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Principles Over Partisanship: Norman Solomon on Founding RootsAction and Empowering Grassroots Change

Principles Over Partisanship: Norman Solomon on Founding RootsAction and Empowering Grassroots Change

Luka Dragovic
In an enlightening interview with Website Planet, Norman Solomon delves into the inception of RootsAction.org, a platform born out of frustration with the partisan echo chambers online and a deep-seated hope for a more principled form of activism.

Since 2011, this online initiative has strived to cut through the political noise, championing grassroots movements and challenging the dominance of big money in public discourse, with an unwavering commitment to values like healthcare for all, environmental stewardship, and social equity. Solomon shares insights into RootsAction’s impactful campaigns, from advocating for nuclear disarmament in the wake of the film “Oppenheimer,” to defending the freedom of the press in the Julian Assange case, all while harnessing the power of digital communication to mobilize a community of over a million.

This conversation with Website Planet highlights RootsAction’s journey towards fostering an informed and engaged public, ready to tackle the challenges of our times with informed consent and collective action.

What inspired the founding of RootsAction, and what are its primary goals and values?

Frustration and hope led to the launch of RootsAction.org in 2011. As journalists and activists, we’d become exasperated by the internet’s deluge of partisan spinning that often seemed more committed to a political party than to a consistent set of ideals. We hoped to build an online action arm that would stay true to core principles regardless of who was in the White House or what mass media outlets were saying.

From the outset, RootsAction has aimed to boost the potential of grassroots activism and horizontal flows of information. We take very seriously the idea that true democracy means “the informed consent of the governed,” so RootsAction works to keep providing key information and options for taking action. We want to directly challenge the huge extent to which big money has dominated government policies and public discourse, while humane values — like health care as a human right, environmental protection, social justice, and peace — have bit the dust.

RootsAction is propelled by the belief that people can work together to make vital changes for the better. Of course, much easier said than done! But it feels wonderful to be part of the quest.

Can you highlight some of the key campaigns or initiatives RootsAction has undertaken recently?

When “Oppenheimer” swept the Oscars, we geared up a campaign for grassroots pressure to reduce the risks of nuclear war. A few years ago, RootsAction had worked with the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to hand-deliver his book “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner” to every congressional office in Washington. Now we’re organizing nationwide activities on Daniel Ellsberg Week (June 10-16, 2024) to raise key issues about nuclear weapons across the U.S. and beyond.

We have ongoing campaigns against excessive military spending and inadequate efforts for diplomacy. We’re also joining with many other organizations to call for a ceasefire in Gaza as well as a cutoff of U.S. weapons and ammunition to Israel.

RootsAction continues to advocate for releasing WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange from prison in the UK rather than extraditing him to face trial under a misapplication of the Espionage Act. We believe that prosecuting publishers and journalists is a dangerous precedent, jeopardizing First Amendment rights.

We’ve also continued to advocate for such policy changes as Medicare for all, automatic voter registration, decriminalization of marijuana, and an end to mass incarceration in the United States, which currently holds 1.9 million people in prisons and jails.

How does RootsAction mobilize and engage its community to participate in advocacy efforts?

Each year we’ve been sending out upwards of 200 different emails to our list, which has grown from triple digits in 2011 to 1.2 million today. The emails summarize what we think is vital information behind breaking news or longstanding concerns, and nearly every email provides an action link that goes to a RootsAction webpage featuring either a petition or — often these days — a quick way to send a constituent email to members of the House and Senate. We remind people that they have an opportunity to directly communicate with their members of Congress.

Our social media work — mainly via Twitter/X and Facebook, but increasingly also via Instagram — runs parallel to our email outreach. But we also use social media to quickly share news and action opportunities many times over the course of a day.

We encourage supporters to create their own petitions via the “diyRootsAction” webpage hosted on the RootsAction.org site. Over the years, hundreds of such petitions have been created.

Two years ago, as a project under the RootsAction roof, we launched ProgressiveHub.net to augment our outreach and engage with supporters and others. An unusual precept of Progressive Hub is that virtually every news or opinion article that we post includes, on the same webpage, an action form that people can quickly fill out and send. The idea we want to promote is that it’s not enough to only learn what’s happening — we should also be engaged in helping to make change happen.

What challenges does RootsAction face in its advocacy work, and how does it overcome them?

A growing challenge is the email environment. During RootsAction’s dozen years, we’ve seen the gradual emergence of a glut of emails for a vast range of purposes. It’s an online fact of life that more and more people are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of incoming emails, making them more likely to unsubscribe or delete without reading.

We’ve been able to largely mitigate this problem over the long haul by building relationships with our supporters. We work to make our emails timely, quickly readable, and easy to act upon. We also make it a point to reply to individual comments (except the over-the-top abusive ones), whether pro or con or somewhere in between. It’s a reality that people might agree with dozens of our emails and take action based on them, only to strongly take issue with one later on. That comes with the territory, and usually, we find that a respectful response from us goes a long way.

When our work involves constituent messaging to Congress, a challenge is that many members of the House and Senate are apt to either not respond or send back vague, unresponsive letters. With mixed success, we encourage constituents to follow up with their senators and representatives if the official replies aren’t satisfactory.

How does RootsAction measure the impact of its campaigns and initiatives?

Along with monitoring the number of signers to RootsAction and diyRootsAction petitions, we can track the number of constituent emails that go out to members of the House and Senate. Likewise, we can generate constituent email messages to local elected officials, state legislators, or governors, and in those cases too we can monitor the number of those emails. So, we’re able to gauge the degree of responsiveness to various actions.

The overall effects of RootsAction’s work are of course much more difficult to measure. We recognize that in many cases, what we’re doing is accomplishing no more or less than generating a tributary into a stream for social change.

On our website’s FAQ page, we pose the question: “Can you point to any successes or worthwhile campaigns?” Our introductory answer – “Here are just a few positive developments that RootsAction contributed to in some way, large or small” – is followed by a list of hundreds of cases-in-point, from 2012 to 2024.

What future plans or projects does RootsAction have in the pipeline to further its advocacy goals?

We will encourage genuine diplomacy to end the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, while at the same time creating more citizen pressure on elected officials to reduce military spending in favor of higher budgets to meet human needs — in effect, to overcome what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the madness of militarism.”

RootsAction will continue to work for a reordering of priorities so that they will shift to such crucial matters as mitigating the climate emergency and providing adequate resources for health care, education, housing, infant care, elderly care and so much else that cries out for compassion and action.

Find out more at: www.rootsaction.org

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