Reflections and projections (🤔 / 🔮)
Plus: What is strategy? And what is a strategist?
The calendar year might be arbitrary in a sense, but it’s useful to have some regular cycle for reflecting on a manageable chunk of the past and looking forward to the future. So December is a fine moment to check in on questions like:
Where have we got to with this whole 2022 thing?
What might 2023 have in store?
And also: what resolutions did we make last January that we can complete in the next two weeks?
I’d like to spend the bulk of this newsletter on the first two questions (best of luck on the third) by helping you put some mental markers on the whole general mish-mash of world happenings.
But before we get to the sensemaking and prognosticating, your humble newsletter writer tries a different format.
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Pivoting to video like it’s 2015 🎥
I’ve always had a side practice, in parallel with my professional work, of sharing what I’m learning from and with others about how to do social change. That’s what this newsletter is all about. Last month I started a blog post on strategy work in particular. Half-way through the draft, I was struck by the following set of thoughts:
Hypothesis: People are saturated with things too many things to read.
Evidence: Constant jokes about too many tabs open and overflowing read-later folders. Services to help you manage what you can’t read. My own sense of being constantly behind.
Implication: Make your writing stand out.
Alternative implication: Do something other than write.
So I shelved the draft blog post. I taught myself to use QuickTime, iMovie, and Vimeo and started producing a series of bite-sized videos on strategy. The idea is to give you something useful or thought-provoking in a slot short enough (~2 minutes) that you can watch it but then switch back to whatever you were doing before.
If that sounds interesting, I invite you to be briefly distracted from work by the first video: What is strategy?
And the newest one: What is a strategist?
There are four others in the series so far:
I have a few more coming after the holidays. From there, I’ll decide if this is a new format worth continuing or just a fun experiment to leave behind. I’d love any feedback.
Okay, now for the main event…
Reflections 🤔 and projections 🔮
Caveat emptor: Annual reflections and projections both risk centering the perspective of whoever’s doing the reflecting and projecting. So with an appropriate grain of salt, here’s what I see when I think back on the past year and look ahead to what’s next in four areas: democracy, capitalism, digital, and the social change sector.
🤔 #1 - Democracy’s not dead yet… but it’s not healthy either
In the U.S., the midterms were followed first by a collective sigh of relief as the rumored “red wave” fizzled, and then by a continued clenching of jaws as we acknowledged the fundamentals haven’t changed.
Yes, the worst MAGA senate candidates lost and that might weaken Trump’s grip on the GOP. But the margins of defeat were thin, and the Republicans vying to replace him aren’t much better. In some cases, like Florida’s DeSantis, they’re worse: the same authoritarian politics, with more discipline and less personal baggage.
And yes, the election-denying secretary of state candidates all lost too. But plenty of other election deniers won. The Big Lie hasn’t gone away because, as politics, it works.
At the state level, it becomes a blur of mixed results. One quick way to think about what happened is in terms of trifectas: states where one party controls the governorship and both chambers of the state house (or the chamber, in the case of Nebraska—the only unicameral state).
The news here is good, if marginal: Republicans lost one trifecta (Arizona will be divided government, with incoming Democratic governor Katie Hobbs) and Democrats netted three (moving Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota from divided to D trifecta, while Nevada went the other way). So that’s good. But it still means Republicans have 22 trifectas and Democrats have 17 (with 11 divided).
The state and local level also saw positive results on ballot measures, ranging from abortion to medical marijuana—with Republicans seizing on these results to restrict future ballot measures.
I worry the above snapshot of results risks falling into the “both sides” and false equivalency frames, so let’s be clear about what’s going on. There’s a real struggle over the existence of an inclusive democracy. It’s not a level playing field for lots of complicated reasons but also a very simple one: undermining democracy is easier than strengthening it. (Big-D) Democratic trifectas aren’t a guarantee of good policy in general or even (little-d) democratic protections like voting rights (👋 from New York). But Republican trifectas sure seem like determinants of bad policies and laboratories of authoritarianism. Fewer of them is better.
Globally, there’s also a mixed bag. We’ve seen other electoral rebukes to authoritarian populism (Bolsonaro’s loss in Brazil), massive blunders by authoritarian regimes (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s zero-covid policy), and people’s movements resisting those regimes (protests by Iranian women). We’ve seen a renewed energy in anti-kleptocracy, with earlier work getting boosted and mainstreamed by the interest in freezing/seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs (even USAID is getting in the game). Counter-trends include the election of an authoritarian dynasty in the Philippines and overall shifts that are not good.
In sum: The year’s events (and especially the U.S. midterms) weren’t as bad for democracy as they could’ve been. The house hasn’t burned down yet. But it’s still on fire.
