Friday, August 07, 2009

About those health care bill town halls

In the last week, members of Congress have gone back to their districts to hold town hall meetings about pending health care reform legislation, and have been surprised by vociferous opposition. Congressional members have characterized this opposition as "astroturfing." In addressing these ongoing protests or disruptions, Mickey Kaus puckishly asks: "If an 'astroturfing' campaign gets real people to show up at events stating their real views, isn't it ... community organizing?"

I think the answer is yes and no - these protests aren't wholly manufactured, but at the same time they are not community organizing in the traditional sense. They could be characterized as swarming. And reading them through the traditional grassroots/astroturf dichotomy is not productive because they are a different sort of organization.

To explain myself, let me start with a quote from Manuel Castells:
The second feature characterizing social movements in the network society is that they have to fill the gap left by the crisis of vertically integrated organizations inherited from the industrial era. Mass political parties, when and where they still exist, are empty shells, barely activated as electoral machines at regular intervals. Trade unions survive only by abandoning their traditional forms of organization, historically built as replicas of the rational bureaucracies characteristic of large corporations and state agencies. Formal civic associations, and their organizational conglomerates, are in full decline as forms of social engagement ... This is not to say that people do not organize and mobilize in defense of their interests or in the affirmation of their values. But loose coalitions, semi-spontaneous organizations, and ad hoc movements of the neo-anarchist brand substitute for permanent, structured, formal organizations. Emotional movements, often triggered by a media event, or by a major crisis, seem often to be more important sources of social change than the day-to-day routine of dutiful NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. The Internet becomes an essential medium of expression and organization for these kinds of manifestation, which coincide in a given time and space, make their impact through the media world, and act upon institutions and organizations (business, for instance) by the repercussions of their impact on public opinion. These are movements to seize the power of the mind, not state power. (Castells, The Internet Galaxy pp.140-141, my emphasis)
Castells doesn't use the example of the current protests, because he's writing not in 2009, but 2001. His paradigmatic example is that of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, a case that has been examined as a paradigmatic case of netwar. This case was characterized by
a vast coalition of extremely different, and even contradictory, interests and values, from the battalions of the American labor movement to the swarms of eco-pacifists, environmentalists, women's groups, and a myriad of alternative groups, including the pagan community. The activists of Direct Action Network provided the training and organizational skills for many protestors. But the movement was based on the exchange of information, on previous months of heated political debate on the Internet, that preceded the individual and collective decisions to go to Seattle and to try to block the meeting of what was perceived as an institution enforcing "globalization without representation." (Castells, The Internet Galaxy p.141, my emphasis)
Castells notes that these individuals and groups had a common tactical goal, but not a common ideological or strategic objective. Radicalized, violent elements such as anarchists marched alongside those with far less radical agendas. Readers of this blog may be reminded of John Robb's Brave New War, in which he describes the insurgency in Iraq: loosely affiliated or unaffiliated groups, often with differing ideologies, can share information and resources and "coordinate their actions to swarm vulnerable targets" (Robb, Brave New War p.16). Like the Seattle protestors that Castells describes, these groups coordinate loosely over the Internet and mobile phones, as well as through media reports, which publicize their successes and therefore present a blueprint for further groups to construct their own disruptions.

Castells' protestors and Robb's insurgents sound a lot like the knowledge work organizations that Drucker describes in Post-Capitalist Society: loose, decentralized, flexible, always moving. That's not too surprising, since both Castells and Drucker claim that such organizations have begun to characterize our workplaces, our leisure, and our civic engagement. Information technology, particularly the Internet and mobile phones, has allowed people to create loose ties and connect with like-minded people outside their own communities. In fact, Castells does a good job of examining this shift in his earlier book The Power of Identity, in which he evenhandedly examines the black-helicopter crowd, the Zapatistas, and Aum Shinrikyo as examples of networked organizations enabled partially through information technologies. Castells confesses sympathy for the Zapatistas and unhappiness about the other two cases, but he emphasizes that the three work structurally similarly; they are manifestations of the same shift.

