To Understand Americans Elect, Understand Peter Ackerman’s Theory of Movement Organization
Time is Short and Options are Limited: How to Understand Americans Elect?
You may not have heard of Americans Elect yet, but by the end of the year you will have heard a great deal more. Americans Elect is a unique combination of political party and 501(c)(4) corporation with the aim of arranging the nomination and election of its very own candidates for President and Vice President of the United States in 2012. How will Americans Elect manage to do this, according to what rules, with what level of transparency in its conduct, and incorporating what degree of democracy in its decision-making?
The most straightforward way to find answers to these questions is to ask Americans Elect itself. After contacting Americans Elect by phone and e-mail over a number of months and receiving no response, I sent a certified letter with a series of questions and an appeal to open dialogue. The letter was received at the Americans Elect corporate headquarters in Washington DC last month, but I have not yet received a reply.
Given this failure of direct communication, the next best method for finding answers to these questions is to consult the public record. For the second and third quarters of 2010, financial disclosures of contributions to and expenditures by Americans Elect are accessible because it had organized itself in April of 2010 as a Section 527 organization, a group legally required to make such disclosures. These financial disclosures provided useful information, such as the fact that Americans Elect has been funded by the donation of $1.55 million from just one man who has installed himself as Director, President and Chairman. But on the last day of the third quarter of 2010, Americans Elect shut down as a Section 527 organization and reinvented itself as a 501c4 corporation. 501c4 corporations do not have to make disclosures of contributions or expenditures, and there is no sign that Americans Elect has made any voluntary disclosures of its activities since its transformation at the end of Third Quarter 2010. Until matters change, information about the activities of Americans Elect will remain invisible in the public record.
The election of the most powerful person on the planet is too important a matter to be carried on by a corporation in private, unexamined and unquestioned by the people who are supposed to be the basis of power in the United States. Time is short: voting in the 2012 presidential election cycle begins in little more than one year’s time. To keep our democracy democratic, we must do what we can to open up dialogue with Americans Elect and in other ways uncover records of Americans Elect’s activities. In the meantime, perhaps the best way to understand the motivation and strategy of Americans Elect is to understand the ideas of sole funder, Director, President and Chairman, Peter Ackerman.
Peter Ackerman’s Key to Understanding Americans Elect: A Force More Powerful
Fortunately, Peter Ackerman showed us his key to understanding the approach Americans Elect will take in a speech at a charity gala on October 22, 2010:
There developed over time the idea in the last three and a half decades that if people come together and use tactics that are extremely aggressive but are not designed to kill their opponents — strikes, boycotts and mass protests — they can attack a layer of loyalty right below the very senior authoritarian rulers that basically undermines the pillars that support the regime needs to stay in power. And since 35-36 years ago there’s now been over 50 countries in the world that have transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy through tactics of civil resistance.
Now, recently I’ve been involved with another system that I think most here would agree is dysfunctional: our own political system. And there are many reasons for it, and I won’t go into that in the short time I have, but what I am undertaking as the Chairman of the Americans Elect initiative is an effort to create an online virtual primary and convention to nominate a Presidential – Vice President ticket that will bridge the center of American public opinion and that will be on the ballot in all 50 states in 2012. What I think will happen again, just like in civil resistance, we’ll have a new force that will come to play in a system that is struggling and that is giving so little satisfaction to the American people.
Peter Ackerman is in charge of Americans Elect and he’s told us that it will unfold “just like in civil resistance.” In his 2001 book — A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict — Ackerman shares his understanding of how civil resistance unfolds. To read A Force More Powerful is to get a glimpse of the strategy Americans Elect can be expected to adopt.
Ackerman’s Theory of Regime Change: Brilliant Strategists Harnessing and Constraining the Power of Potentially Unruly Masses
In A Force More Powerful, Peter Ackerman outlines his explanation for success in nonviolent regime change. Ackerman’s theory is a stark departure from the last four decades of social movement scholarship, which has focused on the impact of interpersonal and interorganizational relationships within and reaching out from activist movements. Social movement research demonstrates that patterns of connection help protest movements to grow and shape the content of their complaints. But in Peter Ackerman’s book, a movement’s success is due to the brilliance displayed by the individuals who lead them. For Ackerman, regime change stemmed from “leaders who drove events” in “rapidly organized campaigns headed by brilliant amateurs who seem to triumph quickly against all odds.” “In all cases,” writes Ackerman in his introduction (pp. 6-7), regime change is a top-down technocratic accomplishment of intentional strategists, not driven by the actions of masses of engaged people:
The true rhythm of effective nonviolent action is less spontaneous than it is intentional, less theatrical than technical. It has little to do with shouting slogans and putting flowers in gun barrels. It has everything to do with separating governments from their means of control.
