A conversation with David Hines about activism and organizing (Part 2 of 2)

Jan 4, 2022

The analyst and commentator talks to Michael E. Hartmann about infrastructure, incrementalism, involvement, and new institutions, as well as good giving tactics.

David Hines is a forensic scientist who has worked on mass-graves recovery in Iraq and Bosnia. He has also researched and written about grassroots activism and organizing—including a recent, well-researched two-article series in The American Conservative on professional leftist activism and what he thinks is the right’s generally lackluster equivalent. The thoughtful series features much that should be of interest to philanthropists and those who advise them.

In its first entry, “Doing the Work,” Hines writes that the left “has professionalized organizing leadership” and “they train their people, professionals and volunteers alike, to design, plan, execute, and learn from actions—they teach them how.”

After further delving into the details of how this is actually done, using the specific example of a group called Never Again Action, he concludes the series’ second piece, “The Jobs Behind Successful Political Action,” by urging conservative donors to

consider helping out your local activists. It’s easy to write a check to somebody famous, or a politician with a slick ad in a hopeless district. But if you spend your money on local grassroots work, you can get a lot more bang for your buck, impact the conversation, and just might help build a stronger community on your side of the aisle where you live.

Hines was nice enough to join me for a conversation last month. In the first part, which is here, we talk about his human-rights background, accomplishing technical tasks in hostile environments, and successfully organizing by building community and new institutions.

The just more than 15-minute video below is the second part of our discussion, during which we talk more about infrastructure, incrementalism, and new institutions, as well as good giving tactics.

Hines and Hartmann

Good giving should be “about building a lasting infrastructure for grassroots organizing, because a lasting infrastructure means better skills,” Hines tells me.

If your movement is based on energy, when that energy dissipates, if there isn’t an infrastructure that preserves the lessons learned and preserves a foothold for the next generation, when a new grassroots movement emerges, it has to learn the same lessons all over again. I think this is why a lot of righty grassroots movements start out very energetic, but in the end, mostly fail.

The civil-rights movement was so successful in large part because it “got so many people involved in things,” he says.

They got people with a stronger sense of their community. They got people who didn’t know where to turn, they were able to network for, then plug them into opportunities that work for them and made their lives better in some small way. And I think that’s one thing that we kind of lose sight of in the battle of ideas. … Ideas are important, but you need to help people make a material difference in their own lives—even if it’s a small one.

Asked whether there can be a necessary, lesson-retaining “institutional memory” without established institutions, Hines answers, “Well, the thing is you have to build new institutions, right? The problem that we run into is we build institutions and then they kind of sit there.”