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Marshall Ganz on the Future of the Obama Movement

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, November 20 2008

Monday I was up at Harvard to give a talk to Nicco Mele's class at the Institute of Politics on "The Making of the President 2.0: How the Internet is Changing the Political Game." (The powerpoint is here.) While I was there, I was fortunate to get an hour with Marshall Ganz, who teaches public policy at the Kennedy School and is attached to the Hauser Center on Nonprofit Organizations. Ganz is a giant in the field of community organizing, with seminal experience going back to the civil rights movement and working with Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers. More important for the present moment, Ganz was the architect of Barack Obama's grassroots organizing juggernaut. He played a central role in the "Camp Obama" training sessions--three-day intensive workshops attended by something like 23,000 local organizers--and his teachings on the theory and practice of community organizing were widely influential on the campaign's local efforts.

The full interview is about 45 minutes long, and it's going to take me a little while to get it all up on the web. We covered a lot of ground, ranging from the role of the internet in supporting the campaign's organizing program to the debate over whether online community networks are a form of community organizing. I've excerpted a chunk from the middle here, because it's on the topic that everyone is thinking about: What next for the Obama movement?

Ganz makes three really important points: The first is that we've never had a president enter office with an organizing social movement attached to him, and there's no precedent for thinking about how the participants in that movement have a voice in his presidency. The second is that this movement isn't going away, and the critical question isn't "who's going to get the list" but how will this movement govern itself. The third, which is somewhat of an open secret, is that there is a group of organizers meeting in Chicago right now trying to figure this out, and Ganz believes that their deliberations should be more open. "I think it's important to create the public space for this kind of discussion," he told me. So, with that purpose in mind, here's the interview and a rough transcript below.

"We don't have much precedent of sitting presidents leading social movements," Ganz told me. "When candidates win, they govern. They bring all their best people into governance....We have no ongoing mechanism of participation and accountability [for grassroots movements connected to a president]. That's a problem....

"Here we have a guy who won who was really propelled into office--I don't want to say that--supported through the creation of a movement. And so, now what? Can he lead it from the presidency? Probably not. There are lots of good reasons why that would be problematic. Or why that would quickly turn into emails from Barack saying 'Please send a letter to X.' Which is just the old form of what we were talking about before, politics as marketing. It could become a network of some kind, it could become an organization. If it became an organization, something like Campaign for a New America, we have to look at questions of finance and governance, as to how to enable something like that to work. But there's a foundation out there that didn't exist before, and it's not going to go away. My colleague Bob Putnam talks about social capital, there's a kind of civic capital that's been created here. It's not going to disappear."

I then asked him where all that social knowledge embedded in the network was going to go--the 23,000 Camp Obama organizers, the super-volunteers, the awareness of all the nodes at the local level. What would it be like to govern with this capacity?

Ganz replied, "I agree. That's what's being debated right now. There's a team of organizers in Chicago right now who are working on this question. The field organizers and a lot of the people who built this thing--not all of them want to go off and have jobs in Washington. A lot of them are committed to an organizing vision here and they fought for it throughout the campaign. That's one reason the campaign adopted much more of an organizing approach than it was inclined to at the beginning....New Hampshire was one of the worst marketing operations that we've seen. And so he lost, and we learned something from that. It was as stereotypically a marketing operation as South Carolina was an organizing operation, or Iowa. The caucuses are interesting because even if you don't believe in organizing, you have to, otherwise you're screwed. You arrive at a lot of organizing elements tactically, not because you necessarily want to create democratic organization."

"Folks are meeting in Chicago right now, trying to come up with some proposals--leadership from the organizing side." Why is this a closed process, I asked. He answered, "That's a good question. I don't know. It ought to be an open process and I think that's been one of the challenges for the campaign all along. But it's only as closed as you let it be. I think it's important to create the public space for this kind of discussion."

"People are all so used to thinking, a lot of groups and organizations are sort of saying, 'who's going to get the list? who's going to get the list? They sort of think of 1.5 million names, who's going to get it? You can transfer a list, but you can't transfer people that way. That's what's out there, is people. Over the next few weeks, months, there's going to be some working thru this. It's very important what Obama decides. Whether to try to support some kind of organized effort, that's rooted in the campaign, or not."

Interesting choice of words, no? "It's only as closed as you let it be." To be continued...