Change-o-meter: Another Online Tool To Measure Obama’s Promises

The “Yes We Might” meme seems to have infected another online host. Slate.com has rolled out an irreverent and  informative daily roundup of the amount of progress Obama made in changing Washington called the Change-O-Meter.

change-o-meter

As you can see, this slightly ironic take on the Obameter idea is a typical Slate offering, and nothing like the idea suggested by yours truly to build a collaborative online platform for activism around Obama’s agenda. However, Slate’s offering actually has arguably more accountability than the Obameter, in the form of a chat that explains the criteria for the daily rating. Also, the witty roundup of political news from a critical perspective is more likely to gain an audience than the dry presentation of promises by the Obameter.

I’ll give the Slate guys an A for doing well for what they were trying to do, but it’s still not the full hover car.

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Israel Defense Force Invades the the Blogosphere

From Haaretz (h/t Internet and Democracy Project):

The Immigrant Absorption Ministry announced on Sunday it was setting up an “army of bloggers,” to be made up of Israelis who speak a second language, to represent Israel in “anti-Zionist blogs” in English, French, Spanish and German.

The program’s first volunteer was Sandrine Pitousi, 31, from Kfar Maimon, situated five kilometers from Gaza. “I heard about the project over the radio and decided to join because I’m living in the middle of the conflict,” she said.

Before hanging up the phone prematurely following a Color Red rocket alert, Pitousi, who immigrated to Israel from France in 1993, said she had some experience with public relations from managing a production company.

“During the war, we looked for a way to contribute to the effort,” the ministry’s director general, Erez Halfon, told Haaretz. “We turned to this enormous reservoir of more than a million people with a second mother tongue.” Other languages in which bloggers are sought include Russian and Portuguese.

There is nothing ethically wrong with these kinds of efforts, but I think it shows the inevitable maturation of the blogosphere into a medium of mass communication as subject to the efforts of government and political spin masters as newspapers or television. Blogs put these grassroots efforts at a more equal footing to compete with these governmental and political efforts, and offer real possibilities to oppositional organizations that didn’t exist offline. However, any claims to the radical political potential of the internet need to be reformed to include the evolving ability of governments to adapt to the new informational environment.


Red Sox are Democrats and Yankees are Republicans

Henry Farrell, who over the course of my thesis has become my favorite current academic, wrote an awesome article in last week’s American Prospect outlining the trade-offs between partisanship and participation. There is a commonly held view, amongst intellectuals, politicians and the public, that civic culture is in decline and partisanship is at an all time high. Less people are involved and those who are involved are less likely to talk to each other. Farrell, of late, has been writing journal articles arguing something more sophisticated and contemporary: namely, that partisanship is a boon to participation.

Evidence suggests that people who are strongly engaged in politics and hence likely to volunteer for campaigns are strongly partisan and tightly clumped around the ideological poles (they are strongly liberal or strongly conservative). If this is right, online activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama’s own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is both making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly “moderate” decisions, and forcing Republicans to adopt similar organizing techniques in order to win elections.

This is, I think, the key lesson of online organizing for both theorist concerned about normative issues and activist concerned with mobilizing supporters. Online politics offers an extension of traditional party politics that can provide new tools and opportunities, but does not alter the structure of the electoral system.

There is a tradeoff in online participation between moderation and active participation. My girlfriend offered a useful analogy for Farrell’s argument by likening political partisans to sports fans. (An analogy that compares sports to politics: it should be obvious why I like this girl.) More engaged sports fans are more likely to know more about their team, but also, as a consequence more about the other teams, the league’s schedule, and how the game is played. Those more likely to go to a game, or buy a team hat, are those who care most about their team. Likewise, more partisan citizens are more likely to donate money or volunteer for a political organization, or talk to their friends about politics.

Theorists and media denizens who wish for active citizen interest in politics without partisanship seek to separate the reality of politics as practice from the idea of politics as a deliberative process (David Broder, I’m looking at you). Taking an active rooting interest is a crucial part of enjoying sports – and politics. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be cordial relations between members of parties, or active consultations with members of the opposition. It is most fun as a sports fan to watch the game with other people who care as much as you – whatever team they might be rooting for.

