Nov 17, 2021 • 25M

[rh12] Vision without structure isn’t enough

Part II of a conversation with Marshall Ganz on the role of organizing in building political power–and wielding it effectively

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UFW rally (Ganz in glasses). Bob Fitch Photography Archive © Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University

The good news is that however daunting the climb towards a thriving society, we have tools at hand that we may have underestimated. Communicating through stories is one. Organizing is another. Together, they provide a human element to counter the political industrial complex. As we pick up our conversation with Marshall Ganz, you may recall that when Obama dusted off those tools in his historic 2008 campaign, Ganz’s grassroots organizing model helped propel him to the presidency. Today, Ganz talks about the potential for a wider embrace of this approach. You can catch up on Part I here.

CHRISTIAN: The word that’s coming to mind in our conversation is political capital. Democrats have a certain amount of political capital at any point, in the form of votes or donors, or having a majority, or press attention. And it seems like we’re deploying our resources and leverage to address individual issues, but we’re almost playing Whac-a-Mole. It feels like maybe we need to set aside the urgent to focus on the important, which would be putting that political capital into building power?

MARSHALL: That’s exactly the question, and see for some reason the other side seems to get it. Now, it’s easy to attribute monolithic character to the other side. But if you look at the role of ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] in the assault on public sector unions, that was so strategic–because that’s how you cut off resources at the state level. You weaken the union, but you’re also cutting off the money that it takes to finance democratic politics. So that was a power strategy. Right now they’re in a power strategy about voting. And for some reason, we don’t seem to… I don’t know, why don’t we do that? 

CHRISTIAN: Yeah… the conservative strategy seems to be going unapologetically after power. And with the recognition that values are the keys to power.  

MARSHALL: It’s also a movement-based strategy. 

When I was in high school, back in the day, my senior year I was being recruited by the John Birch Society in Bakersfield, CA. Because I was a promise, right? They already had their local Christian anti-communism crusade bookstore. They had this movie called Operation Abolition that showed how communists had taken over the universities and were going to, you know, destroy democracy. And now they were doing outreach. In other words, there was a movement coming out of the fifties, with roots coming out of the racial fear coupled with this other–boy, how to put it? There was a racial dimension to it, a religious dimension to it, and a kind of anti-state, anti-democracy dimension to it. But you know, it flourished. I mean Barry Goldwater was nominated as a presidential candidate in ‘64 by Republicans. Then it was reversed. But there’s been a core movement that’s gone through different forms, and it’s been at the heart of this thing. 

From my perspective, the sin of the corporate side was to make a deal with them in the seventies. And with Nixon, it was a deal. It was like, ok southern strategy, we love your racist stuff, because it’s common ground with our we don’t want regulation, we don’t want taxes, etc.. hey, we’ve got a convergence here. So it was kind of a deal with the devil. And the Democrats had made their own deal with the devil before the sixties, in terms of the resistance to anything that dealt with race. But that deal that was made in the seventies–that’s been a real problem. The thing is that what they thought was the tail has become the dog. It’s like oh no, well, we’ve got the wealth... yeah, we’ll use that. Well guess what, guess who’s being used? The point I want to make is that there’s been a core set of values and highly committed people who have been working at it. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s not like a plot–it’s quite out in the open. 

There was a great movie about Phyllis Schlafly on TV called Mrs. America. Phyllis Schlafly was a brilliant organizer who coupled the anti-choice movement with the conservative movement in the seventies, and really played a critical role in building the women’s base for that. So they’ve had good organizers too. 

CHRISTIAN: That’s so interesting.

I’d like to go back to the word depth and in particular how it factors into campaigns. There’s all this money being raised by progressives to challenge conservative incumbents, but then you have someone like Jaime Harrison raising $100 million and still losing. 

MARSHALL: That goes back to this problem of the political industrial complex. I mean it goes back to turning politics into a business–a business of communications and marketing, but not of bringing people together. And yeah, when I get fund appeals for campaigns, I think okay, what’s this going to be used for? It’s going to make some consultant rich, basically. 

CHRISTIAN: If you had $100 million to run a Senate campaign, what would you spend it on? 

MARSHALL: People. 

CHRISTIAN: What does that look like?

MARSHALL: Well, it looks like a lot of what we were doing in the Obama campaign; we were actually building an organized grassroots base. Now the problem is that the organization didn’t belong to the people; it belonged to Obama, and he didn’t want to use it once he got elected. He sort of went through a big strategy shift from mobilizing support to minimizing opposition. From my perspective, that’s one of the great missed moments in our history. But you build it, you bring people together, you organize them.

