The Obama Movement

May 8, 2008 at 9:52 pm | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment

Photo by Flickr user calijbrown (Creative Commons)

From an email I received this afternoon:

Lesson of the past week: for every Boris, there’s a Barack.

How true. At the time of writing, Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. 143 years since the abolition of slavery and 43 since the death of Jim Crow, the offspring of an interracial marriage is running for President on a message of hope, unity and the enduring dream of America. Against a Senator with greater name recognition, larger institutional support, a once-bottomless campaign war chest and the vocal support of a popular former President, he has won the most votes, the most states and the most delegates, and done all this whilst weathering scandals both real and artificial, as well as endless attacks from a tenacious rival. Even a cynic would admit that’s an impressive feat.

Let me get the necessary caveats out of the way: Obama is neither a perfect person, a perfect candidate or the politician I’d wish him to be. He will disappoint someone every day for the rest of this campaign and – if elected – during the course of his Presidency. As others have noted, he is not the Messiah; merely an extraordinarily gifted vote-grabber with some good ideas.

But it’s not Obama the man I want to focus on here, nor his rhetoric or policies. Instead, I want to focus on Obama the movement. At a time when British liberals/progressives/social democrats (delete as appropriate) are staring at the very real possibility of a Conservative victory in 2010, it’s worth taking a look at the factors that’ve helped propel a Junior Senator from Illinois – who hasn’t even completed a full term in the Senate – into the position of having a genuine chance of becoming President.

First, to dismiss it as a quasi-religious personality cult launched on the back of a few fancy speeches is to give Obama credit he doesn’t quite deserve. Rhetorically, his campaign hasn’t been much different from those hope-mongering underdogs who’ve gone before – the Gary Harts, Bill Bradleys and Howard Deans who all fought populist campaigns against well-supported ‘machine’ candidates. They, like Obama, could all rally supporters around inspiring messages, but none of them had the benefit of an influential and increasingly well-organised progressive netroots.

Since I’ve written about this before, so I’ll just recap the key points. When poltical blogging was only in its infancy and the Democratic Party seemed to be on its knees, bloggers Jerome Armstrong (MyDD) and Markos Moulitsas (DailyKos) wrote a book identifying the key failings within the party:

  1. Party leaders in Washington had lost touch with the mood of the country and lost the ability to speak effectively to it.
  2. Democrats were too willing to accommodate to corporate interests at the expense of ordinary Americans.
  3. They swallowed Republican talking points as if they were the truth and failed to challenge the conservative bias of a well-known media baron.
  4. They operated under the assumption that they could only win by blurring distinctions between the parties and by running campaigns for stage-managed, say-nothing centrists.
  5. Organisation in some parts of the country was a sham. Active party membership was low, voter turnout was poor, get-out-the-vote operations were often nonexistent.
  6. The party had an over-reliance on swing seats as a means of winning power without bothering to be competitive across the country.

As I said in my earlier post:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the only major difference between the Democratic Party of 2004 and the Labour Party of 2008 is that Labour remains in power – for now.

They concluded that the problems were so substantial and the Dem power-brokers so cloth-eared to criticism that change could only be achieved by applying pressure from the outside – a politics powered by the people. So they blogged and argued and harrassed. They campaigned for candidates who spoke plainly, passionately and unapologetically in defence of progressive values. They lobbied their Senators and Congresspeople to vote for or against bills they felt strongly about. With time and effort, their numbers grew, and with that their fundraising power, their effectiveness and their influence over the national party. There is now no hope of ignoring them and no chance of them going away.

The early success of Howard Dean’s 04 campaign was a reflection of this developing movement, but he was too ahead of his time for it to deliver him to victory. Just four years later, the Obama campaign is a realisation of what was possible. His rhetoric may have drawn people to him, but it was his campaign’s remarkable organisation – thanks in large part to his own website and those of other activists – that kept them involved, kept them motivated, helped them organise and refine arguments before canvassing. To date, over 1.5 million Americans have made donations, the vast majority of them small-dollar contributions, and each penny has helped him overcome a candidate with a superior network of big-time fundraisers. By most objective measures, he has won the first campaign of the 21st century.

With a precipitous drop in its share of the vote, falling membership levels, a cabinet crammed with stuffed-shirts who mumble mealy-mouthed statements that don’t connect with the public, it’s a little late in the day to assume the Labour Party hierarchy can enact the far-reaching reforms needed to resonate with the public once more. This doesn’t mean abandoning the party – far from it. It means finding ways of influencing the party from the outside, ensuring that real people are fighting in elections rather than some Millbank-endorsed, Oxbridge-educated apparatchik who once advised James Purnell. It means articulating our values strongly enough that our politicians are forced to reflect them. It means growing a movement of such a size that it’s able to organise, fundraise and campaign so effectively that its voice begins to be noticed inside the party’s corridors of power.

Yeah, we’re nowhere near the stage of being able to achieve any of this, but I’m a firm believer that we can borrow what’s worked so effectively in the U.S. and adjust it in a way that works for the liberal left. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing more Baracks than Borises.

Photo by Flickr user Calijbrown (Creative Commons)


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  1. […] Obama’s presidential campaign could teach British progressives (indeed, I’ve been more guilty of that than most), but too much has been vague hypothesising  and rueful ‘what ifs’, […]

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