Guest Post by Thad Williamson: There can be little question that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign marked a seismic event in the history of American political participation, an event that is incredibly interesting in its own right and that may have long-term repercussions for the future trajectory of civic engagement in America.
Here in Richmond, Virginia, due to the efforts of the Obama campaign, voter rolls swelled by 18% (an increase of over 18,000 voters) between the February primary and Election Day last week. Voter turnout was up roughly 25% across the city compared to 2004, and Obama compiled a voted margin in this strongly Democratic city (about 54,500) nearly twice as high as that mustered by John Kerry (29,000 votes) four years ago.
Any political scientist would consider an event or factor capable of increasing political participation by 20-25% in a single election cycle, holding other factors constant, a very big deal. And so the Obama campaign is!
But perhaps what is most interesting about the Obama campaign is the reminder it provides that human behavior is not pre-determined by regression models, or by past behavior. Prior to this year, few would have believed that turnout in the city’s four predominantly African-American council districts, neighborhoods with historically low voting rates, would be over 40% higher than in 2004. Nor were there any good recent examples in Richmond of sustained, multi-racial organizing involving diverse citizens working side-by-side in horizontal relationships towards a shared goal.
The Obama campaign changed both those facts, and consequently this city is now a different place politically. Indeed, we are living in a rare moment where the future seems open and the possibility of “change” of various kinds seems very real.
How the Obama campaign might affect the long-term civic culture of the United States is a very open question, however. Will the networks and contacts and relationships established during the campaign endure, and what shape will they take?
We can break that overarching question down into four more specific ones.
The first has to do with how the vast civic network established by the Obama campaign might affect his administration’s governance. It has been reported this week that the Obama camp has a list of 11 million email addresses (not to be confused with 11 million distinct people!) , and the transition team is soliciting yet more addresses at its change.gov website.
The obvious use towards which that list might be put is to exert pressure on Congress to pass the Obama Administration’s legislative proposals. Such pressure would be useful not just in persuading the odd recalcitrant Republican senator (and/or Joe Lieberman!) from blocking legislative progress through filibusters, but in ensuring that the Democrats themselves do not lose their nerve and water down proposals threatening to established interests.
No one imagines, for instance, that it will be possible to pass meaningful health care reform without encountering determined resistance from some in the insurance industry as well as from conservatives opposed for philosophical reasons.
Obama will be determined to avoid a repeat of 1993-94 when the Clintons advanced an ambitious reform agenda without having the foot soldiers or public enthusiasm to advocate effectively for the plan. The entire theory of Obama’s campaign has been that grassroots organization will be required not just to win the election but to pass meaningful legislation.
All signs indicate that the new administration intends to aggressively enlist its supporters in the legislative struggles ahead, and thereby inaugurate a new mode of presidential governing.
But this raises a second, more difficult, question: Can those same mobilized networks of supporters be used to hold President Obama accountable? Will the administration allow repeats of this summer, when his own website was the venue for a vocal protest against the candidate’s vote for the FISA granting retroactive immunity to telecoms? Will generally supportive groups like moveon.org be willing to hold Obama’s feet to the fire should he change positions or strategy? Will Obama supporters move to set up their own groups independent of the campaign/administration’s organizational infrastructure?
Those are difficult but important questions going forward. The challenge is how to assure that the potential for direct communication between the White House and supportive voters becomes not just a one-way but a two-way dialogue. That challenge is complicated by the fact that Obama supporters will surely disagree among themselves regarding when they should be willing to call the president out loud and clear when he goes astray and when they should be willing to accept departures from campaign promises as a matter of pragmatism.
Here we might expect over time a divide (of sorts) to emerge between supporters who are primarily attracted to Barack Obama as an individual leader and are willing to support him and trust his judgment almost unconditionally, and those who see him as a vehicle for advancing values they care about. (That dichotomy is overdrawn of course; I don’t know of any strong progressive supporters of Obama who don’t also admire his personal qualities, at least to some degree.)
A third question is whether and how the networks established by the Obama campaign at the local level might generate new forms of cross-cutting social and civic capital that facilitate progressive action and changes in specific places. The question is particularly pertinent here in Richmond, where there is great need for a mobilized civic network involving African-Americans, Hispanics, and whites from multiple parts of the city.
What happens in Richmond and in similar places will depend on the actions and steps these former Obama volunteers take themselves to keep the network going. I’m pleased to report that the email network of (demographically diverse) campaign volunteers I’m on in Richmond has already had one community picnic , with more events planned going forward; how all this might translate into future politically significant efforts remains to be seen. While it’s not realistic to think that all or even most of the millions of people who showed up to volunteer for Obama in their local community (some of whom, as in Richmond, are inherently transient college students) will want to remain engaged in local networks, it’s very possible that local core groups of permanent residents who are energized by the campaign and have an appetite for more will lead the way in creating new progressive civic groups with real staying power.
The fourth question is how the Obama model of campaigning will affect the Democratic Party as an institution going forward.
Marshall Ganz, who did incredible work in bringing Obama’s community organizing strategy to life, rightly points out that the Democratic Party is hardly a monolithic institution. Indeed, in many localities, it has often been a virtually empty shell (a situation that Howard Dean began to rectify with his 50-state strategy). Nonetheless, it is (as Ganz puts it) a critical “venue” for political contestation; and the Party does have a financial and legal infrastructure which can be used (as the Obama campaign did) in support of an organizing approach to electoral politics.
Obama has, ironically, an opportunity to take top-down steps to re-organize the Democratic Party into an institution that encourages and facilitates bottom-up grassroots campaigns. But he will have to decide how much energy to put into that project, and how to balance investing in future Democratic electoral success with his post-partisan stance. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether the Obama model of inspired grassroots organizers knocking on every last door and making sure every identified supporter has voted can work without a leader as inspirational and attractive as Obama himself.
Indeed, some cautious Democrats may wonder if it’s wise to bank the party’s future hopes on the idea that the civic effort witnessed on Obama’s behalf in 2008 can be duplicated on behalf of another candidate in 2016. Put another way, the question is whether the organizing model of campaign politics since in 2008 should be seen as a one-off event, or something which might perpetuate and build upon itself by force of habit, so that by the time Obama leaves the scene no one will dream of trying to do a national campaign any other way.
My guess is that Obama would prefer for the latter scenario to unfold, but he’ll have to help make it unfold in his de facto role as head of the Democratic Party. Already he has made it possible to at least imagine a Democratic Party that functioned not simply as a vehicle for contesting and winning elections but a tool for organizing communities.
[Very interesting guest post by Thad Williamson. See comment by Tom Sander below]