Barack, Please Lead the Movement Too
by Wade Hudson
A Crisis Papers Guest Essay
December 2, 2008
Many Obama supporters are worried about what kind of organization
will emerge from the campaign. Those who are concerned have included
top-level leaders from the campaign who have expressed themselves
Barack can resolve this issue quickly and easily. He can simply tell
his staff to spin off an independent organization that is truly
dedicated to community organizing. I encourage folks who support
this direction to let Barack and/or his people know.
Then we can proceed to build a strong national movement committed to
helping Barack implement the goals of his campaign. Without such a
movement, we won‘t be able to “transform the nation, “ as Barack
called for during the campaign.
Marshall Ganz, the architect of Obama's grassroots organizing
program, is among the concerned. On Nov. 17, he told
Micah Sifry, “It's very important what Obama decides.
Whether to try to support some kind of organized effort, that's
rooted in the campaign, or not."
SQUANDERING AN OPPORTUNITY?
According to a Nov. 14 report in the
Los Angeles Times:
"[I]t is no simple task to convert an insurgency
into a standing army.
"That challenge has sparked rare discord among Obama advisors
who ran a highly disciplined operation with no public
disagreements throughout the long campaign.
"Traditionally, the new president would blend his campaign
operation with his party's national committee. Some of Obama's
closest advisors lean toward that pragmatic view.
"But others, who built the grass-roots organization, worry that
linking it too closely to the party could cause the unusual
network to unravel -- and squander an extraordinary resource....
NO MERGING WITH PARTY
"If it's in the party," said Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University
lecturer who helped design the training curriculum for Obama's
organizers, "that's a way to kill it."
Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager and an architect
of the grass-roots network, has been warning the president-elect's
team that it risks turning off activists who were inspired by Obama
but who never considered themselves a part of the Democratic Party.
Since that report, the Obama team seems to have decided that the
campaign will not totally merge with the Democratic Party. But many
other questions remain unanswered. Barack and his team may still
waste a remarkable opportunity to build a strong grassroots movement
rooted in solid community organizing.
SHAPE OF THE MOVEMENT
In his 11/20/08 essay,
”The Movement to Elect Barack Obama: Prospects, Possibilities,
Proposals," which was circulated on the Net via email,
Ganz stated (emphases added):
The campaign to elect Barack Obama as President
launched a movement.... Now, the question is, can it flourish?
…It is time to consider the shape such a movement could take….
President Obama may provide the movement with moral and
political leadership but not its organizational leadership. Who
can? And how would it work?...
Some people, especially political operatives, seem focused on
transforming the Obama movement into a Web-based network: funds
could be raised, information shared, emails called for, etc. As
a kind of Presidential “MoveOn,” such a network could mobilize
support when needed, albeit thinly. But this would omit the
“community organizing” that infused the campaign with the
grassroots leadership that gave it its strength…. Such a
“Campaign for a New America” would create a representative
governing body and invite organizers, leaders, and volunteers to
work through it as a major venue for “active citizenship” at all
government levels…. In other words, dealing [with] the
challenges we now face may offer the opportunity to reengage
ourselves in the work of self-government.
national Obama for America staff in Chicago is still engaged in
an intensive planning process about these issues (in a rather
secretive manner, which Ganz has criticized for not being more
open). On Nov. 20,
Marc Ambinder reported: “There are so many senior field
organizers that the Obama campaign had to organize five days of
conferences with four simultaneous calls per conference [with up
to ten participants in each facilitated call].” These calls were
to conclude on Nov. 25.
CHICAGO DEBATE IS INTENSE
The fact that Ganz and Hildebrand have gone on record with their
opinions suggests that the debate in Chicago is intense. Of
particular significance is Ganz ‘ comment about some “political
operatives” wanting to reduce the Obama movement to a mere
Presidential support mechanism.
During the campaign, there was considerable tension between the
canvassing methods used in traditional political campaigns and the
community-organizing strategy that was also employed by the campaign
in many, but not all, states. “A lot of [the organizers] are
committed to an organizing vision here and they fought for it
throughout the campaign,” Ganz told Sifry. For Ganz to say that
organizers had to fight for an organizing vision is revealing, and
consistent with my own experience and observations. In the heat of a
campaign, it ‘s easy to focus only on canvassing (including voter
registration, phone banking, and Get Out The Vote), while neglecting
to crystallize relationships and commitments for enduring activism.
Based not on impersonal relationships but face-to-face meetings
rooted in a common purpose, organizers help volunteers build stable
teams with a consistent core membership to advocate for change in
their communities. In contrast to canvassing which merely involves
occasional brief contacts, community organizing is based on ongoing
Laura Flanders, "Canvassers assess voter preferences. Organizers
inspire commitment." Community organizing is participatory. Rather
than just telling volunteers what to do or asking them to do
something specific, it involves holding small meetings to give
everyone a voice in making key decisions.
On Nov. 25, the day that the conference calls with field organizers
were to conclude, David Plouffe, Obama ‘s campaign manager, used
MyBO to issue a call for house meetings in mid-December to help
“bring change to both Washington and [your] own communities.” Absent
any official report about the conclusions from the planning process
in the Chicago office or any word from Hildebrand and Ganz, we ‘re
left on our own to interpret whether this call reflects a clear,
strong commitment to serious community organizing.
MORE IDEAS FOR MOVEMENT
Myself, I find the Nov. 25 call for December house meetings a small
step in the right direction, but ambiguous and inadequate because it
falls short of the kind of commitment to organizing that is needed.
It offers no concrete, long-term organizing vision. To my mind, it
feels more like the prelude for a superficial Presidential support
mechanism than a commitment to deep community organizing.