Fast forward a few years, and we see this sort of loose networked organization entering partisan US politics. A president, fresh from an electoral victory, proposes sweeping reform of an ailing sector but leaves the details up to Congress. Over a break, Congresspeople hold town meetings to sell the plan, but the meetings are swarmed by vocal citizens who are affiliated with partisan groups and coordinated via the Internet. Shocked, the Congresspeople attempt to lock down the town halls, then shut them down entirely, characterizing the citizens as centrally coordinated mobs. The year is 2005; the issue is Social Security reform; the President is President Bush; the bill is DOA.

Now, in 2009, some on the Right are bringing up these 2005 protests to suggest moral equivalence as they defend the health care protests. That's certainly not my aim; I'm not after evaluating either protest morally. I am rather arguing that such networked protests, as Howard Rheingold said about the tea parties, are "a hybrid of top-down and grassroots organization." They are an evolution of the netwar tactics that Castells describes, tactics that temporarily tie together groups with little ideological coherence in order to counter proposed change. In that sense, they are decentralized, reactionary and counterstrategic, even though some represented groups have longer-term strategic objectives. They're going to become more prevalent, I think, since we are encountering such structures in business and leisure as well. And they're going to continue changing form over time as people leverage more information technologies.

This year's technology is Internet video, which protesters have leveraged to self-report their protests. The Drudge Report had at least four links to such videos yesterday, and Instapundit, which has reported on continuing "tea parties" since they started, has more. The unexpected opposition has led some representatives to say things they probably regret:
"This bill is un-American,” said another voter, who asked whether Kratovil has read it.

“I am reading it right now,” he said.
Such statements feed the narrative that the bill is being rushed through without due diligence, the contingency that unites many of these otherwise ideologically incoherent citizens. As Kaus intimates, these people appear to be there of their own free will, and they don't appear to have signed onto a unified slate: Birthers, anti-immigration folks, Libertarians, fiscal conservatives, senior citizens worried about Medicare, Blue Dog Democrats, Reagan Republicans, etc. don't have a lot of ideological common ground, just as union representatives and anarchists didn't have a lot in common in Seattle. But for these point protests, they only needed a common tactical goal. They "just say no," because, like the WTO protestors, they are united in tactical opposition rather than strategic objectives. And they come into contact and network with those who have similar tactical goals through information technologies that also help them to rapidly coordinate. All these strands come together in yesterday's AP report on one event (my emphasis):

Some of the activists who've shown up at town hall meetings held recently by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., and others are affiliated with loosely connected right-leaning groups, including Conservatives for Patients' Rights and Americans for Prosperity, according to officials at those groups. Some of the activists say they came together during the "Tea Party" anti-big-government protests that happened earlier this year, and they've formed small groups and stayed in touch over e-mail, Facebook and in other ways.
But they insist they're part of a ground-level movement that represents real frustration with government spending and growth.
"There isn't any group that's backing me, who's influenced me, who's pushing me to do this," said Robert A. Mitchell, a small business owner from Doylestown, Pa., who questioned Specter at a weekend town hall event about lawmakers failing to read legislation.
Note that the Tea Party protests earlier this year, which were characterized as incoherent, were networking opportunities that allowed people to make initial connections. They were able to maintain these loose ties via Internet services, and could then deploy spontaneously.

The initial response of Congress and the White House was to portray these people as dupes, liars, and worse. Now, the White House is now urging Congresspeople to pack town halls with their own supporters, a tactic that will probably result in charges that Congress is astroturfing. The problem is that such tactics assume centralized control. If I'm right in applying Castells, Robb, Arquilla and Ronfeldt, and others, that assumption is incorrect and such counterprotest measures will backfire. In fact, they will likely give protestors more common ground - protestors who are undoubtedly exchanging phone numbers and email addresses at these meetups.

So let's go back to Kaus' question. "If an 'astroturfing' campaign gets real people to show up at events stating their real views, isn't it ... community organizing?" I said the answer was yes and no. Yes in that these people are genuine citizens, genuinely concerned for a number of ideological reasons, perhaps most of which are not commonly held. No, because these are not communities in the traditional sense of the term, nor is this organizing in the traditional sense. In that sense, they are very similar to the knowledge workers I've been studying in Austin, independent actors who come together in federations, swarm a problem, then disperse at the end of the project, only to come together in different combinations for subsequent problems.

