A Political Cost of Social Unorganization

Last week, I went to a meeting to recruit volunteers for a legislative campaign (specifically, the campaign to pass SB 562 in the California legislature, but this post is not about SB 562). Whereas an election campaign is about persuading voters among the general public to vote in a particular way, a legislative campaign is about getting legislators to vote in a particular way, so the strategies and tactics are different. One of the things which struck me when the presenters said that, for a legislative campaign, getting individuals to send letters/emails/phone calls in support of legislation is not an effective tactic.

Now, I do not think that they meant that letters/emails/phone calls to legislators never has an effect. One could point to the campaign against SOPA in the U.S. Congress, for example. However, I think it’s pretty obvious that the campaign against SOPA was an outlier, not a typical legislative campaign.

The way the presenters put it, the legislators do not care about individuals, unless they happen to be particularly influential individuals. For example, if Haim Saban, as an individual, sent a letter to California legislators expressing an opinion on a legislative bill, the California Legislature would definitely pay attention. Most Californians, however, are nowhere close to being billionaire media moguls.

Do legislators pay attention to anyone other than the most influential individuals? Fortunately, the answer is yes. They pay attention to organized groups. Thus, one of the key tactics of a legislative campaign is to get as many groups as possible – and to get the most diverse set of groups possible – to send letters endorsing the legislation one wants. It’s not the only tactic, but the only tactic which the presenters recommended which could be carried out by an individual was speaking up at legislators’ town hall meetings. All of the other tactics they recommended require organized groups.

What kinds of organizations can send letters of endorsement (and thus might be worth contacting to try to persuade them to endorse)? Answer: lots of kinds of organizations. Labor unions, faith groups, business associations, neighborhood associations, disease-specific organizations (such as the California chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society), newspapers, local governments (school boards, county board of supervisors, etc.), local political party clubs, crisis hotlines, professional organizations (such as bar associations) … and more. Heck, I’m think even Asexuality SF and Ace Los Angeles might be able to endorse legislation in the California legislature (not sure about AVEN because it is not a specifically Californian organization and nor has a specifically Californian subgroup).

Obviously, the legislators are going to pay more attention to endorsements from organizations with more members than organizations with fewer members. But they also pay attention to diversity. For example, an endorsement from a labor union representing 50,000 Californias + an endorsement from a faith group representing 50,000 Californians is more influential than a labor union representing 100,000 Californians OR a faith group representing 100,000 Californians. In other words, legislatures pay more attention when both labor unions and faith groups want the same thing than when it’s something only labor unions want or it’s something only faith groups want, even if the sum of membership numbers is the same. Thus, while small organizations cannot bring in much pressure from membership size, they can bring in a significant amount of pressure via organization diversity.

It makes sense. If I were a California state senator, would I be particularly concerned if, say, 30 isolated constituents were unhappy with what I was doing? Unless they were particularly influential constituents, then nope, it would not reach my concern radar. On the other hand, an organization with 30 members being unhappy with what I was doing probably would not be enough to reach my concern radar either – but it would get get closer to the concern radar, because 30 organized people are in a much better position to influence elections than 30 isolated individuals. And paying attention to organization diversity also makes sense, because a more diverse coalition of organizations can reach out to a wider range of voters than a less diverse coalition of organizations, and thus the more diverse coalition of organizations ultimately can do more to support (or hinder) a politician.

There is another reason why getting broad support from organizations is sometimes very important for legislative campaigns in California (but not in the U.S. Congress, and I’m not sure about other state legislatures), but that is something more specific to the way the political system in California works, and not so much a general comment on the political costs of social unorganization.

So, given that organizations have a lot more political power than unorganized individuals … what does that say about the trend in USA society to become more atomized – in which people cooperate less and less at a social level higher than a household. Labor union membership has been declining for fifty years. One of the neighborhood associations I am eligible to join (and I am seriously considering it) used to be one of the most powerful civic groups in San Francisco – it changed San Francisco history in the 1960s – and now it’s just a shadow of its former self. While, as an atheist, I do not disapprove of people leaving faith groups, I do recognize that when people leave faith groups without joining other organized social groups, this is detrimental to civil society. I think that the decline of social organization in the United States means, among other things, that political power gets more skewed in favor of the most influential individuals, and the vast majority of citizens lose political power.

Does that mean never write letters/emails to legislatures again? Not at all. At the very least, such letters/emails do not hurt one’s cause, and probably do at least slightly more good than doing nothing at all. However, that meeting made it clearer to me that, if I am serious about having even a little influence in politics, it would be a good idea to increase my participation in organized social groups. After that meeting, I decided to become a member of the organization which put on the meeting, and I paid the membership dues.

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One thought on “A Political Cost of Social Unorganization

  1. Pingback: A Political Cost of Social Unorganization – A³

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