The Host Guide for those house meetings fails to include essential
elements f or solid team building. For example, it proposes a mere
60-minute meeting including a 10-minute video, which isn't enough
time for meaningful interaction, especially with the suggested 15-20
participants (which is probably too many).
The guide only suggests that the host “share what inspired you to be
involved in this monumental journey, the goals for the meeting, and
why you think it important to continue working for change.” It does
not suggest that all participants introduce themselves by telling
their own story, which was a key part of the Obama organizing
The guide fails to articulate a consistent commitment to democratic
decision-making. Rather, it suggests, “Ask your guests to help lead
your future efforts,” rather than decide those matters together. And
it suggests, “Make sure to let all of your guests know about your
next event,” which fails to suggest collaborative decision-making
(which regardless would be difficult with 20 people in the 30
minutes suggested for political planning).
The guide doesn't suggest that participants share food and drink,
which would allow for informal socializing and the development of
supportive friendships. And it doesn't suggest that the host ask
which participants would be able and willing to meet monthly.
With a stronger and clearer commitment to community organizing, the
deficiencies in this guide could be corrected. But other questions
must also be answered.
GOVERNING THE MOVEMENT
The most important question is one posed by Sifry: How will this
movement govern itself? With a new, independent organization, the
first task, as Ganz pointed out, will be to establish a
representative governing board. To my mind, at least during the
first few years while the organization stabilizes itself, that board
should be self-perpetuating ? that is, the board itself should fill
vacancies rather than having the general membership elect board
members directly or indirectly through representatives. Moreover,
the board will need to delegate responsibility for determining the
content of recommended actions to be undertaken nationwide, or
establish a mechanism for making those decisions.
If a self-perpetuating board is established, the next question will
be: How will members offer input into decisions made by the board
and/or national staff? One option would be for individual local
teams to send feedback on their own, as the Nov. 25 guide requests.
My recommendation, however, is that the national office should
establish a fair and efficient mechanism for representatives from
local teams that meet at least monthly to communicate horizontally
with one another to share ideas, information, and encouragement, and
to develop recommendations to send upward toward the national
office. These conversations could also enable staff in the national
office to monitor and evaluate what is happening locally.
The organization would also need to develop methods of participation
for individuals who are unable or unwilling to meet monthly with a
local team. Some people might only respond to action alerts. Others
might only engage in community service. But with regard to listening
to input, the national office should give priority to
representatives of local teams whose members meet at least monthly
and discuss issues face-to-face, which results in more thoughtful
decisions. These local teams need to be the foundation of the
To accomplish these goals, the national office could facilitate the
formation of city or town, state, regional, and national advisory
councils. Local teams would select representatives to their city or
town advisory council, each of the advisory councils would select
representatives to the next-higher level, and each council would
subdivide once it became too large for manageable, time-limited
During the campaign, some regions were able to establish horizontal
communication on their own, like with conference calls between
neighborhood team leaders. But so far as I know, the national
campaign did not assist or provide guidance concerning how to
conduct these conversations most efficiently. So by and large, it
seems to me, groups operated in isolation from one another,
communicating with one another haphazardly. The post-election
organization might well operate in the same manner.
ENDURING MOVEMENT NEEDED
An official structure for team representatives to define input to
send upward toward the national office would be risky. The risk is
that a consensus might emerge that contradicted the national office.
But that risk is what happens with empowerment and the potential
gains far outweigh the risks. More than nine times out of ten, I
suspect, decisions developed by the advisory councils would be
consistent with established policies, and this collaborative
approach would likely result in stronger support for Barack than
would be the case with isolated units primarily responding to
appeals from the national office.
We need a massive, unified, democratic, strong, and enduring
grassroots movement that on occasion acts in unison to push for
changes in national policy. To be massive, it needs to briefly
mobilize people who are already burdened with other commitments. To
be unified, it needs to overcome the fragmentation of the
progressive movement, while at the same time fostering proliferation
and autonomy. To be democratic, it needs to enable ordinary members
to deliberate with one another and offer thoughtful input into major
decisions. To be strong, it needs to sustain its members by
spreading joy and fellowship, developing support structures,
providing personal nourishment, and nurturing self-development ? for
a movement is only as strong as its individual members. To be
enduring, it needs to avoid dependency on any one leader and be
prepared to continue for decades ? for our constant struggle is
never-ending. The more we achieve each of these goals -- massive,
unified, democratic, strong, and enduring -- the more we ‘ll achieve
the others, for they will reinforce one another.
For these reasons, I urge Barack to give direction to the movement
he sparked by telling his top staff that he wants the campaign to
transition into a grassroots organization based on the following
The organization should be based primarily on
small, close-knit teams of individuals who: * Commit to help
achieve the goals of the campaign; * Meet at least monthly in
one of their homes;
Consciously develop supportive friendships;
Engage regularly in community service;
Make decisions together about their joint
Each month, the organization ‘s leaders should
recommend to all Americans that they communicate a particular
message on a top-priority, timely issue to all members of
Congress and the President.
The organization should establish a fair, efficient
mechanism to enable each of its teams who want to do so to select
representatives who will communicate horizontally with
representatives from other teams in order to:
Share ideas, information, and encouragement;
Develop well-thought-out recommendations to send
upward toward the national office.
For Barack to take this approach would be
unprecedented. Some people believe that it is completely unrealistic
to hope that a President will lead a real movement by spinning off
an independent organization from his campaign. Others believe that
we should merely focus on supporting him as our President, which is
a legitimate option for those who prefer that approach.
But so long as Marshall Ganz and some folks in the national office
push for more, I ‘ll continue to recommend a full-throated
community-organizing approach and encourage others to do the same.
Together, we can.
Wade Hudson is the editor of the