Why Organizing for Action Has Struggled So Much

Organizing for Action (OfA), the group that evolved out of the 2012 Obama campaign to continue organizing on issues of importance to liberals and has been struggling of late with layoffs and fundraising difficulty, has been having an extended disagreement with Philip Bump of the Washington Post over the organization's fundamental effectiveness, the latest installment of which is this article analyzing the group's activities and results on a range of issues. While I haven't followed every back-and-forth and I'm sure the OfA people would say Bump's article is unfair, what it comes down to is OfA saying "We're super-effective!" and Bump responding, "It doesn't look that way."

I'm not going to try to adjudicate that dispute, but suffice to say that what OfA was trying to do is really, really hard, so if their results have been modest, it isn't surprising at all. In fact, I would have been shocked if they had been successful, for a bunch of reasons.

To start with, they were trying to turn campaign activists into broad-spectrum liberal activists who could be mobilized on a range of issues over an extended period of time. While campaigns are certainly an activism gateway drug, issue-based advocacy is never going to have even a fraction of the excitement and glamour that a presidential campaign has, where everyone in the country is focused on the thing you're working on, and there's a looming deadline where all your effort results in success or failure. And the fact that OfA is a continuation of the Obama campaign probably worked against it, by reminding everyone all the time that it's what remains of something that was so much more urgent and seemingly important, at least to most people.

And then there's the problem that OfA focuses on national issues and affecting federal policy. That means not only that they're working against powerful forces (e.g. the intransigence of congressional Republicans) but more importantly that there's a big gap between the efforts that their volunteers and organizers put in and the results they see.

To understand what I mean, consider the contrast with the Tea Party. One of the reasons the Tea Party as a broad movement has been able to sustain itself is that it gives people opportunities to achieve results on the local and state level, so their individual effort becomes meaningful to them. If you're a Tea Party activist, maybe you can't get Barack Obama impeached and get all the country's undocumented immigrants deported. But wherever you are, there are Republicans you can terrify. A bunch of local Tea Party activists in Virginia, who I promise you aren't political geniuses, managed to defeat the House Majority Leader. They had a local goal that turned out to be achievable, and now not only do they feel like very big fish in their small pond, Tea Partiers everywhere were inspired by their example.

If you look at the issues that OfA has been working on—climate change, economic inequality, immigration, and so on—they're big issues where change can be slow, and the results of grassroots organizing often take a long time to be felt. While OfA does work on the local manifestations of these issues, it's still fundamentally a national organization. And as long as it has a primarily national focus, it's going to be difficult—not impossible, but difficult—to convince people that investing time and effort with OfA is worth the cost.

Most D.C.-based organizations don't try to build grassroots movements for one simple reason: it's hard. On the other hand, getting a few six-figure checks from millionaires, then doing some lobbying and putting out white papers, is easy (relatively speaking). So OfA deserves all the credit in the world for attempting to build a national grassroots fire out of the embers of a presidential campaign. But it was always going to be an uphill battle.

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