Matt Stoller wrote an excellent piece last week about Obama's quiet consolidation of party and grassroots power, based largely on the nominee-in-waiting's unprecedented ability to raise money.
I think the Stoller piece marks the beginnings of our noticing the forest instead of the trees: While Obama opponents continue to paint his success as some Svengali-like personality cult, a more grounded view reveals a hyper-competent modern organization that has managed to integrate multiple campaign efforts (fund-raising, various levels of community organizing, mass media, alternative media, online, intra-party relations, "the ground game" and yes, the candidate himself).
To me, Obama's campaign represents a great selling point for his abilities as an executive, and I have no doubt that political scientists will be exploring its practices and principles as the first major case study in 21st century American politics. But to Democrats with a long-time stake in the party, Obama's success is both welcome (who wants to live in the wilderness forever?) and intimidating.
The anti-authoritarian impulse common in a lot of liberals, and which I share, is definitely visible on both the pro and anti Obama sides.
Re: the movement, from glancing at other blog comment threads, I'm reminded of a very gut-level, "It's happening without ME, I am NOT included....therefore they will screw ME...."they" have decided I'm worthless...I don't want anybody having power over ME/My favorite orgs" self-absorbed reaction.
And this reaction is disguised in a "but what I really care about is the party" pose. It's really a paranoid fantasy. It's all fear.
I think there are a couple of bouncing balls in play here:
- Since its realignment in the 1960s, the Democratic Party has been a loose coalition of marginalized groups. And put the emphasis on the word "loose." Consequently, each group has spent decades institutionalizing its separateness, with generations of professional political activists declaring loyalty first to the constituents who pay their salaries, and only second to the party itself. These folks have personal reasons to fear consolidation, not to mention the fact that each silo of power will undoubtedly lose some relevancy if Obama's movement continues to build.
- Building a national movement and a national party around a candidate is risky, but it's also an essential step if you're proposing a transformational agenda. Though it's been framed as black-against-white or men-against-women or hard-working-Americans-against-latte-sipping-elites, the real choice in the Obama-Clinton contest has always been Something Different vs. More of the Same. The Obama movement is the embodiment of something Americans have been saying for years: Our political system is broken, and if you don't fix that then all your policy initiatives will come to nothing.
The good news? The Obama team seems up to the challenge of creating a fully integrated presidential campaign. Their timing is impeccable. They've got a candidate who is as talented and insightful a politician as we've seen in a generation.
The fear is that a consolidated Democratic power base with Obama at is center will be no stronger than the man himself. That the new power will disintegrate the first time Obama's feet turn to clay. Diversity, say the institutional voices, is good.
Well, diversity is good. On the other hand, internecine warfare and pointless political squabbles on behalf of competing moneyed interests are bad. And that's what we're trying to change. To do that requires uniting under one banner long enough to push through reforms that limit the power of lobbyists and special interests.
The Web connects people across their silos in unexpected ways: We no longer have to work our way up through mediators to work our way out to our like-minded friends. Which is why the Obama movement can empower Obama the President to be a different kind a of leader. Our common interest is our understanding of what must be done first, and we'll work together with little prompting to support him so long as he stays on that agenda.
Will that movement hold together for years? I doubt it. If it fails it will quickly come apart. If it succeeds, we'll all turn our attention to our individual, diverse interests again.
Fear of Obama's party as some diversity-killing political Googleborg fails to grasp the new reality. The nature of political institutions is changing because the Web is changing our relationship to politics. Obama proved this by beating the Clinton Machine with an Army of Davids, by building from the bottom up, by valuing lots of renewable $20 donation over a few $3,500 donors.
These new political institutions will change rapidly and in ways that are not necessarily controllable by the old levers of money and mass media. You don't necessarily create them: You find them, you feel them and you surf them. Here's hoping this great big wave pushes Obama all the way to the beach (which, by the way, is quite a ways past election day).
But the thing about a wave is, once it's spent, it recedes and regenerates in a new form. That's healthy -- and a lot better than the old notion of impounding it into a stagnant, controllable pond.