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Strong Ties, Weak Ties and Obama's "New Reality"

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, October 1 2010

Former chief Obama campaign blogger Sam Graham-Felsen has a nice post up on Huffington Post today that's worth a read. It's notable especially because it validates a very tough criticism of Obama's political strategy that a number of us have been saying for a while, but coming from Obama's top blogger perhaps may resonate further.

In the post, Sam argues that Malcolm Gladwell should have looked more closely at the Obama campaign's massive organizing push, which merged online enthusiasm for the candidate with on-land actions with real consequences (ones that might have made those kids sitting in at those lunch counters proud, by the way):

"...while the sacrifice of Obama's supporters can't be compared to the Greensboro lunch counter protesters, their engagement was far from trivial. Our average donor (there were over 3 million of them) gave more than twice -- that's saying a lot during an economic downturn. More importantly, hundreds of thousands of grassroots events were organized on my.BarackObama.com (myBO). These events may have been planned online, but they took place in the real world, where volunteers built deep relationships with one another and trained each other to become more effective organizers in their communities.

But there's a catch, I think. While Sam (who is a friend, full disclosure--as a Nation intern he factchecked my 2004 piece on the rise of open source politics) is making another version of the argument that lots of weak ties can foster very valuable and powerful strong ties--the basic counter-argument to Gladwell--he is giving the Obama "movement" a bit more credit than it deserves.

If those local, lateral organizing networks fostered by myBO etc were indeed so strong, why did they wither so badly after the election? Sam says:

"...one reason the White House has struggled is because this kind of approach towards the grassroots hasn't carried over to the administration. The people on Obama's 13 million person email list have been asked to sign e-cards for Obama's birthday and buy souvenir mugs; exactly the kind of 'weak tie' activism Gladwell derides in his essay. They could have been asked to take action that requires sacrifice and struggle -- like pressuring the Democratic Senators who stood, for so long, in the way of passing health care reform. Instead, they've been told to voice soft, inoffensive support for Obama's initiatives, to essentially keep quiet while the President's inner circle negotiates with Congress behind closed doors."

Let's first recognize the importance of what Sam just wrote. The Obama campaign's chief blogger has come out and said what many outside critics of the White House and the DNC/OFA operation have been saying for some time. The "Obama Disconnect" is a product of a severely flawed political strategy, not the natural result of people giving up their interest in being politically active after winning an election.

But here's where I think Gladwell might respond, correctly, about the weakness of this kind of online networked activism. If the ties fostered by the Obama campaign were indeed as strong as Sam suggests, why did so many people take their demobilization lying down?

How did we go from this:

To this?

At what point does all that disillusionment felt by one-time Obama supporters curdle into effective protest? Felsen ends his post with some hopeful musings about former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe perhaps joining the White House and reviving Obama's grassroots organizing efforts. Needless to say, I am extremely dubious of any likelihood that Plouffe, who recommended Rahm Emanuel for his job as White House Chief of Staff and who has been involved in White House political strategy since 2009, is about to become a Howard Dean-Marshall Ganz style Democrat.

Somewhere in all of this comparison between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Obama movement of recent years, I suspect there is a pony buried. It has to do with how grassroots organizers and movement leaders negotiate power with each other. Where Gladwell is obviously right is that, at least right now, there is no movement-from-below with the moral force and degree of commitment that the Greensboro sit-in leaders demonstrated, forcing national leaders to pay attention and moving the national conscience. It could be that we have been distracted by all our tweeting and Facebooking from the need for that kind of leadership. And yet, the ground is as fertile as ever for it to emerge, and thanks to our hyperconnected age, more than likely for it to spread when it does.