The Sifry Disconnect: When cynicism kills hope

by Karoli on January 1, 2010 · 24 comments

If you haven’t read Micah Sifry’s latest (very long) post about liberal disappointment and wilting grassroots, please go read it first before you read this (very long) rebuttal.

A short paraphrase: President Obama isn’t a recent sellout. We are seeing the Barack Obama that always was, is, and has been — corporatist sellout. Really, David Plouffe and Charles Axelrod did a stellar job of selling the appearance of a grassroots organizer while pulling the wool over the eyes of the grassroots movement that supported, and ultimately elected Barack Obama.

The filter you should read Sifry’s cynical claims through is his own self-description:

In case you haven’t noticed by now, I tend to be pretty skeptical of all politicians, and far more interested in small-d democratic self-empowerment as the best path to a better society.

He and I agree on only one point in his entire post, but it’s an important one:

The problem for Obama and the Democrats today, as they head into 2010, is that much of their activist base appears to have swallowed too much of the wrong half of the myth: they thought that Obama would be more of a change-agent, and never really embraced their own role.

Strangely, I think Plouffe, Axelrod and President Obama would agree with him completely on this. It’s been a constant drumbeat from me, too. Every time I see Jane Hamsher or Markos Moulitsas react with disappointment that the President has “sold us out”, or they snark out something on Twitter about “yeah, there’s change we can believe in,” I can’t help but ask them exactly what they did to make that thing they’re complaining about any better.

Hold that thought. Let’s debunk some of the falsehoods in Sifry’s screed first.

Wall Street and corporations own the President

Having spent the better part of August and September digging through and aggregating campaign disclosures for the first six months of the year (before the Sunlight Foundation and Open Secrets started doing it…), I’m calling bullshit to this:

In terms of the early money that was raised by his campaign in 2007–and this is the most influential money in politics–more than one-third (36%) of his total came from the financial sector (compared to 28% for Hillary Clinton), reported campaign finance expert Thomas Ferguson. Between January and August 2007, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, 60% of Obama’s donations were in amounts of $1000 or more–a smaller proportion than Clinton, but still a majority of his crucial early funding. In terms of Obama’s overall funding, nearly half of his donations came from people giving $1000 or more.

I call bullshit to it, not because it isn’t factually correct in terms of the source of early giving — it is — but because it suggests an implied degree of ‘ownership’ because early donors gave amounts of $1000 or more, with an upper limit of $2,300.

Were bundlers involved in the beginning? Sure they were. No one — not God himself — gets elected in this country to any office without some money. Would campaign finance reform be something good for everyone? Yes. But it’s disingenuous to suggest that those early 2007 donors somehow represent corporate ownership of Obama, given that as the campaign progressed, grassroots fundraising took firm root and blossomed, yielding record contributions from individual contributors.

Sifry asks:

Should we really surprised that someone with so much early support from Wall Street and wealthy elites overall might not be inclined to throw the money-changers out of the temple?

Sigh. I truly hate the term “elite”. But let’s look at the record and set the misconceptions straight.

The breakdown of Obama’s overall contributions suggests that primary “ownership” isn’t corporate at all. For all the hoo-ha over Goldman-Sachs donations, they gave less than 1% of the total received. Far more came from university and tech donors. In fact, if Sifry’s theory of ‘ownership’ were valid, Microsoft ought to be pretty damn pissed off about the fact that the Obama administration opted for open source Drupal to power their websites over Microsoft-powered software. Google, too, for that matter. The highest percentage of donations came from retirees and lawyers , which is why Republicans had no problem pointing at lawyers as the catalyst for killing tort reform in the health care reform bill, despite the fact that tort reform covers a far broader spectrum than health care.  Just on health care reform alone, those alleged ‘owners’ ought to be pretty damn ticked off at the total lack of return on their investment, given that they will now be watchdogged by the government, forced to insure people they don’t touch with a ten-foot pole now, and without limits on coverage. Yeah, that was a win for sure.

The only way to get to a total from the financial sector that looks even a little bit significant is to aggregate finance, insurance and real estate into one category, and even then it doesn’t come close to the totals received from other sectors.

Let’s get real about how the majority of OFA funds were raised. Fundraising events were attended by donors like GrandMOMocrat, and MOMocrat co-founder Glennia Campbell. People like me donated in small amounts every month until we found our donations exceeding (gasp!) $1,000.00. Unions donated a lot of money, particularly in the days just before the election when right-wing self-interested parties like Scaife, Murdoch, FreedomWorks, and Citizens United were throwing millions at smear ads running round the clock with recycled Reverend Wright footage.

Does Sifry really believe that the President would veto progressive legislation so as not to ‘offend’ the corporations? Who does that legislation come from, anyway? Last time I looked, Congress legislates; the executive either signs or vetoes. Suggestion: If the goal is a legislative effort that includes progressive goals and methods, perhaps electing more progressive thinkers to Congress is a valuable tool.

If Sifry really believes in ‘small-d democracy’ he might take aim at the pending Supreme Court decision regarding corporate personhood and the right to anonymously slam candidates running for office with millions and millions of dollars in ad buys, but taking a cheap shot at the President without some facts in his hand? An ineffective and kneejerk reaction to a difficult and complex problem.