Look, after Trump, there was Indivisible [whistles], there were all these things. For the most part though, they weren’t being brought together. There wasn’t an effort to structure it, there wasn’t training… oh maybe in some places. But talk about a massive mobilization. And it was an opportunity to create even the sort of structure we had in the Obama campaign. 

So it’s developing enough skilled leadership, but also ways of telling the story, of interpreting and understanding what’s going on so as to be able to make the shift, because our politics just…. look, Bernie sparked a big deal, right? The first time Bernie ran, woah, look at all that! And then he formed something called Our Revolution… disaster. Couldn’t govern itself, internal fights, just you know, had no staying power. DSA is trying to build organization, but it’s very, very small. It can’t reach out and build a really broad base, the kind it would take. Biden is so interesting because he speaks human. In other words, he doesn’t speak ideology, he speaks values actually. And in a way, that’s exactly what we need, but we need it in a much deeper, more powerful way. 

Progressives often get caught up on the ideological nuances of this, that or the other, which make no difference in people’s daily lives. When you have an activist core that has no constituency–in other words, there’s a big difference in a meeting between someone who has a base they have to answer to because they got elected and someone who has emails they can mobilize that they’re not accountable to in any way.

So when I talk about depth, I’m talking in terms of people and their daily lives–getting at the core of things, not just the superficial things. Because the core of things… people want their kids to have a future. In doing this narrative work in different parts of the world, boy, it just hits you again and again how fundamental the choices are that we face growing up, and the sources of hurt and pain and where we get hope. The deeper you go, the greater commonality you find. Commonality of experience. And the more up here you go, the more difference you find. In other words, abstraction is not how you create unity, it’s depth that’s how you create unity. 

CHRISTIAN: So you’re talking about macro-level depth. And then there’s also the difference on a personal level of being involved in say a demonstration, where you’re interacting with people and potentially putting yourself at risk, versus writing a check to a campaign, or sharing a statement on social media. 

MARSHALL: Absolutely, because we learn emotionally, alright, we learn cognitively… we also learn experientially. When we were organizing farmworkers, I saw how when someone would be lukewarm on the union, once they were on a picket line for an hour, their whole perspective shifted. And it wasn’t the argument, it wasn’t the story–it was their direct experience of being cut out and finding solidarity with others. Those kinds of experiences, they’re transformative. 

In the Obama campaign, the experience people had in those local teams was real; they could actually make decisions and work as a team. I was talking to the former chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which started doing some organizing after the lunch had been eaten by the other side. They had put out a call and well, five of the groups that appeared were groups that went back to Obama. Because that was where they first experienced politics that were real to them. 

CHRISTIAN: Yeah. And what we haven’t seen is organizations that reach that scale, that find a way to generate resources to maintain their independence, that stay in place beyond elections, and that are permanent bases instead of something temporary that gets spun up as quickly as possible.

MARSHALL: You know, and for that to shift, one of two things has to happen. One is there’s a candidate who actually believes they need organization to govern. Or there’s an organization that is able to sustain itself independently of the candidate but chooses the candidate or supports the candidate. Actually, we have someone running for governor here in Massachusetts who I think has much more that vision of organizing not just to win the campaign but to govern. And I think it will be a very interesting experiment here to see if we can do that. 

CHRISTIAN:  Could we talk about leadership actually for a moment? I’m thinking of transactional and transformational leadership, and what they mean for the inflection point we’re at right now.

MARSHALL: Leadership’s one of those words like justice–like what do you mean? It’s used to describe so many things. When I’m talking about leadership... well, the foundation is in these three questions posed by Rabbi Hillel when he was asked, how do I decide what to do with my life? He said well, first ask yourself if I’m not for myself, who will be for me? Not selfishly, but self-regarding… like who are you, what do you bring to this? Then second, what am I if I am for myself alone? Meaning to be who, a human being and not a what, is to recognize the inherent relationality of being a human being. And then finally it’s if not now, when? Not about jumping into moving traffic, but sort of a recognition that you can’t learn to do well what you want to do until you actually do it. In other words, there are always elements of risk in action, and so for me, the interaction of the self with the us with the now is at the heart of what leadership is all about. It’s not just me. It’s not just you. It’s how that works together, and then it’s all about dealing with the uncertain. Because when everything’s working, you don’t need leadership–the system works. 

