MoveOn, faith-based organizing, and glimpses of the Great Community

(Nashville) In the past few days, I have interviewed a prominent leader from MoveOn (the massive liberal online network) and from PICO (a network of community organizers based mainly in religious congregations). It’s fascinating how each sees combining the strengths of their respective organizational types as the essential next step for democracy.

According to my notes, PICO “invests lots and lots of time to connect with people and develop relations. … People begin to understand who they are in a public landscape by engaging with others in contesting for power. … They begin to discover that their voice can matter. … Their appetite [for more engagement] grows as well.” Meanwhile, citizens go on an ideological journey, starting out as relatively conservative and developing views that are more challenging to the status quo, although they would still not identify themselves as progressives. This is deep work, and it builds real power. But “scale is what we are trying to figure out. … How do you get to scale, because we are nowhere near where we want.”

Meanwhile, MoveOn began by channeling the mass voice of liberals, “one collective cry.” But mass petitions are not as effective any more, especially on issues like money-in-politics or climate change. “We need to organize in deeper ways to be taken seriously by those in power.” “Horizontal relations are incredibly important just to motivate people. People care about issues but ultimately they care about people.” “Communities are powerful for accountability for civic action. We are stronger when people are accountable to each other.” MoveOn’s goal is to “move from a list of 8 million to horizontal connectivity.” “A mega movement would radically scale accountability. That would require community.”

PICO has community and accountability, but not mass scale. MoveOn has “tremendous scale and little depth.” The problem is not new, although the solutions may now be dimly visible. John Dewey might as well have written these words (from the Public and its Problems, 1927) yesterday:

We have but touched lightly and in passing upon the conditions which must be fulfilled if the Great Society is to become a Great Community; a society in which the ever-expanding and intricately ramifying consequences of associated activities shall be known in the full sense of that word, so that an organized, articulate Public comes into being. The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.