Q + A with Marshall Ganz

September 1, 2014
Q + A with Marshall Ganz

Interview by Maisie O’Brien, Communications Coordinator

Marshall Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy who joined the Ash Center in June 2014. He teaches, researches, and writes on leadership, organization, strategy, and narrative in social movements, civic associations, and politics. His newest book, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement was published in 2009, earning the Michael J. Harrington Book Award of the American Political Science Association.

What drew you to the Ash Center?

The Ash Center’s focus on revitalizing democratic institutions is directly aligned with my work and poses one of the most critical challenges today. During the last three decades, the U.S. and other countries with long-standing democracies have seen a hollowing out in the kind of civic engagement and participation in social movements that is necessary to generate positive change. Dysfunction in the political process, increasing income inequality, and climate change pose grave threats, and mobilizing citizens to confront these challenges is incredibly important and it is what most of my life has been about.

For the past several years, you’ve worked with HKS Academic Dean and Ash Center Professor Archon Fung on the Gettysburg Project. Could you describe this initiative?

The name “Gettysburg Project” comes from Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address and his definition of democracy as being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Unfortunately, it seems to be slipping away from this ideal as American politics becomes increasingly corrupted by the influence of money and special interests.

The Gettysburg Project is an effort to understand the erosion of democracy in this country and to reinvigorate meaningful and consequential civic engagement. We address the question “Why is this happening?” not as a theoretical exercise, but as a practical project by partnering with a wide range of organizations that are working to enact change from MoveOn.org to Planned Parenthood to the Service Employees International Union. It’s a very practice-oriented way of combining scholarship with work that’s happening on the ground to solve problems that we’re all very concerned about.

What do you see as posing the greatest threats to democracy in the U.S. today? What role do you think social movements can play in addressing those challenges?

The whole democratic project is based on the promise that unequal resources can be balanced by equal voice. In the case of the US, the founding of our country was shaped by a fundamental and profound inequality, which is slavery. Our government was shaped in ways to protect this institution because the people who drafted the constitution weren’t interested in promoting change; they were interested in continuity and maintaining their own power. The result is that it’s been very hard to use government as a mechanism for change in this country.

The vacuum has been filled, to some extent, by social movements beginning with the American Revolution itself, but after that with the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement, the suffrage movement, the populist movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. So there’s been a counterpoint between electoral politics and social movements because the government doesn’t respond without sufficient pressure from within the republic. President Lyndon Johnson, for example, passed some great civil rights legislation, but the Civil Rights movement had been active and making demands since 1955.

In the last 30 years, the most successful movement by far has been the conservative movement and a challenge to democracy now is that there’s a relatively successful branch of this movement that doesn’t really believe in government and is in control of government. Now that’s a serious problem. And it’s not a problem of polarization; it’s a problem of dysfunction. When everybody starts saying, “government isn’t working,” then you have a legitimacy crisis and some pretty unattractive alternatives become possible. It’s a very fragile time for democracy in America, especially as things like climate change become realities. Solving these problems will require deep and broad mobilization and change brought about by social movements – it’s never come from within government.

You’re going on sabbatical next semester; could you discuss what research projects you’ll be working on?

There are three major projects that I’ll be working on in the upcoming year. The first is a book on organizing and the second relates to my work on public narrative and how people understand their calling in the world and derive moral capacity – both as individuals and as communities with respect to action. I’ve been teaching a class on the subject at HKS for seven years and I’ve incorporated it into the work I do all over the world, and everyone is really interested in it. I want to figure out what is at the heart of this interest and develop a framework for moral leadership and how we understand individual and collective agency.

My third project is to get a handle on what’s going on politically. How do we shift the ground in some way so that we can get on a positive track to rebuilding our democratic institutions, rather than continuing to eviscerate them? How do we find a way to bring everybody back into the process and begin to make good on the promise of equal voice? How can we learn to appreciate the significance of organized power, acknowledging that organized groups of people are the foundation for any kind of successful change?

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.