Monthly Archives: November 2008

Honest signals: our hidden, influential patterns of communication

(photo by shadowplay)

(photo by shadowplay)

Interesting lunchtime talk by Alex (Sandy) Pentland about honest signals sponsored by the Program on Networked Governance program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Sandy’s theory is that 50,000-100,000 years ago, humans lacked language, yet still managed to communicate with each other through “honest signals” (ancient primate signaling efforts which developed biologically to communicate our intentions, our trustworthiness, our suitability as a collaborator, whether we were bluffing, etc.). When language was introduced, it didn’t over-write or eliminate these honest signals but evolved to be synergistic with these signals. While we focus much more on language, these signals are measurable (Sandy’s group developed machines to read these signals) and often equally or more effective at predicting various behaviors than language. Sandy’s research aims to shine a light on this powerful channel that we know less about.

Sandy notes that such data from electronic ID badges (sociometers) and specially-programmed smart phones, can give us a “god’s eye” view of how the people in organizations interact, and observe the “rhythms of interaction for everyone in a city”.

What are such behaviors?

Sandy’s group at the MIT Media lab focuses on 4 of them, although there are probably others (laughter, yawning, etc.).

  1. INTEREST, shown by activity. An autonomic response. For example in children, this is evinced by jumping up and down or in dog’s by barking or wagging tail.
  2. ATTENTION, by looking at influence. Evidence of thalmic attention. Sandy observes that people actively following in conversations break in faster than they could with normal attention spans. Shows that they are processing the conversation and discussion as it goes along and predicting the right time to break in.
  3. EMPATHY, as shown by mimicry. This is evinced by mirror neurons, which are observable in infants as young as 3 hours old that can imitate a mother sticking her tongue out. People who evince higher levels of mimicry are seen as more empathic and more trustworthy. For example, they had computerized agents trying to sell an unpopular policy to students; in the cases where the computerized agent mimicked the body movements of the experimental subject with a 4 second delay, the computerized agent was 20% more successful in selling the policy to the experimental subject and the subject was unaware that he/she was being mimicked.
  4. EXPERTISE, as shown by consistency. This a function of the cerebellar motor. We assume that people who can do things more smoothly are more expert because of the number of actions that need to be simultaneously coordinated.

What do these honest signals predict?
These are only some of the examples:
-Computers attentive to these honest signals (and ignoring the content) were as successful in predicting from pitches by entrepreneurs which business plans would be judged by business school students as successful.
– Effective sales pitches: listening to the first few seconds of a telephone sales pitch (without listening to the language) but listening to tone, timing, etc., the computer could predict with 80% accuracy which would be successful calls.:
-Success in speed dating: monitoring the female’s signals predicted 35% of the variation in which couples exchanged their phone numbers, and this was significantly higher than any other factor researchers could find. Interestingly, the men’s signals were not predictive, but somehow men must have been able to subconsciously pick up on the women’s signals, because in almost all cases the men didn’t ask for phone numbers where it wasn’t reciprocated by women.
– They also found that honest signals predicted depression, predicted who was likely to be successful in negotiating for a pay raise, job interviews, who was bluffing at poker, etc.
Successful individual-level traits: they found that the most successful folks with these “honest signals” were ones who were high in activity, high in influence (others were more likely to mirror their communication styles then they were likely to mirror others’) high in “variable prosody” (their pitch varied and they sounded open to ideas), and high in body language dominance (i.e., they were more likely to directly face another person and others were more likely to not face them square on).  They were often far more successful in these “honest signals” than they were aware of.

Organizational effectiveness

Sandy notes that unlike an MRI, one can hook up an entire organization to these sociometers and absorb micro-second by micro-second, and the results are highly predictive. But the challenge is that while the people who exhibit these highly successful individual traits are useful to organizations, they are usually in “connector” roles for organizations, with star-shaped patterns of communication, where ideas flow through these individuals. While this speeds up the decision-making process, it actually impairs the brainstorming process. Sandy’s group is experimenting with devices to see if making participants aware of the dynamics of a team can influence their behavior in a positive manner.  They have shown with some experiments (Japanese-American teams designing Rube-Goldberg-type projects, and distance teams) that it can change people’s behaviors in a positive manner. The challenge will be to see if the group’s behavior can be more connected at the brainstorming phase and more “star-shaped” at the decision-making stage.

Sandy noted that they have been able to extract many properties of the social networks using smart phones: from a combination of where people are (GPS), when, and communication flows (who they talk to and when). He noted some interesting experiments to observe the flow of nurses in a nursing ward, or the flow of taxis in San Francisco, or communication (e-mail and face-to-face) between departments in a German bank. They are now at the stage of trying to get whole dormitories or parts of the city of Boston using these smart phones to try to track social networks and patterns in these data. (I’ve written about digital traces before.)

