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Rules for Conservative Radicals

The left has mastered the art of the pressure campaign. It's time the right learned from them.

Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.

After progressive activists pushed Disney to speak out against Florida’s new education law, conservatives turned new ire on the Mouse. Of course, conservatives irate at a company that declares itself against them is nothing new; what was new this time around was the fact that somebody with power did something about it, and inflicted an actual material loss on Disney.

The Florida legislature passed a bill stripping Disney of the special-district status that provided them extraordinary powers over their property in Florida, and Governor Ron DeSantis signed it. Some establishment conservatives promptly criticized this action, even though Florida’s ending a market distortion by curtailing special treatment for a particular corporation is the sort of thing conservatives generally support. Disney’s lawyers, for their part, countered that Florida law did not allow Florida to do such a thing. Most of the rest of us, unaccustomed to legislators actually doing something to stand up for the power of their voters, saw it as a refreshing win.

For those of us who like winning, there are other factors to consider. One win doesn’t mean winning for all time, so if we want to win bigly, we have to make wins that lead to other wins. Inspiring examples aren’t always broadly reproducible. So, as always, we need to look in the mirror and see what we can learn.

Righties tend to be punitive rather than coercive. And Righties are impatient: If somebody hits us, we want to hit back, and we want to hit back right now. The challenge is making a hit against one enemy work pour encourager les autres. An ability to exploit unique vulnerabilities doesn’t always translate to being perceived as having general strength, because unique vulnerabilities are, well, unique; not everyone will be vulnerable in the same way. When Delta caved to gun-control activists and ended a minor deal for NRA members, for example, backlash from NRA members and allied legislators cost Delta a $40 million tax break. But that huge blow didn’t dissuade other corporations from caving to other lefty pressure campaigns, because few of them had $40 million tax breaks that were vulnerable at that particular time.

Other corporations will have privileges that they’re loath to lose. But each one will have different privileges, and if you want to go after them you have to know what and where they are. Standing up to corporations requires research, and our politicians are lazy and the grassroots lack the training and infrastructure. And then there’s the real downside of punitive actions: You’re punching the guy who clocked you on the chin, all right—but you still took that shot on the chin. And the other guy may not even learn better from the experience. Then what?

What Lefties have that we on the right lack is a capacity for coercive action. Unlike punitive action, coercive action is forward-looking. The goal is less punishing the enemy than changing the enemy’s behavior, making them do what you want and not what you don’t, without having to take one on the chin. It is not about making threats; you don’t make a list of things you’re going to do to your enemy and then tell your enemy what you’re going to do UNLESS. That’s just telling your enemy the weak spots he needs to shore up. Coercive action isn’t about threatening the enemy; it is about picking your targets and acting, putting pressure on your enemy to make them do what you want.

So how do Lefties do that, and why are we struggling to do it?

Leftist activists identify and target a company’s weaknesses so that a company’s ability to materially operate is complicated or endangered until the company concedes. Like a lot of the stuff Lefties do, the skills involved come out of union organizing, and are sometimes used by unions as part of organizing campaigns. The key principles are to stoke pressure with a creative mix of strategies and target organizations and individuals at multiple levels, such as a company itself, a key person in that company, and a key client of that company.

How do they do that? Strategic research. A pressure campaign against a company has three targets: money, business, and reputation—not just directed at the company, also at the owners, and the company’s allies and friends. “Money” is about where the money comes from: their relationships with banks, their shareholders and other investors, their commercial world (suppliers, competitors, customers), plans for growth, and the like. “Business” is about how the company is organized, their workforce, and the legal environment that affects the company. “Reputation” is about the social campaign; leftist activists weaponize as many allies as possible to target a company’s reputation.

The first question in launching a pressure campaign is: What do you want? The second question is: Who has the power to give it to you? The third question is: To what kind of pressure will that person respond?

Answering the first question requires introspection. Answering the second requires researching enemy organizations. Answering the third requires analyzing key people within those organizations.

The labor organizer and folk singer Utah Phillips put it in a way you will see ecosocialists quote a lot: “The planet is not dying; it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” This sounds threatening, but here’s what it means: Big faceless organizations are made up of real people. And real people have wants and needs, and you can apply pressure to them if you find out what those wants and needs are.

Those people aren’t just the CEO. They’re board members, managers, people in key positions and leadership roles, people who run individual company offices, political figures, and other institutions with which these people are affiliated. The strategic researcher’s job is to collect information about these: where they live, what their contact information is, what they’re into, who their friends are. Find out who has the power, what their resources are, what their current motivations are. Then find out what kind of levers will work on them, directly or indirectly. Maybe you can’t directly target the person whose mind you’re hoping to change… but they have relationships with other people and organizations, and maybe you can effectively target one of those. Or more than one; it’ll probably take a lot, depending on what you want and how inclined the other person is to give it to you.

