Few doubt the capacity of talented and determined individuals to leave their mark on society.  It’s the stuff of legend in America.  But because we celebrate these supremely successful and influential individuals we tend to overlook the critical role of well-organized groups at getting things done.  In his thoroughly delightful and insightful recollections, George Washington Plunkett, a turn of the 20th Century political leader in the renowned Tammany Hall machine in New York City reminds us how he got his start in politics.  Seeking out his Tammany district leader he, together with a friend, pledged their undying support.  Having organized two people he observed,, even so limited a group, had instantly made him a man of influence!

And so maybe it’s time we produced an account of American history that shifts the spotlight from individual heroics to group endeavor.  The Puritans, for example, would not have established such solid foundations in the New World had they not been a highly organized group of true believers.  Indeed they banished the charismatic Roger Williams from their midst precisely because he challenged them by asserting the central role of individual conscience and individual communion with God.  Who knows if the American Revolution would ever have gotten underway were it not for the Committees of Correspondence which organized in the various towns and cities to keep people in the different colonies informed about British actions and colonial resistance.  While the Founding Fathers assumed individual “wise men” would govern in America, once the government was established it soon became apparent that those running things were politicians who had joined recently organized political parties which set the political agenda for the nation.

While Americans often celebrate the intrepid pioneers who single handedly trekked to distant frontiers, the most successful ventures were those that gathered people into wagon trains for the push out west.  On a similar note, we’ve long hailed the brave pony express rider who alone braved the elements and hostile Indians in order to deliver the mail.  Fact is that this enterprise lasted just briefly, replaced by well-organized freight companies that connected the west coast to more populous areas back east.

In more recent memory we should not overlook the rise of organized labor.  For decades workingmen and women were stymied in their effort to boost wages and improve workplaces by laws which presumed that each employee had the capacity to bargain individually on equal terms with their bosses.  It was only when this legal fiction was abandoned that laboring people organized into unions and began bargaining collectively with management that working conditions changed for the better.

Let’s not omit America’s crime scene.  Criminal gangs have long afflicted American society but it was only with the rise of organized crime syndicates that they emerged as a permanent, parasitical element in most regions of the country.

Few today would dispute the proposition that the surest path to influence and power is through organization.  Innumerable organized interest groups lobby with great effectiveness in Washington and elsewhere.  Most recently the NRA demonstrated its clout while at the same time Tea Party organizers sent a wave of like-minded politicians off to Washington.  Organized pressure on the White House induced President Obama in 2012 to support the Dream Act for undocumented young people in the U.S.  Environmental groups thus far have successfully organized to block a Canadian oil pipeline from entering the United States.  Politicians of all sorts, often organized with assistance from the internet have flocked into state capitals and changed the political and legal landscape.

Celebrate heroic and exceptional individuals, but more forceful and successful are groups that unite for common purposes.  The message is clear – Get Organized.

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