Liberal Activism Is Complicated

Activism is hard, but it becomes harder when you mix in liberalism's storied history with this medium for making change. This section includes advice on how to overcome both the activism's inherent difficulties and those difficulties brought about by its relation to liberals in particular.


I. Activism is just plain difficult.

The first problem of liberal activism has nothing to do with it being liberal. Interactive events are harder to organize than passive “sit back and enjoy the speaker” events. They involve coordinating a lot of organizers and participants in both message and action. Further, because they are so difficult to organize, usually an organization's first attempt at an interactive event falls on its face and the wrong lesson is taken away: don't bother with activism because students are apathetic.

Let me be clear, apathy is not the largest hurdle for modern student activism, apathy is just the excuse of a bad organizer. The following are the solutions to modern activism's largest problems:

1. Planning ahead.

The main impediment to activism is a lack of planning. The extreme in terms of planning would be an annual event. It is also the ideal. Make your event into an annual tradition if you can. The benefits of an annual event include the following:

  • They are an annual tradition. Students are looking forward to participating in them all year long.
  • The leadership planning the event knowingly applied for the privilege of organizing that specific event, which makes them more reliable volunteers. They want to improve the event from past years and not necessarily reinvent it; this allows organizers to be trained in how to plan the event from the year before while still giving them creative liberties.
  • Planning for the event began almost immediately after the previous year’s event ended.

The Dems Campaign Trip is a great example of how an annual event allows you to both plan a year ahead while building off of the experience of past years. The Activist Council is an example of an institutional solution designed in order to promote long term activist planning.

2. Precious little energy.

This problem with activism is also not particular to the liberal variety. Activism requires student energy. You must determine exactly how much energy you can expect from your campus and then act accordingly. The energy of your organizers and participants is precious and you shouldn't take it for granted and assume that they'll show up to every little demonstration or dorm storming that the organization puts together.

Every year a succesful liberal student organization should plan a finite number of huge activist events that are meant to include their entire membership and beyond, while still allowing for as many smaller events as their members would like to organize; the freedom of members to organize their own smaller events being one of the solutions for dealing with the problem of liberal organizing, that liberals disagree. Recognize the limitations and realities of smaller activist events and focus on the opportunities in the larger events. Planning ahead for just a few huge events allows you to have more participation, and for most events, a lot of participation is necessary to get your message across.

Further, it may also seem like an organization can host an infinite number of activist events because it seems like with each activist event the organization will grow and there will be a larger core of active members to draw upon for action. This is only partially true. Although it is important to advertise and energize your membership for the next event at your current event, you cannot assume that the students who are participating have the time and energy to participate in more than a few events a year. Eventually, you can put on too many events and the end result willl be the cannibalization of the energy and participation of other events.

3. When you just don't have the time.

That said, there are great examples of moments when activism requires instantaneous action and where there is no possibility for planning ahead. A perfect example of this type of activism was the Filibuster Frist protest at Princeton. What's important to recognize about these examples of ad hoc activism is that they represent a rare opportunity where (1) it seems possible to influence the outcome of an event through action, (2) it is easy to get involved, (3) the message is important, and (4) the symbol of the action is captivating and inspirational. The Filibuster Frist protest had all of these elements, while most demonstrations, like those protesting to bring the troops home now, have only a few of these elements.

II. Overcoming the hurdles of liberal activism.

Activism is most successful when it has a specific goal and a clear message, both because it makes the action more likely to achieve its end goal, but also because it allows for the construction of a larger coalition.

1. Activism should have a clear goal and target.

Working from first principles, one could argue that activism in its ideal form, whether it’s a protest, a campaign trip, or a lobby trip, exists to accomplish a specific goal. This is a unabashedly consequentialist perspective of activism, where one takes action in order to (1) pressure someone in power to do what you want them to do or (2) get someone into a position of power who will do what you want them to do, or (3) raise awareness about an issue in order to build a stronger coalition to take on tasks (1) or (2).

Of course, these goals are certainly not mutually exclusive, in fact every action usually takes aim at achieving at least two of these objectives. For example, the publicity of CU Dems 2006 Save Financial Aid Lobby Trip to DC was also designed to build political momentum around the issue so that voters would look at the 2006 candidates in order to determine which candidate was better on the issue of student financial aid. Further, protests, demonstrations, and/or letter campaigns, usually seem like efforts to pressure someone in power to take action, but they’re usually more effective in their simultaneous role of bringing awareness to your cause and more allies to your side for the next, and larger, protest. Indeed, that was the case for the 24-Hour Reading of 1984 to protest illegal wiretapping.

2. Four problems with liberal activisim, and especially with coalitions.

Demanding solidarity On every related issue. There is a strain of the liberal activist tradition which believes that you cannot protest against one injustice without also protesting against related injustices, and thus conflates issues, messages, and the targets of activism. The organizers of the 2007 Iraq War protest at Columbia followed this tradition and the CU Dems decided not to take part because they did not want to conflate the Iraq war with Israel or President Bush with President Bollinger.

Part of this tradition holds that the best way to build a protest and coalition is to conflate as many related issues as possible and to thus bring together a large group of people all interested in their own niche causes. However, this tradition is flawed because it also doesn't allow participants to disagree with the other messages of the protest. It demands that all must be for the entire umbrella of messages. Thus, not only is one organization implicitly supporting every message and target of every other protest participant (Bollinger in addition to Bush), but it is only allowed to become a part of the coalition if it explicitly signs on to all the other messages.

Such a degree of central protest control ultimately alienated the CU Dems as it alienated other members, ultimately limiting the size and effectiveness of the protest. Again, there is an important lesson here that can be applied to deal with the problem that liberals disagree...but that's another chapter.

