One of the many “unique” experiences of living through 2020 has been the stomach churning acceleration of several political, economic, and technological trends. The coronavirus exposed and exacerbated stark economic inequalities, as many of the most vulnerable lost their lives and livelihoods. Technology enabled mass protests over racial inequality and perhaps fundamentally altered working environments—at least for white-collar jobs. Political polarization rose apace, driven in part by a presidential race both sides believed would determine the fate of the country. Despite the success of the bipartisan CARES Act earlier this year, political gridlock set in thereafter. Our information environment is so fragmented that in one political universe, Dr. Anthony Fauci is a national hero, while in another, mask-wearing during a respiratory pandemic is for losers.
During the extra time inside this year, I’ve been making my way through a bunch of books on these social trends with an eye toward how they affect advocacy organizations. I had originally planned a series of reviews—but since that’s boring, I decided to tie key themes from the research into one end-of-the-year post. It’s not all bad news. For instance, evidence suggests it’s easier now to organize a protest or start an advocacy organization than it has ever been, as barriers are falling and avenues to fundraise are growing. Conversely, it’s harder to have a major impact on the world. Partly, lower barriers to entering the political advocacy scene means there are simply more groups, more advocates, and more competition for everyone’s time and attention. And even though the internet allows everyone to have a voice, it also disproportionately amplifies a few of the most popular people or organizations on any issue. Meanwhile, polarization, loss of trust, and fragmentation of our media environment make it harder to form successful political coalitions that can overcome incentives for partisan gridlock.
It’s Easier Than Ever to Advocate
From Facebook groups that helped overthrow a dictator in Egypt, to the tents in Zuccotti Park that triggered a national debate over income inequality, to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter that helped spur a movement for racial equality, the speed at which protest movements form in the digital era is breathtaking. Speaking from experience, this extends to starting organizations as well. Part of the reason is that creating a website, a Facebook group, or a hashtag at the right time can go viral. But it’s also true, as Martin Gurri has pointed out, that the internet allows amateurs to gain credibility on an issue without having to “wait their turn” in established hierarchical power structures from previous eras. If you’ve got a policy idea, you can simply post it for the world to see without approval from a stodgy boss with a PhD. This can have major benefits: early on in the pandemic, many amatuer sources rightly pushed for the widespread use of masks when institutional players like the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization were still downplaying their effectiveness for the general public. On the other hand, dangerous conspiracy theories like QAnon are also riding this digital wave.
And it’s not just that the web makes it easier to organize or share information. It can also help you fundraise. Rule #7 in Becky Bond and Zach Exlley’s Rules for Revolutionaries is “The Revolution Will Be Funded – By Small Donations.” If you’re doubtful, check out the fundraising numbers from leading Black Lives Matter groups this summer. Small donors are not the only source of funds either. Daniel Drezner argues that rising inequality and the proliferation of plutocrats means it’s easier than ever to find someone willing to fund your venture.
Of course, not all causes are created equal in the minds of small or large donors. To break through the din and rack up millions of dollars in small increments, it usually helps to back bold causes. More extreme political candidates on the left and right tend to do better. Drezner argues that plutocrats prefer catchy ideas to solve social problems, favoring thought leaders with big solutions over the more complex worldviews of public intellectuals. For example, oversold theories on disruptive innovation (such as a decade of predictions from Clayton Christensen and others about the digital takeover of higher education, which continue to fall flat) are often more compelling to funders than more nuanced views on how markets change over time. Nor does this mean that systemic barriers to fundraising have disappeared. It still helps to be well educated, white, and have enough financial cushion to take a risk on a new venture. On the whole, however, barriers are coming down.