How could these flows of people be used:

Traffic: one could monitor, for example, delivery vans coursing through the road networks and by observing flows slower than typical, spot emerging traffic problems.

Urban tribes: Sandy noted that by monitoring flows of taxis, you can distill separate patterns of interconnected places. In other words people who live in this neighborhood, work in this area, go to these restaurants, go to these nightclubs. (You are not actually monitoring individual people but patterns of association.  This is equivalent to Netflix telling you that people who like “The Firm” also like “Michael Clayton”.) Or one can even find sub-patterns in a neighborhood:e.g., locations from which people regularly are returning from nightclubs at 3 or 4 AM.

-You can then use these patterns to “find people like me”: based on your own patterns (where you work, where you live, etc.), the system could tell you where many people in your neighborhood shop, go to dinner, or hear music.

Lending: one major bank told Sandy that credit scores are not very good (except at the high end) in predicting repayment rates on loans. Banks would love to use behavioral information (who is at nightclubs late at night, who goes to work early) to predict repayment rates.

Health insurance: similarly one could imagine rates tied to activity levels (who was jogging or getting enough sleep or…)

Germs: they want to use these devices to watch the spread of germs through social networks.

Privacy issues

The above examples of health insurance and lending make one understand why there are clear privacy implications. Do we want banks or health insurers knowing what we are doing (going to nightclubs) to set our rates? Will this be used to impose behavioral bases for “red lining”, where people in certain areas (like the old red lined areas) don’t get loans because of some behavior of theirs that is correlated with low repayment rates? Does it make any difference if these people can supposedly change their behavior?
-Sandy thinks we should move from company owning the personal data and sharing with no one or only sharing if an individual didn’t say it was confidential to the person owning the data and being able to decide how it gets used and whether the owner gets compensated for such use.
-There are clearly issues here about how the decision is framed? Does the individual truly understand why certain marginal information is so useful to a bank or insurer? And there may be negative externalities for all, even if you don’t choose to share your information with these companies?

Sandy’s research also raises questions about what happens when you start incentivizing people in companies based on these behaviors, or you start teaching people about these hidden “honest signals”. Do people start learning how to display these honest signals and dupe people who are not as aware of this (e.g., mimicking others to increase sales or do better in negotiations). If so, do people start focusing on these behaviors (like mimicry) and consciously teach themselves not to be swayed by this? Do companies find that people who pretend to be connectors (to get a pay raise) are actually less valuable to companies than the people who do it naturally (and are unaware they are doing this)?

See previews of Sandy’s book Honest Signals here.

Buy Alex (Sandy) Pentland’s Honest Signals here.

See interesting related story in NYT, “You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. Should You Care?” (John Markoff, 11/30/08), mentioning Alex Pentland’s work among others and discussing the SF taxi example.

Crowdsourcing to replace social networks? (UPDATED 5/14/13)

crowdsourcingMark Pesce writes in “This That and the Other Thing” the following:

“The easy answer is the obvious one: crowdsourcing (see also description later in post). The action of a few million hyperconnected individuals resulted in a massive and massively influential work: Wikipedia. But the examples only begin there. They range much further afield.

“Uni [University] students have been sharing their unvarnished assessments of their instructors and lecturers. has become the bête noire of the academy, because researchers who can’t teach find they have no one signing up for their courses, while the best lecturers, with the highest ratings, suddenly find themselves swarmed with offers for better teaching positions at more prestigious universities. A simply and easily implemented system of crowdsourced reviews has carefully undone all of the work of the tenure boards of the academy.

“It won’t be long until everything else follows. Restaurant reviews – that’s done. What about reviews of doctors? Lawyers? Indian chiefs? Politicans? ISPs? (Oh, wait, we have that with Whirlpool.) Anything you can think of. Anything you might need. All of it will have been so extensively reviewed by such a large mob that you will know nearly everything that can be known before you sign on that dotted line.

“All of this means that every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.”

He suggests that these e-connections and contributions can in effect tell us which restaurant can be trusted to eat at, which professor we can entrust to teach us a class.  In principle, one could use this to also pass on social reputation with pictures and names for community residents who had behaved in an untrustworthy manner so others could avoid them.  On its face it sounds like a persuasive argument and part of a strand that suggests that the new technology can always out-do what we used to do.  Assuming the software is effective at eliminating shills (as eBay or Amazon had to contend with — writers or sellers getting fake users or affiliated users from giving them great reviews), these kind of crowdsourcing techniques can be helpful.  Yelp‘s recommendations about restaurants are often good; and Amazon‘s recommendations are instructive.