I'll end by stating again that in examining this development, I am not taking a side - even if there were a side to take. Protesters - of the WTO, of Social Security reform, of health care reform, etc. - don't necessarily have a coherent side, any more than federations of knowledge workers do. In describing this tactical development, I'm not endorsing any of these groups, any more than I would be endorsing Nazi Germany by analyzing the Blitzkrieg.

In fact, I worry considerably about the transition period as netwar-style protests become more frequent and more broadly deployed. At present they are disruptive, reactive, and tactical, and I don't see hope for more ideologically coherent or lasting movements based on them. Since it's easier to protest what is than to build what isn't, in the short term these protests are more likely to encourage gridlock and inaction than they are to move us toward productive development. The White House has increased this danger by handling opposition through central coordination, even setting up a centralized clearinghouse for reporting rumors about health care (like a trouble ticket system), rather than by pushing discretion to the level of individual Representatives in individual Congressional districts; they have centralized rather than decentralized, creating a single point of tactical failure for swarms of loosely affiliated agents to exploit. Just like the town hall meetings of 2005 and 2009.


Alan Rudy said...

I like this Clay... it is far better and drives me much less nuts than Hardt and Negri's books Empire, and Multitude. What I particularly like is your emphasis on the reactive, opposition nature of these associations, their defensiveness, even if they don't agree on what it is they are defending or have any idea what their alternatives might be or how to go about generating some kind of shared processes, much less a set of propositions or proposals, they might work with. More later, the pizza just came out of the oven and the seven-year-old wants help with his spherical jigsaw puzzle.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Great: now I crave pizza, and now I feel compelled to read Hardt and Negri.

Alan Rudy said...

It was a tomato-artichoke-sweet red pepper w/ asiago shavings pizza on home-made molasses-yeast crust... if you ever go to North Conway, NH, be sure to go the the Flatbread Company, it'll make you happy.

John K. Spinuzzi said...

I believe if you will look into it you will find that these people are reacting to what they perceive as an attack. They are therefore defending themselves in the same way settlers will come together to defend their community against an outside threat. This is much easier to get cooperation about that, say getting together to build a town hall. To say they are not communities in the traditional sense must be looked at in the light of your own work in network theory - these communities are the new reality of community. What you don't see at the town meeting is a much larger activity occurring in the community which includes e-mail and letter writing campaigns, petitioning congressmen (e.g -, and organizations/groups sponsoring (constructive) legislation (e.g -{50657FB4-8A4A-4389-A3AD-1CFEE3DB5CE0}).
There have been those in these groups who have commented that the more vocal and violent participants at the town meetings seem to be there to discredit these "grass-roots" efforts and may be planted by the opposition, as most of these site urge participants to be calm, orderly, and respectful. It may well be that there is astroturf on both sides!
Two things seem to hint at your own opinion about these conservative groups (correct me if I am wrong):
First, you made an assumption that you gave no basis for and which most of us (yes, I include myself)out there in the fight would strongly disagree with:

"Yes in that these people are genuine citizens, genuinely concerned for a number of ideological reasons, perhaps most of which are not commonly held."
It is an illusion for you to assume and an error for you to promote the idea that these beliefs are held by a small minority. As an academician you may find that you are viewing things from within a small community with little political diversity, giving you the impression that those who think differently must be a small minority.
Second, you said:
"I'm not endorsing any of these groups, any more than I would be endorsing Nazi Germany by analyzing the Blitzkrieg."

This gives the reader a nice subtle connection between the Nazis and these groups. If anybody knows how to use such a device I would imagine an English professor would.
And, third:
"At present they are disruptive, reactive, and tactical, and I don't see hope for more ideologically coherent or lasting movements based on them."
All negatives with no mention of the lasting communities, organizations, and relationships that are being forged in the background. Also ignored is the reason for this type of protest: the major media in this country seems to be operating lock-step with the present administration and not being "fair and balanced". These people are using the town meetings as an attention-getting device to popularize their movement.

David Ronfeldt said...

clay -- an incisive analysis. interesting comments too. way to go. -- onward, david