Book Review: 'Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community' by Douglas B. Sosnick, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier
Review by Susan Gardner
Applebee's America How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community By Douglas B. Sosnick, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier Simon and Schuster New York, 2006 260 pages
In a way, the clock is turning back to the pre-TV era. Consider what life was like in the first years of the twentieth century, when a flood of immigrants poured into the nation's largest cities, mostly alone or with a few family members, poor, undereducated, and speaking a foreign tongue. Almost from the moment they stepped off the boat, these new Americans relied upon somebody else for employment, security, and a sense of community.
The next candidate who can awaken citizens further to think more of others than themselves and to devote themselves to causes that promote the public interest will tie into a deeply seated gut value that transcends party and reaches across the political divide to find any citizen.
-Former USA Freedom Corps Director John Bridgeland
Pulling together expertise from business leaders, megachurch pastors and political strategists, Applebee's America makes the case that the country is drowning in information overload and isolation and that the key to success for any movement or enterprise lies in what one chapter title calls "The 3 Cs: Connections, Community and Civic Engagement." With an emphasis on small-group formation within a larger organizational structure, first pioneered by megachurches, the authors' interviews and findings suggest intriguing ways for a people-powered, bottoms-up movement to operate within and parallel to an institution such as ... say ... the Democratic Party.
The three authors come from disparate ideological backgrounds, all within the political realm. Sosnick was a strategist in the Clinton White House, Dowd was a strategist for Bush's two presidential campaigns and Fournier is a political journalist. The title comes from a close examination of Applebee's Restaurant business practices, which emphasize building personal connections between their staff and clientele in each and every location.
Much of what is written here is not truly "new" on the American scene, aside from the use of technology and the rise of suburbia. American culture has always been - since the time of de Tocqueville, at least - a strange mix of fierce independent self-reliance and zealous "joining," of jealously guarded privacy and home life juxtaposed with an open-hearted, purpose-driven community spirit (think of barn raisings, quilting bees, hometown parades and church suppers, etc.). The aberration in this pattern, as Robert Putnam noted in Bowling Alone (and who is interviewed in this book, with quite different views emerging of late) has actually occurred in the past forty years as Americans work longer hours, move to suburbia and drop out of time-draining group commitments.
While the first portion of the book focuses on detailing the minutiae of microtargeting and how it has been used so successfully by the Republicans (and how much catch-up the Democrats need to do), it is the middle and final sections that should interest those of us intent on building a progressive infrastructure to answer the entrenched and vast right-wing institutions. The astronomical costs of microtargeting must be borne by already existing financial powerhouses - say, the Democratic Party - but how grassroots activists organize themselves and form an interlocking web of coordinated communities is something we can all begin to develop as we move ahead. Indeed, this very web site and its members already display - spontaneously and organically - many of the traits the authors of Applebee's America claim are necessary for pro-active, effective coalition-building.
Consider the following observations from Starbucks' founder Howard Schultz, who attributes the success of his company to its creation of "a comfortable, sociable gathering spot away from the home and work, like an extension of the front porch":
There is a real hunger for community worldwide. People want to be with people of like-minded values. And at a time of our lives when there is such a fracture of trust and confidence, people have started to rely on Starbucks as a place that they can be a part of.... Unfortunately, in our society - especially in business schools and in politics - we've lost the intuitive feel.... In the world today, you want to create emotional connections with people that are based on authenticity and trust - not thirty-second ads.
This "hunger for community" and the "front porch effect" is phenomenally evident at Daily Kos, where people from all regions, first drawn to the site largely through like-minded political stances and common frustration, stick around to participate in a wide variety of often non-political sub-communities, discussing gardening and job hunting, marine life and spiders, parenting and ... ah, yes, recipes. In many senses, we already have answered a question posed by the authors: How can it be both big and local? Their solution rings true - and is one we've begun to nudge our way toward here on the site:
The small group system creates nodes of community where none had existed and is a potent form of social networking that some experts believe has replaced the labor movement as the nation's No. 1 organization force.
This harkening back to previous successful communities is laced throughout the book, and historical predecessors of today's megachurches are described in early 20th century attempts by churches to solidify bonds between members by expanding their facilities to accommodate gyms, locker rooms, parlors, kitchens, reading and game rooms, billiard tables and shuffleboard courts. As the authors phrase it when describing a visit to McLean Bible Church, a wildly successful contemporary megachurch in Virginia:
Church isn't just for Sunday around here. It's a 24/7 proposition - from nurseries to marriage counseling, psychological services, first aid training, concerts, and special assistance to people in hospitals.
A successful megachurch is not an impersonal congregation of 10,000 people; it is 1,000 congregations of 10 like-minded friends, knit together by common beliefs, values, and lifestyles.
