At Netroots Nation, Lessons from a Big Win

I'm at the Netroots Nation conference today, and this morning I sat in on a panel titled "Handcuffs. Conventional Wisdom and Dirty Oil: Activism's Big Win Against the Keystone XL Pipeline." The headliner was environmental activist Bill McKibben, who is considered the driving force behind a movement that came out of nowhere to pressure President Obama into delaying construction of the pipeline last fall.

McKibben and his co-panelists had some interesting takeaways from their initial success (and it's just initial, the Keystone project has been delayed, not killed; indeed, Mitt Romney has vowed to approve the pipeline on his first day in office - a statement, McKibben wryly noted, that signaled just how central activists have made a once-obscure concern).

McKibben spoke of the importance of making Keystone a national issue, rather than just a regional one. Focusing on the pipeline's potential impact on global warming, he said, was central to that effort. He also talked about refraining from ad hominem attacks on President Obama - activists, he said, couldn't do the president the favor of looking like an angry mob. Instead, the message was: "we know you'll live up to your promises."

But the most important lessons of the campaign, he argued, were those activists learned about taking on fossil fuel companies. That's the key, he said, to long-term success. The Keystone issue was rather unique in that the president, alone, had the power to make a decision - limiting the impact of an enormously powerful energy industry. Winning the larger fight will require a head-on confrontation with that industry - a confrontation his organization,, will shortly engage in, he promised.

Another panelist, Becky Bond, president of the CREDO SuperPac, offered five takeaways of her own:

1) You need a strong theory of change. The typical environmentalist strategy - let's try to make this bill better in the Senate - is no strategy at all, she said. She credited McKibben with coming up with an effective approach to Keystone: this is the president's decision alone, let's focus on him.

2) "It's important to escalate." If what you're doing isn't working, don't keep doing it.

3) Pick a tactic and stick with it. Don't have a "day of action" on Capitol Hill or at the State House. Have your supporters call or show up every day for three weeks; the anti-pipeline activists, for their part, hounded President Obama at every public appearance.

4) Don't back down when the powers you are trying to influence agree to have a conversation with you. The temptation is to take the meeting, be happy with your access, and moderate for a time. Bond said if they give you a meeting, it's a sign you're getting to them. Keep at it.

5) Don't wait for the coalition to form. The groups that led the charge on the Keystone fight were not the big, established environmental organizations - though those organizations came to play an important role. If the core activists sat around waiting for the cavalry, Bond said, they wouldn't have won.

There were other tactical successes, too: getting some of Obama's biggest donors, for instance, to join the protest.

But the fight is far from over. As McKibben suggested, it's possible to envision gay rights activists winning their fight in the coming years. The environmentalist's fight will never end - unless it ends in defeat.

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