What can’t these invisible, helping e-networks do?  1) get at the truth with contested theories of what happened; 2) tell you whether you should value A’s comments more than B’s (although in principle the software could rate the comments by friends in common or their reputation); 3) actually be useful for things beyond spreading information (trust, reciprocity, social support, etc.).

Pesce goes on to point out that the technology does have limits.  Technology brings us together in anarcho-syndicalism and offers the potential for community.  But what limits its effectiveness is that we have a collision between the e-crowd and community and community requires us to work together.  We want to copy and mimic what others have done, but that requires each of us to act for the good of others.

“But [our] laziness, it’s built into our culture. Socially, we have two states of being: community and crowd. A community can collaborate to bring a new mobile carrier into being. A crowd can only gripe about their carrier. And now, as the strict lines between community and crowd get increasingly confused because of the upswing in hyperconnectivity, we behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.

And this…is..the message I really want to leave you with. You … are the masters of the world. Not your bosses, not your shareholders, not your users. You. You folks, right here and right now. The keys to the kingdom of hyperconnectivity have been given to you. You can contour, shape and control that chaotic meeting point between community and crowd. That is what you do every time you craft an interface, or write a script. Your work helps people self-organize. Your work can engage us at our laziest, and turn us into happy worker bees. It can be done. Wikipedia has shown the way.

And now, as everything hierarchical and well-ordered dissolves into the grey goo which is the other thing, you have to ask yourself, “Who does this serve?”…I want you to remember that each of you holds the keys to the kingdom. Our community is yours to shape as you will. Everything that you do is translated into how we operate as a culture, as a society, as a civilization. It can be a coming together, or it can be a breaking apart. And it’s up to you.”

What Pesce doesn’t discuss is “social capital.”  This seems to be missing from his remarks.  Some of us may serve others in real space or electronically through the goodnesss of our hearts.  We’re do-gooders or e-do.gooders.  But others of us need to understand that these social ties hold us accountable to the group.  They make us more likely to do things for others because we are hardwired to provide more for people inside our circles than outside our circles.  That’s why we give more to our family than to strangers and help friends more than we do a tribe half-way around the world.  Social ties redefine our sense of ‘we’.

It’s hard to believe that exhortations to do good on the Internet, as important as they are, will achieve the optimal amount of communal action.  That is, after all, why commons are overgrazed and oceans are overfished.  Because too many in society realize that there is more to be had from overgrazing and overfishing now rather than letting someone else do it.

Social capital can also help police social norms (of working for others, of contributing, of not taking more than one’s share).  Experimental evidence shows that fairness also seems hardwired into our brains.  We are willing to punish others in experimental Ultimatum or Dictator Games from behaving in a selfish manner, even when it means that we the punisher gets less.

For more on Crowdsourcing, Jeff Howe (from Wired) has an interesting new book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business (2008).

Definition: A company outsourcing a job traditionally served by employees and fills it through an open call to large undefined group of people, generally using on the internet.  People best qualified to do the job are not always the person that one would first think of to assign a job in a corporation.

CrowdSourcing builds upon The Wisdom of Crowds; in it, Howe identifies 4 ways in which groups can produce better results than individuals: collective intelligence, crowd creation, crowd voting, and crowd funding.

Note: Nobelist Danny Kahneman suggests that the real value of the wisdom of crowd is only when the error of people’s guesses or predictions are uncorrelated and this most likely to happen when we talk to others who disagree with us or are unlike us.

From BusinessWeek’s review of the “Widsom of Crowds” book: “In the first [category], collective intelligence, companies including Dell and gold-mining group Goldcorp ask people inside and outside the company to help solve problems and suggest new products, such as Dell‘s Linux-based computers. The second model, crowd creation, is used by businesses such as Current TV and Frito-Lay to create news segments and video ads. People vote for their favorite T-shirt design at apparel maker Threadless’ Web site, thereby illustrating crowd voting. Startups SellaBand and Kiva use the last model, crowdfunding, to underwrite new music labels and fund microloans to individuals.

“Howe’s best example is iStockphoto, a startup that is undermining the established stock-photo business. The community began in 2000 as a vehicle for hobbyists who wanted to trade their pics. Two years later, iStock began selling photos for 25 cents each to cover bandwidth costs. Clients flocked in, and in 2006, Getty Images bought the enterprise. Now, with 60,000 part-time photographers and illustrators on board, 3.5 million images in the bank, and 2 million customers, iStock is the world’s third-largest dealer of images.