🔮 for 2023: In the U.S., expect continued fights over voting rights/access and democratic fundamentals. Expect Democrats to continue teeter-tottering between a unified defense of democracy and finger-pointing between centrists and the left-er (progressive, socialist, etc) flank. Expect Republicans to continue a strategy based on culture wars and targeting marginalized groups, while arguing internally about who can best lead that strategy. Expect little discussion (from them) of whether it’s the right strategy.
Globally, expect progress and setbacks. I’m not someone to predict specific election outcomes or flashpoints, but I will predict this much: there will be flashpoints when windows of opportunity open; if you want to make change, you have to be ready for them.
(Side 🤔 - Monarchy still a thing, apparently. Following the death of the British monarch, I was honestly shocked to see how many people defended monarchy as an institution. I thought we all just agreed it was a lingering vestige of earlier authoritarianism that would eventually fade from history. In the ensuing discussions, several smart people shared articles on the alleged stabilizing effects of monarchies and I found them all to be utterly unconvincing. 🤷)
🤔 #2 - Efforts to “fix” capitalism have gone mainstream
There have, of course, always been critiques of the dominant thinking that organizes our economic system—which we short-hand as “capitalism”. Those critiques have found increased traction in mainstream channels since the 2008 financial crisis, accelerated along the way by the Occupy movement in 2011, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020, and a general backdrop of growing inequality.
Is this year different—perhaps a tipping point? Or the continuation of that trend? A few data points.
Unions are seeing more wins and more public support than in decades. The Democratic Socialists of America keep winning more elections each cycle at every level of government. Antitrust and antimonopoly work have moved from being a “phony war” to what Matt Stoller calls a “shooting war”.
Meanwhile, the shine has come off some efforts like ESG (and impact investing, which isn’t the same but is related). For those who support ESG’s goals, watered-down standards can look more like greenwashing. The political right has also been trotting out rhetoric around “woke capitalism” that frames ESG as some kind of Marxism.
And though there are still some advocates for technological approaches to a new economic future, like crypto or DAOs, the hype has softened as the balance has tipped from “potential good we could do” to “actual harm we’ve done”—from money laundering to FTX’s collapse. Promoters have to fight against an association with hucksters, while critics are no longer presumed to be mere luddites.
🔮 for 2023: Cross-partisan political momentum for fixing the economy continues to build, but with deep disagreements on how to do it. The most exciting work will be at the state and local levels, including union drives and cooperatives. We might see some solid regulations or enforcement at the federal level, but anything big is likely to get stalled by divided politics and captured courts.
🤔 #3 - Dominant digital spaces continue their descent, while new approaches gain energy
Setting the recent headlines in context, it’s clear Twitter has spent the last few years deteriorating the way ketchup comes out of a bottle: slowly at first, and now all at once. Under the new management (if it can be called that), the site looks increasingly like captured territory in the culture war.
Should we all leave it behind? The space has been too important for too many movements and activists to yield it. But they’re rethinking how they use it and where else they spend time. (In fact, Ted Fickes has some thoughts for nonprofits trying to figure out what it all means from them.)
Facebook’s challenges have been pushed out of the spotlight by Twitter, but it hasn’t done much to improve its position in recent years. I’ve seen an uptick in LinkedIn activity too, but it has its own flaws.
🔮 for 2023: What’s next for Twitter? I don’t pretend to know. I’ve appreciated Dave Karpf’s thoughtful analysis on the subject; he’s good at looking past what someone says they believe to what they’re actually doing and the incentives they face.
Where I feel more confident is noting the zeitgeist has moved away from VC-backed, billionaire-run technology companies as the default owner of digital public spaces. The twitter-addicted, always-online set has been getting excited about Mastodon’s federated model. The journalism sector has been re-imagining local civic media, as described here by Sarah Alvarez. We’ll see more experimentation to move away from the toxicity, disinformation, and other problems of the dominant platforms.
(Side plug: because moments of experimentation can feel chaotic, I’ve been keenly watching work by New_ Public to help us collectively sensemake and envision the future of digital public spaces.)
🤔 #4 - Riding the hype curve in the social change sectors
I’ve long appreciated how the Gartner hype curve describes the evolution of ideas in social change work. Gartner mostly applies it to leading-edge technology like AI, but it’s useful for new ideas and trends in any sector.
(For those new to the framework: the basic idea is that an idea first hits the edge of possibility with a technology trigger, then rides up to inflated expectations, before crashing into a trough of disillusionment, and rides up the slope of enlightenment before reaching the plateau of productivity. See graphic below. Gartner calls this a cycle, but there’s nothing cyclical about it. What I find most useful about the framework is the reminder that inflated expectations are followed by a crash—which often involves a backlash.)
