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The Art of Advocacy Strategy

Making our activism smart in a new political era

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The election of Donald Trump as President has provoked many reactions in the United States and abroad. One that should give us hope is the explosion of new citizen activism, demonstrated most visibly by the millions who marched in the streets worldwide the day after the inauguration, and the thousands who moved into United States airports a week later in opposition to an executive order banning many Muslim immigrants and refugees. The fierce energy activists invested in campaigning for candidates last year is now funneling into advocacy for issues, such as defending the Affordable Health Care Act, blocking a political assault on the nation’s immigrants, and keeping up the urgent battle against climate change.

But what if much of this new energy gets wasted? What if it goes into actions that feel good and seem noble, but make no real difference? Citizen action is one of democracy’s most precious resources and never something we can afford to waste—especially now.

For the past 25 years, The Democracy Center has worked with and supported thousands of brave and passionate activists across five continents, including immigrants in California, health campaigners in South Africa, and UNICEF advocates for children around the world. I have witnessed over and over again that what makes people power genuinely effective is when passion and commitment join with something else: smart strategy.

Strategy is our vision of the whole struggle that links together all our actions and tactics. An effective strategy starts where we are, has a clear sense of where we want to go, and gives us a plausible shot of getting there. Strategy is what helps us ensure that all our action does not simply become “the noise before defeat.” Yet many activist campaigns fail to take the time to genuinely think in a strategic way. It is simply easier to think about the next action—a protest, a report, a lobbying visit—without seeing it all through a strategic lens.

When I sit down for the first time with a group of activists, one of the first things I tell them is that I don’t have a clue what their strategy should be (and that they should beware of any outsider who pretends to). What I do know are three essential strategy questions every group should ask themselves together in a serious way:

1. What do you want?

Deciding what you want sounds simple enough, but in fact it requires some serious analysis. That begins with getting clear about the deeper problem you are trying to fix and what you think that will really take—legal status for undocumented immigrants, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, making college free. But it is also true that these grand solutions are almost never initially within political reach, and organizations need to make strategic choices about what to fight for in the shorter-term.

In the 1980s, I worked as a health care advocate with Consumers Union in California and was deeply involved at the start of what would become the national movement for universal health care. It was clear that big goal was out of reach at the start, so instead the early movement built momentum through a series of winning campaigns for smaller steps toward that goal, including legislation to stop emergency rooms from “dumping” patients who couldn’t pay, expanding care for pregnant mothers, and regulations to stop insurance companies from excluding people with pre-existing conditions.

These smaller steps did three important and very strategic things. They helped build momentum (by assembling a powerful coalition of consumers, health workers, labor unions, and others). They weakened the power of our adversaries (the insurance companies in particular). And they achieved real things for real people. All that, joined with similar efforts around the country, laid the groundwork for the approval of Obamacare two decades later.

Unfortunately, today at the national level in the United States, the strategies that matter are going to be more about defending what has been won than about building something new. But I believe the approach to that defense has a lot in common with what it takes to build things. What are the battles today that will help us build power? What will undermine the power of our adversaries? What will make a serious difference in real people’s lives? These will continue to be important strategic questions as we move forward.

2. What does the political map look like?

You wouldn’t make a move on a chessboard without studying where the pieces are, and you shouldn’t set off on an advocacy campaign without looking hard at the political map involved. In The Democracy Center’s advocacy workshops, we do that mapping in three steps.

First, we list out of all the important “actors” who will have an impact on what happens. Some are those who have the official authority to act (such as the Mayor or a legislator) and others are the people and groups that could have significant influence on them (such as community organizations, corporations, labor unions, or the media). Then we map all of them on a cross-grid: vertically based on how much power they have (a lot or a little), and horizontally based on where they stand on the issue (supportive, opposed, or somewhere in the middle). Finally, we study that map together to see its implications for strategy: Who has power that you need to get on your side? Who’s on your side that needs to become a lot more powerful?  Who stands firmly opposed that you need to weaken?

If you look at the successful campaign in his first term to persuade President Obama to block US approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, you can see that mapping in the campaign’s strategy. Pipeline opponents saw President Obama as their main target, because he had the power to act without support from Congress. The people who needed to be more powerful were indigenous groups and farmers in the pipeline’s path, and grassroots climate activists. The adversary that needed to be weakened was the corporation pushing for the pipeline’s construction. Those objectives were reflected in the campaign’s actions: putting the President on notice that an important part of his political base was demanding action, mobilizing grassroots action that empowered the groups in opposition, and undermining the corporation by calling out its false facts on issues like job creation.

But again, today the strategic challenge is how to deploy citizen power to defend victories (including on Keystone XL). That still begins with mapping out the politics: Who has the authority to block action at different levels of government? What’s the process? Who will have influence? Seeing all that clearly is what will make the actions that follow as effective as possible.

3. What will you do?

Figuring out your advocacy actions is about taking stock of what you think will have a real impact, assessing your capacity to pull things off, and always keeping an eye out for special opportunities. A strong campaign will do all kinds of different things at once.

A decade ago, The Democracy Center team joined with others around the world in a global citizen action campaign that forced the powerful Bechtel Corporation to drop a $50 million lawsuit against the people of Bolivia. Bechtel filed the case in retaliation when the people of the city of Cochabamba (where I live) ousted the company after its failed water privatization scheme led to massive rate increases (the Cochabamba Water Revolt). The campaign hit Bechtel from all sides. Our lawyer friends filed legal petitions. Activists in San Francisco used direct action to shut down the corporation’s headquarters. We won a resolution from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors calling on the company to drop the case just as Bechtel was readying to bid on a huge new city contract. We also pummeled the corporation’s CEO, Riley Bechtel, with angry emails and negative publicity worldwide. In the end, it was the CEO who dropped the case, no longer willing to pay the price to his or the company’s reputation.

In the face of the enormous political challenges we face today, activists for social and economic justice, and for protection of the Earth, need to see tactics like these as diverse pieces of a common strategic whole.  Our potential leverage and power comes from not one place but a diversity of them.  From the civil and calm to the radical and loud, it will all be necessary, and it will all need to be strategically interconnected.

Democracy without activism is a hollow thing, and now more than ever our activism must be as effective and as strategic as it can be. In the end, effective advocacy strategy is an art, not a science. There is no magic formula that works automatically in every circumstance. In place of such a formula, these questions are a good basis for moving from acting tactically to acting strategically. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Even as we ready for a new season of urgent activism in response to political threats that feel historic, we should not forget to take time to sharpen the axe of our strategies.