A False Vertical Heirarchy. The second reason a coalition will fall apart, or never form in the first place, is because those who invite everyone else to the coalition table believe that they can dictate to everyone else in the room how the coalition should work because they were the first ones in the room. A coalition, to be successful, must be consensus based and have a horizontal leadership structure. That is, the coalition can have lead organizers, but they must be accepted by the entire coalition. Even things like meeting agendas should be only be proposed at the start of the meeting before everyone agrees to it.

Activism (and anger) without direction. There is a strain of the liberal activist tradition which often scares away more moderate activists from participating because it seems like a protest without a clear goal, maybe appearing to be nothing more than the release of anger at those who have perpetrated some injustice against society or have not done enough to halt the injustice.

Indeed, one of the reasons the Dems did not take part in the 2007 Iraq War protest at Columbia was because it (1) did not seem designed to pressure anyone in particular to do anything, (2) to get in power someone who would do what we wanted, or (3) to reach out and get new supporters for the cause. Indeed, it just seemed like some directionless angry excercise.

Yet this type of protest does have a purpose, at the very least it is a community building excercise that brings your coalition members closer together and at most it is designed to make sure that those in power notice that things are not alright in society, that people are not willing to just look aside and let things go on like before. There are some who argue that it was this style of protest, one which didn't endorse any politician or congressional resolution or law, but rather focused on expressing extreme outrage, which motivated Congress to end the war in Vietnam and which we should be copying on campuses to end the war in Iraq.

That said, although angry protests have a purpose and can have an impact, they can have a much more significant impact when they aim carefully and apply direct pressure to those who have the power to make decisions on the issues protestors care about. For example, the coalition of anti-war groups currently trying to get the US out of Iraq is pursuing a very successful strategy of pressuring particular Democrats to get the troops out Iraq and can be read here in this NY Times article.

Further, having a carefully targeted protest, even if it is an angry one, allows for wider outreach to non-radical allies and moderates. Non-radical allies and moderate are usually new to the medium of activism and being able to draw a clear line for them between their participation and a desired result is the best way to recruit them to get involved. Being able to draw that line involves a well targeted protest. And because widening a coalition is better than organizing a community building excercise among current believers, a protest strategy that leads to greater outreach is the better strategy.

Moderate liberals are sometimes scared by activism. There is a stigma among more moderate liberals against activism because it is associated with radicalism, both of the more current and 1960s variety. I argue that although one should avoid the "protesting everything" coalitions and the protests of directionless anger, that you cannot run away from activism as a medium. Indeed, the smartest thing for the organization to do is to take a lead in organizing the protest so that the organization can set the tone, will be less likely to get faced with the issue of whether to "join" or "not join," but rather can be seen in a position of reaching out in search for partners and allies.

Further, there are institional models to follow in order to ensure that your organization doesn't run away activism. The Activist Council is the Dems most obvious example of an institutional solution to keeping activism as part of the organization's tradition despite the flinchings of future potential anti-activist group leadership.

3. How do you overcome these problems?

What are the institutional solutions in order to ensure that your coalition is built to be (1) inclusive and flexible instead of inflexibly exclusive, or to ensure (2) that activism takes place in order to achieve particular ends?

Of course you can't tell another organization how to model their coalition, that is why the best course of action is to always start the coalition and invite other people to partner up. That was how the John Ashcroft Welcome Rally was organized, and as the picture up on top of this page clearly suggests, that rally was hugely successful. However, it is possible to join another coalition and talk them into reforming part of their message, but usually that's more difficult.

Organize by focusing on a single issue, don't force the event to deal with other related injustices at once, because you'll just alienate other potential coalition members who may not agree on which issues are related and may not agree on how they are related. If the issue bringing together activists is big and important enough then holding to this policy should be empowering, not limiting.

The main critique of this "single issue" organizing idea is that it will make it difficult to grow your coalition as those groups which insist on conflating issues will feel disenfranchised from the event. For example, some more liberal groups may refuse to protest the US occupation of Iraq without also protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The model for including these groups without losing focus on the event's well-targeted message is to allow the speakers of each individual group at a protest to say whatever they want, but to keep the event as planned focused on a single issue. That is, the activist event represents where all the groups overlap, but each individual group while participating is allowed to bring their own message as long as they don't try to conflate it with everyone elses'. This was how the John Ashcroft Welcome Rally was organized, and had the founders of the 2007 Iraq War protest at Columbia taken this perspective, likely the Dems would have participated.

However, there are two potential pitfalls in this approach:


(1) There may be a symbolic element of the protest that most members of the coalition very adamentally believe should be there, but for whom a few individuals at the event it will be completely inappropriate; for example, two individuals at the John Ashcroft Welcome Rally tried to take down the American flag because they felt it was a symbol of oppression and could not be shown, while most organizers believed it was a symbol that needed to be recast as a beacon of liberalism. Ultimately the flag was left up during the rally because it was negotiated during the planning and could not be brought down now, but was taken down after this picture was taken because the march was Ad Hoc and it was too difficult to point to the preplanning argument like in the rally.

(2) There are some groups who will refuse to participate in the event unless issues are conflated. Try your best to bring everyone together, but at the end of the day, you can't make everyone happy.

However, another possible model for organizing can be found in Columbia Community Outreach, and it might be worthwhile if the Dems copied this model for their campaign trip. In regards to finding a way to institutionalize the idea that activism must aim toward the completion of a feasible goal, this section of The Blue Print is an attempt to institionalize that certain idea by arguing for the it in a wiki-handbook.

Back to The Blue Print

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