms of community building; (2) the narrow localism of much organizing that romanticizes community and seems unable, especially without ACORN in the mix, to build organizational structures that reach toward national scale; and (3) community organizations that do not, and would not, see themselves as part of, or at least broadly connected to, activist social movements or social movement building. Thus the limitations of current organizing are of twofold: the failure to emphasize the centrality of power and conflict in social structures, and therefore to change such structures; and the inability to address the limits of scale inherent in the local community. Community efforts should be about organizing in a place to build something local and bigger, not simply about a place.

The turning inward of contemporary organizing tends to encourage a focus on relationships and storytelling. Bronstein thinks this conceptual shift reflects a therapeutic theoretical turn. Maybe. We find the theoretical roots of these concepts linked more directly to postmodern theory, which focuses on language and narrative, and communitarian and social capital theories, which focus on connection and community building. Whatever the source, Bronstein is correct, we believe, in challenging the mystique surrounding relationship building and storytelling. Organizing has always been about building connections, trust, and reciprocity (if not always practiced as such), but these elements were always seen more as means, not ends, as one entrée into organizing, not its essence. Frankly, we don’t know whether the contemporary penchant for seeing organizing as being about relationships and storytelling is just annoying and distracting or “fatal” to politics. It is certainly the former.

There’s no silver bullet to make the world of organizing more than the sum of its fragmented parts. In our book, Contesting Community, we propose a more expansive, more politicized, more social-movement-oriented, and more “ideological” model, similar to efforts such as the now-defunct ACORN and the newly emerging Right to the City Alliance. These imperfect examples, which address some of the central limits of much current community organizing, do not stand alone. Increasingly, more groups are returning to this type of organizing. We could use further public discussion, not to mention public action, about what community organizing needs in order to reach its potential as both an alternative to reactionary politics and a source of democratic renewal and economic justice.

James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher, and Eric Shragge recently published Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing (Rutgers University, 2010), a comparative study of community organizing in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. They teach at Rutgers University, University of Connecticut, and Concordia University (Montreal) respectively.

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Unclear Mission Leads to Organizing Conflict

Zelda Bronstein’s critique of what she sees as Marshall Ganz’s excessive reliance on “motivating involvement through the emotional pull of storytelling” reflects the challenge of organizing in the Obama era. It is an era whose organizing-driven 2008 campaign raised high hopes, electing a president whom progressives were eager to organize behind. But both Bronstein and Ganz recognize that Barack Obama soon departed from this organizing model, and activists soon realized that he was not the president they thought they had elected.

This has led to enormous frustration. Eager to organize for a health care reform “public option,” comprehensive immigration reform, a major jobs program, and other issues, activists saw Obama shift from campaign ally to presidential obstacle. Progressives were left on the sidelines while right-wing activists were organizing their base. This created the public impression that conservatives were more committed than the progressives who had swung the nation to their side in the 2008 election.

Progressives can accept being outspent but not being out-organized. And I think this frustration at being out-organized by the Tea Party and the right wing has led to the type of criticisms raised by Bronstein and responded to by Ganz.

Bronstein’s central concern is her belief that “organizing by storytelling” neglects the critical process of agenda-setting and strategic implementation. Ganz defends the narrative technique, arguing that it successfully motivates others. I would suggest that issues of technique tend to emerge in the absence of a clear and realizable organizing mission.

Obama and Organizing

Ganz’s experience with the Obama campaign and United Farm Workers both involved widely accepted goals. The former was winning the 2008 election; the latter, a state agricultural labor relations act and ongoing union contracts throughout the agriculture industry.

But organizing in the Obama era is very different. The president’s goals are rarely clear, and it has proved near impossible for progressives to organize in support of Obama’s ever shifting agenda.

We saw this in 2009 on health care. Activists were building support for the public option only to learn that Obama had made an early deal torpedoing it–while still insisting that he favored such an approach. The coordination between organizers and leaders that mobilized the grassroots base in the 2008 campaign was gone.

