Small Is the New Big in Progressive Politics

May 21, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

This piece was co-authored by Ori Brafman

While the battle for the Democratic nomination has been raging in the national media, another quieter debate has been taking place in the grassroots: and its success or failure has strong national implications for growing voter engagement over time.

The next stage of the on-the-ground campaign will be the battle for the swing states in the general election. The grab for this group of voters has generally been coordinated by a seasoned team of professional campaign staff operating in war rooms and spending millions in mobilizing voters. But new efforts among progressive voters, musicians, and grassroots groups are saying the way to be "big" in '08 is to "go small." And how resources are spent in this election and after, could determine whether the Democratic Party is about short-term voter excitement or permanent citizen engagement.

This new group of efforts focuses on local leadership, small circles, and cultural organizing. They are taking their strategies from the anti-slavery movement, groups like craigslist, and most surprisingly, a new Christian movement. "We keep saying that the evangelical churches gave Bush the White House," Erin Potts, a leader in strategic thinking for groups as diverse as foundations and big rock bands, said. "If we want to know, we have to study it and see what works. And what works, is culture and small groups. The emerging house church movement has a very dynamic and interesting strategy."

Potts and other organizers note that while overall church attendance has steadily declined since the 1990s, a new form of church has taken off--the house church. Unlike traditional churches, the house church movement doesn't meet in a specific house of worship, but instead, as the name suggests, in people's homes. While traditional churches have hierarchical leadership, the house church meets as a circle of peers, and while churches try to grow the membership of a congregation, house churches purposely splinter into smaller groups as soon as a circle gains more than a handful of members.

The success of the house church movement is staggering. Membership is well into the millions. One study suggests that 70 million Americans regularly attend or have experimented with a house church.

Like Potts, Eli Il Young Lee, a community organizer with the Center for Civic Policy in Albuquerque, is working to bring this new focus onto the ground. "There are two big differences this election cycle: the incredible turnout that we've seen, and will continue to see, and the increasing importance of unaffiliated voters." These aren't the kinds of voters that big machine politics usually targets and manages. Instead, organizers like Lee are moving toward a house church way of doing politics. These "smaller formations, like the one we have created in New Mexico," says Lee, "are more agile, can keep our focus simple, and can act with much greater discipline."

In other words, small is the new big. And progressives are finally taking notice.

Although the rise of participation is new, organizers of the "new small" note that the house churches have tapped into the same organizational structure behind the success of the anti-slavery movement in England and the women's suffrage movement in the United States. Organizationally speaking, all these movements look virtually identical. They're based on small-circle organizing, have little to no authoritative control, and rely on the innovation of distributed social movements. It's this same type of organizational structure that is the secret to the success of Wikipedia and craigslist.

They note the key to the success of these churches is threefold:

1.Shared values rather than on autocratic rule.

2.Peer circles, rather than as a large, rigid, top-down hierarchy.

3.Leading through inspiration rather than by formal authority, allowing, but not forcing, others to follow them.

Traditionally, elections are about political machines, huge rallies, and media spending. While it would be naive to assume that these won't have an effect on the 2008 election, the defining element of this cycle is the reemergence of small-circle strategies.

Progressives are starting to focus on building a community: one that is distributed and in which grassroots leadership is seen as critical to success. In so doing, they are taking a cue from traditionally conservative causes.

As Potts, who is organizing with musicians during 08, puts it "The conservatives have churches every Sunday, progressives have concerts every night." From an organizing perspective, concerts are for progressives what churches have been for conservatives. But they also embody the principle of being organic, loosely-structured social units.

"Because of changes in the music business and where revenue comes from," explains Potts, "musicians are touring more than ever before. As they travel from city to city, they are engaging with people through their shows. The only other profession that travels as widely," she quips, "is truck drivers, but they don't seem to be engaging a fan base at each stop." In a very real way, the musicians are taking on the role of traveling evangelists.

Now, concerts have long been used in the progressive movement to raise awareness of a cause: from Amnesty International's "Human Rights Now" tours in the 1980s to Al Gore's Live Earth concerts. The difference here is that the concerts, given by bands like the White Stripes, are intentionally playing small venues. "Elections in the past three cycles have been very close," Potts explains. "A few hundred or a thousand voters make the difference. These are the size venues that musicians are playing every night. We're learning to use these events to better to organize a cultural and political movement around our beliefs and issues."

Progressives are forming more and more community circles. They are beginning to organize around values which are rooted in face-to-face interactions and connections.

"Online organizing is great because it allows you to keep up with lots of people in short amounts of time," reflects Marianne Manilov, whose part of new nonprofit, the Engage Network, which establishes small circles to help individuals get involved in their communities and then networks those communities together. "I can log into Facebook and see that my friend Van is on his way to Memphis already or that Rose has a really funny video up that she found, and I can get Van and Rose to sign a petition or even raise money for Students For a Free Tibet. So this is great. But what about sustained efforts of people engaging with each other in community?"

Simply put, in Manilov's mind, organizing needs a new kind of face-to-face component--deep community ties. "It is the people who you are friends with, those that take care of your children, those you really care about that you want to see every week," she says. When Manilov and her team evaluate communities, for example, Manilov employs what she calls the chicken soup test, looking for "places where people are there for each other, where people bring each other chicken soup when someone gets sick. It's all about community ties."

And this coming fall, these circles are poised to play a critical role not only in the battle for the White House but in shaping the political landscape beyond. Reflects Manilov, "The churches are experts in small-circle approach. Rick Warren is brilliant because he has figured out how to have a half million people in one network and make sure they all feel cared for. He is first and foremost, of course, about bringing people to Jesus but he is also spreading the small circle leadership model to build successful congregations, to change lives, and change the world. Studying this model changed me. I've spent 20 years organizing one way and I won't do that in the future. Whatever I do will have this small group component from now on."

Regardless of how the primary battle turns out, progressives are changing the overall strategy--one composed of a sprinkle of church organizing, a dash of music activism, and a healthy dose of values-based organizing. It's about time.

Ori Brafman is the author of the Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Penguin Portfolio). He has been invited to speak at Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, churches, and the US Government about small-circle networks. His upcoming book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (Doubleday, June 2008) weaves together stories of NBA coaches, Supreme Court Justices, and business leaders to understand why we make irrational choices.