Building tomorrow's political organization

There is a tendency in the online political world to look at the online political world as the object. However, in the Obama campaign, the organizing success has less to do with the blogosphere and more to do with other organizing strategies. The online world was mainly a tool to empower the offline world. To my knowledge the best description of those organizing strategies is from a March Rolling Stone article. One of the key insights was this one:

Figueroa's goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance. "We decided that we didn't want to train volunteers," he says. "We want to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves. ...

The result was a network of trained organizers who became what Figueroa calls the campaign's "secret weapon." Early on, the volunteers essentially served as Obama's staff in key states where he didn't have employees. "It quadrupled the size of our operation in states that were going to be voting not only on February 5th, but February 9th, February 12th and here on March 4th," Figueroa says. "We had an anchor in those states for a long, long, long time."

The key insight here is that a volunteer organization isn't made up of volunteers but of volunteer organizers and recruiters. The people who are in touch with and motivate the volunteers. This is a shift in thinking from both traditional Democratic and Republican organizing strategies. Some people will look at this as nothing new because it is somewhat based in community organizing principles, but it is quite similar to organizational innovations in other spheres. For example, in megachuches, small group leaders are the pointy end of the spear in member recruitment and retention. We will look at more examples in a second.

Read on.

Unifying Narratives Work. Microtrends Fail.

David All argues that the proliferation of competing “agendas” now emanating from individual Republican House members misses the point. I agree, but for very different reasons than David. His essential argument is that Republicans should ditch any hope for a Contract-style agenda:

Gone are the days of Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America, a plan which every Republican got behind and backed. A unified agenda back in 1994 was possible because of Newt Gingrich’s intoxicating personality and strong leadership style; but it was also a different time, a time before the Internet inspired a culture of choice and information.

Today, thanks to the Internet, each Member of Congress can and should be fighting in the trenches for the hundreds of issues which drive their voters to the polls under the banner of the Republican Party. The Internet provides a medium to distribute our message like never before. We can fight on thousands of fronts.

Rather than being forced to to pick a few, limited set of agenda items, House Republicans should change the game and act more like iTunes and NetFlix — offering conservative, libertarian, and independent voters a lot of different choices — all of which can only be found under the larger brand — Republican.

This overlooks the most salient example: Obama, the epitome of the new net-centric candidate. Obama has actually thrived on a very strong, unified message.   

Beyond Bush

The hue and cry for the GOP to file for divorce against President Bush is reaching a crescendo with Tom Davis’s acid-tongued barbs and this more gracefully worded column by 2004 Bush campaign advisor Peggy Noonan.

Davis and Noonan mean well, but their proposed strategy amounts to taking the Democrats’ bait. Because whether the GOP decides to run for Bush or against him, the meta-narrative will still be about Bush. Any day people are reminded of the President in a political context, even when our people are throwing him under the bus, is a bad day for Republicans.

President Bush is a lame duck. His term expires in eight months. Politically speaking, John McCain is the leader of the party. Bush’s term will overlap that of the 111th Congress by a whopping 17 days. Why should Republican Congressional candidates take the bait by positioning themselves vis a vis someone who will be a political non-factor once they take office? If they embrace President Bush, it’s political poison. If they make a fuss of distancing themselves, it guarantees headlines with Candidate X and Bush in close proximity, and looks politically motivated. Don’t take the bait.

New Guards

MSNBC's First Read acknowledges the truth...

The left-wing blogosphere is MUCH more powerful than what you see on the right this cycle and it reminds us of the advantage Bush had in '04. While we all know about that so-called right-wing voice machine, don’t forget that there is now a left-wing noise machine (on the internet) as well. And it has found its voice.

The Politico's Ben Smith points to the media bulldozing on the Left and says "It's just a small glimpse, I think, of the level of heat the media is going to take in the general election, and John McCain doesn't seem to have any equivalent." That's true. The Right has what might informally be called a "noise machine", but it is a product of the time in which it was created: the 70's, 80's and 90's. It has never really evolved. Meanwhile, the Left - in particular, the Progressives - have built a very powerful, very effective noise machine and they have built it both online and off. There are many cultivated (funded, strategic) elements to it, but the base - the underlying elements that make the cultivated, funded elements really effective - is basically organic.

The Right, I fear, is going to try to reproduce those organic elements through cultivation - or, worse, by funding the existing infrastructure to "do something online" - and they're going to fail. Miserably. I'd be glad to change my mind about this, but almost everything I've seen suggests that the Right just doesn't understand why the Left has been successful at this, so they're throwing their resources at misguided projects.

Meanwhile, the Leftosphere continues to have an impact, with the Leftroots effectively (and regularly) pressuring politicians and candidates to adopt the agenda they create and promote. So why - with very rare exceptions - can't the Rightosphere do that? Fundamentally, the Rightosphere can't do that (effectively) because the Right doesn't have the gravitational pull to draw candidates to its agenda. The Left has a well-organized blogosphere that can do three things for Progressive candidates:

  1. Messaging - between Moveon.org, the blogs and the many issue-advocacy outfits, the Leftosphere has a very powerful communication mechanism for candidates and issues. They have messaging and distribution capacity and it is well-coordinated with advocacy and awareness elements of their coalition.
  2. Money - the Presidential money is high-profile and not every candidate gets a lot of online money, but the Leftroots can move significant sums of money to the challengers that hit the right notes, make the right friends, and jump into the hot progressive issues. They have succeeded in tapping the long tail to move fundraising - and the financial incentive machine - outside of the establishment channels.
  3. Mobilization - the Progressives are passionate, energized, over their ideas. They have a story they're excited about, they have effectively tied their stories together and they're tightly wedded to the (dangerous) tactic of populism. They're unified around that mission, so they can and do mobilize people. Again, that moves significant power outside the traditional channels.

The Leftroots can deliver messaging, money and mobilization, so Democratic candidates become path-dependent on them. They have sufficient power to move politicians to their ideas. The Right does not. Meanwhile, what is the Right passionate about right now? Not much.

To build an online infrastructure as effective as the Leftosphere, the Right must find its own story to tell - an organic story, relevant to current grievances, with politically viable solutions - about which people can be passionate, around which a coalition can rally. The Right can accomplish the same thing, but it cannot start on third base. The Right has to develop the gravitational pull before it tries to pull the political system into its orbit. That may be complicated, but I don't believe it is actually difficult to do.

However, it is not something that can be done simply by funding more of the same Old Guards. If the Right is to do something about the current long train of abuses and bad government, it must, to borrow from the Declaration of Independence, "provide new Guards".

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