Scoring the Tea Party at the polls

Almost from the outset, the Tea Party movement committed to an electoral strategy to get what its adherents wanted–or at least some of what they wanted.  By 2010, the movement had largely moved from the town halls and streets to the polls, raising and spending tons of money to take out insufficiently conservative Republicans, and nominate stalwarts (who would sometimes lose winnable races) for visible offices.

But keeping score is tough.  First: Democrats don’t lose in races for the Congressional seat in my district because they’re too liberal or too conservative or silly or intellectual or lazy.  They lose because the district is overwhelmingly Republican.   Most Congressional districts nationwide are just like mine, skewed to one party or the other.  More liberal candidates usually win in safer Democratic districts, and more conservative candidates win in safer Republican districts.

Second, the Tea Party is hardly a unified bloc.  Conservative groups endorsed competing candidates in many races.  In Georgia’s Republican Senate primary, two very conservative candidates reached the run-off ahead of two even more conservative candidates.  All had received support from conservative causes and activists, but only the losers were identified as Tea Partiers.

Third, politicians can change their views, rhetoric, or approaches.  Mostly, Republican incumbents who “fended off” Tea Party challengers adapted and moved right to make it easier to do so.  Tea Partiers may not have gotten their preferred candidate in South Carolina, let’s say, but incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham was certainly more responsive, and less inclined to criticize them.

Fourth, incumbents almost always win renomination.  Just as Tea Partiers couldn’t take out incumbents, so-called Establishment Republicans couldn’t take out Tea Partiers.  (The defeats of Representatives Kerry Bentivolio [Michigan] and Eric Cantor [Virginia], for example, are far better explained by candidate idiosyncrasies and local conditions than any national political wave; they were defeated by candidates espousing pretty much the same policies.)  Michigan’s Justin Amash, a committed Tea Partier ostensibly targeted by the House Republican leadership and the Chamber of Commerce, won renomination easily.

So, be wary of people who have a stake in claiming the Establishment triumphed in saving the Republicans from the Tea Party, or Tea Partiers who enthusiastically trumpet their victories and general resilience.  Not all that much changed either way.

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Ice bucket challenged

A creative campaign to raise attention and money for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has circulated across the web and through virtually every social media channel.  You’ve seen a friend or a celebrity post a video of themselves dumping ice water on his own head, announcing a donation to research on ALS, and challenging others–by name–to do the same.  It’s generated an enormous amount of money for research on ALS, by one estimate $42 million, more than twenty times the money raised over the same time period last year.


ALS is a terrible disease.  There’s no cure, limited understanding, limited treatments, and not enough research, and a terrible decline for those diagnosed which doesn’t last very long before death.  Because the population affected is so small–relative to other health conditions–there’s just not much private sector interest in investing in research.  But the ice bucket provides an odd marketing redress.  Is it just wonderful that a viral marketing campaign took off and produced a windfall?

Absolutely, but not really.  Research on ALS is drastically underfunded, but that’s true for just about every disease or condition you can imagine.  Government funded scientific research has stagnated since the George W. Bush administration, and ongoing battles about taxes and the deficit have kept federal investment in science very low.  Effective political advocacy slices bigger shares of this limited pool of funds to selected conditions like AIDS and breast cancer.  Biotech and drug companies invest in research to develop products they think they can sell profitably–ideally to large markets.  As the rate of diabetes increases in America, it becomes a more attractive research and development area for the drug industry.  (Treatable but incurable?  That’s maybe fifty years of drug purchases per patient!)

Non-profits raise and spend money to fill in where government and industry falter, and they dedicate a great deal of money and effort to keep the dollars flowing.  This viral ice bucket twist has been incredibly successful–for now–but it’s hard to imagine it morphing into an organized annual event–like an AIDS Walk, MDA (once muscular dystrophy) telethon, or Breast Cancer Run for a Cure.

The fundraising calendar gets crowded, and you really can’t imagine racing and fundraising for every worthy cause.  Causes of all sorts, including nonprofits concerned with diseases, have to innovate and find some new way to break the clutter of fundraising appeals and regularize and stabilize their income.  Even then, funding is cyclical, as people and foundations are more flush and more generous when the economy and the stock market are stronger.

Research on ALS is critical and funding it completely worthwhile.  But I don’t have a way to compare the value of funding ALS with funding research on AIDS, Breast Cancer, Celiac Disease, Depression, Ebola….all the way through the alphabet.  Should funding be based on the state of the science?, the number of people affected?, the likely development of knowledge that helps with other diseases?  And what about funding scientific research on disease at the expense of action on education or poverty? I don’t know the answers on this stuff, and would distrust any flip opinion.

