Micah Sifry

The Irrelevance of the "Online Base"

Micah Sifry's response to my post (and Mindy's) on the size of the right online brings forth a basic assumption I'm not so sure is apt anymore -- that there is an "online base" that's distinct from the base offline, and from there, to the electorate at large? A few years ago, I know this was the case. Now, I'm not so sure. 

A few years ago, the mark of an online activist was pretty clear: participation in blogs -- as either a blogger or commenter, or membership in (likely multiple) political email lists and a history of donating and volunteering in response to online appeals. 

The rise of social media and the growing ubiquity of the Web as an entry point for campaigns makes the 'net a singular platform for activism -- online or offline. 

Unsatisfied by the political success of the Tea Party movement more broadly, Micah is greatly interested in what its size is, and specifically, what its size is online


Again, I'm sorry, but if you're going to tout the Tea Party movement as the embodiment of a wonderful flowering of grassroots activism on the Right, as both Mindy and Patrick rightfully do, you've got to expect that inquiring minds are going to want to know, well, how big is it? How many people are active in it? And you can't wave your hand and say, well, there are too many groups and none of them really are the hub and therefore it's impossible to say how big. Let's look at the metrics.

In 2008, roughly 13 million people joined Barack Obama's email list. That's also the size of his Facebook fan base today, roughly double its size since the election (a counterpoint, Micah, says, to the right-is-dominating-online argument -- though I'd say it's more indicative of Facebook's growth since Palin -- and others' -- numbers have also at least doubled). 

The number 13 million -- roughly 20 percent of the total votes Obama received -- suggests something that transcends activism as we normally understand it, and specifically online activism (however you define that to be different than regular activism). If all you need to do is hit the "Like" button, is it activism? Or is it something more akin to casting a vote, something roughly 130 million people did in the last election? That shows the "online activism" picture getting muddled. You don't need to be an activist, or even terribly savvy politically or technologically, to make your voice heard online nowadays. The tools have gotten so mainstream, and so easy, that the line between an activist and a supporter is blurring. 

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we're seeing many candidates whose online fundraising now exceeds their direct mail fundraising. Are these two groups separate and distinct? Has online permanently enlarged the activist pool? Idealistically, we'd like to say yes. But practically speaking, it's probably mostly a matter of grabbing the low-hanging fruit from the offline space who simply find it more convenient to engage online. I would contend that these are no longer two radically different groups of individuals, but the larger base of conservative activists is migrating online. In this way, I don't think you can separate broader political success and enthusiasm from online activism in the way Micah does. 

In 2004, it was easy to have a debate about online activism in a silo. Blogs were relatively small, frequented by at most hundreds of thousands of Americans, and experienced by more only when the media deigned to talk about them. Political blogs were fragmented and difficult to find, not like leaving a stray political comment on someone's Wall or clicking "Like" on a politician because you happen to be on Facebook for two hours a day anyway. 

The nature and scope of online activism has changed dramatically since then, but the outlook of some techno-political pundits who cite Daily Kos uniques as the be-all, end-all of activism has not. We're now at a point where every significant change or insurgent movement in either party is dependent primarily on the mainstream Internet -- Facebook, Twitter, and participation in websites and e-mail lists seeded by offline megaphones like Fox News, MSNBC, and talk radio. The narrowcasting of blogs seems less relevant now, because there are much bigger media and technology players driving people online. This is popularizing online activism and making it indistinguishable from regular activism. 

Sure, there are still plenty of groups that depend primarily on direct mail for their fundraising, but few new groups. Judging from what I've seen this cycle, the Big Shift to online is happening. And just like the early adopter disillusionment that's gripped tools like Twitter and Facebook now that Lady Gaga has taken her place at the head of the table, we're finding that the political Internet isn't just for tech geeks anymore. Lots of regular folks are joining the party. 


The Obama Disconnect: A Belated Response to Micah Sifry

Before the new year, Micah Sifry came out with a provocative, much-discussed piece on the failures of the Obama organizing model in government. At once, the piece is a surprising indictment of the Administration's modus operandi from one of its supporters, but the reasons the indictment came about are not surprising at all. Like 43 similar outfits before it, the Obama White House is essentially a top-down operation.

