Election 2015: The Snowflake and how democracy works

On Marshall Ganz, Barack Obama, fighting an election and the fine art of political organizing

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and his wife Catherine Pinhas Mulcair greet NDP supporters as they arrive at the Maclean's National Leaders Debate. (Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and his wife Catherine Pinhas Mulcair greet NDP supporters as they arrive at the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate. (Jenna Marie Wakani/NDP)

Several years ago, Jennifer Hollett sat down with Jack Layton, the late NDP leader, to talk about getting into politics. “If you are serious about this, find some friends who share your values and start meeting,” she says he told her. “I realized, well, that’s how it’s done,” Hollett says. “Like, a hundred people don’t just show up. You have to start with three people, five people, 10 people.”

In other words, start organizing. (“Jack loved to organize,” his widow, Olivia Chow, has said.)

The political process is subject to any number of forces. There are party leaders and candidates who may or may not inspire confidence, television ads and policy proposals. There are the fickle whims of the national media and the basically uncontrollable whims of the global economy. There is, of course, the electorate.

And on some basic level, there is organization, the acts of convening people for common cause as exemplified by the thousands of people who will have spent months knocking on millions of doors in advance of the general election on Oct. 19—the fundamental work of spreading the good word, identifying potential voters and then making sure those people vote for you.

Since February, Hollett has been the NDP candidate in the Toronto riding of University–Rosedale, and since then she has been campaigning. But before she started organizing for herself—she was first defeated in 2013 when she sought the NDP nomination for a by-election in Toronto Centre—she learned how to do so from Marshall Ganz. And if getting elected is about getting organized, there is much to be said for listening to Ganz.

Ganz and Hollett first met in Halifax in 2009 when Ganz spoke to an NDP convention that Hollett was attending as an observer. Seven months earlier, Barack Obama had been sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, in part because of organizational models and theories developed by Ganz.

His credentials as an organizer date to Mississippi in the 1960s, when he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After that he worked with Cesar Chavez to organize farmers in California (his work organizing a grape boycott brought him to Toronto). Working with the Sierra Club, Ganz and Ruth Wageman, a social psychologist, developed a model of organizing known as the “snowflake.” The snowflake exists at a sort of midway point between a top-down system of leadership and the leaderless organization—an approach that relies on training and empowering volunteers to become leaders as part of an expanding network. “[The snowflake] is an effort to create an effective organizational structure that’s more collaborative in its foundation than it is authoritarian,” Ganz says.

Hollett used the model to develop neighbourhood team leaders who were responsible for leading canvassing in different parts of the riding. “It’s leaders building leaders, so it’s a totally different approach, and it’s a practice of leadership more than anything,” Hollett says. “I think a traditional way of running a campaign, or a business or any type of social movement, is you have one person calling all the shots and telling people what to do. You have one formal leader and then a top-down structure. With the snowflake model, you do have someone in the centre—in this case you have a campaign manager and a candidate—but by giving people opportunities to take on leadership and then train other leaders, you’re building something much larger, where people feel invested and feel like they’re part of something. In return, you get more from those volunteers.”

After the Sierra Club, Ganz reached out to the nascent Obama campaign. From there, his theories of organization were applied to the massive operation of a presidential campaign. Hollett’s snowflake came to number about 20 leaders—most as neighbourhood captains, but some in other areas—and as of last week the campaign claimed to have more than 300 active volunteers. The snowflake was particularly useful before Hollett had a campaign office from which to organize—her election effort is now based out of a cavernous space in Toronto’s Little Italy that used to house an American Apparel outlet—but it will still be used to reach volunteers and voters in specific parts of the riding.

In addition to the basic structure of the organization, Ganz also champions the notion of narrative—not simply in the sense of a campaign or a candidate having a narrative, but in each member of the campaign having a story. “When people came to that first Camp Obama, people would come saying they expected to learn to tell Obama’s story,” Ganz says. “We said, ‘No, no, no, you’re going to learn to tell your own story. Because that’s what going to connect to other people whose stories you need to learn to engage together in this campaign. They can watch Obama on TV. But what makes you effective is your capacity to communicate your own motivation to others.’ ”

Hollett says this is “key.” She shared her story when she won the NDP nomination for University–Rosedale, and story has been a point of emphasis in her campaign. “Many of our key organizers are trained in public narrative,” she says. “In our training sessions, we go around the room and share our story on why we’re getting involved. It’s quite moving.” Volunteers are then encouraged to tell others why they got involved.

The degree to which organization matters is difficult to state with any certainty. Hollett has no licence on the snowflake model; in fact, the Liberals are using the model as well. Maybe no amount of local organization can compensate for an unpopular leader or disastrous national campaign, and no kind of organization was required to get various NDP candidates elected in Quebec in 2011. If the NDP’s national numbers plummet, for whatever reason, Hollett might be doomed. If the Liberals fall apart, her victory might be assured. But if, as expected, University–Rosedale is a close race, Hollett’s campaign might make the difference.

In writing about the act of organization in 2010, Ganz invoked Alexis de Tocqueville’s arrival in the United States in 1831. “Making democracy work required the creation of collective capacity,” Ganz wrote of de Tocqueville’s findings. And that, Ganz concluded, “is what organizers do.”

“He was a French aristocrat, and the French revolution swept away a lot of what he thought of as institutions that had supported the common interest, and he saw democracy as this whole individualistic thing that was very problematic, that it would all just be everybody striving for their own self-interest, but then who would think in terms of the common interest, or what he called enlightened self-interest?” says Ganz, who, intriguingly, has argued that Obama should have continued, as president, to draw on the organization he’d built as a candidate. “And he saw in associationism that that’s where this work can get done. Because when people associate with one another, they learn from one another, they learn what they have in common, they develop common perspectives. And democracy doesn’t work without that capacity in a civil society, I think. In a way, the whole premise of liberal democracy is that equality of voice can somehow balance inequality of wealth, and it’s a proposition that’s being sorely tested in the United States. But one way that equality of voice is exercised is through collective action, it’s through association. And so that collective capacity, that’s kind of what I mean by that. Parties don’t just happen. They happen for a reason, that people need to consolidate, they need to come to some conclusion about what they want and why and how.”

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