Ackerman proceeds to describes smart activist leaders throughout the 21st Century picking and choosing just the right strategies to undo entire governments. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin’s inspirational declaration on a tank created an opening for rank-and-file Russians to follow him in opposing a coup (p. 14). If wiser strategic decisions had been made by the old-regime communist Soviets, Ackerman asserts, history might have followed a different course. Because Yeltsin out-thought the old guard, Yeltsin won.
Moving back in time to unrest in South Africa and India, the individual importance of Mohandas Gandhi as a leader is unmistakable to Peter Ackerman: “all joined a campaign behind Gandhi’s leadership” (p. 64). To the extent that others were involved in creating positive resistance to British rule, they were elite leaders coming as Gandhi did from a professional class of well-educated experts, determined to “change India from the top down” (p. 70). To the extent Gandhi succeeded in his efforts (and for Ackerman this is questionable), he did so not when he unleashed the power of the Indian masses upon the British, but when he channeled Indian discontent into a carefully thought-out and constrained strategy of non-violent “self-rule” by everyday Indians under Gandhi’s strict command (pp. 72-82). When local movements improvised, they sometimes were successful but often engaged in counterproductive actions that undermined the progress of Gandhi’s vision. Popular participation was essential, but for it to be reliably successful it had to be directed by movement leaders (pp. 94-101).
In Ackerman’s history of the Polish Solidarity movement, the spontaneous decision to strike was not as important as subsequent planning to take advantage of the opportunities created by the strike. By manipulating the Polish Communist Party into socially inappropriate overreactions, Solidarity swept away the myth of Communist Party legitimacy, just as Gandhi’s strategic provocations swept away the myth of a legitimate British Raj (pp. 106-110, p. 118). Through many difficulties, according to Ackerman, the leadership skill of Lech Walesa kept Solidarity from acceding to the extremist, volatile and even violent impulses of rank-and-file workers. Solidarity succeeded best when populist demands were restrained by wise and prudent leadership. (pp. 153-160)
In German resistance to French occupation of the Ruhr after World War I, Ackerman describes the struggle of German government to maintain high energy in civil resistance while keeping the hoi polloi from getting out of hand:
Berlin remained concerned that workers’ zeal could go too far. If the conflict brought ‘sanctions and violent measures,’ Cuno said, there could be ‘an uncontrollable swell of national pride.’… Getting workers and employers to collaborate was an enormous challenge.” (pp. 183-185)
For Ackerman, nonviolent resistance against French occupation of the Ruhr was due to failure by centralized leadership in Germany to exert control. Instead indigenous leadership developed in the Ruhr, which was inexpert, lacking in strategy and hence ineffective. (p.205)
In resisting the military regime of a General, Ackerman asserts that the people of El Salvador succeeded in a civil strike because of intelligent leadership:
The sudden success of the civic strike did not mean that the astute strategic moves of its leaders were not important; in fact, they made it possible…. Nonviolent resistance is not adventitious; it has to be planned and instigated. Opposition leaders emerged from the professions, the press and the university student body… (p. 264)
In yet another historical example, Peter acknowledges that the the victory of the “People Power” movement against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines was due in part to the opportunity created by a spontaneous popular response to the assassination of Aquino Benigno by Marcos. While necessary, Ackerman insists that this opportunity was not sufficient for victory:
“Most popular movements that toppled authoritarian governments in the twentieth century were given openings to vie for power, but not all took advantage of those opportunities… An authoritarian ruler’s special vulnerabilities to nonviolent resistance are rarely visible to those who do not understand its mechanics and the chemistry (pp. 393-395).
For Ackerman, People Power prevailed because of the leadership acumen of Corazon Aquino in recognizing, seizing upon and exploiting strategic opportunities in a technically adroit manner. At the end of his book, Ackerman makes this case generally (pp. 494-497):
Nonviolent action is like violent combat in at least two ways: it does not succeed automatically, and it does not operate mysteriously — it works by identifying an opponent’s vulnerabilities and taking away his ability to maintain control…. Doing so requires strategy for action, without which movements rarely prevail… the skill with which those choices were made shaped the outcome…. It was always the product of sensible decisions by shrewd leaders, on behalf of unified and persistent people — which is the everyday basis of heroism…. What is afoot is a competition based on skill, with an uncertain outcome.
