Playing the Long Game in Campaigns

I’ve posted a few optimistic posts lately, but tonight is Christmas Eve, and I’m feeling pessimistic.

Much of my optimism has been related to watching particular kinds of campaigns by organizations like Avaaz, MoveOn, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Obama campaigns, and other, progressive, grassroots-based campaigns that seem to genuinely tap into existing concerns (rather than creating concern out of fear or instruction), motivate people to get involved at a variety of levels of engagement, and seem to be able to keep people in the campaign for astonishingly long periods of time. Even movements, such as #occupywallstreet and affiliations like Anonymous have done some new and interesting things in the last few years. Last post, I talked about how I thought #idlenomore was going to help do this to some extent in Canada.

Today, I’m feeling less enthusiastic.

None of these campaigns has produced the promised change. They have certainly produced change, just not what they promised, and I think there’s a problem here. To galvanize support, these campaigns motivate by targeting impossible victories: changing the way politics is done, changing corporate priorities, reforming an economy, fixing copyright. However, the successes always fall short: a political bill is blocked, but another one appears; a party or person is elected, but few real differences appear on the ground (or at least, they appear very slowly); people change their behaviour, but then change back.

This recidivism combined with airy promises concerns me. How many people are getting turned off by an apparent lack of progress? How many revoke their memberships and fail to join or contribute the next time action is needed?

I think that we (as campaigners) should be telling people up front that it will be a long haul. Tell them that the issues are complex, that interests for the status quo are well entrenched, and that, despite lots of people and investment, it may take years of continued effort before we see significant progress.  On any issue. This means, of course, that the fear-based approach to galvanizing action will fail.

As well it should.

Making people afraid, whether for good or for evil, is the wrong way to approach change. It makes them reactionary, less likely to recognize positive movement (on either side of an issue), and less likely to be taken seriously. It polarizes a debate. So while fear-based tactics are highly successful in getting people to click a Like button or to donate $10 right now, they harm the long term goal of creating an active, politically astute populous willing to have serious policy discussions at every level. .

So let’s commit to the long game. Regardless of the issue, its apparent urgency, or the value of winning this particular fight, let’s take a page from Lessig’s #rootstrikers campaign. Always build to the next fight. Engage your supporters at the highest level you can and help them move into a more nuanced role. All the while, build your database, encourage engagement, foster discussion, and be up front about the longevity of the campaign. Frame things in terms of battles, if necessary, but never lose sight that they are only skirmishes in a greater theatre.

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