Create a campaign where more people are more deeply involved in both thinking and execution.
If we start early enough, if we invest in training a broad swath of the community about what it takes to win an election, if we build relationships with a broad range of people who bring to bear experience and expertise, and if we are genuinely curious and open to competing points of view from both established figures and newcomers to LGBT community causes, then we may successfully accomplish deeper involvement.
Very few electoral campaigns seek broad involvement in strategic thinking; it’s unwieldy, time-consuming, and potentially contentious. It’s difficult to manage. Some consultants and experts don’t expect to share control over the process. Their worst fear is that many who want to participate have limited or no expertise and may bring little to the process. As in any project, having a relatively small group of well-informed, like-minded people do all the thinking quickly leads to convergent views, itself a pleasurable outcome and, in these tough campaigns, a relief.
But there’s a downside. Without questioning and debate built into the process, it’s easy for the small, exclusive group to fall into groupthink and reflexively reject advice from outside the group. This was the case in the No on 1 campaign in Maine. In early and mid-September, after the consultants had created their first TV spots, there was still time to reedit or reconsider them, because the campaign had not yet put the ads on the air. But the campaign manager and consultants chose not to consider concerns about the ads’ effectiveness raised by experienced individuals who had seen the ads.
No on 1’s vulnerability to groupthink was foreshadowed in mid-summer, when it chose to do a very abbreviated search for its media consultant and pollster. The campaign passed up the chance to interview and pick the brains of a wide range of consultants with experience on marriage measures, including some who expressed their interest in being considered. Instead, No on 1 interviewed only a few before hiring a pollster and media consultant with no experience with these measures. Lack of desire to talk with or interview knowledgeable people who might offer alternative points of view suggests a campaign with a low tolerance for the back-and-forth that is part of good thinking.
As much as Maine would have benefitted from a more open campaign, I don’t want to romanticize the alternatives it rejected. The truth is, it’s hard to create, and to live with, an open and inclusive process. Tension easily develops when good thinkers exchange views and still disagree. It is reasonable to anticipate at least some ongoing disagreement because the thinking isn’t easy; winning these campaigns has so far eluded the pro-LGBT side. At some point, consultation has to cease; the campaign has to commit to an approach and execute it. (Though even then, campaigns are better served if they retain the ability to listen to constructive evaluation and reevaluation.)
Until that time, however, there are great potential advantages to designing and carrying out a more open process that increases involvement at every level. The more open campaign can end up smarter because strategic thinking improves when ideas are questioned and challenged in a respectful way, not simply automatically lauded. Even if openness to advice and criticism has zero impact on the early thinking of a campaign, it gives the campaign relationships with an array of smart people who can help it rethink and alter course later if it runs into trouble.
There are trade-offs. The more quickly a campaign has to move, the harder it is to have a broadly consultative process. One key to real, meaningful inclusion is starting early enough so that you can live with some uncertainty while different points of view vie for consideration.
Another key to inclusion is preparation. Every single person participating has to know enough about the enterprise of campaigns so that they bring to bear their own best thinking, not just the best uninformed thinking of which they are capable. Group discussion is only as smart as its least-informed member.
The challenge before us, then, is whether and how we can start early, offer serious education to a broad base of potential leaders, and cultivate a broad set of relationships with both experienced hands and newcomers whose point of view is different from our own. In the discussion below on “frontloading democracy,” this report offers a few suggestions for how to move forward in a more inclusive way.
In order to keep the larger community informed, leaders should report back regularly on how the campaign is doing. This includes both the good news and the bad news. Acknowledging when a promising idea has failed or fallen short is painful in the short run, but essential for the long run. It helps the community learn from what didn’t work, move on, and try out other ideas. Choose a campaign manager and board committed to constructive, rigorous, ongoing evaluation.
To help our community ascend the learning curve about campaign, elections, and the difficulty of combating anti-gay prejudice, campaign leadership has to find a way to report back throughout the campaign about the progress and setbacks along the way. Otherwise, the only feedback the LGBT community receives is the election results. If we’ve won, of course, election night may feel just fine. But as the No on 8 experience shows, if we’ve lost, the lack of forewarning tears the community apart, obscures the good work that got accomplished, and makes it very difficult to have a thoughtful dialogue about what went wrong.
Yes, it is difficult at times to get the community’s attention. Yes, some efforts at reporting back will fall on deaf ears. But a combination of persistence, experimentation with different forms of communication, and more complete and honest disclosure of information as it is acquired can improve the odds that people will listen and engage.
I thank my friend and colleague in the movement Thalia Zepatos for coining this useful phrase. “Frontloading democracy” means taking the time early in the campaign—more than a year before Election Day—to have a significant, inclusive community dialogue about the goals and strategic options available in the coming campaign. It means taking the time to listen to and think about others’ rationales for their preferences. It means telling others our rationales for our preferences and accepting skeptical questions about what we’ve said.
Done early and often, a consultative process led by the campaign manager and their team makes it likely that many will at least know the campaign’s approach and the rationale behind it. Providing more of the community a chance to question and augment the plan will take time and patience and require the manager to have much more curiosity and affection for the community than they might need when helping a candidate run for office. This curiosity may even extend to taking the time to allow the community to conduct a series of experiments to better evaluate the competing rationales for different approaches.
The bottom line is that frontloading democracy is hard work. It is an uncomfortable and time-consuming process.
But frontloading democracy helps the LGBT community and our allies educate ourselves, find some common ground, forge stronger relationships even when we disagree, and practice norms that will help us unify as we approach the most intensive periods of campaign activity. It also motivates many in the community to make a big commitment to the campaign with their time and/or their money.
Frontloading democracy also makes it possible to live with a tough reality. The tough reality is that once a campaign is in its final six months or so, it is no longer anything like a democracy. This is the minimum amount of time necessary for all of us to pull together and execute the plan chosen by the campaign manager in consultation with the board, the consultants, the campaign staff, expert advisers, key funders, and community members and allies who are deeply engaged.
In my view, a smart manager will have sought during the frontloading period to find and build community consensus, or as much consensus as possible, and will continue to seek advice and criticism even in the final six months—especially if a problem comes up that was unanticipated or underestimated.
In my view, a smart community will allow the manager to make changes even to well-thought-out decisions made by broad consensus if those decisions seem to be leading us to defeat. Of course, a community will only find this to be smart, or tolerable, if they have come to trust the manager. Part of the value of the frontloading period is that the manager has multiple opportunities to earn that trust.