What Might Have Been

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, one of the reasons I supported him was that I believed he could build a new progressive coalition that would remain active and push policies to the left.

But that didn’t happen. And now we’re getting a picture of why it didn’t happen. People involved in the Obama campaign in 2008 write that the usual Cool Kids strangled the progressive grassroots/new media movement that helped Obama win. What was originally supposed to be a separate organization was locked up inside the DNC, where it died.

Please do read “Obama’s Lost Army” by Micah Sifry at New Republic and “How the Cool Kids Killed Obama’s Grassroots Movement” by Kate Albright-Hanna at Civicist. Ms. Albright-Hanna’s piece is especially poignant. At the end, all of her hopes were dashed.

I ended up going to the White House Office of Health Care Reform to build a grassroots movement to pass legislation, but was sidelined while the Tea Party filled the void. (An operative on the Tea Party Express later told me that he learned how to mobilize supporters by studying the New Media approach on the Obama campaign). After getting lost inside the corridors of HHS trying to get the requisite twelve signatures it took to quit the job, a sort of Kafkaesque nightmare, I finally escaped the khaki beer pong culture blob.

Sifry writes that a lot of smart people with solid credentials were on board after the election hoping to sustain the movement. But the political culture of Washington killed it.

Obama’s army was eager to be put to work. Of the 550,000 people who responded to the survey, 86 percent said they wanted to help Obama pass legislation through grassroots support; 68 percent wanted to help elect state and local candidates who shared his vision. Most impressive of all, more than 50,000 said they personally wanted to run for elected office.

But they never got that chance. In late December, Plouffe and a small group of senior staffers finally made the call, which was endorsed by Obama. The entire campaign machine, renamed Organizing for America, would be folded into the DNC, where it would operate as a fully controlled subsidiary of the Democratic Party. …

…Obama unveiled OFA a week before his inauguration. “Volunteers, grassroots leaders, and ordinary citizens will continue to drive the organization,” he promised. But that’s not what happened. Shunted into the DNC, MyBO’s tools for self-organizing were dismantled within a year. Instead of calling on supporters to launch a voter registration drive or build a network of small donors or back state and local candidates, OFA deployed the campaign’s vast email list to hawk coffee mugs and generate thank-you notes to Democratic members of Congress who backed Obama’s initiatives. As a result, when the political going got rough, much of Obama’s once-mighty army was AWOL. When the fight over Obama’s health care plan was at its peak, OFA was able to drum up only 300,000 phone calls to Congress. After the midterm debacle in 2010, when Democrats suffered their biggest losses since the Great Depression, Obama essentially had to build a new campaign machine from scratch in time for his reelection effort in 2012.

People complained because progressives didn’t turn out for the 2010 midterms, but this tells us why. I’ve complained for years about the shabby way the Democrats treat their base. They don’t seem to want to be seen with us in public, but they perpetually ask us for money.

And, of course, the disconnect goes both ways. The Democratic Party was hopelessly out of touch with too many leftie voters, and those voters felt disconnected from the Democratic Party.  Much has been written about how the Obama Coalition failed to show up for Hillary Clinton, but the bigger picture is that the Democratic Party had allowed the Obama Coalition to dissipate back in 2009. Obama pulled out a win in 2012 mostly because Mitt Romney was such a horse’s ass and even more out of touch with America than the DNC.

I found an article yesterday at The American Conservative called “The Meaning of Trump,” and while I don’t agree with everything the author says, I think he got this exactly right:

As the surprise-laden year unfolded, more and more analysts cast their thinking toward the angers and frustrations within the electorate that were driving the country in entirely unanticipated directions. Elements of the crisis now were seen and probed. But few captured its full magnitude.

It was nothing less than a crisis of the old order, a crisis of the crumbling status quo. Its most significant manifestation was the political deadlock that gripped official Washington and rendered it incapable of political action. Many saw this as a problem in itself, but in reality it was merely a stark manifestation of the status quo crisis. As the old order of American politics began to disintegrate, the two parties clung ever more tenaciously to their familiar and time-tested positions, defaulting to an increasingly rigid groupthink stubbornness and shunning any thought of political compromise. Far from grappling with the crisis of the old order that had descended upon America and the world, the party elites couldn’t even acknowledge its existence.

And this:

As for Clinton, she not only couldn’t speak in a political idiom that showed an understanding of the underlying realities of America’s crisis politics. She actually put herself forward as a champion of the status quo and, through some unfathomable utterances, a scourge of that working-class contingent that once had been such an integral part of her party. That helped open the way for Bernie Sanders, who spoke to the realities of our time and thus resonated with large numbers of liberal Democrats deeply concerned about the plight of the working class and the growing income and wealth disparities bedeviling the country.

But Is the Democrats Learning? I guess we’ll have to see…

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