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.
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