By Eli Pariser
Sunday, December 28, 2008
So, how's the Obama administration doing so far?
It's a trick question: We're still about minus-23 days in. But already, folks on the left and the right are furiously reading tea leaves, worrying about whether he's as progressive as promised or trying to turn lemons into lemonade ("Hillary Clinton at State: a victory for conservative foreign policy values"). Through all this, there's been surprisingly little focus on what may be the most important question Obama faces.
The president-elect has already reinvented the fireside chat for the age of YouTube. Now he has to move beyond such nifty innovations and decide whether he'll be the first president to actually engage millions of real people, via the Internet, to govern and set the compass of the country. It's easier to roll out webby gimmicks -- everyone can submit a name for the First Puppy! -- than to serve as organizer in chief. But embracing connected politics may be the only road to the kind of transformation that Obama promised and that many in the country expect.
If this is new terrain, Obama has a map: his own campaign, which raised its money from millions of Americans, placed responsibility for field outreach in the hands of volunteers and allowed participants to communicate with one another even when they disagreed with the candidate. He can also look to the netroots movement that helped turn the tide against conservatism over the last six years.
The past half-decade has seen the worldwide rise of a connected, Internet-driven politics that can lead to bolder, more effective, transformative governance. MoveOn, which first showed in 1998 that $25 online contributions could amount to millions for candidates and which helped build a new online and offline movement against the Iraq war, is now 5 million members strong. But it's just one piece of a bigger narrative.
In the United Kingdom, any citizen can launch an online petition at Number10.gov.uk. When enough people sign on, the prime minister's office is compelled to respond -- as it did recently to the million-plus Britons who voiced their frustration over a new travel tax. In Australia, the online action group GetUp, which was modeled after MoveOn, has a larger membership than any political party -- and recently got the leaders of all three major parties to join together in a TV ad on energy.
In the United States, a homegrown, organic movement of blogs, campaign organizations and young people working off laptops in coffee shops has helped resuscitate an ailing progressive infrastructure. Now we have the opportunity to up the ante.
We've already seen how it can work. In 2005, we asked MoveOn's members to open their living rooms and kitchens to others in their community and host a conversation about which three issues the group should focus on. I joined a house party of 10 people in the tiny attic apartment of an old Victorian house in Portland, Maine. We passed around beer and crackers and talked about the state of the nation. One young woman was worried about losing her health care after she finished school -- could we do something about that? The graying gas-station owner in the corner nodded. As we talked, more than a thousand other groups were also convening in garages, church basements and dining rooms across the country. Together, we pieced together an agenda.
When our staff regrouped after these meetings, we were nervous. We were committed to work on whatever course our members set, but what would it be? As the reports rolled in from coast to coast, the results were strikingly similar. And when we asked our members online, there was no question where they wanted us to focus: The top three priorities were a clean-energy economy, ending the war in Iraq and securing health care for everyone. Our staff pulled together campaign plans and got to work.
Earlier this year, candidate Obama was asked what marker he'd put down for his first term. He said: "If I haven't gotten combat troops out of Iraq, passed universal health care and created a new energy policy that speaks to our dependence on foreign oil and deals seriously with global warming, then we've missed the boat."
This isn't a coincidence. And -- though I can hear Bill O'Reilly salivating as he reads -- the reason Obama's benchmarks track so closely with ours isn't because he was pandering to MoveOn. It's because both the Obama campaign and our process were tapped into what Americans want. And as our Founding Fathers guessed, real people who actually understand what's happening out in America are pretty smart.
Of course, it's never that simple. What about the politics of getting that platform through Congress? What about constituencies and deal-making and the art of the possible? What about raw power?
That's perhaps the best reason Obama should adopt a connected model of governance: Drawing on an inside-outside alignment may be the only way to accumulate the political power he'll need to deliver transformative change.
Because although Obama's election is a big step, the world hasn't completely changed yet. America's oil and coal and pharmaceutical lobbyists aren't quitting their jobs to become community organizers. And if millions of people rallied this fall under banners of hope and change, these industry groups are rallying hundreds of millions of dollars to promote fear and the status quo.
Nor will the right wing be silent in the fights to come. Moderate Republicans have gone extinct, but that just means Obama must confront a more concentrated and virulent strain of Republicanism.
So if Obama's agenda is to prevail, he needs to draw on a deeply committed, deeply engaged citizenry. No one else can tip the scale.
If Obama strays from this model, it will fall to groups on the outside to do the connecting. That's our job, too -- to make sure people in Washington hear what people outside of Washington think, even when they'd rather not.
Our members -- and most Americans -- are ready to organize. And the world is ready for this kind of governance. Is Obama? We hope the answer is yes.
Eli Pariser is president of MoveOn.org.