Old Thinking is Current Thinking: Civil Resistance Video of 2009
It’s possible that Peter Ackerman has changed his thinking about civil resistance (and therefore about the conduct of Americans Elect) since 2001. But according to the transcript of a video segment Ackerman had recorded on June 23 2009, his current thinking is much the same:
Question: “What are the key elements of waging a successful civil resistance movement?”
Peter Ackerman: “The first thing is unity. A civil resistance movement must unify the widest possible spectrum of society: young, old, all ethnic groups, all religious groups, all econommic strata, around a limited set of achievable goals, and designate for the moment a leadership that has legitimacy to mobilize all these groups in service of those goals. So, unity.
The second thing that’s required is planning. There has to be capacity to, for that leadership to look objectively at what its capabilities are, how it can mobilize, what tactics are at its disposal, how to sequence those tactics in a way that has the biggest negative impact on the opponent, where the cost is greater to the opponent than it is to your selves.
That planning needs to go on at an offensive and defensive level. Defensive level means there are some things you should anticipate are going to happen to you. For example, you might have an oppression that might end up killing some of the leadership. There needs to be plannng for redundancy of leadership. And then there’s offensive things that can be done, which are all in the tactics of nonviolent resistance that are strikes, boycotts and mass protests.
So you have unity and then you have the capacity for continuous planning. And then the last of the three is nonviolent discipline. Now, nonviolent discipline, uh, the reason I use the term discipline is to emphasize it’s a strategic choice, not a moral one. Because civil resistance can’t succeed unless you induce loyalty shifts and multiple defections from the other side, that basically weakens the other side’s power base. And two problems with injecting violent tactics to a civil resistance movement. The first is, once for sure the violent tactics will be responded to by the party that has a monopoly or predominance of armed power. And so once that response comes, it’s highly likely that the wide majority of the population will go indoors, because not everybody’s willing to take the same risks for a civil resistance movement. The general population that you worked so hard to get involved, they’re the group that’s most likely to take the least risk. And when violence is afoot, they’ll go indoors. And the second reason is that you’re specifically trying to create loyalty shifts amongst the opposition, and it’s very hard to create those loyalty shifts when you’re threatening to kill them or main them. It just, you know, the two don’t go together.
So unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline are the ingredients that are sort of the necessary conditions for a successful civil resistance movement. And I think expressed this way they transcend all cultures and all time.”
If Peter Ackerman follows through on his promise to run Americans Elect in the spirit of a civil resistance campaign as he understands it, then the gist of his 2001 book A Force More Powerful suggests a conceptual hierarchy of operation conducted from the top levels of leadership on down, with wise visionary leaders at the top, surrounded by capable experts in the middle, and followers at the bottom who are constrained to act within limits strategically set by the Chairman (Peter Ackerman himself). The events leading up to the nomination of an Americans Elect Presidential ticket should be expected to be carefully orchestrated so that followers of various sorts will play the parts set out for them. We’ll be playing the music of democracy, but it will all be laid out according to Peter Ackerman’s score.
A Coda of Uncertainty
Put that conclusion on hold for moment, however, and consider this single paragraph written by Ackerman (and his employee co-author Jack DuVall). Held in the book’s conclusion, it contradicts nearly all the points stressed in the main body:
If the cost of a movement based on persuasion rather than coercion is occasional freelance action, by impetuous followers, the larger benefit is a movement that distributes initiative to its farthest outpost. Movements that expect people to take the personal risks inherent in nonviolent action have no alternative; they have to become what they want their country to become: open in form and democratic in function. Authoritarian governments breed apathy in all but those who have acute grievances or an unquenchable thirst to speak the truth. When this truth is out, and when a nonviolent movement devolves authority to ordinary people, it can summon far more devotion than any dictator or armed minority. (p. 503)
This is the only passage in the book I can find that advocates open, freewheeling, and spontaneous action by rank-and-file members of a civil resistance movement, and by my reading it is striking in its contrast with the remainder of the book. But there is a real possibility that Peter Ackerman is devoted to this model despite its occupation of limited space in his book. If Ackerman follows through on his promise to run Americans Elect according to this understanding, then Americans Elect must be transparent in its actions, open with disclosures, with direction provided by rank-and-file citizens in a democratic bottom-up fashion rather than by appointed leaders in technocratic top-down fashion.
I acknowledge that this is a confusing contrast, but that’s perhaps unavoidable; people and the things they do are messy, not archetypal. Which model will Peter Ackerman follow in his administration of Americans Elect for the 2012 elections? Wait, watch and see. React accordingly.
This essay is part of a series of posts on Americans Elect at Irregular Times. To read a short summary of available knowledge regarding Americans Elect, visit Americans Elect Watch.