Review of "Obama's Lost Army"
The New Republic article "Obama's Lost Army" [https://newrepublic.com/article/140245/obamas-lost-army-inside-fall-grassroots-machine] which tells part of the tale of how "Organizing for America" got lost in the shuffle of his Presidency. MICAH L. SIFRY wrote this on February 9, 2017. I was a member of OFA during the election season and loved it. I also remember a few angles on the story that seem to be lost in the reporting. So I tweeted about the meaning of the article and how the structures and capabilities of "Organizing for America" could be the nucleus for modernizing our party and instituting real electronic democracy.
Critique of Article
I've been writing on Electronic Democracy for some time. I was frustrated when it failed to be institutionalized in 2009. I also remember what happened to OFA. The whole story is much more more complex than he makes it. Essentially Obama couldn't keep OFA going himself. And he also didn't have the means for institutionalizing it. That is the real reason it fell by the wayside. The personal story is interesting, but it tends to obscure the institutional barriers that were in place and over-emphasize factors that actually were not in play. At the same time it is a fascinating story, and one about an uncompleted project:
"On July 20, 2008, Mitch Kapor, the creator of Lotus 1-2-3 and a longtime denizen of Silicon Valley’s intellectual elite, dialed in to a conference call hosted by Christopher Edley Jr., a senior policy adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Joining them on the line were some of the world’s top experts in crowdsourcing and online engagement, including Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, and Mitchell Baker, the chairman of Mozilla. Drawing on Kapor’s influence, Edley had invited them to join a “Movement 2.0 Brainstorming Group.” Together, they would ponder a crucial question: how to “sustain the movement” should Obama, who was still a month away from accepting the Democratic nomination, go on to win the White House." [OLA]
The article tells the story of how:
"“MyBO,” as it was known, gave supporters the ability—unthinkable in a traditional, top-down political campaign—to organize their own local groups, campaign events, and fund-raising efforts"
And how everyone at the time (and now) saw the importance of sustaining those abilities.
“As the primary season wound down, it struck me that the campaign’s broad-based engagement via the internet could evolve into a powerful tool to shape progressive politics at the national, state, and local levels,” Edley recalls. “One goal would be to support an Obama presidency. But the agenda would be far broader.”
The Vision of Electronic Democracy
What is still inadequate is implementation of our vision as articulated by Edley:
“Imagine a way to transfer/transmute all of that involvement into a new mechanism or set of instrumentalities through which people can feel a heightened and more powerful kind of civic engagement with each other and with Obama and other leaders. And vice versa.”
The article recounts how Edley echoed what many progressives were beginning to believe was possible with a President Obama:
“There is a rare opportunity to have a citizen movement heading in the same progressive direction as an incumbent president.”
The article then claims that "According to [Edley's] notes, the Silicon Valley luminaries on the call agreed.
“Most felt it would be an unacceptable loss not to take advantage of the rare alignment of an incumbent President with a progressive agenda, and an online constituency of donors and supporters who can press for change against the inevitable upsurge of entrenched special interests which will resist it.”
Lessons to be learned.
The first lesson to be learned, is that good ideas never die. And failures, well analyzed, pave the way for Success. So the first lesson of the OFA experience is:
Depending on POTUS to sustain grass roots. Grass roots by definition is bottom up.
The author claims that Obama "mothballed" OFA by "bottling it up" within the DNC. But that is not what was actually happening. Putting OFA within the Democratic party was appropriate. What was lacking was the way we organized the Democratic party, that we didn't put OFA in the Democratic party as a means for local communication, structurally. OFA was optimized for electing Obama. The DNC in general is optimized to serve the needs of party and member elected officials. To realize the vision of OFA its structures needed to be an integral part of the Democratic Party's vision and structures. The Democratic party didn't implement it and then later the resources needed had been lost.
These reforms depend on networking and bottom up structures
The members lists and money raising features did become useful tools of the party. The author refers to a Rolling Stones Article from 2009 called "No We Can't" about the failures of top down command organizing in replacing the deceased Edward Kennedy with Coakley. It failed because of that top down organization. For example they diverted resources from Coakley to other states.
Obama could not run OFA once he was POTUS. And indeed putting in the Democratic Party was the appropriate move. It just needed (and still needs) follow up to implement the vision. Had the Party kept the structures he created, Coakley and Intrastate actors would have had the tools they needed to decide their own fates.
