When your organizers organize you

Ari Melber happens upon what could be an important moment in the history-in-the-making of participatory, self-organized online politics: Barack Obama supporters used his own network to organize a protest against his actions on telecom immunity.

Picture 21

Now if a campaign is going to argue that it’s truly grassroots, what is it to do with a revolt or protest from within? I’ve argued since Howard Dean’s run in 2004 that campaigns aren’t or can’t really be bottom-up when it comes to policy. They are necessarily propagandistic: This is what the candidate says. Indeed, Dean’s supporters acted like white blood cells in his blog discussions quite effectively surrounding and strangling dissent and opponents in the bloodstream. That’s the way campaigns have to work if you’re going to decide what this guy stands for and whether to vote for him, right? It’s about the message, no?

Ah, but when it’s a grassroots organization that makes you — rather than a party — and you say you’re beholden to them not to special interests and big money and lobbyists, well, then you really are beholden to them. If they rise up from within to tell you that they don’t like what you’re doing — when they use your own organizational tools to do that — then I’d say you ignore them at your peril. Live by the crowd, die by the crowd.

It so happens that I agree with Obama on this issue (and I know my view is as unpopular as his). When government forces you do to something then that force must come with immunity. The problem is not the telcos going along but the government making the demand and there being no check on that. But that’s a different debate.

I have disagreed with other things Obama has done since getting the nomination. I am profoundly disappointed in him for his decision to turn down government campaign financing. He stood on expediency not principle. I also find tragic irony in the fact that the best reason to vote for him is to turn around the Supreme Court before it is too late (if it isn’t already) and yet Obama endorsed just the kind of decision I dread coming from a right-wing court: last week’s ruling on handgun bans. So should I go into MyBarackObama and try to organize pressure groups from within who agree with me? Should I encourage my fellow Hillary Clinton supporters — now that we’re all unified — to do likewise to try to get him to promise truly universal health coverage? Why not? In the open organization, what’s yours is mine.

I find two things fascinating about this: First, we are beginning to see a campaign built openly on coalitions. Even though I disagree with them, I am happy to see the anti-immunity lobby crack the monolithic, glassy-eyed facade of the Obama fan club (the sort of people who yell at me in my comments and tell me I’m not allowed to disagree with him about anything). Thank goodness we see disagreement and discussion — democracy — inside a campaign. I believe the greatest impact the internet will have on politics will be that it enables like-minded groups to find each other and organize apart from old organizations and labels (red, blue, Republican, Democrat); we will organize around issues and priorities rather than parties. See the comments under this post.

Second, I wonder what these self-organizing groups will look like when they get into power. The Deaniacs and Joe Trippi made valiant attempts to stay organized after their campaign melted but that didn’t work. If Obama gets into the White House, though, will his supporters at MyBarackObama continue to use these tools to influence him and government? And will he have to listen because he is beholden to them?

  • Andy Freeman

    If you want The Supremes to ignore one enumerated “right of the people”, why should they respect the others?

    If you don’t like the 2nd amendment, work to have it repealed.

  • Like it or not, the Second Amendment is part of the Constitution and I, for one, am pleased that it is. A disarmed society is a submissive society. That is always bad news.

  • I still hold that it is about militias and we could continue the discussion from there but let’s not; there are plenty of places for that. This is a post instead about Obama’s supporters using his own tools to try to organize him. That’s a slightly fresher topic, don’t you think?

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  • Ryan Connell


    If Obama had accepted public financing, you and others would be spreading the meme that he’s “too weak,” an “egghead who stands on principal” and “not tough enough” to win presidential elections. Now he’s a cold-blooded hypocrite.

    Whatever. He’s damned if he did, he’s damned if he didn’t.

    But now that he’s opted out, Obama will have a $200 or $300 million fundraising advantage over McCain. Without even getting into the fact that half of his money comes in small donations — the whole point of campaign finance reform! — to turn down that kind of advantage would be just plain stupid. Considering your attraction to the uber-cynical Clintons, I’m surprised you can’t see that. But, then again, the bitterness of the loss still lingers, huh?

  • Jeff

    It’s hard to argue that the telecom companies were “forced” to participate when Qwest was able to opt out. The remaining telecoms capitulated for one reason – the hope of reaping possible political windfalls down the road.

  • JR

    I can’t see any real significant issue here. When the smoke clears, the simple fact of the matter is that a candidate/ representative/ congressman “represents” a contituency. There are many different subsets of constituencies within the biggest (United States of Americans).

    So whether there is an internal faction rattling the cage for a specific vote against FISA, or twelve folks in Georgia screaming for free ice cream…I fail to see the uniqueness. Lobbyists are, also, constituencies…and sometimes they have something to offer for a “open mind.” Obviously, there are rules and guidelines attached to such “open minded” references…organizing on a website is no violation.

    Finally, please lose the term “grass roots.” There has never been a successful candidate that comes anywhere near “grass roots.” Dean was far from such a candidate simply out of the fact that he called himself a member of a specific party (one of the two biggest I might add). The only way one could be a “grass roots” candidate would be to have a constituency of one….or one and a handful of clones who never read the newspaper.


