The month before Scott Brown convinced President Barack Obama’s rosy-eyed team of political climate change, Micah Sifry posted a rant on techPresident.com rejecting the notion that the Internet had empowered ordinary citizens during the president’s 2008 campaign.
“The big story of 2009,” wrote Sifry, a former editor of The Nation magazine, is that “the people who voted for [Obama] weren’t organized in any kind of new or powerful way.” Looking back to the 2008 campaign, Sifry doesn’t see increased public participation and openness. He sees tighter control.
He quotes campaign architect David Plouffe: “We wanted to control all aspects of our campaign. We wanted control of our advertising, and most important, we wanted control of our field operation.”
Read: We wanted control of the 13 million e-mail addresses, the 3.95 million donors, the 3 million Facebook friends and the 80 million eyeballs glued to Obama’s YouTube videos.
The campaign’s digital toolkit was new, but it failed as a vehicle for grass-roots empowerment. It became “a new kind of top-down broadcast system” even more manipulative than TV, “the first 21st century top-down campaign,” Sifry says.
After the election, politicos have debated the merits of Organizing For America, Obama’s former campaign apparatus now housed at the Democratic National Committee. OFA leaders tout their successes by the numbers: 300,000 calls to Congress placed or pledged in one day; 65,000 Congressional office visits in a week; 200 volunteer training sessions in one month.
Yet OFA, hyperactive on the campaign trail, has disappointed in the sluggish and compromising world of legislative politics.
When OFA e-mailed Obama supporters last March for help in passing the president’s budget, it received just over 100,000 pledges of support. As campaign enthusiasm wanes, “You revert to traditional instincts,” writes Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini. You deep-six OFA and hire Rahm Emanuel, because “the wielding of massive political machinery cannot be left to amateurs.”
But OFA is not as ineffective as it seems. Inside the organization, a remnant is quietly perfecting Alinskyite-tactics and amassing infrastructure for future campaigns. Blogger Carol Greenburg says she has infiltrated OFA and observed constant innovation: “They knock on doors. They hand a cell phone to the person answering the door. ‘The call is free. All you have to do is read a few sentences to your congressman.’” The activity is logged in databases with the power to predict which knocked doors will produce results, databases that could link canvassing data to e-mails opened, donations made, videos watched and plenty more.
Opponents of Obama’s control agenda would be wise to imitate OFA, to build a counter movement that is people-powered and technology-fueled, but with a crucial difference — freedom. By practicing what Obama preaches, not what he does, opponents can create a movement that is far less controlled and far more open to grass-roots ideas than OFA, a movement where the moxie of Tea Partiers mixes with Republican infrastructure to fight back in every state and district.
Next fall, OFA will marshal its 50-state army of battle-hardened organizers, along with its growing databases and its Internet-based mass broadcast system. If the political climate shifts again, if the masses return from their exile, OFA can repeat the shock and awe of 2008.
The Obama apparatchiks don’t care about achieving an idealistic vision of government from the grass roots. Their aim is the permanent campaign, with a nimble base wedded to a centralized control structure through the ring of technology.
The answer to control is freedom — an open and highly participatory movement, where ordinary citizens armed with digital tools can fight for their country’s future.
Sean J. Connolly is a writer and a founder of a technology firm in South Bend, Ind.