What Obama did was to create a nucleus for what could be a modernized democratic party
Much of OFA, the fund raising, member list parts that were created, did become a tool of the Democratic Party. One that was useful enough for the Bernie Sanders campaign to want to use to run their own insurgency 8 years later, and do so successfully. The bare bones were transferred. But to implement the spirit of OFA required more than simply replicating a campaign structure.
We still need to modernize & organize the party around working democratic principles and electronically
The fellow who shared the article on twitter, Eric Shapiro noted:
"I think [a] common enemy in form of Trump can help make that a reality if Dems & progressive activists play cards right.
And I agree, we have a window to produce a viable alternative to the tired old structures of Authoritarian tyranny before that authoritarian tyranny solidifies into a semi-permanent version of the nightmare it is already becoming. But it starts with reorganizing the Democratic party not playing the blame game.
Channeling Grassroots energy
There is a real reason that as Michael Slaby noted:
“Our party became a national movement focused on general elections, and we lost touch with nonurban, noncoastal communities.” [OLA]
This was a party failure, not only a movement failure. The Democratic party was a collection of interests, and as the party moved in more progressive directions as a whole, Democrats became Republicans who no longer shared that interest. And those who did, unable to win elections were shut out of power and resources.
Eric noted that "The key is for institutions to channel grassroots energy without attempting to impose too much control" and that means that local branches and chapters of the party need to have an independent existence and communications structures. Essentially there needs to be two milestones to our party's election cycle. The first is the primary election and the second is the general election. Ultimately all grassroots movements are bottom up and founded on local concerns as much as universal ones.
Primary and General Cycles
The basic structures of OFA still need to be institutionalized, sustained & made part of the democratic establishment.
Electronic Democracy can address that by reinstating OFA's ability to join and organize locally. The Party can in that way resource the whole country with minimal energy. For that to work it also has to be willing to resource people who aren't going to win immediate elections -- or whose ideas might be at variance with those of the national party. Without the electronic parts the party just doesn't have the resources to do that. There was this myth of a wealthy and all powerful Democratic Party -- but it is budget constrained. Electronic democracy can get around that by giving the communications tools locals need to communicate with each other and recruit new members.
The Democratic Party Belongs to its Members
“There is a straight line between our failure to address the culture and systemic failures of Washington and this election result.” [OLA]
This is true on several fronts, but not quite the way that Michael Slaby seems to mean it. In the sense that "Washington" refers to the Democratic National Committee, there has been a failure to resource local democrats and create communications systems to get around the GOP control of local political power and media. This wasn't a failure that could be addressed by the Progressive movement except through the Democratic party. For one thing local politicians are likely not to be as progressive as their relatives in the cities. If the Democratic party is to remain democratic, it has to respect and enable healthy debate and multiple viewpoints.
The Fact is that the Democratic Party and the Central Government can resource local people and empower them to solve their own problems and work with the rest of us to solve our common issues. The only reason we haven't done so is that.
The powerful always fear change unless it helps them keep power. We have to make it easier to collaborate.
We make it easier to collaborate by setting up the system so that the plank, list of issues to address, platforms and agendas of all our candidates are clearly communicated along with the strengths and promises they've made. And
WE make it easier to collaborate by using electronic democracy as a tool for effective two way communication. If people feel like their candidates and elected officers truly represent them, they'll be enthusiastic about them. If the candidates know exactly what their constituents expect and can communicate to them progress in addressing their needs, then the candidates will be more confident about winning reelection and being able to serve them well.
Using the Primary system to vet candidates and ideas
To make electronic democracy work, and not a mere manipulation and propaganda tool. The system has to have the built in ability to identify, list, track, verify, qualify and fact check issues and candidates. By making the primary system of the Democratic party around vetting candidates and issues, we make a system where voters can be confident that they have the right people and the right ideas and that they can confidently promote those ideas. This might scare off sociopaths, demagogues and liars, but it will attract quality leaders. By thoroughly investigating and debating ideas people will know what they are getting. And slander and libel politics can be made a thing of the past.
We can improve our vetting processes to adjudicate issues.
A system of listening, recording, listing and identifying issues to be addressed. Using the primaries and systematic debates to make candidates address those issues. Tracking the issues so that after the candidate runs in the general we can monitor their performance. is one that can be unbeatable if run by people with any integrity at all. More importantly such a system reinforces the integrity of those with integrity and can drive out those who don't have any. Even better, we can improve our system systematically by relentless deliberation.
We need to learn the lessons from OFA and employ them. Not shut the door out of fear.
Sources and Further Reading
There are a lot of sources for this article/review. But the ones to list right now are here;