In politics, as in sports, this kind of thing is unacceptable:

What is the Online Organizing Equivalent of the Hover Car?

In an ideal world, we would all have hover cars and progressive activists would have a credible plan for pursuing a progressive agenda in a Democratic trifecta. Alas, we live in a fallen world, bursting with imperfections, not the least of which is a utter lack of hover cars.

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I want his car and his moustache

So the question remains, how should progressives treat the incoming Congress and President, and how should we organize online to maximize the progressive policy outcome. I have already criticized both the President’s new organization and unaffiliated leftists who are already harping about problems with Obama policies. The trick here, as all else in politics, is to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As our patron, Wallie Von Bismark has been known to say: politics is the art of the possible. Recognizing and maximizing what can be accomplished is the foundation of political judgement.

Progressives should recognize this moment of opportunity, but must also be savvy enough about the process to work it properly. The lack of channels for this kind of activism is why I really liked Chris Bowers idea of monitoring legislation before it reaches a committee vote, which allows for concerted pressure and media exposure prior to the calcification of voting decisions by members of congress. It is a proactive, proscription platform for action that provides progressive activists an avenue into the legislative process. I propose an expansion of this project that allows for wikified, Digg-style legislation/issue tracking platform that would channel grassroots opinion to inform elite discourse without management by party officials. This platform, lets call it Onward.org, would aggregate all the information (blogposts, news stories, issue group statements, Facebook and Myspace postings) by issue area and particular bill in a manner similar to OpenCongress. Each issue and bill node would contain links that provided ways for interested citizens to get involved and connect with organizations working on their issues. The platform would provide members with the opportunity to promote issues on the group’s agenda and promote popular knowledge and participation on issue campaigns. The wikified nature of the group would generate for peer production of content, which would greatly increasing the amount of content available on the site.

Certainly MoveOn would be the organization most capable of pulling off something like this, but from a branding perspective one way to do it would be to tie it to Obama’s stated agenda. The organization could track Obama’s progress towards achieving his campaign promises and take the necessary action to reign him in when it looked as if he was defecting from previously stated policy preferences. The group would give Obama plausible deniability by virtue of it’s independence from the party and could extend the terms of the debate leftward by bringing pressure to bare on  democratic and republican officials. You could also knock up a fancy tracking infographic that would allow you to visually see the progress of the liberal agenda and where it was caught up.

The Limitations of the Cult of Obama

As has been noted elsewhere throughout the blogosphere, and probably in your email box, the Obama campaign made a decision about what to do with the 13 million email addresses they’ve been collecting over the past two years. In this video, Obama announces that Organizing for America will be the next step in the grassroots campaign.

This video makes clear that the Cult of Obama will be folded into the DNC, while maintaining a separate identity. This distinction will split the difference between those who called for a full incorporation within the DNC and those who thought independent and new voters would be turned off by any partisan affiliation. I think this arrangement demonstrates the limitations of candidate based organizations in the US system. Democracy for America – the second incarnation of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign – faced a similar challenge in attempting to pivot grassroots momentum into a post campaign environment, as have Ron Paul supporters. These groups inevitably lose a large percentage of their organization (measured in donations, membership, hours volunteered) depending on the degree to which the campaign can be translated into an issue agenda. Said differently, post-campaign organizations maintain momentum to the degree that the campaign was based on a clear ideological program.

The problem with OfA is that Obama distanced himself from his ideological and partisan affiliation throughout the campaign and it’s unclear the extent to which Obama voters share an ideological viewpoint. To be successful in presidential politics you must assemble a broad coalition of voters and voters tend not to be nearly as ideological coherent as political scientists would like them to be. This motivates presidential campaigns to obscure as much as possible – the most partisan voters have little reason to vote for anyone else and the least partisan voters are likely to be turned off from what they see and don’t like. Presidential candidates thus have an incentive to reveal as little as possible of their policy preferences to the public, all else being equal. Unfortunately, this same incentive cuts directly against the political organization of interest groups and social movements, which are based around stances on a chosen range of policy questions. The American political system is uniquely personality based, compared to most other advanced democracies, which makes it more difficult for out of party organizations to rally behind official programs.