“Grassroots supporters” were never highly regarded or given control

According to Sifry, anyway.

Nor, it is clear, was Obama’s campaign ever really about giving control to the grassroots. As Zephyr Teachout wrote here a while back, the campaign shared tasks with its supporters but didn’t share power.

Hmmm. This article seems to contradict that assertion, as does this article on Rolling Stone’s site (posted in March, 2008, just before the Texas primary).

And the volunteers who showed up won’t be micromanaged by Ukman or anyone else from the campaign. They’ll be able to call their own shots, from organizing local rallies to recruiting and training a crew of fellow Obama supporters to man their precincts on election day. To identify and mobilize Obama backers, they’ll log on to the password-protected texasprecinctcaptains.com, download the phone numbers of targeted voters, make calls from their homes and upload the results to Austin headquarters.

There is one point where Sifry may be correct, but even Sifry leaves a door open for someone to contradict him.

…there is no evidence that OFA is actually driven by anything but what its DNC-paid staff and White House advisers want. If Stewart, or Jeremy Bird or Natalie Foster or any of the other good people working for OFA want to refute this by sharing details of OFA’s governance structure and how the local leadership actually drives the organization, I’m happy to be proven wrong.

From conversations I’ve had, it is true: there is indeed disappointment at the closure of field offices around the country. Sifry may be correct about the current organizational structure of OFA. In my view, it was a mistake to shutter the offices. I would go so far as to say that it was a mistake to merge OFA and the DNC, but for the fact that once President Obama was elected, he not only leads the country but also the Democratic party. On the other hand, duplication of effort at a central level made little sense either.

I, too, would be interested to hear the reasoning behind the decision to close field offices and let those motivated and dedicated volunteers go. Is it possible they were burned out? Maybe. But again, there is nothing in the United States Constitution that says the grassroots who got a President elected needs to wait for any official go-ahead from that President’s official party to get things done. The organizational tools, the online tools, the network tools all remain. Could it be that this is one of those “We are the change” moments that the grassroots are failing to grasp? If leadership and ownership were at a grassroots level once (and they clearly were), then perhaps those leaders were also empowered to take hold of their moment to determine and advance their agenda and goals.

Had they done so, they would be bucking the conventional wisdom claiming the party in power will lose seats in Congress in mid-term elections, because they would already be promoting qualified Congressional candidates. Yet in Texas alone, 13 open seats in Congress currently have Republican candidates running unopposed. Had WE been the change, WE would have been searching, screening, and raising money for viable Democrats to oppose those Republicans. Had WE been practicing ‘small-d Democracy”, we would have campaign organizations ready at the local level to elect more progressives to Congress so that true progress can be made possible.

This is the disconnect. On one hand, Sifry bemoans the central organization’s heavy-handedness to the grassroots and on the other, ignores the fact that if grassroots supporters are empowered (and they were/are), they would BE THE CHANGE.

It fascinates me to see the tea party movement study every aspect of Obama’s grassroots effort in order to make their own. From social networks to stirring discontent among disaffected conservatives, their movement has risen out of once-convergent and now-divergent interests. FreedomWorks may act out of corporate astroturfers’ interests, but other factions are hard-core conservatives’ answer to grassroots efforts for Obama.

Sifry can’t have it both ways. Either the grassroots were empowered and could have chosen to take that empowerment to the next level, or they were not empowered and had nothing to do with Obama’s election. It’s difficult for me to argue the latter with a straight face.

The grassroots are dead; long live the grassroots

Sifry’s final requiem is aimed at the Organizing/Obama for America (new/old iterations of the same organization). Sifry cites declining support and response to email initiatives as evidence that the grassroots have had weed killer poured on them.

To that, I laugh a little. While it’s true that I haven’t clicked through an email this month, my reasons for that have little to do with a dead grassroots sense and far more to do with a crappy economy, the California EDD’s decision to suspend, reinstate, then delay my unemployment benefits for what is now creeping up on 10 weeks, and an unholy obsession with seeing this health care reform initiative to the end without seeing progressives eat liberals for dinner.

In fact, my email box is flooded on a daily basis from interests ranging from MoveOn’s “kill the bill” initiative (which very nearly sent me into an apoplectic coma) to AlterNet’s year end fundraising to The Nation’s auction to raise funds, to the Howard Dean organization’s telephone call the other day asking me for a monthly donation to help them elect progressives.

In other words, the different factions that came together to unite under the OFA umbrella when it was “Obama for America” have now retreated to their own fiefdoms, a fragmented and sometimes ragtag group of specific interests. I just counted: I had 152 fundraising requests from progressive/liberal/Democratic organizations in 30 days. Two were from OFA. The rest were from the DNCC, MoveOn, Progressive Change Committee, California Democrats, Alan Grayson, GlobalGiving, Common Cause, Sojourners, Equality California, Patrick Leahy, ActBlue, Chuck Schumer, Marcy Winograd, DonorsChoose, Change Congress, and Democrats.com, to name a few.

