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Responding to Karoli About Hope, Cynicism and the Obama Disconnect

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, January 3 2010

A blogger who goes by the name named Karoli has posted a long critique of my Obama Disconnect post entitled "The Sifry Disconnect: When cynicism kills hope." It's fundamentally a sentimental post, arguing that it makes more sense to be a "positive catalyst for change," to take responsibility for making change into our own hands, and to "quit taking potshots at the President." Why the latter is in contradiction with the former is beyond me, but whatever. Since she accuses me of various mistakes and falsehoods, here goes an attempt at responding.

First, Karoli "calls bullshit" on my writing that Obama's heavy dependence on early money from the finance sector, and from wealthy donors overall, implied a degree of "corporate ownership" (her words, not mine) over him. She says, instead, that money from individual donors vastly outpaced his funding from corporate interests, and therefore he was not really "owned" by anyone.

Well, what I wrote was, "Should we really surprised that someone with so much early support from Wall Street and wealthy elites overall might not be inclined to throw the money-changers out of the temple?" Karoli actually admits that my facts are right about the make-up of Obama's early support, but prefers to believe that early money isn't as important as every expert in the campaign finance field will tell you it is.

Puh-leeze. In every presidential election since 1980, except 2004, the candidate who raised the most money in the year before the election won his party's nomination. "Early money is like yeast," says EMILY's List, because "it makes the dough rise." "Early money is the best gauge of candidate viability," wrote Charlie Cook back in 2003. And guess what? Big, $1000+ donors gave 78% of the money raised by the Democratic candidates in the first quarter of 2007, reported the Campaign Finance Institute. Obama's small donor surge came later, but who do you think he remembers?

Second, Karoli makes a basic mistake when she writes, "The breakdown of Obama’s overall contributions suggests that primary 'ownership' isn’t corporate at all. For all the hoo-ha over Goldman-Sachs donations, they gave less than 1% of the total received. Far more came from university and tech donors." Let's be very clear: there is one sector of the American economy that provides far more funding to political candidates than any other: FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate). You can see from this motion chart how funding from this sector has exploded and outpaced every other, also, Karoli, how FIRE has tilted Democratic in response to the shift in Congress:

Obama received at least $39.6 million from FIRE, $10.7 more than John McCain, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. The only sector that gave more was "Lawyers/law firms," which is a broad catch-all used by CRP. The bottom line is as I said, for all the money Obama raised from enthusiastic small donors, he was never as independent of Wall Street and big money as imagined. (Lesson for activists going forward: learn to pool your small donations visibly, through channels like ActBlue, and demand something in exchange for your support.)

Second, Karoli misunderstands my argument about the degree to which Obama's volunteers were involved in the campaign. We agree that the campaign shared tasks with volunteers, and indeed gave them more autonomy over how to complete those tasks than past campaigns. This, however, is not the same thing as sharing power. All the beautiful rhetoric about this being a bottom-up campaign simply danced around that distinction. Read Plouffe's book, The Audacity to Win, Karoli. Or listen to Obama new media director, Joe Rospars, who this past November at Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona, declared, "The bottom up needs to be enforced from the top down."

The most interesting part of Karoli's post, and where we are mostly aligned, comes when she writes, "There is nothing in the United States Constitution that says the grassroots who got a President elected needs to wait for any official go-ahead from that President’s official party to get things done. The organizational tools, the online tools, the network tools all remain. Could it be that this is one of those “We are the change” moments that the grassroots are failing to grasp? If leadership and ownership were at a grassroots level once (and they clearly were), then perhaps those leaders were also empowered to take hold of their moment to determine and advance their agenda and goals."

Well, yes, but I don't think you can discount the importance of leadership and clear communication to whether such moments are indeed grasped. The tools are there, but they weren't designed to make it easy for people to find each other according to meaningful political geographic categories. (Indeed, during the campaign Obama's field staff had to struggle with sorting out the dozens of pro-Obama groups in a given city, rather than finding people already lined up by precinct or congressional district.) And change from below is difficult when resources are monopolized from above (why do you think so many groups are emailing you Karoli, begging for money?).

The critical issue, which Karoli completely skates past, is the actual trajectory of how OFA was slowly put together after the election, and the actual structure of the organization. This isn't about whether or not grassroots volunteers were empowered during the campaign--it's about what kind of organization was, or wasn't, offered afterwards to carry their momentum forward. That's what my first post was about, and it's still the topic worth debating.