MoveOn and other progressive grassroots groups could have mobilized against Obama’s rightward turns, but prefer to attack Republicans. This quickly becomes a defensive strategy, and defending Obama’s shift from a progressive agenda is not easy to organize or mobilize around.

Reading between the lines of Bronstein’s critique of Camp MoveOn, I think that agenda setting and strategic implementation may have been neglected less because of the narrative technique and more because of a lack of clarity on what MoveOn should be doing.

Put another way, I cannot think of any organizing strategy that can work when the agenda promoted is subject to Obama’s insistence on his own confused version of “bipartisanship” and “compromise.” Organizers will feel betrayed and the base undercut, no matter what type of technical trainings they have.

Randy Shaw is a longtime San Francisco activist, editor of Beyond Chron (, and author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (both from UC Press).

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Relational Organizing or Therapeutic Politics?

In the Summer 2011 Dissent, Zelda Bronstein examines two organizational responses to the demobilization of progressives that pervades American political life (politics’ fatal therapeutic turn.) She finds them both flawed because they “treat politics as a source of personal validation and emotional succor.” This “personalized activism” is based on “therapeutic motives,” she argues, and is “fatal to political effectiveness.” Her two cases are the Berkeley-based Kitchen Democracy and the national (hereafter, MoveOn for short). Bronstein’s critique of MoveOn is centered on its use of the organizing model developed by Marshall Ganz.

Knowing nothing about Kitchen Democracy, I will limit my comments to MoveOn, with which I have worked closely over the past two and a half years. (Full disclosure: I served as the council coordinator–now renamed “council organizer”—of the Sonoma County Council of MoveOn from November 2008 through January 2011, and as a regional coordinator–now “regional organizer”—for MoveOn councils in various parts of northern California during 2010.) I continue as a member of the core team of the Sonoma County Council. My experience in these volunteer positions tells me that what keeps MoveOn from being more politically effective has little to do with therapeutic politics and much to do with the way the organization is structured and run.

Bronstein starts with a fundamental misunderstanding of Ganz’s organizing model, which is a reformulation of the best practices of the standard community organizing approach of the post-Alinsky community organizing networks (primarily the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO National Network, and the Gamaliel Foundation). In this organizing tradition, shared with the more progressive components of the labor movement, organizing begins with relationships–not private, personal relationships, but public, political relationships. Organizers use “one-on-one” conversations as a means of getting to know the interests, values, and motivations of a potential recruit–not for “therapeutic motives.”

People on the democratic left need to recognize the potential of MoveOn to help build the progressive movement. The organization claims five million members–which means it has that many functioning email addresses from anyone who has contributed money, signed up to attend or host an event, or signed an online petition. By 2006, local meet-ups had become a network of MoveOn councils, groups that meet together to plan actions in common, gather for potlucks, and build political connections around common interests and concerns. To its credit MoveOn saw the powerful potential of combining its extraordinary email base with an in-person, on-the-ground council structure at the local level. Beginning in 2009, MoveOn has deployed eleven staff organizers to support the council network, which now numbers somewhere between 150 and 200 councils nationally.

MoveOn also deserves credit for rallying pragmatic progressives with its recent campaigns. Recovering quickly from the disappointment of not winning a “public option” in President Obama’s health care plan, MoveOn has been on a roll since showing Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story in hundreds of house parties in March 2010. MoveOn reacted to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision with its “Fight Washington Corruption” campaign, beginning in August 2010, aimed at ending corporate influence and making democracy work “for the other 98 percent of us”–themes it carried into the November 2010 congressional elections. In February 2011, MoveOn helped coordinate rallies throughout the country in support of Wisconsin public workers threatened with the loss of collective bargaining rights. Then on Tax Day, April 18, MoveOn led well-attended demonstrations at banks that managed to avoid paying income taxes.

