Book review: Rules for Revolutionaries

I recently read a book on the Bernie Sanders campaign for the US presidency in 2016. I'm not a big fan of the US political system and at the time didn't pay very much attention to the presidential campaigning but I am quite interested in methods for mobilizing people towards socially beneficial purposes. How to generate the notorious "social action potential" which governments around the world seem to despise so greatly.

Rules for Revolutionaries is not so much a chronology of the Sanders campaign as it is a list of dos and don'ts when trying to mobilize people at scale - what they call "big organizing". A lot of the rules are quite common sense with hindsight. Rather than listing all the rules my interpretation of the main ones are:

  • To scale, volunteers need to be prepared to take on leadership roles. Don't expect to have many paid organizing positions.
  • Don't be too reticent to assign responsibilities to volunteers. When given responsibilities and a goal which they believe in people will often exceed expectations.
  • The most persuasive ideas come from one-on-one conversations
  • Sometimes even though the technology isn't ideal for your purpose, go with what you have and use familiar apps as much as possible.
  • Any strategy based upon large donations from large organisations will fail, because the interests of those organisations are not the same as those of the population at large. Instead create a strategy based around an expectation of many smaller donations.
  • Don't stick to old "best practices" which may be irrelevant in the modern context.
  • If it looks like you are going to be successful then have a strategy for sealing with the counterrevolution.
  • Have a strategy for dealing with what I'd call "poisonous people". In the book it's called "the tyranny of the annoying". These are people who though sometimes well-meaning will derail your campaign by dominating meetings with their irrelevant personal agenda or irritating habits.

The most surprising thing I learned about the US electoral system from this book is that what's called "voter contact" is a big thing. That means ringing people on the telephone and trying to persuade them of the merits of your chosen candidate. As far as I know this kind of activism doesn't happen in the UK, or if it does then it must be on a small scale and perhaps confined only to marginal constituencies. The sort of mass personal contact described in Rules for Revolutionaries is an alien concept in the UK political system.

Although it did motivate many people the rules of the book were not ultimately successful in propelling Bernie Sanders into the presidency. Had Hillary Clinton not won the Democratic party nomination though Bernie might have had a better chance against Trump. US citizens wanted change and Hillary was not a change candidate. She was more of the same failing formula. There's also the more general observation that putting your faith in someone else to do something about your problems - i.e. to truly and faithfully represent you - is a design likely to fail no matter how nice or smart or trendy the representative may appear to be. If the mobilizing rules could instead be used for some more constructive purpose, for each person to take some small but tangible action which then sums up rather than merely voting and hoping that your intentions won't be betrayed then maybe politics could be improved and a generalized phase transition occur in the way that people make collective decisions.