Obviously the most important Aaron Swartz story of the day regards his indictment on some kind of crazy charges. But this post he did yesterday about the difficulty of assessing what works in political advocacy is very good:
Delegations are a lot harder than services. In the same way you can be pretty sure that when you buy a pen it will write, you can be pretty sure that when you hire someone to paint your wall white, she’ll actually do it. And if she doesn’t, you can just not pay her.
But if you want to hire an interior designer, it’s a mess. Let’s say you pick one by looking through their portfolio and concluding that you like their work. But when they come to design your place, you hate the result. What can you do? You say that what you got looks nothing like the stuff in the portfolio and they’ll just say that every space is different and so has a different result. There’s no way to ever prove they did a bad job.
Political advocacy campaigns suffer, he notes, from a very extreme version of this problem. Steve Teles and Mark Schmitt wrote a smart article about the problem but I’m not sure they really “solved” it. And yet, as Swartz says it would be really nice to make progress on this: “when you stop to realize that the world is full of huge problems that can only be solved by collective action, figuring out how to inspire coordinated action most effectively doesn’t just seem interesting — it seems essential.”
This is one reason why I put a fair amount of emphasis on disparaging the folk theory of political change which holds something like “change happens because the president shows ‘leadership’ and delivers awesome speeches.” Belief in that theory of change tends, I think, to distract people from the reality that it really takes massive, difficult-to-achieve feats of collective action. How exactly one goes about achieving those feats is somewhat mysterious (I’m partial to Theda Skocpol’s ideas), but if you’re frustrated with the pace of change this is what you need to be working on.