Data-Sharing and Theories of Change According to author Ken B., looking for the right data can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Data-Sharing and Theories of Change

The topic of data-sharing has come up recently as an essential part of building Chicago DSA. So much so that all candidates wishing to participate in CDSA’s “Socialist Slate” are being required to, “sign a data sharing agreement for voter access network (VAN) data with Chicago DSA that provides, at minimum: a. Voter contact information, b. Ward and precinct, c. Contact history and responses”. It is being taken for granted that this is a useful way for CDSA to grow, but does that stand to scrutiny?

What I would like to explore here are the political implications of this approach to recruitment and what alternatives we might consider.

Who to recruit?

Given that data-sharing will primarily provide contact information, the question to ask is: what kind of person are you recruiting via unsolicited messaging?

If the point is to use voter data to contact people, then by definition you’re contacting voters. Voting is an important part of our society but it is also the lowest level of political engagement. So what we’re doing is contacting folks that, for any number of reasons, are only demonstrably committed to engaging in voting.

Bear in mind that most of the time, most people are not activists. Most of the time, most people are concerned with their work, home life, and the long list of capitalist humiliations. All of us were like this before a political movement brought us into organization: whether that was Bernie, the Uprising, the fall of Roe, or any number of past/present movements. Additionally, the number of people in society actively engaged in politics ebbs and flows with the class struggle itself. When class struggle is high, then hundreds of thousands of people, even millions, can become active. But the opposite is also true.

So if our strategy is to recruit via email, then we are likely to recruit someone that is sympathetic to our politics, but either uninterested or unable to take an active role. In other words, this sets us to increase our number of “paper members”.

Paper Members

So what is a “paper member”? Some folks take offense to this term but I’d like to clarify. For starters, we should consider how most people came to join DSA. Many joined after being in contact with DSA members engaged in campaign or movement work.

But the majority of people who joined during and after 2016 were inspired by hearing about Bernie’s success and the mainstreaming of socialist politics. In other words, they weren’t active in politics. When learning of Bernie and the Squad members, they Googled “democratic socialist” and came across DSA. From there, most folks joined by visiting a website and paying dues rather than joining while actively participating in a given movement or campaign. Still, others joined simply because they were encouraged to by a friend or family member that was an active member.

In other words, the mentality of the majority of people who joined DSA since 2016 was that of a subscriber. You could compare this with the way folks hear about the achievements of the ACLU and decide to give them monthly or yearly contributions. To be clear, this is not an attack but a clarification. We need to honestly understand how and why people joined our organization so we can understand the drastic disparity between our active and inactive membership. This explains why Chicago DSA currently has +2500 members, but no member could ever claim to have been to an event where +2500 members were present. Instead, we struggle to get +300 members together for our quarterly general chapter meetings.

If CDSA is going to be a healthy, growing, and democratic organization, it needs active members. Some people feel that we just need to activate paper members. In a way, this is true: but not the way people formulate it. Obviously, organizations should always search for ways to activate and engage members. But the problem isn’t simply that CDSA needs to do more to activate them, the problem is that most people are activated by major political movements, not by one or another organizational proposal.

Active Members

So the question becomes, how do we recruit active members? The solution is in meeting more activists. For example, instead of trying to get campaign data, why not double-down on turning out members to aldermanic canvasses? Why not commit those members to both do their best on the doors, but also do their best to meet non-CDSA members at the canvasses? When CDSA members are at an aldermanic canvass they meet non-CDSA campaign members. They begin creating weekly canvassing routines that reinforces those relationships. When campaigns near their end, CDSA members can get contact info from people that have demonstrably proven they are interested in being activists. Best of all, they can do so with an established basis of trust.

This is also mutually beneficial. CDSA builds connections and recruits activists while the campaigns get consistent canvassers. More canvassers makes campaigns look exciting, which draws in new people, creating a self-reinforcing cycle. This is the political difference between recruiting anyone and explicitly recruiting activists. Recruiting anyone gives little reason to expect those members to actually participate. Recruiting activists will net you members that have proven they want to be active and will engage with an organization. To be clear, this approach to recruitment should also be applied to protests, mutual aid, and any other site of struggle.

Building a party of the working class

Some have justified data-sharing as a step towards turning DSA into a “party-like structure”. Again, this raises a political question: what does it mean to be a party? At a minimum, a political party should be an organization that can bottom-line electoral campaigns and win elections. Can CDSA point to an aldermanic election that it single-handedly won? An honest answer would be “no”. If we zoom out, no city-wide organization could honestly claim to have single-handedly won any elections.

If we honestly examine Chicago’s 2019 aldermanic elections, we get a sense of what it would take to build a party. For example, the 2019 Rossana Rodriguez campaign was initiated and bottom-lined by a ward organization: 33rd Ward Working Families. It was then endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU, United Working Families, CDSA, the International Socialist Organization, Grassroots Collaborative… just to name a few. All of these organizations contributed volunteers and donations. In other words, no one organization could claim to have brought Rossana to power: it took the entire political ecosystem of Chicago. This scenario was repeated in different combinations of organizations for the other socialists and progressives that won in 2019.

From this perspective, the ecosystem itself looks like the embryo of a party. The next question would involve figuring out how to coalesce the ecosystem into an organization. This would involve CDSA building trust by being the ones to initiate joint-action and coalition work, and being the ones to facilitate honest and principled collaboration within the ecosystem. Just as CDSA members have to do the long term work of building relationships with non-CDSA canvassers at campaigns, so too does the organization have to do the long term work of building relationships between groups. There are no shortcuts.

We don’t work based on the conditions we wish we had but instead with conditions as they actually exist. The ecosystem has already proven in practice its ability to bottom-line elections through ward organizations and win them through collaboration. Instances like the “budget tables” that have been organized by UWF to coordinate how the alders vote on city budgets gives us a taste of both the potential, and the difficulty, ahead in building this party.

Closing thoughts

The purpose of this article is to reconsider “common sense” assumptions about data-sharing and how we build a party of our own. The main way to challenge these assumptions is by zooming out and identifying the necessary ingredients for our objectives.

If we want to grow a member-driven organization, we need to prioritize recruiting activists which involves intentionally identifying and engaging fields of struggle that will attract activists (i.e. electoral work, protests, mutual aid, etc). If we want to build a political party, we need to examine which actors have played a role in successful elections and bind those actors together into a party (i.e. city-wide organizations, ward organizations, single-issue groups, unions, etc). To put it another way, we need to look at the facts on the ground, the material conditions, in order to figure out what steps to take to achieve our goals.

Hopefully, we all begin to question assumptions that have been taken for granted about what it means to recruit to a member-driven organization and what it means to build a worker’s party. It’s the only way for us to collectively figure out how to move forward and figure out what does and does not work.