How to Organize Like the Right

Let's admit it they're better right now at political organizing

| March / April 2003

Van Jones sees nothing to applaud in the rise of the political right. But the 34-year-old founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, which focuses on reforming the criminal justice system, thinks that progressives response to recent events—gloom and doom interspersed with bouts of anger—is not helpful in envisioning the next step forward. Instead, Jones says, we must acknowledge that when it comes to reaching and organizing people today, the right simply does a better job—sometimes using methods that actually originated on the left.

Here, according to Jones, are a few lessons—historical and contemporary—that progressives need to embrace:

Think Long-Term

"Starting in 1964, with the collapse of Barry Goldwater's [presidential] campaign, a relatively small number of conservatives got together and took the mailing lists from the Goldwater campaign and essentially reinvented the right. And, from 1964 to 1994, you see a 30-year effort to develop the institutions, the think tanks, the policy ideas, the writers, the political leaders, to seize power.

"Progressives have a history of this kind of planning and foresight. If you look at the pre-civil rights movement in the '40s and '50s, you see people concerned about civil rights at the Highlander Center [an organizing institute in Tennessee] and other places investing a lot of time really thinking through questions of strategy and tactics. At Howard University Law School in the '20s and '30s, for example, people planned step by step how to dismantle segregation and prepared lawyers to do that from the time they were law students. That kind of long-term patience and strategic planning is no longer a feature or function of progressive social change work."

Be Populist, Not Elitist