The current Save the American Dream campaign, which began in the spring, conducted hundreds of house meetings the weekend of July 16 and 17 to determine a list of priority issues. The project involved an unprecedented number of co-sponsors, including a partnership with Van Jones. The ten key policy issues emerging from this process were termed the “Contract for the American Dream,” which were listed in a full-page ad in the New York Times on August 10, followed by a series of rallies the next day.

So what’s the problem, given the relative success of MoveOn’s recent campaigns in attracting both participants and allies? There is a fundamental contradiction between MoveOn’s commitment to building a progressive movement and its lack of a democratic structure. To borrow Albert Hirschman’s alternatives of “exit and voice,” if you disagree with some policy of MoveOn, the only option is to “exit” the organization; there is no opportunity to “voice” one’s differences. The result is an unnecessarily frequent turnover of leadership and churning of active membership in many councils.

Democratic member representation. MoveOn’s greatest need is for a structure that allows for democratic member representation. Members should be able to elect delegates to a regional board or state assembly, where there is an opportunity to gather periodically to debate issues, strategy, and tactics and where council leaders can get to know and trust each other, discuss regional and state issues, share innovative tactics, and plan common action. MoveOn’s board of directors should be expanded to include representatives of the councils.

Transparency. There is no public directory of the board of directors or staff of MoveOn, with job titles and a brief description of their responsibilities. There is no directory of MoveOn councils in each state, with names, emails, and phone numbers of coordinators. Such lists are essential. Contacts among coordinators in different regions should be encouraged. Councils need to be able to communicate more freely than is possible with the weekly telephone conference calls in which people are identified only by their first names.

Accountability. Evaluation of field organizers should be on a “360 degree” basis, with council organizers having input to the process. Staff, especially field organizers, should be seen as working for the membership, not vice versa. Organizational goals (that is, targets for numbers of councils, core team members, regional organizers, etc.) should be stated and evaluated annually. A regular review of field organizers and field operations by the council coordinators should be provided to the field director and senior staff. Reasons for successes or shortfalls should be analyzed and shared with the council membership. Volunteer regional organizers should reside in and have a familiarity with the regions they supervise (currently, that’s not always the case).

Local flexibility. MoveOn councils have been organized in the congressional districts of every type of representative, from progressive champions to blue dog Democrats and Tea Party adherents. Councils have been organized in localities ranging from major metropolitan areas to suburbs to rural areas. Some degree of flexibility in responding to national programs within the local context is essential, and should be recognized up and down the MoveOn hierarchy.

Membership diversity. MoveOn is very white and middle class. African-American participation is good in selected cities, but needs to be developed nationally. Latino and Asian-American participation is almost completely lacking and unlikely to grow without a greater emphasis on immigrant rights issues. Working-class membership would likely be enhanced by closer relationships with unions and community organizations at the local level.

Staff diversity. Most staff organizers appear to have learned their trade in electoral campaigns, particularly the 2008 Obama campaign. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the organization would benefit from a diversity of organizing backgrounds, including people with labor and community organizing experience and training.

Leadership development and training. MoveOn should make a major commitment to leadership development through such training opportunities as National Leadership Training and Camp MoveOn at the regional level. The organizing model should be presented in its full richness, not used simply in an opportunistic and instrumental way to recruit new members and core team activists for local councils.

Staffing up to the challenge. MoveOn needs more than a dozen field organizers. For example, there is currently one organizer for the states of California, Hawaii, and Alaska when we need two in California alone. Supporting an expanded council network will require MoveOn to increase its national fundraising effort.

Local council fundraising. Local councils are greatly limited and inconvenienced by the PAC status of Political Action, which requires reporting of contributions to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). Chartering councils as Civic Action entities would allow local fundraising under its 501(c)(4) status, which does not require FEC reporting, much like membership groups with a chapter structure such as the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and NOW.

Movement building. MoveOn has made real progress in expanding its work with allies from the labor, environmental, and community organizing movements at the national level. Similar relationships have to be built at the local level by council core teams. This will take a lot of patient work, but could have an enormously significant outcome for building a powerful progressive movement nationally.

