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The Other Transition: Whither Obama's Movement?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, December 6 2008

While most of the country's attention is focused on the transition underway in Washington, another vitally important transition is taking place right now in Chicago. I'm referring, of course, to the future of the Obama movement and network, or what some organizers refer to as "OFA2" (as in, Obama for America II). Thanks to reporting by Peter Wallsten in the Los Angeles Times, we know that "This weekend, hundreds of field staffers and some key volunteers are planning a marathon closed-door summit at a Chicago hotel to begin negotiating details of what the network might look like when Obama takes office in January. A group of field organizers from battleground states has been enlisted to draw up a plan."

What exactly is going on? The Obama people are saying very little. For a team that has been refreshingly open about the transition in Washington--not only posting an extensive list of transition staffers and donors but inviting public comments on top issues like health care and the economy, letting everyone see those comments and rate their value, beginning to engage in open dialogue via YouTube and mass conference calls and community discussions, posting the names of the outside groups lobbying the transition as well as the text of their position papers, asking for comments on same--the transition to OFA2, which seems to be de facto centered in Chicago, has been a totally top-down, one-way affair.

Yes, the Obama political team has been asking for input from its supporters about the future of OFA2. BarackObama.com features a big online "supporter survey" and the campaign (I guess that's what we still have to call it) has urged supporters to schedule local "Change is Coming" house parties for the weekend of December 13-14. "These meetings offer supporters a chance to reconnect with one another and talk about the issues that are most important to them," says Obama staffer Christopher Hass, "as well as an opportunity to discuss what they can do to support Barack's agenda and how they can continue to make an impact in their own communities....Your input, through the online surveys and through these upcoming house meetings, will help guide the future of this grassroots movement."

But what kind of guidance can isolated individuals and disconnected house parties give, other than vague affirmations of the need for "change" and their desire to pitch in? (The suggested agenda for the hosts of these meetings, as posted on the Obama website, is also mostly focused on each group determining its own priorities, rather than being part of a national conversation about the future of the Obama grassroots movement.) And how motivating can it be to participate in a one-way process, especially when the internet makes multiway communication and collective deliberation so energizing and empowering? (Meanwhile, the Obama campaign risks alienating its base with emails urging them to buy chachkes like a "limited edition sterling silver Obama keychain" for $30 to help the DNC pay its debts.)

In a post-election interview with Ebony Magazine, President-elect Obama says, "We won because the American people mobilized for change... It really was people at a grassroots level who carried our campaign financially, who carried it organizationally, and we don't want that to dissipate." However, it appears that the closed and oblique approach the campaign is taking to mapping the future of OFA2 is indeed leading to a dissipation of grassroots energy.

Consider this comparison. MoveOn.org called on its members to get together in "Real Voices for Change" house parties a few weeks after Election Day, and more than 1200 resulted. The Obama campaign says volunteers are hosting 1500 "Change is Coming" house parties. But the Obama email list of 13 million is three times as big as MoveOn's list. One might argue that this isn't a fair comparison, because the MoveOn events happened a month earlier, when perhaps the Obama base was more excited about the election, but one knowledgeable observer commented that the MoveOn call to action "was to people who are just as tired and confused, and no more inspiring or clear on the big program."

Another example: Jennifer Just was the Obama campaign's lead field organizer in Connecticut, going from being a volunteer starting in August 2007 to a full-time paid gig starting mid-September 2008. Now she's hard at work trying to figure out what to do next with the skills she gained and the network she helped build. Though she did participate in one of the hundreds of conference calls held by OFA2 organizers in late November, the experience left her frustrated.

"They wanted every one of the paid field organizers to get on one of these calls, which were limited to no more than 9-10 people per call. You signed up thru myBO, and it was completely random who you were on with," she told me. Her call was led by a field organizer who had worked in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state. "We basically went around in a round-robin," she said. The questions for discussion were: "what were your best practices, what worked well or didn’t, where do you think your volunteers want to go, and what ideas do you have for the structure going forward." Just said, "My feelings shifted as I heard other people talk; it was interesting. For example, for lots of other people, the neighborhood leadership teams didn’t work as well as I thought."