“Howe sweeps away certain misapprehensions about such activity. While it’s true that most people who are involved don’t get paid, they still need incentives. At iStockphoto, that comes in the form of workshops in which people meet and share expertise. And Howe warns that not all crowds are created equal. For example, he suggests that sports teams would do better to use fantasy-league enthusiasts rather than scientists to handicap up-and-coming athletes. Perhaps the hardest lesson for businesses is the importance of including people with whom you don’t ordinarily work. Organizations reinforce similar approaches and inside-the-box thinking. When you’re looking for something truly different, the crowd can lead you down a less traveled path.”

While Howe praises this rise of the ‘virtual crowd’ — you used to have to actually assemble a crowd to benefit and now gee-whiz you can do it on the internet — I wonder whether despite benefits to corporations or individuals (like cheaper pictures on iStockPhoto or better predictions of what ads will work), we’ve lost the social capital inherent in actual crowds or the social capital built from these old-line processes.

If we are migrating to more CrowdSourcing we ought at least pursue what we do (at a minimum via the Internet) to actually bring this virtual crowd together (making creating e-events, maybe creating communities of interest as was the genesis of iStockPhoto, maybe if the virtual crowd is large enough, breaking it down by zip code and encouraging and facilitating pieces of the crowd getting together in real space).  What’s good for the goose is not always so for the gander, and CrowdSourcing is likely to lead to cheaper outcomes (for example photos) and often better, more democratic decisions, it portends to exacerbate the real losses we’ve seen in our true communities over the last generation.

10/7/09 update: Facebook, through Facebook Connect, now uses crowd-sourcing for foreign language translation, getting users to vote on which user-supplied translations are best for various phrases.  More here:

The looming financial crisis and middle class engagement

Selling Apples (Flickr photo by SirPoseyalKnight)

Selling Apples (Flickr photo by SirPoseyalKnight)

David Brooks, in “The Formerly Middle Class” (NYT, 11/18/08) writes:

“[T]hey [the new middle class] will suffer a drop in social capital. In times of recession, people spend more time at home. But this will be the first steep recession since the revolution in household formation. Nesting amongst an extended family rich in social capital is very different from nesting in a one-person household that is isolated from family and community bonds. People in the lower middle class have much higher divorce rates and many fewer community ties. For them, cocooning is more likely to be a perilous psychological spiral.

In this recession, maybe even more than other ones, the last ones to join the middle class will be the first ones out. And it won’t only be material deprivations that bites. It will be the loss of a social identity, the loss of social networks, the loss of the little status symbols that suggest an elevated place in the social order. These reversals are bound to produce alienation and a political response. If you want to know where the next big social movements will come from, I’d say the formerly middle class.”

I agree with David Brooks’ first fear.  That said, since social networks have always been the backbone of social movements (from abolition to civil rights to women’s suffrage) it’s hard to fathom how this isolated ex-middle class constituency is going to build a movement out of vaporware.  But with time on their hand, and the Internet at their disposal, maybe this will be the test of whether Internet tools (from Meetup to Facebook to virally circulated YouTube recruiting efforts) can be put to use to engage these displaced Americans and give collective voice to their frustrations.

No Virginia, there isn’t a God?


An atheist organization (The American Humanist Association) has adapted the British Humanist Association’s UK campaign (“There’s probably No God – Now stop worrying and enjoy your life “) to the US starting in DC with a Christmas season ad campaign to try to convince more Americans not to believe in God and to be good anyway, (“Why Believe In God?  Just Be Good For Goodness Sake”).

Unfortunately, their campaign flies in the face of strong data-based evidence in the US, from a high quality, large scale survey, of how religious citizens (controlling for lots of other individual factors) are better citizens: they give more to secular causes, volunteer more for secular causes, vote more, are more engaged in their communities, to name only a few benefits.

That said, the survey did not find that it is belief that produces this benefits, it was having friends in a faith community, probably because it was something about being surrounded by others who were infused with moral beliefs that held them accountable for their actions.   The survey findings reveal that “belief in God” is not the crucial predictor; atheists in theory can be nice and happy if go to church and make friends there (although only 4% of those attending church monthly are “not quite sure” they believe in God), and conversely, believers who don’t go to “church” or don’t have any friends there are more likely to be mean and unhappy.  The survey reveals that 21% of those who are “absolutely sure” about God attend church no more than once or twice a year.

This and other evidence of how religion and public life intersect will come out late next year in a book, tentatively entitled “American Grace” (Simon & Schuster) by my colleague Robert Putnam, and professor David Campbell at Notre Dame.