Indeed, it's easy to dismiss Sifry's ideal of autonomous, almost leaderless political movements as essentially incompatible with the work of government. The contrast between the populism of the Obama campaign and the unmet promises of the Obama Administration is an easy one to make, but I suspect there's a tad of inflated expectations at work, borne of a misunderstanding of the fundamental motives of Obama for America and the community organizing spirit that seem to lay behind it. Sifry is disappointed that the fervor and "bottom up" organizing of the campaign hasn't translated to the White House, but when has the excitement and lofty goals of a campaign ever translated fully into the drudgery of running the federal government? Is such a transference even possible?

Probably not. The job of a campaign is not to transform the ethos of governance. The job of the campaign is to win the campaign. The job of the Administration is to transform the ethos of governance. Whether one leads to the other is entirely extrinsic to the campaign since the White House involves a totally different set of actors, more likely to be experienced government hands like Rahm Emanuel than Alinskyite field organizers. We can discuss what is and is not personally important to Obama as a community organizer all we want. But the imperatives of governance are completely different than those of a campaign, as Obama learned taking office in an economic crisis and George Bush learned after 9/11. 

Rather than buck the tide of conventional "top-down" politics, the campaign's "bottom up" grassroots emphasis was actually top-down perfected for the Internet era -- a logical and sensible response by the campaign to Obama's celebrity. 

In the end, the campaign did not have to make any hard decisions that allowed supporters to organize in new ways. Rather, I would argue, the supporters made the decision on their own, as expressed in the tremendous and early self-organized action for Obama early on, and the campaign would have been brain dead not to play along. (Many campaigns are still blind to this, even today, but the default baseline position for a campaign at the national level is to play along when supporters start doing massive amounts of stuff on their own.) 

The campaign's decision to default to open is expressed in Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's book, The Audacity to Win. At the outset, it wasn't clear that Obama's campaign would be anything other than a traditional exercise. As Plouffe writes early on

We raised $4 million online, a significant amount but far less than our fund-raisers wanted. Our new media team were very careful about how often we asked people for money by e-mail. We wanted our online contributors to have a balanced experience with us, thinking that if they felt part of and connected to the whole campaign, they might be more generous over time. The fund-raisers, who felt the pressure I was putting on them to post a big number, wanted to ask for as much as possible, as often as possible, starting right away. These were some of the tensest disputes I had to navigate throughout the whole campaign, and they left a lingering sore spot that did not heal for over a year. The finance team really believed that the new media team was underperforming financially, and the new media team thought the finance team viewed them and our supporters as an ATM.

Though it's ultimately clear where the campaign came down at the end of the day, Plouffe doesn't really evince bold conviction that the new media guys were right from day one. Here we see the traditional top-down playbook lingering on within the Obama campaign. Now, if Obama the community organizer started out running a fairly traditional campaign catering to the donor class, and in fact, ran a fairly textbook Senate campaign in 2004, what changed in the heat of the campaign? Plouffe doesn't seem to indicate that there was any altruistic, philosophical instinct to buck the finance team's approach, beyond a general sense that what the online people were doing seemed to be working. If there was a sudden epiphany by Axelrod or Plouffe to buy into bottom up, community organizing methods, it was probably a transactional, reflex response to the 20,000 person crowds, the e-mail signups, and the online fundraising. When you have a candidate like Obama, "letting go" and being bottom up is not simply a noble, unconventional, damn-the-consequences move. It's pretty darn profitable, generating more signups, more activity, and more money to feed the top-down parts of the campaign.

Now, what happens when the campaign goes away? What happens when the enthusiasm inevitably ebbs and the hard work of governing begins? The immediate benefits of a bottom-up strategy become less clear. You revert to traditional instincts, where powerful obstacles stand in the way of getting things done -- even amongst your base, and the wielding of massive political machinery cannot be left to amateurs. Either way, the decision to go "bottom up" is a traditional reflex response by smart people who realize they can get more done with bottom-up than with top-down in a campaign. And the reversion to "top-down" is a similarly calculated response to the fact that the financial and organizational benefits of bottom-up do not seem to apply to an Administration. Plouffe admitted this much in his interview with Ari Melber in defending the decision to downgrade New Media in the White House. Now, this may be wrong, short-sighted, or ignoble, but BOTH the bottom-up Obama campaign and the top-down Obama Administration were calculated strategic decisions made in response to specific situations of the moment. Let's not kid ourselves that the community organizing rhetoric was how they actually intended to govern.

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