  • Jimmy

    So you’re saying the only the reason, THE ONLY REASON, you can find to vote for Obama is the Supreme Court? Seriously? Barak Obama agrees with Hillary Clinton on almost all issues that matter to the general populace. Where exactly do they disagree on the important issues? Do you think Senator Clinton, who was veering to the right during the final days of the primary, would have had a differing opinion about the Supreme Court ruling?

    As for his constituents using the Obama website to voice their opinion I say “Great!” That’s what a free society is for. I disagree with Senator Obama on the whole immunity issue, but there are many, many other issues for which I agree with him. What Democrat — liberal or centrist — can’t see the positive in having Senator Obama as our candidate. Seriously!

  • Jeff I want to make two points: The Dean campaign did not extend itself for two reasons. 1. Many immediately turned to the 2006 elections and got involved and made a big difference including some major upsets and big wins. Yes people did not “stay” in a “Dean Community” but most helped build the vibrant progressive community we see today. 2. The many of the tools that exist today (including most of the social networking tools that exist today) were either non existent or barely off the ground in 2003. I think it wasn’t possible til now – til 2008 for a candidate (or the supporters of a candidate) to build something that would last beyond the campaign. I believe that the next President will stand at the end of the Television Presidency and at the beginning of the Networked Presidency in which the President and the people will connect and work to pass their agenda together, where they can and do agree. Obama could be that President. I stopped being disappointed a long time ago — if you wait for the perfect candidate its a long long long wait.

  • Joe.
    Thanks. Yes. But we can and still hold whatever candidates we have to the fire. That’s what these folks are doing and I think it’s a hopeful sign.

    For God’s sake, please read before clicking. I did not say ONLY (and especially not in caps, as you did). I said best in lowercase.

    No, that’s not what I would have been saying. Why don’t you say what you say and not try to say what I would say when I haven’t said it. OK? I would have praised him for standing by principle to bring down the need and influence for money in campaigns. But he didn’t do that so I couldn’t say that.

  • Andy Freeman

    > I still hold that it is about militias

    Fair enough, but that position didn’t get a single vote from the Supremes, and for good reason. (Read the dissents – they all said “It’s an individual right.”) Since no one thinks that the 2nd is a “right to join the Army” and state militias are under complete control of congress (otherwise Idaho would have already passed out M-16s to everyone), the “about militias” position is basically private armies.

    IIRC, Sen Clinton said that the 2nd was an individual right before the decision came down.

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  • Jimmy


    My bad. Second reading show’s I overreacted. Oh, well, passionate supporter and all that. Besides, who doesn’t love ALL CAPS?

    However, “I also find tragic irony in the fact that the best reason to vote for him is to turn around the Supreme Court..,” seems to insinuate the same thing. Oh, well, to each his own (and that is one heck of a good reason).

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  • Hi Jeff.

    I originated the idea for the site; I’m currently its primary moderator.

    I became politically active when Howard Dean’s blog gave me the means to do so. I’ve remained active in the blogosphere, and in “real-space” since.

    Hmmm… What have I done… Well, there was that George Allen thing… the Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News police thing… I was the originator of the report that led to John McCain making a hapless trip to Baghdad to “prove” there were neighborhoods safe enough for him to walk through… I helped to push the KSFO hate-speech radio into the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and media trade journals… Most recently, I was the irritant that caused Rupert Murdoch to ring up the brass at NBC to beg them not to air video of my adventure at Bill O’Reilly’s house.

    The simple truth is that if it weren’t for Joe Trippi and Howard Dean and their entire tech crew that discovered a whole new way to bring slews of new people into politics, well… I would most likely be watching a baseball game tonight instead of participating in this thread. (Go Yankees!)

    How many more like me are out there? Hundreds. How do I know? I’ve stayed in touch with them.

    One last thing: Joe Rospars – a former Dean tech guru – created the Blue State Digital tools that run Barack Obama’s website. Funny how we keep popping up.

    The Dean campaign (and the Clark campaign) each served as an incubator that nurtured legions of new political activists. And the world is a better place for it.

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  • Eric Jaffa

    RE “When government forces you do to something then that force must come with immunity.”

    Jeff Jarvis’ position implies that corporations who violate our privacy by helping the government with warrantless-wiretapping should face no penalties.

    The problem is that corporations have no reason to ask for a warrant under that position.

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  • Kommentator

    “I’ve argued since Howard Dean’s run in 2004 that campaigns aren’t or can’t really be bottom-up when it comes to policy.”

    Interestingly the same phenomena can also be recognized in companies, especially in media companies that need to deal with the unstable internet environment. As long term top-down strategic planning does not work anymore and big companies need to be fast, flexible and do their planning way more “bottom up”, employees need to say (and with successful companies get to say) more and more what they think is the right decision in this and this situation (Although some of the former strategic master-minds in big companies with their BCG-matrixes do have a serious problem with it – loosing power always sucks). “Grassroots” is important, but same thing here: Social-Network-tools in the company may on the one hand accelerate business and help developing and spreading of new ideas. But these tools may also lead to situations where – lets say – 100 employees all of a sudden circle around an idea that the top-management does not seem to be appropriate. And then, how should the management deal with these enhanced parallel power structures? The advantages and dissadvantages of “grassroots” are not only issues to politicians but also to business leaders – and will be more and more in the future.

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