Can MoveOn transcend its origins as a political action committee and develop a democratic structure representing its active council membership? Does MoveOn’s board of directors want to develop a powerful, effective multi-issue progressive organization committed to the long haul? Are they willing to share some control to accomplish that? Or are they content to stay as they are, another organization with promise, but never realizing the power to be a truly transformative force?

David Walls is professor emeritus of sociology at Sonoma State University in California. He is a member of the leadership council of the North Bay Organizing Project, an affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation.

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How Good Storytelling Can Help Save the Left

Zelda Bronstein begins her recent article “Politics’ Fatal Therapeutic Turn” with a timely and compelling question: Why, at a time when bold organizing and activism are needed more than ever, are “the partisans of democracy…largely demobilized and defensive?”

Her answer is less satisfying: individuals and organizations on the left have turned politics into therapy “as a source of personal validation and emotional succor” rather than the “strenuous citizenship essential to democracy.” Her claim rests on two case studies, but her broadside against MoveOn and Marshall Ganz is the more interesting and most troubling part of her article.

MoveOn and Ganz, Bronstein writes, “use techniques of mutual self-disclosure to propel individuals into a politics where aggravation is alleviated by the balm of righteous sentiment.” Yet, her problem appears to be more with MoveOn than with Ganz. Bronstein uses Ganz to critique MoveOn, then blames him for MoveOn’s failure to follow his model of organization.

The more provocative challenge in Bronstein’s piece is not her misreading of Ganz or his organizing model; it is her rejection of organizing as “creating relationships through public narrative” and her dismissal of the importance of community and collective story in the formation of collective action. She writes that “community grows out of trust, and trust out of shared action, not shared stories.” Then she quotes Christopher Lasch —“the concept of ‘community’ evokes ‘intimacy and togetherness’ [while]…political life thrives on controversy,” suggesting that a focus on community building is not the same (nor presumably does it support) something more “strenuous.” Bronstein clearly places herself on the side of action and controversy—what she refers to as “grubby politics.”

Bronstein’s caricature is a classic example of the false “either/or” dichotomy that has plagued left politics for generations and western civilization for a lot longer. It’s head versus heart; the same lines drawn between the “hard” Old Left focus on direct action and class and the “soft” New Left emphasis on culture. Is the choice truly between pragmatic “politics” and the theoretical, idealistic, intimate relationships of “community?” When are we going to learn we need both and more?

In fairness, I think Bronstein would probably agree. But so does Ganz. Even a cursory reading of Ganz’s writings, or a brief conversation with him, would make clear that he practices both “head” and “heart”—action and strategy deeply rooted in relationship. Bronstein’s claim that Ganz “gives priority to personal affect and motivation” gets us nowhere. Changing the world requires healing this divide.

Wellstone Action, the progressive training institute created after the death of Senator Paul Wellstone, tries to do this. Wellstone used to say, “Electoral politics without community organizing is a politics without a base; community organizing without electoral politics is a marginalized politics. And community organizing and electoral politics without a clear, progressive public policy agenda is a politics without a head, without a direction.” Wellstone Action combines all three and now trains out of this model, which it calls the “Wellstone Triangle.”

Changing the world requires both organizing and mobilizing. Organizing is about building relationships, finding common cause, and developing new leaders. Mobilizing is about moving self and others to collective action around common cause. The power is in bringing these together. If all we focus on is mass mobilization, we will quickly find a fractured and oftentimes dwindling following behind us—if there is any following at all. This is the classic challenge of large organizations that try to create nationally driven “movement” campaigns, which seldom have anything moving on the ground more than slogans and heaps of cash. Conversely, if we build relationships and fail to move people to action through a pragmatic analysis of power, we will have a really good holiday card list and large Facebook following, but will not shift power or deliver real policy outcomes.