Megachurches sponsor Bible studies, prayer groups, youth activities, men's and women's ministries, spiritual retreats, job fairs, vocational training, bulk food distribution, community service programs, parenting and marriage classes, sports and fitness teams, and self-help seminars such as a program in Houston for sex addicts. Success breeds success, because friends tell friends about their newfound communities. "A congregation this large creates a social vortex which draws others to it," Thumma said in a 1996 article.
In meeting more than just the spiritual needs of modern Americans - or astutely recognizing that as in politics, the personal is the spiritual (or political) - these massive churches have created a community of connectedness that coalesces around a shared value base that is not easily defined as merely religious in nature. Sound familiar? Like a ghost from the progressive past? It should.
One and two generations ago, union members hung out in union halls, drinking beer, playing cards, and even bowling. It was in this environment they picked up the values of the Democratic Party, as if by social osmosis.
There are a lot of nuggets to be mined in more depth in Applebee's America and that would be useful to analyze in targeted diaries, analyses and Daily Kos conversations, such as statistics that show the Democratic Party is surrendering the megachurch bloc at its peril; a sizable minority of members of these congregations actually share values more closely associated with Democrats than Republicans, for example. The ramifications of small-group dynamics need to be taken into account and considered in conjunction with Dean's 50-state strategy, and integrating newcomers first through small groups and only later under the larger progressive umbrella is worthy of more in-depth discussion. Raw marketing tactics and responsiveness, successful business strategies that can be adapted to political organizing, and the more appealing packaging of what the authors call (irritatingly, in my view) "Gut Values" over specific, detailed policy proposals could be the fodder for many a recommended diary discussion.
The minor flaws in the book are far outweighed by the depth of intriguing material, so I'll address them only briefly. There's a tendency to cuteness and shortcut naming (the aforementioned "Gut Values," labeling charismatic leaders as "Great Connectors" and calling America a "Niche Nation"), complete with proper noun-designation capitalization. A goodly portion of the book is given over to debunking clichés about heavy internet and technology users that may come as news to the public in general, but not to Daily Kos denizens (surprise! The more connected you are in social networks online, the more connected you are in real life as well). Relatedly, there's more than a trace of that "gee whiz!" enthusiasm of neophytes just discovering online social networking technology and, blinded by its possibilities, failing as of yet to think through any of its limitations, mistaking the tool for a well-thought-out strategy or plan.
Probably the largest (but still minor) overall problem is an inclination to repackage common sense and proven facts as astoundingly new material (usually by renaming and capitalizing it); for example, the authors exclaim at length over the finding that word-of-mouth praise by satisfied, influential customers ("Navigators") is one of the most powerful tools for building business, a maxim I'd venture to say has been in the "duh!" realm of entrepreneurship for a couple of centuries. At places, this has the feel of tripping over a rock, calling it a "Strong Stone" and proclaiming you've just founded the entire field of geology.
In many ways, Applebee's America implies a sunnier counterpoint to the darker picture of fractured (and fractious) interests groups that Markos and Jerome explored in Crashing the Gate. Yes, environmentalists and reproduction rights activists, for example, can bicker and in-fight about allocation of attention and priorities within the larger progressive movement, as we know too well. But considering the fact that the ragged coalition members that comprise the Republican Party (big business, libertarians and the Christian right) often don't even have any of the same issues on their agenda and yet still manage to hang together should give us pause.
On the left, I would argue, a majority agree on social justice, privacy, equality and climate issues; the nitpicking sets in when prioritizing focus comes into play, largely because our infrastructure currently is in a pre-natal, barely viable stage and often can't afford to allocate dollars and precious human resources to bear on more than one issue or crisis at a time. The promise the case histories in Applebee's America holds out, however, is that our attentional and financial deficit can be overcome as we move ahead and coordinate, from the grassroots up, an answering infrastructure. Flexibility, creativity, personal connection and united effort actually hold more promise for our side because of our more commonly shared core agreements.
As you read this - and if it's not clear, I highly recommend that Daily Kos members do - pay particular attention to the sections on building megachurches. There are many, many lessons there in laying out a blueprint for our own organizations, from reaching out to the previously "unchurched" (in our case, the previously apolitical) to making use of satellite "campuses" and technology to tie the small community nodes together for larger coordination.
The book is worth the purchase price for the exploration of the following two concepts alone:
Tap into existing networks when possible. Create networks where none exist.
Whenever possible, make your enterprise a Third Place, a community outside home and work for people in search of connection.
Daily Kos, I would argue, has begun the necessary work in both these areas. Applebee's America gives some strong hints on where to go from here and how wide open the field is for taking these concepts much further than we initially dared to dream.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.