Updated 2008 Voter Turnout, Registration and Youth Turnout Figures

(Ironically Paris Hilton neither voted nor died in 2008)

(Ironically Paris Hilton neither voted nor died in 2008)

Voter Turnout:  Despite earlier reports that 2008 election turnout may have exceeded 1964 rates and rivaled 1960, Curtis Gans (an expert at American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate) now estimates that the percentage of eligible citizens in the 2008 presidential election was virtually unchanged from 2004 (126.5-128.5 million Americans, or 60.7-61.7%).  [Read Gans report on voter turnout here.]  Michael McDonald at GMU continues to believe turnout numbers will be higher, but thinks the rate will fall in the band that Gans predicts.  McDonald projects turnout to be 130.4 million Americans or 61.2%, a 1.1% increase over 2004, and the highest since 1968.  [See McDonald’s blog post here.] Gans and McDonald differ on the numerator (Americans who voted) and denominator (eligible Americans), and the latter difference focuses on the fact that “voter-eligibility” can be tinkered with state by state, depending on how often the state or localities scrub their voting lists to eliminate people who have died, moved, or are no longer eligible to vote.

Registration:  Curtis Gans estimates that 73.5% of Americans are now registered to vote, breaking the previous record of 72.5% of Americans in 1964.  Estimated registration for the 2008 general election increased by a moderate 2.5 percentage points; Gans believes that registration rates back when women were given the vote in 1920 may have been still higher. [Read Gans registration report.]

Youth Turnout:  CIRCLE projects that a record number of young people (19-29) voted in 2008, in terms of numbers (22.8-23.1 million Americans) and the highest percentage of youth turnout since 1972 (52-53%).   (CIRCLE’s figures are based on exit polling, which can then be compared with what youth report on the Current Population Survey, once it becomes available in the Spring).   [As one would expect, youth turnout and turnout of those over 30 years old was heavier in battleground states.]

As we noted in “Why Republicans Are So Worried“, youth favored Obama by an unprecedented more than 2:1 ratio; as CIRCLE observes “The average age-gap in support for the Democratic candidate from 1976 through 2004 was only 1.8 percentage points, as young voters basically supported the same candidate as older voters in most elections.”

And CIRCLE believes that the increased youth turnout of 18-29 year olds represented 60% of the increase in voting from 2004 to 2008.

To see the whole CIRCLE youth turnout post, click here.

See Pew Research Report on “Young voters in the 2008 election“.

Interview with key architect of Obama’s ground strategy

Many have commented how Obama’s election was a tone-perfect combination of high tech (, new cellphone applications, rapid response to smear charges, assembling a text messaging database of millions, etc.) and high touch, mobilizing over a million volunteers according to the Obama campaign. (In Florida alone there were over 19,000 Obama teams.) In the Obama campaign’s endorsement of technology, they also hearkened back to old “shoe-leather” campaigning.

I was recently reading a quote from Obama in the Newsweek behind-the-scenes look at the Obama campaign and Obama, in considering whether to launch his campaign said (according to Valerie Jarrett a close Obama friend):

“[I]f he (Obama) were to do this (run for president), he wanted to make sure that it was a different kind of campaign and consistent with his philosophy of ground up rather than top down.”  Jarrett said that Obama was influenced by Saul Alinsky, a radical-realist community organizer, who had said “Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people.”  Jarrett indicated that Obama knew he could find a non-threatening way to make people comfortable with change, including his own race and that he wanted to take the community organizing model and help it to go national in his campaign.

It’s a pleasure to be able to share a conversation with Marshall Ganz, a colleague of mine at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a community organizing maven. Marshall helped put meat on the bones of Obama’s vision of taking a community organizing approach from local to national scale; Marshall was a key architect of Obama’s “ground strategy”, training scores of trainers starting with Camp Obama (the ground zero of the Obama grassroots effort), and providing organizational consulting to the campaign. He comes out of a long history of grassroots organizing, dropping out of Harvard in 1964 to work on Freedom Summer. He then returned to California (his birthplace) where he spent a decade and a half organizing for Cesar Chavez on the Farm Workers campaign. He ultimately returned to Harvard, earning his Ph.D. and now teaches at the Kennedy School. He also trained organizers in the NH Dean campaign.

THOMAS SANDER: Marshall, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Obama election.

MARSHALL GANZ: Delighted to.

SANDER: First, tell me a bit about the organization of the “shoe leather” element of Obama’s campaign. One thing that fascinated me is that the Obama campaign believed that to overcome racial fears of some white Americans, it was important to have other white Americans making a door-to-door pitch for Obama, convincing them that other whites thought this was a safe choice.

GANZ: On the approach, Obama, whom Palin mocked for being an organizer, didn’t canvass door-to-door as it has come to be done. Campaigns hire staff who by phone calling or going door to door identify supporters and then turn them on Election Day. The Obama campaign trained people to be organizers. The organizers recruited local volunteers, structured them into teams, trained them in leadership, assigned them goals, provided them with the tools to mobilize the voters themselves, and coached them to success.