Let’s go beyond the head and the heart and flesh out the whole body. In this analogy, issues are represented by our head. Most of us think and care about lots of issues; we take action on far fewer. We choose to act on those issues that connect most directly with what matters to us, our interests (or gut) and our values (or heart). Until an issue touches our heart, we may still “care,” but we will not act. Personal narrative sharpens motivation by connecting head, heart, and gut. Bronstein may call this therapy; I call it Organizing 101, and it has long preceded either Ganz or me.

Moving people to action always begins with the recognition that there is something wrong. This is the beginning of a story that connects the challenge we face with our ability to change it. But this story cannot end with self-realization. Collective action requires a collective story, and, as organizers, we learn to elicit individuals’ experiences and weave them together. We create spaces—literally—for people to recognize in another a piece of themselves. This begins building community, and is the way we find common cause in the collective challenge we now recognize together. It is one way to break out of the relentless isolation and individuation of social experience that has occurred over four decades of a neoliberal economic regime with its story of market fundamentalism.

Identifying shared challenges gets us started; it does not change the world. We need to lay out a clear choice, an agenda worth fighting for. The Left has been relatively successful at defending the New Deal 1.0, but has not developed our New Deal 2.0. We have not succeeded in developing a new collective story, a point I believe Bronstein and Ganz would agree on. We need to provide a credible alternative and then create opportunities for people to act, and to act now. This is how movement-building power and change begins to happen. To succeed, we must first believe that story, narrative, and community matter to politics.

The diagram below illustrates this type of movement-building change and is inspired, in part, by Marshall Ganz’s work on “strategic capacity.” Put simply, change happens when enough people are motivated (have the urgency and commitment) to develop an effective strategy and deploy their resources (their capacity) to act on the right target (where we choose to spend our resources within existing power relationships) at the right time (where we find and create political opportunity).

What Ganz calls strategic capacity depends on the right combination of leadership and organization to “turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” Sydney Tarrow calls these resources our “repertoire of contention,” which every social movement requires along with common purpose and sustained collective action. These resources include

• motivation (what compels and sustains our action)
• cultural knowledge (the salient information from particular communities)
• training and education (what others have taught us)
• financial resources (available money and infrastructure)
• community networks (our personal and organizational relationships)
• experiences (the stories of what has been done before)

Using these resources, we develop campaigns to win organizing, electoral, and public policy outcomes. But our campaigns need to be more than instrumental means to a victorious end. Movement building measures success by whether our campaigns and victories also create more organizing opportunities, reorganize existing power relationships, shift the narrative frame, develop new leaders, build stronger organizations, and expand our repertoire of contention.

Organizers are critical to making this change happen. Effective organizers have the ability to see and to experience the pain of a person and the world as it is, in all of its “grubby politics,” and at the same time imagine and ignite in others the imagination of what is possible and necessary. Walter Bruggemann calls this the “prophetic imagination;” Saul Alinsky calls it the “schizoid” nature of organizing. Ganz defines this complex relationship of leadership and organizing as “accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.”

We come back to where we began: to a both/and rather than either/or approach. Seen through this lens, any particular aspect of organizing (whether it is building a collective story or mobilizing for action) or a given training (whether leadership development, campaign skills, or governing as a progressive-movement elected official) can be evaluated for the particular need it meets at a particular moment over the course of building a movement. Bronstein calls for mass mobilizing yet dismisses real organizing. She characterizes storytelling as therapeutic, rather than recognizing it is as the principal way we create a collective public narrative, imagine an alternative, build the power and motivation necessary to challenge existing power relationships, sustain our campaigns, and deliver progressive public policy at the end of the day. In short, she calls for a bolder, more expansive organizing at the same time she narrows its focus and drains it of its heart and soul.

Erik Peterson is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Wellstone Action and is an assistant professor in the Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He has over thirty years of community, labor, and electoral organizing experience.

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Zelda Bronstein Responds

I hoped that my essay “Politics’ Fatal Therapeutic Turn” would enliven the public conversation about organizing on the democratic left. To judge from this symposium, it accomplished that goal.