"My feelings shifted as I heard other people talk." That's the essence of democratic deliberation; the possibility that the knowledge in other people's heads will affect your own thinking. I asked Just this morning if she had heard anything more about the planning process since being on that call for field organizers. "I’m actually really irritated that I didn’t know about today's meeting in Chicago," she said. "And I have no idea if anything came out of those conference calls, because it’s all one-way."

Fatigue, confusion, and lack of inspiration: These are all killing conditions for organizing. The first is understandable, but the latter two are hardly givens. But by leaving people in the dark and only conducting one-way consultation on the movement's future, the Obama campaign risks losing its most vital resource: its grassroots base. (Just look what a failure to genuinely listen to his base did to John Kerry after 2004; it turned a movement back into a mailing list.)

A few weeks ago, I talked with Marshall Ganz, the architect of the Obama grass-roots organizing strategy, and he expressed some concern that the post-election moment to keep the Obama momentum going could be lost. Now, writing on a site run by Wade Hudson, another Obama activist who is trying to open up the conversation, Ganz has some strong things to say:

...as President-elect Obama and his advisors tackle the urgent task of re-peopling the Federal government, some important questions must be addressed.

Can a sitting President govern the country and lead a movement at the same time? Not only is Obama required to provide leadership to the entire country, he must bring the best leadership he can into government. That means President Obama may provide the movement with moral and political leadership but not its organizational leadership. Who can? And how would it work?

Trying to “turn it over” to the Democratic Party will not work. One can turn over lists, but not people, much less a movement.

Some people, especially political operatives, seem focused on transforming the Obama movement into a Web-based network: funds could be raised, information shared, emails called for, etc. As a kind of Presidential “MoveOn,” such a network could mobilize support when needed, albeit thinly. But this would omit the “community organizing” that infused the campaign with the grassroots leadership that gave it its strength.

More promising – and challenging – would be an effort to turn Obama for America into a new organization, perhaps a 527 or 501(c)(4). Such a “Campaign for a New America” would create a representative governing body and invite organizers, leaders, and volunteers to work through it as a major venue for “active citizenship” at all government levels. One strength of the Obama campaign was a focus on shared values that freed volunteers from rigid “issue silos” of progressive politics and facilitating participation within a far more diverse constituency. In the tradition of American social movements, it linked local action to national purpose, investing local effort with national impact, and anchoring national goals in local reality. This new organization could link the pursuit of national, state and local policy goals, facilitate local community action, and offer the training, coordination, and communication which the campaign did so well. And it could serve as a wellspring of support for candidates for local, state and national public office.

The work of volunteers in the Obama campaign demonstrated an appetite for active citizenship that many thought dead, especially in young people. The excitement, however, is not about the social service voluntarism extolled by the first President Bush as “a thousand points of light.” The excitement is about empowerment, working with others to organize, advocate, and practice politics.

This is what “active citizenship” means. It involves delegating responsibility and inviting citizens to join in the work of strategizing, mobilizing, and enacting public policy at state and local levels.

Ganz expresses a breathtaking vision of the government actively helping create the structure of such an effort, providing training, tools and leadership, and compares it to structures set up during the Civil War and the Depression that evolved into giant, civic public-private partnerships like the Red Cross. That may be too much of a leap from some Obama operatives, who probably want an organization that mobilizes citizens in support of the President's legislative agenda. Personally, I'd like to see whatever body develops have the ability to govern and finance itself, with transparent, elected leadership and open processes for determining its direction.

Is that what they're talking about in Chicago?

Here are some links to local and ongoing self-directed Obama organizing going on since Election Day:
-Nashville Community Organizers Meetup group
-GroundUp (CT for Obama)
-Wisconsin Field Hands
-Get FISA Right

If you know of more, please add a link in the comments.