How We Connect – Friend to Friend
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The MoveOn Way
How We Connect – friend to friend
Our populist roots come from a deep respect for real people – the MoveOn members and beyond. This respect is the foundation of MoveOn’s success in the past, and will be key to our future successes. But with our increased importance in the progressive movement, we’ll see challenges to this healthy populist posture. To face these challenges, we’ve built a strong organizational culture to counter creeping political or activist elitism.
One of the biggest risks of getting involved in politics is that it can consume you – you can become the stereotype of the cynical, disconnected political operative. An equally dire disease that strikes good people is the disease of hyperactivism. The job of the hyperactivist is less well paid than the political operative, but just as prone to disconnection from the real world. In the worst forms of this disease, the operative and the hyperactivist share a common perspective – a narrow elitism that looks down on the rest of the country and sees citizens as very different from themselves. To both operatives and hyperactivists, citizens and voters become abstract, stereotyped targets for marketing and manipulation or consciousness-raising.
At MoveOn, we believe the core problem in politics is not people, but lies in the dysfunctional political culture centered in Washington D.C. And we believe the cure is to connect to and engage the vast resourcefulness and intelligence of (extra)ordinary people. This is real populism, unlike the demagogic populism sometimes seen in the past, and is enabled perhaps for the first time ever, by new communications technologies like the Internet.
IT STARTS WITH RESPECT
Our populist world view flows from the obvious realization that the vast majority of the talent in America lies outside the beltway, in other industries and other walks of life. We believe that each person is unique and holds an extraordinary power to change the world – in small and big ways. In fact, this is what we, as individuals, are doing ourselves.
We don’t see citizens as “the little people.” We see MoveOn members and Americans, more broadly, as big, resourceful, talented, extraordinary people, who can work together to make the difference.
IT’S A SERVICE, NOT A SOAPBOX
From the founding of MoveOn, we’ve taken a very different, almost business-like, approach to our work. Instead of thinking of the Internet as a new and bigger “soap box” for getting out our own opinions, we’ve looked at it as a medium for helping people connect together and be effective together. This view, which is very different from many political and advocacy organizations, is basically a service model.
We see ourselves as providing an important service to citizens who are trying to figure out how to be politically effective. This service model is fundamental to fighting off a creeping “we know best” elitism. The service posture evokes a “the customer is always right” attitude. Providing service is a humble act.
SERVING FRIENDS, NOT STEREOTYPES
But, as I’m sure you’ve found, plenty of businesses that provide services have lousy relationships with customers. Ill-founded stereotypes and crass, ineffective marketing are just as common in business as in politics. Disconnected elitism and simplistic stereotyping are fundamental human failings and need to be countered deliberately in any organizational culture.
One tool we use is the model of serving friends, not stereotypes. We don’t think about MoveOn members as abstractions. We think of them as real people, because they are real people. We think of them as friends, because many of them are our friends.
For example, when we write an outreach to MoveOn members, we think about the outreach as a note to a friend, not as a political diatribe or direct mail piece. We are offering a simple service to a good friend. The medium of email is particularly suited to this model – it’s an intimate medium often used for personal notes. I myself try to envision a real friend – a specific person – receiving my email, not an abstract person. The reason to do this is that it immediate deflates the overblown, manipulative rhetoric that characterizes most corporate and political communications. People can tell when they’re being addressed honestly and respectfully. It’s the foundation of our relationship with MoveOn members.
Overheated, manipulative rhetoric might work to jack-up response rates in the short-term, but it damages and, in the end, would destroy our relationship with MoveOn members. And a manipulative posture, in the end, destroys us as leaders, because it undermines our own sense of integrity and connection to America.
BELIEVE YOUR EARS, NOT THE POLLSTERS
At MoveOn, we work to follow the leadership model best described in the saying “Strong vision, big ears.” Good leadership must develop a sense of mission and strategy, and a feel for the political battlefield, but be grounded in a real, on-going, two-way relationship with constituents.
In the era of broadcast politics, centered on fund raising and TV-centric persuasion, political leaders have become disconnected with constituencies and dependent on political pollsters for their connection to reality. This connection is tenuous at best, characterized by sloppy research designs and simplistic models. Unfortunately, pollsters also have a vested interest in convincing their clients that there is a vast gulf between the “average American” and the leader, serving to enhance the pollster’s position as sage interpreter. A disastrous side effect is that leaders begin to believe that they cannot trust their own instincts about common human and political values. This leaves leadership a hollow shell.
At MoveOn, we have a better way. We start with our own connection to MoveOn members and move out from there. We look for alignment between ourselves and MoveOn members and the greater American public, and we often find it. Good leaders appeal to fundamental human values, to the best in all of us.