So with that framework in mind, here are some ideas I see moving along the curve.
↗️ Philanthropic and nonprofit commitments to DEI: moving up the slope
Foundations and nonprofits responded to 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests with a surge of statements and commitments around diversity, equity, inclusion, and (less frequently) racial justice. They were quickly met with a mix of praise and well-founded skepticism from supporters, and outright hostility from opponents.
In a 2021 study titled Mismatched, Malkia Devich Cyril, Lyle Matthew Kan, Ben Francisco Maulbeck, and Lori Villarosa looked at racial justice funding data since 2015, including preliminary data from 2020, and summarized their findings as: “getting closer, but not close enough.”
I haven’t seen more recent data, but my sense (admittedly from a mix of anecdotes I’ve heard, internal conversations I’ve been part of, and external discourse) is that foundations in particular have been working those commitments through processes—setting a new strategy for this, hiring a new lead for that—that grind slowly but ultimately set them on a course for better aligned funding in the coming years.
The likes of MacKenzie Scott have moved faster, sending unrestricted and unexpected support to (among others) organizations focused on racial justice. That’s creating further pressure on legacy foundations, as staff who have been advancing such approaches for years now have a concrete and high-profile example to hold up.
🔮 for 2023: The Gartner framework feels a bit trite here—let’s not use the word “productivity” in the same sentence as “justice”—but it looks like the social change sectors are (slowly) getting serious about DEI. Expect continued movement in that direction, but no less work needed to keep the sector on track.
↘️ Effective altruism and long-termism crest and crash
The summertime coverage of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future rocketed long-termism into the discourse. The related ideas behind the Effective Altruism (EA) movement followed along on its coattails. For a few weeks, it seemed impossible to avoid a review of the book or its ideas. And that, in turn, brought discussions of their flaws.
The discourse simmered down, only to be thrust back into headlines as crypto exchange FTX imploded. As FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried heads toward bankruptcy and maybe even prison, EA has lost one its major funders along with a bit of claim to the moral high ground.
🔮 for 2023: I don’t think we’ll see EA and long-termism making news next year. With the wounds still fresh, they’d be wise to lay low. But I suspect the net result of 2022’s headlines will be to attract new adherents, who will pull the movement in new directions. That will come with some disillusionment among early adopters and true believers. Result: a broader, more diffuse movement than before (though one that still skews northern, white, male, and educated) finds its way up the slope of enlightenment.
➡️ Remote work by design.
In 2020, most organizations moved from “in-person by default” to “remote by necessity”. They slowly found ways to support teams suddenly working from home. Then they spent the following two years trying to get back to the office, in the face of new variants, concerns from disability advocates, and the fact that working from home can be quite nice.
Recently, I’m seeing legacy organizations update their paradigms to “remote by design”, including careful planning for remote collaboration for most work, alongside periodic gatherings for strategy retreats, team building, and other in-person work. New organizations seem to be following this paradigm from the start.
I have a soapbox speech on this, especially for organizations protecting democracy or working on policy, organizing, or any systemic issues. The short version is this: how can your organization really understand the country (or the world) where you work if you require every team member to live in DC, or NYC, or the Bay Area?
🔮 for 2023: Expect this trend to continue along the plateau of productivity, with a proliferation of models. We’ll see fewer organizations with big headquarters offices, and more with hybrid clusters in a few cities, or no permanent offices but rather periodic national gatherings at retreat centers. We’ll see more services designed to support remote organizations (like Alix Dunn’s “Remote Culture Club”). We’ll see happier employees, who can make space for caregiving responsdon’t need to uproot their lives for new jobs. We’ll also see more competition for talent.
What do you think? Any big reflections you have on the past year, or projections you’d make for the future?
Side plug: I always appreciate Lucy Bernholz’s annual collection of reflections and predictions for philanthropy and civil society. This year’s Blueprint 2023 is thoughtful, as always, and brings new voices into the mix with an essay on how two decades of increased focus on impact evaluations have shaped civil society, and another on how the market for voter data has shaped organizing.
Requiem for the bird site? 🐦
Like many, I’ve dropped off Twitter a bit in recent few months. I didn’t make a deliberate decision to boycott, but simply realized I don’t enjoy opening the app anymore.
In addition to this newsletter, the best places to follow my work are:
Mastodon - something like a twitter replacement
Substack - periodic newsletter with fleeting commentary (like the above)
Medium - longer-lasting analysis
Vimeo - with the aforementioned strategy series
See you around.
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