Lower Barriers Means Greater Competition
The thing about barriers coming down, however, is that everyone can now join in, creating a lot more competition. You can reach millions of people on social media with your fundraising ask, but so can everyone else. It may be easier to make that ask, but it’s harder to break through. Moisés Naím argues that this dynamic has reduced the relative influence of even the most powerful institutions such as nation-states, militaries, corporations, and more. It’s not just about the internet. In his view, there are simply more people, with more resources, more education, and more opportunity. Collectively, the resources of less developed nations now outstrip those of historically rich nations, which is just one of the reasons the United States can no longer dictate terms in the international arena. The dynamic tracks the increased competition in the media sphere where once-profitable regional papers are losing out to local blogs or expanding national outlets. Once-influential groups in civil rights or environmental protection may see their clout diminish with the rise of newer organizations like Color of Change or the Sunrise Movement. There are simply more well-resourced competitors to fight for time, resources, and influence.
Winner Take All: Some Large Organizations Can Have Outsized Influence
While I generally accept Naím’s thesis that it’s harder for major institutions to wield power than it was several decades ago, there is an important caveat: the internet’s tendency to turbocharge popular voices, known as the winner-take-all phenomenon. You can see it in the media sphere where the New York Times and Washington Post, contrary to predictions about the fall of old media institutions, have thrived in the Trump era while local media institutions have withered in the face of national competition. In the electoral sphere, candidates like Jaime Harrison or Amy McGrath running against powerful Republicans drew outsized attention and resources to long-shot Senate races. I believe this dynamic held up just after Trump’s 2016 election as well. A few well-known nonprofits like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Planned Parenthood brought in huge revenues from donors wanting to push back against the incoming Trump Administration. This fundraising dynamic does not necessarily translate directly into political influence, but there are evidently benefits to being the most widely known group on a given issue.
Polarization Reduces Impact
One reason why even well-resourced nonprofits do not have proportionately greater influence is partisan gridlock caused by political polarization, particularly at the federal level. Many others have covered this topic in more detail, but suffice to say that in a government system riddled with veto points and built for compromise, polarization makes it very hard to do anything at all. The total number of bills passed into law each year has fallen precipitously. That fact that Congress is hamstrung is not the only problem limiting advocacy organizations’ influence. The in-group/out-group dynamic also makes certain kinds of coalition building harder.
I say certain kinds, because polarization also makes coalition building easier with groups already in your ideological coalition. Widespread public support for the racial justice protests over the summer are a good example of an increase in in-group solidarity on the left that accompanied increased polarization. That has its benefits, particularly in influencing Democratic legislators to support a cause. On the other hand, getting people who already agree with you to support an idea often does not help as much as bringing along people from outside your ideological coalition. As I’ve written elsewhere, the most effective legislators are adept at bringing together “strange bedfellows” in ways that help them change laws. Effective advocacy—whether by a grasstops policy group or a grassroots interest group—requires building a political coalition that can similarly win enough votes for your cause.
Polarization makes these types of broad coalitions harder because working with people outside your usual set of allies, funders, and media personalities can be seen as a betrayal. Early in the 2020 presidential primaries MoveOn called on Bernie Sanders to renounce the endorsement of the popular podcaster Joe Rogan after appearing on his show. The concern appeared to be that Rogan had interviewed some controversial conservative figures. However Rogan also reaches a group of voters sympathetic to liberal policies but skeptical of Democrats that Sanders was hoping to win over. That MoveOn questioned even Bernie Sanders’ progressive bona fides epitomizes the increasing pressure to stick within your coalition, sometimes to the detriment of effective political strategy.
So What Now?
The protests for racial justice this past summer demonstrated the powerful new tools available to social movements to organize, increase political participation, and raise money. Despite the success of the CARES Act, Congress’ failure to pass additional emergency legislation or police reform evidences increasing gridlock brought about by political polarization. So what should you do in 2021? I’d bet current trends will continue to make it harder to make much progress at the federal level, so advocacy groups may find more return on their investment where unified government exists at the state or city level. Unified government reduces the challenges of polarization and thus increases the likelihood of actually getting things done. Even before the protests this summer, local Black Lives Matter activism was making progress reducing police killings including those of unarmed Black men. Other policy issues may similarly provide more local opportunities for change while Congress dithers.