I am sure, however, that I don’t trust the wisdom of the charity market on these matters.  Nonprofits hire fundraisers who build careers moving across charitable causes.  The quality of the campaign is, I fear, more important than the worthiness of the cause.

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Days of quiet rage

Generating turnout at a movement event is hard work.  Grievances and injustice don’t make protest happen; rather, grievances allow an activist effort to resonate.

When Anonymous called for nationwide demonstrations on the Ferguson events, they were depending upon local networks to turn out the people.  This happened in some places, to be sure, but not on the posted schedule and not with the numbers and coordination that a national Days of Rage campaign promised.

Organizers swing and miss all the time, so what happens now?

In the immediate aftermath, the most visible coverage of the Days of Rage is at conservative sites, where the emphasis is on the fizzle out, with a little reframing of the real problem: crime not cops, they say.

In Ferguson, meanwhile, the story is of channeling and processing dissent.  The demonstrations last night were apparently civil, including elected officials, with attention turned to the management of the legal case against the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

In this way, a cause turns back into a case.  Justice for Michael Brown might entail prosecution and punishment of the shooter, and a civil judgment or city settlement with Brown’s family.  But even putting the cop in jail and cutting a check to Brown’s family doesn’t come close to balancing out the loss of a young life.

Alas, big cities pay wrongful death settlements all the time, and it seems like these millions haven’t reliably led to better and more civil policing, much less anything approaching racial justice.

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Days of Rage: Is Ferguson spreading out or dissipating?

Inspired by the ongoing events in Ferguson, Anonymous has called for Days of Rage protests across the nation:


At least one part of the story here is the reasonably sophisticated use of social media, including Youtube above.  The description on Youtube includes a link to a list of events planned in more than 30 cities, so far.  Facebook is another site to find local information.

Poor policing, profiling, racism, and brutality are hardly problems limited to Ferguson, and some in Anonymous see the opportunity to fill the spotlight and press the issues.

Meanwhile, police in most of those cities are better trained, even better armed, and better prepared than those in Ferguson.  They are certainly monitoring the same social media sites as the activists.  Staging these events on such short notice will be the work of locals, not any kind of professionalized national group; expect the events–and the policing–to vary a lot.

There’s a question about whether diffusion, spreading the call around the country, or focus is the best strategy for this moment.  Multiplying fronts in the emerging battle runs the risk of losing control of the message and dissipating the efforts.  Until now, the focus on Ferguson has riveted media and popular attention on events across a few blocks.  For more than a week, it’s been clear that some large number of those in the streets–including the police–are not from Ferguson.  This has meant a willingness to trade peace in that tiny city for a vision of justice for Michael Brown and attention to larger issues.  This has meant a concentration of forces in a very small area.

The focus approach, mobilizing immense efforts in a limited site, has worked in the past.  Racism was also a nationwide problem in 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee focused its summer project on Mississippi, and its efforts promoted a national response.  The old Days of Rage protests sponsored by the Weather Underground focused on Chicago in 1969, and a few hundred activists generated national attention–if not any policy victories.  Diffusion can also work, as we saw with Occupy.

The question for this round of Days of Rage is whether the protests, starting tonight, end up multiplying forces without diluting focus.



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Nurse-in in Beverly Hills

Protest, when it works, makes it hard to ignore something that was previously ignorable.  Yesterday, women held a nurse-in at the Anthropologie store in Beverly Hills.  The flash meal was a response to an incident earlier in the week, when a store manager hustled a nursing mother off to a bathroom.  The mother, Ingrid Wiese-Hesson, took to Facebook and Instagram to recount the incident, her embarrassment and anger, and the fact that the store manager broke the law.  California law allows women to nurse anywhere they and their babies are allowed to be.

Although brick and mortar stores will do almost anything to increase their street traffic, the assembly of babies doing lunch probably wasn’t a super great retail opportunity.  But it certainly made a point.  Antropologie quickly issued an apologie, and affirmed its commitment to the customer experience and better training for its employees.  Beyond the store and the chain, the protest increased the visibility of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, which had otherwise escaped at least my attention.

The nurse-in tactic was new to me, but it didn’t start this week in Beverly Hills.  Nearly two years ago, activists targeted Target with mass action, and earlier this year nursing mothers appeared at Facebook’s shareholders’ meeting to protest the site’s policy of censoring pictures it deems too revealing.  Instagram has a similar policy, and has engendered similar opposition.

It’s interesting that that the social media sites were so useful in organizing a protest that wasn’t targeted at them.

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How movements work; Shamu’s story.

