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Not so grassroots: how the snowflake model is transforming political campaigns

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s London to Aldermaston march, 1958: an early example of mass political mobilisation to achieve a specific goal. CND

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Consider these five vignettes of contemporary politics in Australia:

These diverse projects – undertaken by widely different groups, promoting different ends, in different locations – are all variations on an increasingly common mode of collective political action: they are all campaigns.

Long part of the repertoire of political parties, campaigning has broken out from the electoral context and evolved into a new tool for business, government and civil society actors.

Campaigning is now the dominant form of collective political activity in Australia. Waves of transformative technological change continue to morph campaigning into an intensely mediated activity. Dispersed individuals and locations are linked through television, the web, social media networks and most recently big data.

Scholars have somewhat overlooked this transformation and its significance for politics and democracy. In particular its powerful internal tensions deserve closer attention. The campaign model is inherently divided between co-existing yet contradictory characteristics: bottom-up participation and top-down direction.

In this topsy-turvy form of politics, what looks to be grassroots-driven may on closer inspection be revealed as organised, coordinated and managed from the centre.

The origins of the campaign

It’s instructive to consider the etymology of this very political word. Campagna is Italian for field, plain or open country. The military recruited the word in the 17th century to denote the time an army spent in the field. So, campaigns were finite periods of intense fieldwork as armies mobilised in spring, fought in summer and stood down in winter.

The first campaigns involved mobilised armies. ResoluteSupportMedia/flickr

In 19th-century America, the word was given civilian clothing and put to work in elections and commercial advertising, though it retained the sense of short-run mobilisation. With the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, the word began to denote a mass political mobilisation to achieve a specific goal.

A campaign is not a rally, protest, grievance or open-ended social movement. A campaign is a series, a finite short-run sequence, of activities.

Importantly, it is designed. A campaign is directed and managed rationally and strategically; it is not spontaneous, random or incidental. And it wants a particular result – not a generally improved state of affairs, but an identified and targeted outcome, an achievable end-point.

If a campaign is designed, the campaign manager is the designer, the strategist, the planner, the orchestrator of the activities that constitute the campaign. The campaign manager may not be visible or overt, but a campaign cannot function without a campaign manager.

Language talks up grassroots role

This observation sits uncomfortably with the strongly normative, almost emancipatory, language often used to describe campaigns. This typically involves words of participation and empowerment; words that celebrate individual efficacy and civic engagement; words that privilege the grassroots, with their authentic local knowledge, over the centre, the home of bosses and business as usual.

For example, Greenpeace declares:

Isn’t it amazing what we can do together? The driving force behind Greenpeace is a community of people like you – people who speak out and take action to make the world a better place. … Thank you for your courage. We are so proud to stand with you in this fight.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, discussing its anti-racism campaign, tends to agree:

It’s often the people working on the ground within local communities or specific environments who have the best understanding of the issues and ideas of how to overcome them.

The Australian Labor Party, too, is increasingly using the language of empowerment as it develops its Obama-style campaigning skills. In the last federal election, campaign manager George Wright produced a YouTube video that declared – too optimistically as it turned out – that:

… the only thing standing between Tony Abbott and the Lodge is you, me, Kevin and thousands of supporters across the country.

Identifying the campaign targets (marginal seats and campaign donations), Wright called on “thousands of Australians to donate and … to volunteer”.

Labor’s plan to win is to get you involved.

By the end of the campaign, Wright claimed Labor’s campaign had recruited 5000 “tele-campaigners” (call centre staff) and registered another 10,000 volunteers – more than could be used. The campaign made 1.2 million phone calls, conducted 250,000 “registered volunteer doorknocks”, sent out 3.5 million emails and raised $800,000 from online donations – a potential game changer for cash-strapped parties.

After the election, Wright claimed this “new approach to campaigning” was:

… pushing political power into the hands of the people who stand to lose or gain from the outcomes of elections … and reforming the party from the grassroots up.

Who really drives the campaign?

But does contemporary campaign practice justify such claims? Is campaigning a celebration of individual empowerment, of democratisation, of dispersal of organisational power? Is it so “amazing”?