So leadership has a particularly adaptive role. It has a creative role. It has a role of agency in circumstances. And to do that, you have to treat it as a question of skills, a question of strategy, and a question of courage; it’s a multi-dimensional thing. So the definition I use for leadership is that it’s about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty. It’s not a diva model of leader, not like a great charismatic persona. It’s a form of interacting with other people around the creation of collective capacity. That’s how I think of leadership. It’s interdependence; it’s not command and control, but much more eliciting capacity. 

And you know, with transactional leadership, James Macgregor Burns made that original distinction and it was all about exchanges. You do this. Or, I tell you. And what he called transformational leadership is really what I’m talking about. It’s about bringing people into relationship with one another so that they see possibilities they didn’t see, strength they didn’t see in themselves and others, so that they find a common purpose. That work is what I mean by leadership. If you look at it that way, then leaders are developing more leaders all the time. It’s kind of like learners become teachers. If you look at how movements spread, like evangelical movements, it’s people who you know, get the spirit, and they go out and they make more and they make more. So there’s a human kind of infrastructure that gets you to scale. I mean it has historically, there’s a little thing called Christianity that started as a movement. All the movements before depended on leaflets, on horses, but they were spread people to people. 

Once you take people out of the equation, it becomes much more problematic. Because you know what happens when we’re on email and social media; each person becomes a symbol. They’re not a person, they’re a symbol, they’re this set of words. So the constraints–the empathetic constraints and enablements that go with interpersonal communication–they’re not there. So we can do whatever we want, and it just becomes savage. It actually undermines the capacity of people to relate to one another. 

Now, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve been teaching online for a long time, but then you see people, it’s intentional. And leadership, when we teach it, is broken down into five core practices: building relationships, telling stories (which is about motivation), strategizing, action and structure. You can do that in a neighborhood, and you can do that in a country. It’s sort of like getting that Beethoven’s symphonies depended on each note being right, but they were constructed by putting the notes together. And that’s kind of what it takes, putting the pieces together but with a vision of something whole. 

CHRISTIAN:  I am curious whether you see strong leaders emerging…?

MARSHALL: I hope so. Because they don’t just appear. How can I say it? The people we look at as great charismatic leaders–first of all, they had teams; they weren’t just by themselves. And they often came out of a tradition. The tradition of preaching in the black church… there were a lot of really good preachers. So Dr. King didn’t just come from nowhere; he came out of a tradition of moral communication, and he was a master of it. 

Where are people learning how to do this? In other words, okay in churches people learned. Now in politics today, Obama was a practitioner of that, and he understood about narrative, he really did. And it was a source of real power. Now since then, who was cultivated, who was grown from that? What intentionality was there by saying hey, this is an important part of leadership now, you don’t have to be Obama, all of us can do this, we all have the potential. We were trying to do that with Camp Obama, exactly that. Because people would come and say well, I’ve got to tell Obama’s story. We’d say no, learn to tell your story, because your story is what is going to persuade your neighbor about why you support this guy. And so oh, I have that potential?! Yes, you do, we all have it within us and it takes conditions, circumstances, learning. Lawyers used to be like that–Clarence Darrow. Now Gandhi didn’t make much in the way of speeches, right? Gandhi spoke the rhetoric of action. His rhetoric was all in what he did and very little in the words. So there are different ways to communicate this kind of vision, but there have to be places where it matters. 

Now in a typical political campaign, does it matter, really? I mean Hillary could never give a speech worth a damn. It mattered, but they couldn’t help her. I show my class six minutes of Hillary and six of Michelle Obama at the DNC in 2016, where they’re both sort of talking about themselves. You know, Michelle speaks entirely in narrative moments. The basic unit of narrative is the moment; there’s a challenge, there’s a response. Now, she’s talking about the day when the big black cars and the guys with the guns came to take the kids to school when they were in the White House. And their faces are pressed up against the windows of these cars, and she turns to Barack and says, what have we done? And see, you become present to that moment, because she’s present to that moment, and you get the emotional meaning of the moment. Or waking up in a house built by slaves and seeing her beautiful black daughters playing on the lawn. These are all moments. Hillary, there isn’t a single moment in her whole talk. It’s references too. And what that means is she’s never emotionally present in a way that people can even begin to get her. You watch that contrast… man, it is so striking. Because Hillary’s just over here and it’s kind of like by walling yourself in, you wall the world out. I’m sure she had very good reasons for the way she developed that kind of protectiveness, being married to Bill for all those years. But it doesn’t serve you… it doesn’t serve you well. 

