A few months ago, I received a Facebook invitation to join the New Coalition. For professional reasons, participating as a member would have been inappropriate, but I was intrigued. At 32, I’m just old enough to remember the machine politics of the Old Coalition, but I’m young enough to see the possibilities of a new organization.
The Old Coalition empowered black voters in Birmingham and gave them representation in government, but once it achieved those goals, it devolved into old-school machine politics. Mayor Richard Arrington was supposedly the boss, but inside, things were much messier than outsiders knew or cared to believe. The Old Coalition drew the ire of disempowered whites and disaffected blacks. In 1999 it began to crumble when Bernard Kincaid defeated the Coalition candidate William Bell for mayor. In the 2001 city council election, every Coalition candidate lost.
The Old Coalition was dead.
Long live the New Coalition?
Throughout this council election, I’ve kept tabs on the new group, and for awhile I thought it really was new. There seemed to be a much younger constituency in the New Coalition. Also, there seemed to be some white folks in that group, too. Both were missing from the Old Coalition.
To anyone under the age of 30 or 35, the word “Coalition” doesn’t have the same connotations as it did a decade ago. A new demographic of voters has come of age since the Old Coalition disintegrated. Just like an out-of-style clothing brand, the Coalition had potential for rediscovery and new popularity.
I’m not sure whether the New Coalition went looking for younger members, or whether young members found the New Coalition. Either way, there seemed to be a demographic shift in the works.
Normally, younger voters don’t mean that much in politics, because younger voters don’t vote. However, within that demographic there is a core group of civic-conscious voters and activists — young citizens who invested themselves, at least emotionally, in Barack Obama’s campaign last year, and they saw a political return on that investment. The experience did not leave them jaded. To the contrary, it gave them reason to believe they could make a difference.
What’s more, they brought with them the new tools of politics — social networking and net-roots organization. I first learned of the New Coalition on Facebook. Even Arrington has a page.
These new social media tools are important to any political organization. They’re not a fad. As Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, says, it is easier now for people to organize and take action than it ever has been before. The two greatest expenses of political action have traditionally been organizing people and getting a message to voters. Social media are quickly reducing those costs to free.
Ever since the Old Coalition fell apart, there has been a vacuum in Birmingham politics. Some sort of organization, or organizations, needed to fill that gap. It’s not that the masses are too dumb to decide for themselves. Rather, political parties and interest groups help voters draw distinctions among large unwieldy fields of candidates and sort them by their beliefs and ideas. They bring order to chaos.
However, for a new organization to be effective, voters have to understand what it represents. Believing in “good government” isn’t enough. Saying you’re for a “better Birmingham” isn’t enough, either. Those things mean different things to different people. A new organization has to have a platform, a manifesto. Only then should it go looking for candidates to match its beliefs.
And that’s where the New Coalition faltered.
I knew the New Jefferson County Citizens Coalition was failing when a source called me a couple of weeks before the election. He had a list of the endorsements the organization had made for the Birmingham city council races.
The District 1 endorsement went to Joel Montgomery, he said. Right then I knew it was over and done. Montgomery was toast already, as anyone paying attention could see. When election day finally came, Montgomery beat the spread by coming in third place. Montgomery represented bingo, not change.
The rest of the endorsements are worth noting only for keeping score. Coming out of the council election last month, five of the Coalition’s eight endorsements lost outright. Two candidates made it to run-offs. Only one candidate, Maxine Parker, won outright, and she could have won easily without the Coalition’s help.
There had been a big meeting, just like the good old days of the Old Citizens Coalition. There were compromises among competing camps. The organization endorsed a slate of candidates two weeks before the election. Political Action Committees directed by former Mayor Richard Arrington pumped money into the selected campaigns. The only thing missing was the old “blue ballot” handbills featuring the list of Coalition candidates.
Political action now means organizing, motivating and proselytizing. A new political organization has to supply its candidates with boots on the ground. Election by machine fiat doesn’t work anymore. You can’t endorse a slate of candidates a week before an election and expect people to care. You have to find your slate of candidates two or three months away from an election and convince people to care.
The New Coalition failed because it still used the strategy of the Old Coalition. Or perhaps you just can’t teach an Old Coalition new tricks.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org