Book Review: Rules for Revolutionaries

Senator Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign initially had limited extremely limited resources beyond the four earliest primary states of IA, NH, SC, and NV. The campaign eventually brought on Becky Bond and Zack Exley who built an enormous distributed organizing program to engage volunteers without a traditional field operation. Rules for Revolutionaries lays their lessons learned along the way. The book is part critique of the classic organizing guide by Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, but mainly an update to traditional organizing tactics for the digital age. It largely succeeds in the latter with a litany of practical examples gleaned from two swashbuckling organizers running a volunteer operation across 46 states with a handful of staff on a shoestring budget. 

A few themes permeate the list of 22 rules. First is a focus on “big” organizing as opposed to the “small” organizing they associate with Alinsky. Big means setting bold policy goals that bring about fundamental change (after all, this is a revolution), working across multiple issues simultaneously, and asking a lot of volunteers in the process. They contrast this with an Alinsky model that, in their view, pursues small asks on single issues with a paternalistic attitude toward community engagement. The critique does not fully land, as I do recall Alinsky favoring multiple issues that develop develop a broader membership base. Bond and Exley seem to have a bigger beef with foundation funded single-issue technocratic organizations that do not shoot for structural change. 

More importantly the authors hit on a change in political dynamics brought about by new digital tools. Many people are of course writing on this topic. Ben Thompson has one of my favorite pieces specifically using the 2016 Sanders campaign as an example of inspired media. Big ideas and bold plans have always inspired more followers. However, the loss of gatekeepers and potential on social media for memes, articles, ideas, or  campaigns to go viral provides greater assets for leaders willing to go bold. There is no editor at the New York times or nightly broadcast news with the power to decide what belongs in and out of the mainstream. Now more than ever, it pays to be big. 

Another trait Bond and Exley identify about new digital organizing is the need to lean into networks. Building your organization around the old model where everything is driven by a centralized professionalized staff is a surefire path to irrelevance. It the market for activism, it is easier than ever for your activists to leave for a movement that involves them in the work. In the campaign context, Bond and Exley give a substantial amount of responsibility to volunteers, have them take on significant leadership roles in organizing events, training fellow activists, and troubleshooting phone-banking software issues. Though the campaign prudently spent time getting to know people before devolving responsibility to them, there was clearly much less emphasis on message control and vetting. They argue persuasively that trusting their volunteers more than is typical allowed them to involve more people faster. 

In addition to the expected focus on going bold and devolving responsibility, there were also a few unexpected points worth noting. The tactic they find most successful during the entire campaign is actually an in-person “barnstorming” event used to mobilize potential volunteers to join phone banking teams. Bond and Exley also frequently emphasize the need to get on the phone with potential activists to build trust, share information, and assess whether someone is ready for the next level of responsibility. It’s a reminder that digital tools may change the way we interact, allowing for greater scale, but in-person connections remain an important part of organizing and building power.

Another counter-intuitive theme was the centralization that accompanied the distributed aspect of their organizing strategy. In one chapter they discuss how although the work is distributed, the plan is centralized. Volunteers take the lead on phone calls, events, and eventually much of the phone banking system. Which people to call and when is left up to campaign staff. Separately, Exley also discusses in a later chapter the need to develop discrete tasks that volunteers could “rinse and repeat.” The authors seem to argue that while more campaign activities can and should be decentralized, effective movements still require some centralization of goals and strategy. 

It remains unclear how much of this balance is applicable for advocacy organizations outside of a campaign environment – a point which I will return to below. With a series of very clear electoral targets in each of the primary states, the campaign has clear goals on which to focus volunteer energy. I’m not sure how well this would translate to the fuzzier process of a legislative campaign where key dates, bills, and policymaker targets change rapidly.

Finally, it actually surprised me how much the authors care about great management. Not only did they devote one of their chapters to management specifically, but you can see in examples throughout the book how strong Bond’s management skills are. Taking input from her team, setting clear goals, supporting the development of staff and volunteers, it’s all there. One trait that comes through most is example after example of a willingness to allow small experiments with organizing tactics even in cases where Bond and Exley are skeptical of the outcomes. This routinely pays off in learning new things that they incorporate into the model. A lot of people talk about applying lessons learned from Google’s research on psychological safety leading to greater productivity. This is what it looks like in practice. 

A major critical question in reading the book is how much of their organizing model relies on one particular candidate vs. a larger political movement, and therefore how much we can apply outside of the context of a Sanders campaign. There isn’t much analysis about what makes a movement. I suspect this results partly from the incredible interest in supporting Senator Sanders from the outset that the organizers never had to spend time building support for the campaign. They seem to assume that simply asking for big things is enough, but it seems obvious from the outside that a lot more is required to build a movement.

Surely new digital technologies provide some opportunities to take advantage of ongoing events in addition to elections. The movement for Black Lives coming out police shootings of unarmed black men or the Standing Rock protests against the keystone pipeline both come to mind. I’d like to hear more from Bond and Exley about how to take advantage of these big organizing moments. Perhaps tellingly, it doesn’t appear that Senator Sanders’ supporters have coalesced into a broader movement outside of electoral opportunities up to this point and much of the energy remains focused around the candidate himself. 

I also have a smaller quibble with the book. The skepticism of the nonprofit industrial complex and technocratic elite focused policymaking is palpable. They’re right that thinking small rarely motivates taking action or big changes. But worrying about the details of a big policy change may add rather than detract from the movement if it helps you achieve what you want.  Whatever you may think about Elizabeth Warren, at this point in the 2020 primary she has taken some of Bernie Sanders’ support arguing for big structural change and telling people exactly how she’s going to do it. Therein may lie a lesson that going big and taking advantage of digital tools available is not antithetical to caring about how exactly to achieve big policy change.