This is all a round about way of saying that any Obama affiliated organization will struggle to transform a personality based organization into a policy/issue organization. Organizing for America has the benefit of starting from a huge base, which allows for a lot of attrition, while still maintaining giant membership. If only 1 in 100 people who contributed to Obama for America contribute to Organizing for America, you’re still talking about one of the biggest organizations in American politics. If the group puts boots on the ground, as some have suggested they are going to do, you’re talking about a truly unique organization in American political history – nothing of this type has really been tried before. It’s unprecedented to have a post-campaign organization with that level of resources.

However, the limitations won’t be due to a lack of resources, but on the lack of flexibility based on a lack of independence. Will Organizing for America really be able to pressure recalcitrant democrats into line using the resources of a DNC affiliated organization? If, say, Blanche Lincoln the Democratic senator from Arkansas who is the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, is making noises that she won’t vote to override a Republican filibuster on the controversial Employee Free Choice Act, will Organizing for America’s field op in Arkansas really be able to enlist Obama for America volunteers to make calls that pressure her into supporting the bill? I don’t think it’s likely, because those volunteers are probably not willing to make calls against their democratic senator, and the President won’t want to risk alienating the conservative and moderate voters that elected Lincoln in the first place.

Obama wouldn’t want to risk offending Lincoln over the long term by having a Democratic organization take political action against him. The lack of independence between OfA and Obama limits it’s potential to act as an enforcer for progressive ideological goals. Obama wouldn’t want to be seen as publicly breaking with Democratic lawmakers on votes that require party loyalty to override Republican vetoes, such as the Employee Free Choice Act. Of course, the new organization could be helpful in pressuring moderate republican in states that Obama won into supporting broadly popular legislation (OH, ME, NV, PA, NH, IN) , which I suppose is the model they are going for. The organization will be useful in pressuring these potentially moderate Republicans and shouldn’t be discounted for this reason.

However, I think that progressives should concern themselves with the lack of institutional firepower independent of the party that can act as a magnet to pull the pendulum towards the left. Even with large majorities in both houses and the presidency, the American political system is exceptionally resistant to change and the unique political opportunity of the current moment could pass without bold action if the Democrats aren’t held accountable. The Democrats have a singular opportunity to significantly alter the structure of the American economy, reform the contract between citizens and their government, and revitalize our infrastructure for the 21st century. They are going to need someone to hold down their left flank, and give them cover for taking bold policy stances. The pressure must come from outside the party, because party officials, including Obama, are limited in their ability to publicly disagree with their fellow party members.

The problem is that try as they might, political parties can’t incorporate many aspects of social movements, and this organization will run-up against those limitations. The act of governance requires a much tighter adherence to the script than social movements and the vague promises of participatory engagement made to the Obama “movement” will be difficult to allow once in power.

UPDATE: Check out this video from the Onion if you don’t yet see what I mean.
Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

On the Perfidity of Progressive Hacks

Please see Nate Silver on why David Sirota is a hack. (Read the whole thing, as they say).

I am concerned that the progressive infrastructure, that I argued yesterday only partially exists, will not be useful during Obama’s administration because they (/we) won’t pick the right fights or fight the right way. To the extent that the infrastructure of the left does exist, as a movement in the way the conservative movement exists, it exists through online political organizations, such as Moveon, and the progressive blogs. These organizations drive a lot of the activism and political discourse around progressive issues. Unfortunately, these organizations, borne of opposition, have never lived through in an era of progressive ascendancy and so perhaps lack the political sophistication to navigate the more treacherous waters of governing.

The Wall Street bailout provides a stark example of this dynamic, because it is unquestionable that the government needs to take action to save the banking sector. The netroots could – should – have a role to play in pushing for useful changes to how this intervention occurs: namely, I think all empirical evidence points to nationalization as the least worst option available to policymakers. No Zombie banks: everyone needs to know which banks are safe and which ones are fucked. Even short of advocating temporary nationalization, there are tons of accountability measures that progressives should pressure congress into placing on the disbursement of the additonal TARP funds.