But Obama knew how to do it. Michelle knows how to do it. It isn’t just otherworldly, I guess is the point. 

CHRISTIAN: …it’s a skill.

MARSHALL: It’s a skill! It’s a craft. If we were saying you’ve got to be a master of calculus or nuclear physics to be president… no, you’ve got to be able to tell good stories. We’re all equipped for that; we tell our kids stories all the time, we know what stories are. But it’s implicit, it’s not explicit. And so that’s what we’ve been trying to do–come up with a way that can be made explicit so you can treat it as a craft, and so that you can learn to to communicate meaningfully about core values to people. I just think the potential is all over the place out there, but venues are needed. Legislatures are no longer people giving great historic speeches, that’s not what happens. And the Democratic Convention is a production, it’s not a real thing, it’s a ritual. But it’s not even that good a ritual! This year was better… the online one I thought was better, because you actually got to see more real people. 

CHRISTIAN: Can I ask what gives you hope?

MARSHALL: I guess the thing that gives me the most hope is that I get to go to class and have a conversation with the future. In other words, I get to work with people who are all wrapped up in the future, and who want to deal with it. It’s kind of like what Walter Brueggemann, who wrote this book called The Prophetic Imagination, says–that transformational vision comes at the intersection of two things. One is criticality, a clear view of the world’s hurt, of its need, of its pain. And then hope, the sense of its possibilities, its promise. One without the other goes to despair, or it goes to irrelevance, but together they can be a powerful transformational energy. 

Young people come of age with a critical eye on the world they find and, almost of necessity, with hopeful hearts. Generational change is a really important thing and it’s all around us. One of my students just started the institute at Harvard Law School on ending mass incarceration. This guy I had as an undergrad. See, teaching gives you a way to sort of be long-term and short-term at the same time, because you’re investing in people in such a way that then they can go and grow and build. That’s why investing in people is so damned important. Not using them, but investing in them. That’s what organizing does; it’s an investment in people and their capacity to work together. But we don’t think that way–we think oh, spend, spend, spend. So the first source of hope I have is what I get to do. My online class, we have 160 students from 31 countries. We have to do it in a global context. Now, these are people who are shaping the future. They are maybe in their thirties or so. I’m not expecting oh, some best thing. I’m creating possibility, I’m creating potential, I’m creating capacity. And you don’t know what’s going to come of that. So I get hope from that on a regular basis. 

I get hope from Sunrise, I get hope from the reaction to George Floyd, these things that are happening. You have to recognize them for what they are even as you try to grapple with how to make them more. But you can’t dismiss it. So look for where the energy is. That’s what I try to do, work towards where the energy is. And there’s a lot out there. There’s a group called GirlTrek. You know about it? It was started by two black women who were concerned about health, and so they put together this movement really, about walking and health among black women. They have over a million people now, and they want to become organizers. To me, woah, that’s hopeful. See they built something that brought people together around improving themselves and each other, and then said ok, that brought us so far, now we’ve got to get some control over the politics. So I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful.

CHRISTIAN: You’re not the first guest to phrase it that way (laughs).

MARSHALL: You lose hope, you got nothing. There is a real logic to hope. Look at all the crazy things that happen–good things, bad things happen. We tend to remember the bad things more, because they challenge us, but often out of that comes the capacity to create good things. Not necessarily. But we are all authors of our time and the future; we have that capability. 


MARSHALL: But you’ve got to be willing to take the risks. You’ve got to have enough faith to actually take the risks. Because if you don’t take the risks, nothing’s going to happen, you know? Not really. 

There’s so much in our traditions about sources for that. This is maybe an aside, but I’ve been studying the Koran for the last year and a half every Wednesday night for an hour. And I’ve been reading the Hebrew Bible with a friend; we finally got through Job and Ecclesiastes. So now we’re working on the New Testament. And reading the Gospel of Matthew is amazing. If you read it as an adult and you try to think of the context in which people were doing what they were doing, it’s really rich. There are these ancient sources of human beings struggling with what it is to be human, and where to find hope and all the rest of it. You can get hung up on the particular circumstances of living in tents or whatever, or you can actually read for what’s being shared about human beings and the challenges we face. It’s there.. it’s deep there. It’s sort of like recovering from the past what we need to be able to shape the future that we want. It isn’t imitating the past, but boy there’s a lot to learn, a lot of shoulders on which to stand. 

Catch up on Part I here. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.