David Duke set Louisiana ablaze beginning in early 1989. The neo-Nazi sympathizer and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard won election to the Louisiana state House and instantly became a symbol of protest by whites against a system that they thought was stacked against them.
I had just joined The Times-Picayune newspaper when Duke was elected. Two months later, the paper’s editors assigned me to investigate Duke. Did we really know everything we should know about him? I would dog Duke for three years as he ran for the United States Senate, governor of Louisiana and finally president.
The class readings for Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” made me think back to those tumultuous days.
Shortly after Duke’s election, a group was created to oppose him. It was called the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism. At the same time, Duke traveled the state and turned out hundreds of supporters practically everywhere he went to speak.
Shirky wrote that the Boston Globe exposed a pedophile priest in 1992. The “outrage dissipated with little change in the church’s behavior in Massachusetts or nationally, no official reaction from the Vatican, no coordinated calls by the laity for Law’s resignation, and no resignation,” Shirky wrote.
Shirky showed how the Internet has made it dramatically easier to organize groups. In 2002, the Globe exposed another pedophile priest, and this time, beginning with an outraged doctor, some 25,000 people across the country came together to create Voice of the Faithful. This time, the Catholic Church could not ignore them. The cardinal in Boston resigned and “the church began to take steps, if halting ones, to publicly reform itself.”
In 2002, Globe readers could email the newspaper’s articles to others with a click, and it was practically as easy to send them to a group as to an individual. Blogs popped up and further publicized the scandal. Ordinary citizens turned to email and blogs to organize themselves. This time, the Catholic Church could not stonewall them.
Zephyr Teachout wrote in “Come Together Right Now: The Internet’s Unlit Fuse” that the dilemma of collective action is that you’ll do something only if others will do it, too. As the 2002 Globe example showed, the new tools make it easier to overcome that dilemma.
It’s even easier today. New groups can use Facebook to get attention and attract supporters. They can amplify their voice through Twitter and any number of social media sites.
So I am left wondering about the old days. How is it that hundreds of people in Louisiana, around the same time as the initial Boston Globe priest expose, came together to create the Louisiana Coalition? How did Duke spread the word so ordinary folks would fill hotel meeting rooms across the state to hear him?
Because it was harder to organize before, does it mean that those who participated were more committed? Malcolm Gladwell certainly seems to think so, from his iconic New Yorker article.
I’m so familiar with today’s new tools that it seems hard to imagine how folks organized themselves before and overcame the collective action dilemma.