How Disturbed Are You?

No, really, how disturbed are you? Disturbed enough to join a social movement? Maybe help out as a checkbook member? Perhaps you’re disturbed enough to go out and start your own social movement. But wait a second — are you rich? You aren’t. Well, that may cause some difficulties. You see, the heavenly choir sings with an upper-class accent (as E.E. Schattschneider tells us), because clearly they are able to represent their interests better than you, shall I say, more “blue-collar” types.

Whoops, sorry about that folks. Slipped off for a moment there. However, my unconscious mind does raise an excellent point — wealthy interests are so often more able to represent their interests to the government, whereas poorer groups, or groups less able to speak for themselves, are simply not as well represented in government. This is why we see more groups like the National Governor’s Association, the MPAA, and the Association of Trial Lawyers in America on Fortune 500’s list of top lobbying groups. What we don’t see is, for example, the National Homeless Association, the American Society for Hobos, or the Panhandler’s Club of America.

Clearly, these last three groups have some disturbance to be angry about — many of the homeless we see today have been made so by the recent economic collapse. Others have had their own personal experiences in becoming without a home, or going bankrupt. David Truman would almost certainly describe them as “disturbed”. In fact, if one subscribes purely to his theory, this disturbance should cause them to rise up and take action against the government, form an interest group or social movement, and march on Washington, walking all the way there from the Dunkin’ Donuts in Kenmore Square!

Quite simply, these people don’t have the resources, or the leaders to make their personal interests heard. Much as they may want a more extensive social security net, or more low-income housing, or a new cup to collect spare change in, they simply can’t make themselves heard. The way our current informal political processes work, it is incredibly difficult to start any sort of organized interest or social movement without some form of leadership and resources. Indeed, without a leader or some sort of communications network, it may be difficult for the man who sits in Kenmore Square to find out that there are people in quite the same predicament as him at the Rte. 2 intersection near Alewife Station. Perhaps if a wealthy entrepreneur took on these people’s cause, or if a community organizer brought these people with their resources (cardboard signs) together, they could make their voices heard. As things stand, however, they have no way to mobilize.

Indeed, if one considers a group with few resources, perhaps the best way to organize these people is by simply bringing them together and giving them a sense of cohesion. Community organizing, as talked about by Ganz, and giving the people a sense of community and shared hardship, may make them more aware of their voice and power, and cause them to mobilize. On the other hand, with no material resources at hand, these people still have no way to, for example, hire a lobbyist and send them to Washington to negotiate for thicker cardboard for their signs, or a more comfortable milk crate. If a wealthy entrepreneur took on their case and provided them with these resources, then the people’s living conditions may improve, but they would probably not be personally mobilized.

Now what is interesting is that wealthy groups do indeed take up the cause of the homeless. The Coalition for the Homeless advocates for the homeless in New York City and works for legislation on their behalf. The point is that the homeless themselves — the leaderless, resourceless bunch they are — are not being mobilized. Instead, they are being mobilized for. “Homed” people, if you will, are brought together by the purposive-expressive benefit of helping their fellow man and advocating for the homeless. The leaders of the group offer a strong material benefit by publishing the names of large donors to the cause, giving them social prestige and a better societal standing.

What does this example show? To me, it shows that leaders and resources are necessary for mobilization in our modern day and age. Even for groups that Clay Shirky talks about in Here Comes Everybody (2008), those people have one important resource: the Internet. Access to the web is not free, and it is indeed a strong resource for those who have it available to them. And even then, leaders emerge online, whether on message boards, blogs, or chain emails–someone has to lead the charge regardless of the format.

To wrap up, a few suggestions on what organizers and leaders can do to get people more involved and motivated to join the process:

Use technology: Shirky’s ideas about the internet and its effect on our everyday life cannot be ignored. Getting a good web image and making connections online is incredibly cheap for organizers (relative to other possible costs) and can attract many people very quickly if done right.

Make people believe: Anti-abortion activists show mutilated fetuses, anti-death penalty activists show desecrated bodies, environmental activists show cute fluffy animals getting stuck in oil spills. Strong images, powerful messages, and a clear purpose are necessary today.

Educate yourself: Consult unbiased experts, study all options, and pay attention to every last detail of your cause. This leads to…

Educate your people: Don’t let your people become a flock of sheep, just doing what they’re told. A sheep’s bleat never convinced anyone of anything. Logical, reasoned, and well-educated arguments just might.

Make your communications public: This is something important that isn’t done enough–let people know what you are saying to the government, or, better yet,

Encourage your people to communicate, to talk to their elected officials themselves. As I’ve learned from working in a state rep’s office, a personal, heartfelt message from a constituent means infinitely more than a form letter or some paid lobbyist coming in to see us.

Make your group a corridor: Show that your group can get results. Tell people that they can too, and tell them that their participation and communication with government are crucial. There is no better way to encourage people than by showing them results.

Comments

  1. The Internet is a great way for people who otherwise have difficulty getting their voice heard to mobilize themselves. Though, as you point out, you’re more likely to influence policy by writing an elected official a letter than by posting something on a facebook page or on a blog, or even than by writing a letter to a local newspaper.