Reclaiming Our Democracy -- Lessons From the Trenches of Citizen Advocacy

The University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs hosted Sam Daley-Harris, founder of RESULTS, on October 9, 2013. Sam was on a book tour for the 20th edition of Reclaiming Our Democracy, and I prepared for the dialogue between us following his talk by finding out more about RESULTS and the recently formed Citizen Climate Lobby which uses its methodology. Citizen Climate Lobby is a grassroots effort to address climate change through a tax on carbon emissions.

RESULTS, founded in 1981, shows the extraordinary capacity for action that it is possible to develop in citizen advocacy for policy change. RESULTS has been highly successful in efforts on global poverty-reduction, promoting micro-lending and, working with UNICEF, child survival strategies like vaccinations.

When the organization began lobbying for micro-finance, fewer than one million poor people had access to a micro-loan. By 2011 that number had grown to more than 124 million. After receiving the Nobel Prize in economics in 2006 for micro-lending, Mohammed Yunus said that "No other organization has been as critical a partner in seeing to it that micro-credit is used as a tool to eradicate poverty and empowerment of women than RESULTS."

In his introduction to the new edition, Yunus argues that RESULTS is "not about advocacy by mouse click or lighting up Facebook and Twitter." Rather, "it is about providing a powerful structure of support... uncovering and then lighting up the unquenchable desire in each of us to make a difference in the world." Daley-Harris himself details 13 principles of action which he believes make "citizen empowerment and transformation work," like developing a focused agenda, building relationships with media and policy makers, and "partnership not partisanship."

These are valuable insights. But it is also possible to look at the RESULTS method and its practices as a civic laboratory which highlights three large obstacles to effective collective action everywhere, and also points toward approaches which can be generalized into lessons for making democratic change in society as a whole. These are the obstacles:

  • The problem of a narrow focus on disseminating information. This is the result of expert-centered approaches to action which devalue the intelligence and contributions of lay citizens.

  • The problem of polarizing politics. This emerges from a good-versus-evil framing of issues which has spread widely, partly as a result of the telecommunications revolution.
  • The problem of "feel good" activities. This grows from a therapeutic culture which substitutes emotional states for effective, strategic action to create democratic power.
  • In this post, I describe the problem of a narrow focus on disseminating information and point to remedies based on interactive, relational organizing for public work. In subsequent posts I will take up the other obstacles and alternatives.

    Disseminating information. Daley-Harris tells the story of Marshall Saunders, a businessman who saw Al Gore's documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. He joined more than 1,000 people in a training for a slide show based on the documentary and presented it 43 times in San Diego. "He soon realized that the material was almost exclusively focused on the problem," writes Daley-Harris. It also "included very little on what people could do about it." As a result, Saunders worked with Daley-Harris to adapt the RESULTS method to the challenge of climate change.

    The story illustrates the difference between information dissemination and what is called relational organizing. RESULTS' method emphasizes building sustained relations with policymakers and shapers of public opinion such as editors and journalists. RESULTS also involves highly interactive processes. For instance, on the monthly conference call, part of its method, prominent experts present information for a few minutes, but their time is carefully kept in check. Most time is kept open for questions, comments and interactions.

    Information dissemination is the dominant approach to the climate change issue generally, as John Spencer and I described last year in our Huffington Post piece, "Civic Science -- Beyond the Knowledge Wars." We quoted the leading scientific journal, Nature, which declared that in the face of climate change denialists, "Climate scientists must be ever more energetic in taking their message to citizens."

    Embedded in this framework are two assumptions: the task is to present objective truth, "the science," to uninformed and largely passive citizens and, related, scientists are not citizens in their work.

    In turn, these embody what the African intellectual Xolela Mangcu calls technocratic creep across all of society. Technocratic creep creates professional identities separated from civic identities. It embodies instrumental rationality which holds "why" questions as a given and focuses on efficiency of means. It holds a view of scientific knowledge as objective truth rather than as power resources which need to be in relationship to other kinds of knowledge for effective action.

    Technocratic practices also emerge when citizens organize for educational change. Thus, the collection on effective organizing for school change edited by Marion Orr and John Rogers, Public Engagement for Public Education, shows the pattern. As the political theorist Luke Bretherton puts it in a review,

    What comes across time and again in the essays is the hostility 'non-experts' provoke. Orr and Rogers point to how public engagement with education challenges and demands a move beyond technocratic, top down, one-size-fits-all, centralized and procedural reform initiatives to draw on a wider variety of experience, knowledge and a diversity solutions in order to solve common problems.

    The problem of information dissemination and the technocratic culture in which it is rooted can only be countered on a large scale by democratic transformation of professions. There are signs of such transformation, as Albert Dzur documents in a new blog, "Trench Democracy," for Boston Review on participatory innovation. As Dzur describes, "democratic professionals are making real-world changes in their domains piece by piece, practice by practice... they are renovating and reconstructive schools, clinics, prisons and other seemingly inert bodies"

    RESULTS and the Citizen Climate Lobby help to illustrate the crucial importance of such work in making effective change.