The one argument addressed by all the respondents is my contention that the Left’s current weakness reflects a depoliticized approach to organizing whose emphasis on relationships and storytelling suppresses conflict and promotes consensus, an approach exemplified by Marshall Ganz’s model of organizing as implemented by MoveOn.

That critique is reinforced and enlarged by James DeFilippis, Robert Fisher, and Eric Shragge. They tie the depoliticization of organizing to the rise of global neoliberalism, an epochal transformation that “has loaded responsibility for solving problems onto communities while reducing resources to address [those problems], all in a context of growing inequalities.” In response, community organizers have narrowed their goals, tempered their politics, and moderated their “theory of change and practices.” Turning their efforts “inward,” organizers have not only overemphasized “‘relationships’ and ‘storytelling’” but also adopted a “narrow localism” whose romanticization of community impedes the creation of “organizational structures that reach toward national scale.” “Community efforts,” write DeFilippis et al., “should be about organizing in a place to build something local and bigger, not simply about a place.” They cite ACORN and the Right of the City Alliance as two “imperfect examples” that could serve as the basis of discussion and action in behalf of “a more expansive, more politicized, more social-movement-oriented, and more ‘ideological’ model.”

The Left could certainly use muscular organizations with a nationwide scope. But whether community efforts should meet that need depends on the efforts in question. Sometimes organizing in a place should simply be about that place; other times it’s more appropriately about that place and something beyond. The nebulous character of community makes it hard to draw this distinction.

Substitute “local” for “community,” and it becomes easier to assess the scope of a place-based project. Consider a project’s specific mission, and it becomes easier yet. Organizing to prepare for earthquakes in Berkeley is a decidedly local affair. Organizing to protect Berkeley’s still viable industrial sector from real estate speculation and neoliberal deregulation is a local effort, insofar as it deals with zoning, the regional economy, and the University of California’s ongoing colonization of the city. It’s also an effort that would be greatly strengthened by the existence of a nationwide organization that promoted urban and regional manufacturing through local chapters in U.S. cities.

Randy Shaw agrees that the current weakness of progressive organizing involves a preoccupation with storytelling and a corresponding neglect of “agenda-setting and strategic implementation.” But for Shaw, this focus on “technique” is a sign, not a cause, of enfeeblement; and what it signifies is the frustration of operating in a political context that precludes effective action. DeFilippis and his colleagues cite the debilitating effects of global neoliberalism; Shaw points to the bewildering impact of a muddled presidency. “I cannot think of any organizing strategy that can work,” he writes, “when the agenda promoted”—MoveOn’s—“is subject to Obama’s insistence on his own confused version of ‘bipartisanship’ and ‘compromise.’” Shaw’s analysis implies an unstated course of action: Change the agenda. Stop reacting to the vacillating Obama, and start advancing a bold progressive vision.

The other two respondents, David Walls and Erik Peterson, take issue with my treatment of “relational organizing” and its use of narrative. Walls contends that I begin “with a fundamental misunderstanding of Ganz’s organizing model, which is a reformulation of the best practices of the standard community organizing approach of the post-Alinsky community organizing networks.” But Walls’s account of those practices makes Ganz’s model look like a deviation, not a reformulation, and at the same time validates the central point of my critique. Organizing in the post-Alinsky tradition, Walls says, “begins with relationships—not private, personal relationships, but public, political relationships.” The distinction is crucial—and missing from Ganz’s work.

It’s also missing from Erik Peterson’s response to my essay. Peterson thinks I not only misread but, worse yet, misuse Ganz. “Bronstein,” he writes, “uses Ganz to critique MoveOn, then blames him for MoveOn’s failure to follow his model of organization.”

