American political struggle has always reflected the characteristics of its age from the early merchants leveraging new economic power to political bosses organizing urban masses of the industrial revolution. Political struggle adapts to new climates, economics and social trends.
Today, we live in a body politic that is increasingly connected to each other and overwhelmed with information. The most active participants in modern movements are more likely to be approaching points of “decision paralysis” caused by an onslaught of calls to action from too many important causes. They are barraged with personalized appeals via email, snail mail, targeted magazines, and newsletters generated by the ubiquitous desktop publishing.
The resulting choice for millions of Americans is not to engage. Many people deliberately avoid focusing on issues that seem distant to their lives. Large segments of the population have reduced the long-term engagement with organizations, issues or causes.
In addition to information overload, the public increasingly wants to protect their privacy. They are actively working to stay off the “radar” of direct mailers, spammers, email campaigns and calling lists (over 50,000,000 households registered on the FCC “Do Not Call List”). This large subset of the public has not walked away from holding opinions on key issues. They have walked away from the current models of civic engagement. These “non-joiners” will self-organize into play groups, book clubs, meet-up meetings, running groups and paintball teams but they won’t join churches, bowling leagues, political parties and civic associations. The challenge to grassroots organizers is to match a significant portion of mobilizing and advocacy efforts with these new behaviors while also exploiting the advantages provided by emerging technologies and communications mediums.
Network-centric advocacy is the adaptation of advocacy and traditional grassroots organizing to the age of connectivity. The extent to which network-centric advocacy can contribute to revolutionizing civic engagement is not yet easily quantified. However, the evidence increasingly supports the case that the campaigns that embrace these approaches see significant increases in political power.