SANDER: So less of a command-and-control operation and more of mobilizing and inspiring others.

GANZ: Actually building an organization based on commitment capable of motivating others, and holding them accountable for real results. That’s why Camp Obamas, where we launched these leadership teams, were so important. In particular we trained people in how tell their stories. The campaign was based on shared values – and story telling is how we translate values into action. In California, for example, we launched 200 teams in 2 weekends, and, coached by only 4 paid organizers, built a volunteer organizations that could make 100,000 phone calls in a single day. I know you talk about “social capital.”; I think this was “civic capital.”

SANDER: the Obama campaign mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The speed of this effort may dwarf other efforts we’ve seen previously (abolition, temperance, equal rights for women, environmental movement, etc.) Should this be thought of as a social movement and will it influence partisan politics?

GANZ: Typically the party structures themselves get ossified over time and set themselves up for renewal. We saw this with the changes that McGovern brought to the Democratic Party in 1972 or the changes that Conservatives brought in with Reagan in 1980. Once the parties become obstacles to renewal, they are ultimately displaced by a wave of people mobilized by social movements that take over the party apparatus. Social movements historically influence partisan politics, some times contributing to core partisan realignment, or, at the very least, to electoral mobilization. We saw this with abolitionists, the free soil movement, and the Whigs, with populists and the Democrats, progressives and the Republicans; and, of course with the civil rights movement that mobilized Democrats and the conservative movement that mobilized Republicans in opposition.

SANDER: Is the Obama victory a watershed for the Democratic Party?

GANZ: I’m not sure what that means exactly. I was part of two “successful” efforts to take over the California Democratic Party, both of which turned out to be chimeras. We soon learned that we had wandered into a swamp with all its little pockets of quicksand, undergrowth, overgrowth, and distinct loss of access to the sunlight (to mix metaphors).

On the other hand, it could signify that the Democratic Party – and American politics in general – have recovered from the racial divisions that undermined it in the 1960s’s. LBJ predicted it would take just about as long as it has – 40 years, the lifetime of a generation.

SANDER: Were there things about how the Obama campaign was organized that play into such a realignment?

GANZ: Well in my mind people place too much stress on the Internet and other new technology. It is very useful – but as tools placed in the hands of skilled organizers, not as a substitute for them. It made it easier for people to alert the campaign that they wanted to help and easier for the campaign to plug these individuals in to ongoing efforts. By “trusting” volunteers with access to the campaign’s sophisticated voter file, volunteers could target their work far more effectively, at the same time making their work transparent – this allowed for recognition, accountability, and learning as the work moved forward.

SANDER: What about the role of new voters and new volunteers?

GANZ: This campaign was very unusual in creating a venue, contributing the resources, and providing the strategic focus within which the “movement to elect Barack Obama” could flourish. Most of the volunteers and organizers were new to electoral politics, organizing, and advocacy work. Part of the appeal was the “values” base of the Obama’s call, as opposed to the narrow single-issueness of most progressive advocacy groups that tend to conflate values and strategy into identification with a particular approach to a particular issue, something that contributes to strategic rigidity and ideological purity. The combination of clear – and inclusive – values and pragmatic strategy is a very powerful one. To make change requires willingness to take deep levels of commitment, the risks of dealing with uncertain waters, a certainty about one’s cause. None of this is possible without shared values or moral commitment and Obama realized this and appealed to a much deeper moral level.

One of the key conditions was that the campaign was able to finance its own organizational structure, with its own integrity, requiring others to cooperate with it. It thus created genuine “free spaces” within which new people could become involved; as a consequence new ways of doing things developed and new relationships formed. In 2004, the Kerry Campaign wished for a national field program, but lacking the money, people, and vision, it was gobbled up by 527’s, by state and local party organizations, by unions, and other groups, and by everyone’s favorite subcontractors of services. It made the DNC look like the privatization process of the war in Iraq. No coherence, no integrity, and no space within which new ways of doing things could be developed.

The question is whether the “movement to elect Barack Obama” can sustain enough strategic coherence – and funding base – to become an ongoing force, engaging people in local, state and national forms of activity for a broad “program for a new America”, countering the influence of conventional interest groups. It requires a real organization, not another Move.on. Another question is whether this approach to campaigning — based in organizing and not in marketing – could spill over to an approach to policy based less on “service provision” and more on “active citizenship” or organizing.

I’d be very cautious about attributing agency to some monolithic “Democratic Party”, a creature I’ve yet to meet. It is much more a venue, a kind of political market place, in which actors interact with each other to advance their interests, create coalitions, etc. It is exactly NOT a constituency party like those in Canada and Europe, with real substantive power to choose leaders, decide policy, and mobilize on their behalf, as a party.