Or is there a less obvious, but nonetheless critical and even dominant role, for the centre? What can we learn from campaigning about the relationship between the grassroots and the centre – between campaign volunteer and campaign manager? Who controls the resources? Who makes the decisions?

Consider Labor’s campaign for the Melbourne seat of Carrum in the 2014 Victorian state election.

Carrum was a classic marginal. To wrest the seat from the incumbent Liberal MP, Donna Bauer, Labor hired a modest flat in the back streets of Seaford. The living room was converted into a call centre, equipped with computer screens linked to a database of voter statistics. It was filled with the buzz of volunteers making calls on behalf of their candidate, Sonya Kilkenny.

Other operatives in the flat directed fieldwork – which, harking back to the military origins of campaign, describes the coordination of doorknocking. Teams of volunteers were sent out from the flat with maps and clipboards, again using the database to reach out to voters identified as persuadable.

All of this is volunteer work, under the banner of the “Community Action Network”. But their work is far from spontaneous, random or even self-directed. It is structured, planned, scripted, targeted and managed from the centre.

Volunteers, whether talking to voters on their doorstep or over the phone, or at train stations and supermarket carparks, are trained in what to say and how to say it.

Computer-assisted phone callers are guided through their conversations by scripts: first, tell them your own story, what values motivated you to volunteer; listen for a connection between your own narrative and values and those of the voter; then turn the conversation to talk about the candidates’ values, achievements and plans; and finally draw a contrast between your candidate and the opposition.

Don’t talk party or politics or policy. Instead, make it meaningful in terms of how voting Labor will benefit the voter and the voter’s family.

Labor’s Community Action Network claims to be a grassroots movement of more than 5000 activists in Victoria. This is Labor

Each snowflake has a centre

The campaign in Carrum – which succeeded in getting Kilkenny elected – has been matched by similar volunteer networks in Labor’s NSW and Queensland branches, as well as in the union movement.

They are all, ultimately, modelled on the successful Obama campaigns, themselves derived from older traditions of community organising, but turbo-charged by Big Data, as described by American journalist Sasha Issenberg.

Obama campaign literature uses the metaphor of the snowflake to describe the campaign structure. Like a snowflake, it has a strong centre occupied by a campaign organiser. Around the organiser are the snowflake’s limbs, staffed by “team leaders” or “captains”. Each is responsible for recruiting and directing volunteers in a campaign task – fieldwork, phone banking, data management and so on.

Like a snowflake, every campaign is beautifully orchestrated. yellow cloud/flickr

The snowflake structure encourages accountability and results, and is designed for organic growth and replication. Making it work – maintaining the enthusiasm of volunteers and avoiding burnout and micro-management by captains – requires organisational commitment to training, development and the sharing of purpose.

But ultimately this is an effort by the centre to recruit, coordinate and control the periphery.

So what are we to make of this?

On one hand, political parties are supposed to be dying, or surviving as hollowed-out shells. Members have been leaving in droves; branches are closing; partisan attachments are withering; political efficacy – the sense that “I can make a difference” – is declining around the world.

The whole electoral contest is seen as an increasingly irrelevant exercise in spin and manipulation. Academic research, media commentary and internal reviews within the parties themselves all support this dominant view.

But if parties are dying, no-one told the volunteers in Carrum. If branch membership has been rendered meaningless, perhaps it was appropriate to repurpose the role into volunteer tele-campaigners.

Also, if parties’ reliance on large corporate donors and/or taxpayer generosity is problematic, the emergence of a new source of funding via social media is surely no bad thing.

On the other hand, perhaps the online campaign model provides a sense of efficacy that is illusory, even delusional. Can signing a petition make any difference to the real decision-making over, say, petroleum exploration on the Great Barrier Reef? Is scripted phone persuasion really the best way to communicate with our fellow citizens?

Are those who join an anti-racism campaign already more likely to embrace the cause than the actual racists?

Certainly, all the essential elements of the contemporary campaign model – the centralised direction and co-ordination, the managerial delegation, the training and scripting, the capital-intensive nature of the resource base – seem at odds with, and serve as an necessary antidote to, the emancipatory language usually associated with such campaigns.

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