The 2008 election really succeeded in engaging new voices into the political process. Especially Obama (see below), but also Palin’s appeal to white men (some based more on Palin’s looks than her policies), has drew new voices in American politics.
Obama, who has a background in community organizing, hired some of the best community organizers in the country to build an unparalleled grassroots organization in his presidential quest. He gave campaign volunteers responsibility and access to crown jewels (like voting lists) when candidates traditionally centralize power much more. And Obama combined high-tech and high-touch.
As Newsweek’s Howard Fineman reports: “The resulting bottom line is astounding: 3.1 million contributors, 5 million volunteers, 2.2 million supporters on his main Facebook page, 800,000 on his MySpace page and perhaps a million more names on Obama’s own campaign Web site. Even discounting for likely duplicates, Plouffe says he could end up “knowing” almost 7 million voters by Election Day—roughly one in 10 of Obama’s likely total. “These are people who are responsive,” he says. “They want to be respected and to continue to be involved in what we do.”
Now that Obama is elected, how will the Obama administration rate in the care and feeding of this tremendous network? At our Saguaro conversations back in the late 1990s (in which Barack participated), it became clear that politicians have much more of a natural interest in stoking grassroots networks before elections and tend to neglect them after election victories, when it is often less clear both how to use these networks and “what’s in it for them–the politicians?”
The Deval Patrick Administration shows the potential dangers here. Patrick, a very bright, young African-American Harvard Law graduate was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 2006, also thanks to the brilliant campaigning of David Axelrod (the campaign strategist for Obama) in a campaign that had stronger grassroots civic engagement than any election Massachusetts had seen for decades. While Patrick announced that civic engagement was going to be one of the three pillars of his administration, his rhetoric has been stronger than his strategy in this regard. While it is not clear that his grassroots supporters have turned on him, they certainly are far less moored to his Administration than pre-election.
As Fineman notes: “…[I]f you live by viral marketing, you can die by it, too. ‘His supporters have sky-high expectations and expect to be involved,’ says Will Marshall, who studied the Obama organization for the Democratic Leadership Council. ‘They are loyal but not easy to control.’ ” Fineman observes that this grassroots network could turn against Obama if he puts far more troops in Afghanistan.
But if Obama’s strategists adequately focus on how to best engage these volunteers, and one would hope and trust that his experience in the Saguaro Seminar helped deepen his commitment and his knowledge about civic engagement, this enormous grassroots base could be a galvanizing force against so many of the woes that face us (our economy, our high school dropout epidemic, our need to take action against global warming, our need to mentor those falling through the cracks, etc.). Especially at a time of great economic need, when government’s purse strings may be limited by the economic bailout, unleashing a civic army of volunteers against our woes could be a doubly willing strategy.
As Marshall notes”If [Obama] wins, he’s going to have a personal following he can use to press his agenda,” says Marshall. “He can use these millions to reach over the heads of the Washington insiders, the Democrats on the Hill. It could be powerful.”