Lefties call this kind of analysis power mapping. It’s basically an amplification of a technique used in union-organizing. A union organizer maps his workplace, sees who works where and when, who the important figures to talk to are. A strategic researcher planning a corporate campaign maps social networks.

The organizer Lisa Fithian discusses the steps she uses for power mapping social networks in her memoir Shut it Down:

1. Write the entity (company/institution) or person with the most power to make your desired change in the center of the paper/board/screen. Draw a circle around it/them.

2. Around this central person or company, add the names of other people/companies that could have power to convince your central entity to change their behavior. Draw lines connecting your circles. You might organize these entities in quadrants—work, political, social, and personal.

3. Along the lines, write down how the connected relationships can be used, and what new information can be brought into that relationship. Generally this will be a positive incentive, aka a carrot, or a negative incentive, aka a stick, to convince the central entity to change their behavior

4. Develop messages and tactics for each secondary or tertiary target, assessing the best time line for each. In every tactic you choose, highlight how the central entity with power is responsible for the problems and what they need to change.

Fithian provides a further breakdown of the quadrants she uses to sort her secondary (and, iterating the mapping process out another level, tertiary) targets. The social quadrant includes “clubs,” “news,” “civic groups,” and “media-social”; the personal quadrant includes “religion,” “school,” “neighborhood,” and “family”; the economic quadrant includes “industry groups,” “other boards” (i.e., of cultural or community groups), “investments,” and “work”; the political quadrant includes the federal, state, and city levels, as well as political parties.

Having identified opportunities to strike, the next step is researching each one. What are the likely and possible consequences, for your opponents and for you? What are the advantages and drawbacks of each? How should each be timed to be effective and preserve a feeling of escalation? How can you best engage your people as you land these strikes?  You’re not out to give one punch, you’re out to give a bunch of them, and you want the punches to get worse for your target. You’re not just trying to make a big fuss that everyone will notice, you’re using a researched, planned, escalating strategic campaign against a target.

As you start to understand the battle-space, you have to consider whether your campaign is likely to work. In her book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Guilded Age, hard-lefty organizer and strategist Jane McAlevey, building on the work of Joseph Luders, distinguishes two important factors in persuading an organization or individual to do something: concession cost and disruption cost.

“Concession cost” means how much it will cost your enemy in money, effort, self-image, etc. to comply with your demands. “Disruption cost” means how easy it is for your movement to damage the target’s ability to do business as normal. McAlevey points out that any movement wanting to achieve change needs to know both of these things going in, because they dictate how winnable your cause is and what approach you should take. A demand that is expensive or difficult to comply with requires a lot of pressure to win, and if you can’t bring the level of pressure necessary to win concessions you will spend energy without getting what you want.

Some organizations or individuals also may be more susceptible to demands than others, and McAlevey points out that targeting these more pragmatic opponents historically has been a more successful approach for the labor movement than has charging at its biggest, strongest, most powerful, most hated, most adamantly opposed enemies. In the early days of automotive unions, for example, organizing smaller manufacturers was a necessary stepping stone to conquering the company run by the staggeringly well-resourced and fervently anti-union Henry Ford.

Which brings us to the next question: What’s our problem getting corporate campaigns started?

As you may have noticed from the brief summary above, planning and designing strategic campaigns is a hell of a lot of work. It takes time to do thoroughly. It doesn’t always pan out. The bigger the target, the harder it is, and the more time it takes. And the people doing it still need to feed their families and keep the lights on. What this means in practice is that Lefty strategic research, especially on large and complicated targets, is done mostly by people with training, practice, and the support to do it for a living. Meaning, people who work in particular jobs at nonprofits or labor unions. Righties don’t have training in the skills, so don’t get practice, and building the infrastructure for it isn’t the kind of thing that the Righty grassroots think about or that Righty donors fund. But we could change that, and it would be a welcome start.

There are some interesting fault lines on Team Lefty with respect to this stuff. Lately nonprofits have been slurping up vast sums of donor dollars and attention, which is a bit grating if you’re the sort of person who believes in the mission of unions and wants mass-movement politics centered around labor. And Jane McAlevey has an interesting critique that puts a finger on the weak point of a lot of leftist organizing: If you’re interested in really changing society, then you need to create and grow mass movements. But it’s a lot quicker and easier to amplify the nascent power you already have by redistributing it for cheap effect; the example McAlevey gives involves a union swelling a crowd on behalf of an organizing campaign by using people who are already members of other unions, rather than focusing on growing membership in the union they’re trying to build.

A lot of leftist organizing projects power on the cheap, by giving the impression of being a mass movement without actually being one. It trains people on the left to maximize their power, but also teaches them to give the impression of having more power on their side than actually exists. It depends on infrastructure, and that infrastructure can be targeted and disrupted.

And if we build the necessary infrastructure on our side, Lefties’ own analytical tools can be used to do it.

David Hines has a professional background in international human-rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.