Here’s a shift:

SeaWorld is building larger pens for the killer whales it keeps as performers and tourist attractions.  It also announced an enhanced focus on research.  Where did this come from? This is the movement story:

Shamu, the stage name of the killer whales that perform at SeaWorld, has been the subject of animal rights activism for years.  And what a great case!  Orcas are large, smart, social mammals, who live shorter, constrained lives in captivity.  I really don’t know what they feel, but in captivity, their distinctive dorsal fins droop, sadly.

In 2011, PETA filed an unsuccessful lawsuit arguing that orcas were entitled, as non-human persons, to 13th amendment protections against involuntary servitude.  In 2013, documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite released Blackfish, which focused on the sad story of Tillikum, an orca captured by SeaWorld, who was involved in the deaths of three people.  SeaWorld refused to cooperate with making the documentary, filed a complaint with the Department of Labor protesting that its employees did, and published its own factsheet on line disputing the film.  And all the while, activists have been demonstrating outside SeaWorld.

This past year, state legislators in California and New York proposed legislation that would prohibit orca performances or keeping killer whales in captivity altogether; nothing’s passed so far, and SeaWorld promised to relocate any killer whales to theme parks in states with less strict rules rather than release or retire any of them.

So, the lawsuit failed, and the new laws stalled; but you don’t have to win in order to effect influence.  Attendance dropped at SeaWorld; at least some parents planning vacations didn’t want to answer questions about the droopy fins.  The company’s stock price collapsed.  Prominent musicians canceled dates performing at the theme park, and other businesses, like Southwest Air, severed their ties with SeaWorld.  Credit rating agencies lowered SeaWorld’s bond rating, making it more expensive for the company to borrow money.   What to do?

SeaWorld announced that it would be providing larger pens for the orcas, twice the size of the present tanks.  It didn’t credit PETA or protests for this decision, but emphasized how the care of the whales was always a top priority.

Of course, larger pens are hardly what the campaigners were after, and they’re not satisfied.  See the report at Sea World of Hurt , a campaign sponsored by PETA.

But this is one way movements work.  The animal rights campaign made the captivity and conditions of the orcas an issue, and it hurt SeaWorld, even if the campaigners were targeting for so much more than that.  SeaWorld is trying to recapture market and reputation, doing something different in response to the changed world the movement campaign created.

We know at least two things: The animal rights activists will demand more.  And SeaWorld won’t credit the activists.

What we don’t know: Is building larger pens and nodding to research enough of a change to get some of those families to rebook visits to SeaWorld and see killer whales next year.

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Protest and riots

Violence polarizes.  It makes people pay attention.  It makes people take sides.  And this goes for violence from authorities like the police as well as protesters.

Citizens of Ferguson clean up after the police and violent protesters.

It doesn’t take many people, committed or crazy, in masks or police uniforms and riot gear, to hijack a story or a movement by doing something provocative.  Surely, almost no one who lives in Ferguson is happy to see young men throwing Molotov cocktails or looting stores.

Effective policing entails separating those seeking a confrontation with the police or a chance to act out from a larger community of protesters.  It should be easier to make this separation in Ferguson, where everyone seems to say that some large share of the violent protesters are from elsewhere.  But the policing in this very small city has been anything but effective (see Zack Beauchamp’s piece at Vox). When military assault vehicles appear in the streets, the citizens of Ferguson are likely to be just as angry at and scared of the police as the “agitators.”

Putting the police in the hands of the state highway patrol and Captain Ron Johnson was an effort to improve the policing and unite the nonviolent protesters with authorities.  It may still work, but the local police have been able to undermine that alliance by sporadically releasing odd piece of information and videotape.

This won’t go on forever, but it’s not yet clear when the nightly unrest will end.

And the awful thing: would there be national attention to the racial politics of policing and the militarization of local police departments if the protests hadn’t gotten out of hand and continued?

When their efforts spur stories about the issues, protesters are winning.  In America, violence usually undermines stories about policy.  But that’s not what’s happened in Ferguson–yet.  Indeed, overly aggressive and visibly ineffective efforts at social control have provided with a chance to turn the terrible case of a police shooting into a larger cause.  It doesn’t usually happen, but this time–thus far–there’s national attention to larger social problems–and some sympathy for substantial reforms.

Here’s another sign: Prof. Lindsey Lupo, author of One Hundred Years of Riot Commission Politics in America,
notes that that most coverage hasn’t called the violent disturbances at night, “riots,” a word that dismisses notions of larger causes.

One reason, I think, is that there has been some softening up of the body politic, which is more ready for action on policing and race in the wake of the visible campaigns around the shooting of Travyon Martin that led to…..nothing.


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