SANDER: Marshall, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

GANZ: Sure. Let’s all work to see that this Obama infusion of energy, especially among youth, has “legs”, as they say.

Why Republicans are so worried

Republicans have to be worried about the youth vote for Obama.  Here’s what the map would look like if just 18-29 year olds decided who was president.



And the exit polls had young voters preferring Obama over John McCain by 68 percent to 30 percent, the highest ever since exit polls began reporting Presidential votes in 1976.  This youth vote continues to become more non-white:  it was 74% white in 2000, 68% non-white in 2004 and was only 62% white in 2008. [For a fuller report on youth in the 2008 election see this Pew Research Center report.]

Last time youth was so divided on a president was the election of Ronald Reagan (with youth strongly tipping Republican).  The Reagan landslide ushered in several decades of increasing conservatism.  In 2008, 45% of voters 18-29 identified as Democrats, compared with only 26% who identified as being Republican or 29% as independent. (In 2000, young voters were basically evenly split between Democrats (36%) and Republicans (35%). This is part of the reason why Republican commentators (like William Kristol) are so concerned.

Voters often keep their party affiliations for a long time, so it can make a big deal the political environment and party IDs that they first affiliate as.  It’s like political imprinting, where much as the same way ducks imprint on the first moving object they see and assume it is their mother, teenagers at a key impressionable time of their political career, often seize disproportionately on the politics of the movement.

Finally, the young voters were especially active in the campaign.  While young voters didn’t donate money as much as older groups (to be expected because of their stage in life), Pew’s post-election survey found that 28% of young voters in battleground states had attended a campaign event, far more than among other age groups.

Tool libraries

Berkeley, CA Tool Lending Library (from oraleese on

Berkeley, CA Tool Lending Library (from oraleese on

Borrowing a page from Saguaro’s recommended list of ways to build social capital, comes the emergence of a new kind of library: tool libraries.  These probably help individuals save money over each person buying these tools, and these libraries may be good for the environment (as you avoid needing to have everyone buy a skunk trap, when they might need it only rarely).  But the bad news comes in the social capital department: rather than this being friend-helping-friend (I’ll lend you my lug wrench and you take in my mail when I’m on a business trip) and thereby building up some trust, reciprocity and social capital in the process, these are libraries where you pay a few bucks a month and get to borrow common and uncommon tools.  The social capital that would be build by more informal lending libraries or tool sharing would be way more valuable when it comes to things like deterring crime, helping schools work, ensuring health and happiness, etc.

At least the ones that are geographically based increase the chance that one encounters neighbors when you go to borrow a tool.

  1. North Portland Tool Library
  2. Atlanta Tool Bank
  3. The West Philly Tool Library
  4. Berkeley’s Tool Lending Library; actually part of their public library
  5. And why couldn’t this lending spread to kitchen gadgets or A/V equipment?
  6. Tech Shop: offers more tools, but loses a lot of the social capital potential of this idea
  7. List of U.S. Tool Lending Libraries
  8. Idea of Toy Libraries

Obama’s historic election

barack-obama-hopeThe election of Saguaro’s Barack Obama as 44th, and first African-American president marks itself as a truly historic election.  It makes me immensely proud to be an American.

Some notes on the election:

1) voter turnout:  preliminary turnout projections put the numbers between 134 million (Curtis Gans, American U.) and 136.6 million Americans (Michael McDonald, GMU).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. [Some 30 million voted early and some 105 million were believed to have voted on election day.] This would translate into a voter turnout rate of somewhere around 64%, possibly exceeding the all time rate in 1960, or just below this rate.  [Curtis Gans notes on a Metro Connection interview that turnout was very high among Democrats, but actually lower in 2008 among Republicans; Gans notes that some states actually had lower turnout.  Gans notes that one shouldn’t compare votes cast to number of registered voters since once can manipulate turnout rates depending on how recently they cleaned the voter lists for people who moved or died.]  (You can see from below chart that after declining until 1996, it has shot up in the last 12 years).  [David King, of the Kennedy School believes that voter turnout, without counting the absentee ballots was 64.9%, matching the 1960 rates and could rise higher.)  One can see this as half-full or half-empty;  it is disconcerting that even in an election with such important consequences for the future of the nation, and with such compelling personalities (Obama and Palin), and with unprecedented sums spent on advertising and GOTV (get out the vote) efforts, still over a 1/3 of all eligible Americans did not vote.  But nonetheless, it is a remarkable turnaround in the last 12 years.  Curtis Gans thinks that the trends of civic disengagement from voting are generally occurring and although he hopes Obama brings in a new era of civic engagement, he thinks we shouldn’t infer too much from a couple of close elections in 2000-2008.