Unfortunately, some on the left are using the complicated issue of voting for the second tranche of the TARP funds as an excuse for demagoging and playing the gadfly. These kinds of empty gestures are fine for building political support for a budding progressive movement, but they don’t acknowledge the responsibilities of government and they don’t advance a progressive agenda.

Online Political Organizing in the Age of Obama

The potential changes in the Obama campaign infrastructure as it moves from campaign season into the White House has consumed the Digitalati, that subset of the professional political and journalistic class that focuses on the intersection of politics and digital technology. The speculation has centered primarily around two interrelated questions. The first question is how an Obama administration will incorporate technology to create more responsive and participatory government, as in the debate surrounding Obama’s appointment of a Chief Technology Officer. The other set of questions has revolved around how the existing campaign infrastructure (volunteers, lists, organizers, relationships) will be used to pursue Obama’s agenda and lay the foundation for a reelection bid. Today brings news on this front, as Peter Wallsten of the LA Times suggests the campaign team is laying the groundwork for a massive new organization.

As Barack Obama builds his administration and prepares to take office next week, his political team is quietly planning for a nationwide hiring binge that would marshal an army of full-time organizers to press the new president’s agenda and lay the foundation for his reelection.

The organization, known internally as “Barack Obama 2.0,” is being designed to sustain a grass-roots network of millions that was mobilized last year to elect Obama and now is widely considered the country’s most potent political machine.

The key questions still remain unresolved: where will the organization target, how tied will it be to the DNC, how much money will they spend and what, exactly, will they do? However, it seems fairly likely that a new, massive force is here to stay in American politics – apart from the accouterments of office, Obama will have at his disposal an unprecedented political machine not bound to any party or interest group. The cult of Obama lives on.

Badass

Badass

I am interested in both the political and governance angles, and will continue to blog on them in the future. For now, however, I’m more interested in the organizing going on outside the Obama umbrella than within it. On that front, there are two developments worth watching. The first is a new organization from MoveOn’s Adam Green that fills a huge hole in the budding progressive infrastructure. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee will work to connect good, first time, progressive candidates with the necessary resources for running a competent campaign. Having spent a summer working on a campaign for a first time candidate, I can personally vouch for how difficult it is to gain traction amongst political professionals without political experience. Contemporary campaigns require competent professionals who are able to cost effectively deliver services, but ideal candidates may not have the expertise or experience to differentiate between legitimate, cost effective strategists and hucksters and machine hacks.

Although the Democrats (namely, Obama’s team) may seem to have effectively sewn shut the gap between the progressive and conservative political infrastructures, after years in the wilderness, the left may lack the political organizing skills required to pressure the democratic trifecta into making the most of this once in a generation opportunity. Chris Bowers at OpenLeft suggests that liberal activists act early to identify, monitor and legislation as soon as it originates, before it is moved to committee or assigned a spot on the legislative agenda. This would give activists the opportunity to pressure legislators while in they are still in the formative stages of the process, as opposed to when the time for a vote comes, and it is already likely too late to have an impact.

This is an important and good idea, but doesn’t quite go far enough. There needs to be coordination by the left to pressure Obama into supporting (or giving Obama political cover for moving slightly to the right of) truly progressive legislation. The issue of holding Obama in particular to his stated agenda can’t exist within either the DNC or a separate Barack Obama 2.0 organization, because they won’t have the same freedom to pressure reluctant Democrats to come to heed. I think progressives need to go a step further, and form an organization devoted to holding Obama to account for his promises, as explicitly as possible.

I am imagining something similar to what Bowers describes, but more systemitized and wikified – a platform like OpenCongress.org that aggregates information on existing legislation, but goes a step further to connect supporters with ways of becoming involved. I am certain the Obama team has something like this in mind for their BO 2.0 idea, but the platform would have greater potential if it were more independent of the Obama team. This way Obama would have plausible deniability about the efforts of activists, but could still be called to account for living up to his promises. (Perhaps even calling it Yes we might?).

I will continue to try to elaborate this idea in the coming weeks, but I’d be interested to hear any feedback on ideas for a platform to hold Obama accountable.