But it’s Ganz’s neglect of power and accountability, which is to say, his neglect of political concerns, that facilitated the domineering behavior of the trainers at Camp MoveOn. Closely documented in my essay, such behavior violates the ideal of shared authority embedded in Ganz’s notion of “leadership-rich” organizing. Peterson proposes that my “problem appears to be more with MoveOn than with Ganz.” That’s true, insofar as it’s the patronage of prominent organizations such as MoveOn that legitimates and disseminates Ganz’s work. But Ganz still bears responsibility for his ideas.

In defending those ideas, Peterson also asserts that my “rejection of organizing as ‘creating relationships through public narrative’” forecloses a left political revival. But what I reject is the Ganzian premise that, as I wrote, “organizing is primarily about creating ‘relationships’ through ‘public narrative’” [emphasis added]. Peterson omits the qualifying adverb, thereby lending credence to his charge that I dismiss the political value of storytelling across the board. As DeFilippis, Fisher, and Shragge note, “Organizing has always been about building connections, trust, and reciprocity (if not always practiced as such), but these elements were always seen more as means, not ends…” Those ends—the achievement and exercise of power—are distinctly political.

Peterson argues that to favor “pragmatic ‘politics’” over “the theoretical, idealistic, intimate relationships of ‘community’” is to perpetuate a false dichotomy of “head versus heart” that has “plagued left politics for generations and western civilization for a lot longer…” He urges us to follow Ganz and transcend that divide, and then some. “Let’s go beyond the head and the heart,” he writes, “and flesh out the whole body.” In light of these pronouncements, his argument is striking for its disembodied character. I wish he’d fleshed out the tidy diagram of the Wellstone Triangle and described how this organizing model has fared in real life.

The constraints and opportunities of real life figure in all three of the other responses but assume their most palpable form in Walls’s proposal for making MoveOn better able to mobilize “pragmatic progressives” by making it more democratic. Here in gratifying detail are the rudiments of the scaled-up organizational structure envisioned by DeFilippis, Fisher, and Shragge. However Walls’s recommendations are received within MoveOn—and given the radical sharing of power (and email lists) that they entail, it’s hard to imagine that they could be implemented without a bruising fight, if then—they deserve the widest consideration.

Thus far the issues I’ve addressed are the ones in my essay that most deeply engage the participants in this symposium. I now want to comment on the scant attention the commentators pay to other matters—for starters, digital politicking and the corrosion of democratic citizenship in the United States. That subject, whose examination takes up half the piece, is ignored by everyone but Walls; and he says only that since he knows a lot about MoveOn and “nothing about Kitchen Democracy,” he will limit his comments to the former. No doubt his fellow respondents are equally unfamiliar with K.D. But you don’t have to know anything about Kitchen Democracy to know a great deal about the Internet’s enormous impact on democratic participation. That’s true for anyone who follows current public affairs, and particularly for a MoveOn stalwart such as Walls. I find my respondents’ silence here baffling.

Their reactions to to my central theme, the debilitating effects of the therapeutic anodyne, are only slightly more voluble and scarcely more satisfying. That’s not surprising: left observers typically celebrate activism but say little about the emotional rigors of political action and even less about attempts to mitigate those exigencies. Shaw ignores the issue. Peterson confuses my position with the view that “individuals and organizations on the left have turned politics into therapy.” What I address, however, is the incursion of therapeutic motives into politics, something very different from doing therapy, that is, purposefully engaging in a clinical practice. Walls avers that “what keeps MoveOn from being more politically effective has little to do with therapeutic politics and much to do with the way the organization is structured and run.” That claim is belied by his acknowledgment that MoveOn’s efforts are informed by the Ganzian model and his fine-grained exposé of the organization’s disabling, undemocratic structure and governance. DeFilippis, Fisher, and Shragge doubt that the depoliticization of organizing “reflects a therapeutic theoretical turn.” So do I, but that’s because, unlike the three co-authors, I think such theory itself reflects far more potent therapeutic forces in the culture at large.

Zelda Bronstein is a writer and community activist. In 2006 she ran for mayor of Berkeley.

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