(Source: Michael McDonald, GMU)

2) youth vote:  Part of the story in the resurgence is youth voting.  We witnessed  huge increases in primary voting among younger voters 18-29 year olds (in many cases doubling or tripling number of youth votes 4-8 years ago in the primaries).  We have written  about what might be the beginning of a 9-11 Generation among youth, preliminary reports from CIRCLE were that youth 18-29 did not make up an increased percentage of voters in the 2008 general election [since all age groups were increasing their voter turnout, the youth’s share stayed constant at about 17%).  SEE UPDATED NUMBERS HERE. But it appears that the youth are continuing to turn out at increasing rates (from 37% in 1996 to 41% in 2000 to 48% in 2004 to 49-54% in 2008). [CIRCLE is still projecting the youth turnout from the 2008 election; we’ll fill this in when they come in with a definite number, but it could be the second highest youth turnout ever since 1972 when it was 54.5%.]  David King at the Kennedy School says the data indicates it was the highest turnout for 18 year-olds since 1972. Whether the glass is half full or half empty is a matter of interpretation;  voting rates for youth are still significantly below voting rates for seniors, for example.  And young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama.  [See the NYT’s story “Youth Turnout up by 2 Million from 2004“]

3) mobilizing new people into the political process:  2008 was an unprecedented year in terms of the numbers of volunteers and donors to the Obama campaign, and an exquisite combination of “high-tech” and “high-touch” in his campaign (with tens of thousands of door-to-door canvassers coupled with a highly sophisticated use of e-mail, texting, use of cellphone, and websites).  [We’ve written about that earlier here and here. ] But with the massive increases in the number of registered Americans, preliminary reports were that first-time voters were not noticeably higher than they were in 2004 as a percentage of the voters (even though their absolute numbers increased, since the total number of voters increased).  In the process of his campaign, he spurred 50,000 local events, 1.5 million volunteers on the web, 8,000 web-based affinity groups, and 3.1 million donors who contributed almost $700 million to his campaign. It didn’t hut that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes helped worked for the Obama campaign. [My colleague David Lazer talks about in “Obama’s Machine” [Forbes], how Obama might unleash this network in the future to his advantage.]

4) What will new Obama administration look like?  What will be their priorities?

In some regards, it is too soon to tell.  But there have been some inklings of important strands announced by Barack on the stump, above and beyond his obvious focus on energy independence, ending the war in Iraq and trying to make the economy work again.

Focus on sacrifice: Alexandra Marks article in Christian Science Monitor discussed this theme which Obama also returned to in his speech last night from Chicago.

Obama in his victory speech: “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers — in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.”

Role of the citizen:  Mentioning Obama’s focus, Michael Sandel noted “…[A] new politics of the common good can’t be only about government and markets. “It must also be about a new patriotism — about what it means to be a citizen.”  (From Thomas Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, NYT, 11/5/08)

From Obama’s victory speech: “[The campaign victory] was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth….[A]bove all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand….This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”

– Focus on service:  from Barack’s mention of a bold plan for AmeriCorps expansion as a campaign promise, to his appearing in the ServiceSummit with John McCain and Richard Stengel of TIME, to his invocation of service in his victory speech.  [As Michael Sandel noted, “This is the deepest chord Obama’s campaign evoked. The biggest applause line in his stump speech was the one that said every American will have a chance to go to college provided he or she performs a period of national service — in the military, in the Peace Corps or in the community. Obama’s campaign tapped a dormant civic idealism, a hunger among Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves, a yearning to be citizens again.” (Friedman’s column, “Finishing Our Work”, 11/5/08)]

– Slate magazine’s John Dickerson also had an interesting post on  6 ways that Obama could show he is a new type of leader

And E.J. Dionne (who was a fellow member of Saguaro with Barack) wrote an op-ed today “A New Era for America” talking about how he expects that in the same way as Barack completely recast the campaign process, he will recast politics.

Yes, it is time to hope again….Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over. Time to imagine that the patriotism of dissenters will no longer be questioned and that the world will no longer be divided between “values voters” and those with no moral compass. Time to expect that an ideological label will no longer be enough to disqualify a politician….Above all, it is time to celebrate the country’s wholehearted embrace of democracy, reflected in the intense engagement of Americans in this campaign and the outpouring to the polls all over the nation…. Obama inherits challenges that could overwhelm any leader and faces constraints that will tax even his exceptional political skills. But the crisis affords him an opportunity granted few presidents to reshape the country’s assumptions, change the terms of debate and transform our politics. The way he campaigned and the way he won suggest that he intends to do just that.