My response to all of them? Pass health care reform and I can afford to donate again. Maybe. If I get a job I can afford to donate again, too. My lack of response had nothing to do with OFA or my feelings toward them. Indeed, when OFA asked us to make phone calls to Congress regarding health care reform, I did so. Their goal was exceeded in one day. 357,000 phone calls to Congress in 24 hours. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Mostly, though, OFA sends emails to let me know what’s going on and keep me in the loop, just like David Plouffe said they would.

That doesn’t seem like a disenfranchised group to me. At the same time, it is worth noting the overwhelming flood of donation requests from different groups that has splintered from the mothership. That would seem to me to be people taking hold of their local elections, representatives, congressional races and the like and ‘owning them’, the way good grassroots groups should. As 2010 progresses, I expect to see 500 of them a month in my inbox, and rightly so. We should ALL be supporting EACH OTHER, because WE ARE THE CHANGE.

I have, however, severed ties with several organizations I had donated money to in the past. One is Howard Dean’s organization. Another is AlterNet. I may relent on Dean’s organization, but AlterNet is probably dead to me forever, because they rely on cynical pronouncements instead of encouraging their readers to BE THE CHANGE.

Cynicism is the easy way out

Without question, change is difficult, even when the change agents want it. There is too much change, too little change, change in the wrong direction, disagreements about what changes to make first. There is a hunger for change and a fear of it. There is disappointment that the change isn’t one viewed as best and most desirable, and nothing spells cynicism faster than a disappointed idealist.

Hope is the more difficult road. Hope requires change to come at a pace that is possible rather than one that’s ideal. It sees smaller pathways that sometimes wind through unseen futures but usually emerge to merge on the other side with the road called “progress”.

Cynics walk the road of criticism and sometimes even despair. Criticism, when constructive, is the healthiest road to true, lasting change. Criticism, when it’s personal, destructive, and defeatist is a road to cynical disconnects and non-participation.

What Sifry and other “small ‘d” democracy promoters sometimes lose sight of is the value of being a positive catalyst for change — of fulfilling the promise that Barack Obama spoke throughout his campaign when he said this:

“The more we can enlist the American people to pay attention and be involved, that’s the only way we are going move an agenda forward. That’s how we are going to counteract the special interests.”

This is what I wrote nearly two years ago, after listening to then-candidate Obama’s New Hampshire primary concession speech:

We’re tired of what the politicians say “they” will do and are ready to show this country what WE can do as a collective group of energized voices ready to put our wallets, our voices and our feet on the line.

We are the new American majority. We have a voice. We walk streets, we make phone calls, we give what we can, even if it’s just $3.01 at a time. We are speaking for ourselves rather than waiting for someone to speak for us. We want our country back, and we want our standing back in the world. We’re tired of the naysayers who leave our fates in the hands of Wall Street and the Halliburtons, Diebolds and Blackwaters of the world. We are no longer going to stand idly by and have our lives and quality of our lives dictated to us by lobbyists and corporations.

This is not hate. It is democracy.

That’s right. WE. That means WE take ownership and quit taking potshots at the President WE elected.

  • popandice

    I trust you to bring factual and balanced information to the table and your arguments seem entirely logical and reasonable. I DO believe that we have to fight at the grassroots level and I am! You should have been here for the Christmas Even dinner discussion on healthcare with my Republican relatives – OMG! Despite our entrenched views, we still managed to celebrate the holiday in peace and that MUST mean something! We may not have persuaded anyone, but perhaps we got them to think? I sure hope so. We even had my 17 year old daughter chiming in on her own behalf – as to what was to happen to her without HCR. Grandpa was silenced, momentarily, but then suggested she aim for a corporate job. NO! NO! NO! Healthcare SHOULD NOT depend on where you work. It's great if you can gain employment with a company that offers good health care insurance, but what if you wish to be independently employed? Lack of health care will grind you to a halt if you can't afford personal coverage. This does not help the country; it HURTS our country. So regardless of whether we get single payer (not now), public option (probably not), insurance exchanges (hopefully!), let's hang onto the rest of the good legislation that still remains: no recission, no denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, and control of costs and rates. I'll take it. And so will my daughter.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Amen!!! You are absolutely right, and a stellar example of what I mean when I say the grassroots is NOT dead but is alive and talking and doing what we did so well during the campaign — being change agents, one person at a time. What disturbs me about so many of these higher-profile blogger/writers is their insistence on making Obama the scapegoat for their frustration. We have got to do what we're doing — taking hold of narratives, pushing for better Congressional reps, and above all, believing we actually can make change happen.

    Your comment about your daughter resonated with me so deeply. I told my daughter that whatever she chooses to do with her life, she should plan on doing it outside of the corporate structure. My exact words were “do what you love, and do it for yourself.” The days of corporate loyalty to employees and vice versa are gone. If we can level the field with accessible health care for all, our children can innovate, create, and make new businesses that actually compete. Never again will they have to depend on corporate employment or a job they hate simply so they can have health insurance. That time is now.

    At the same time, it's a great time to really start making an infrastructure so that single payer can become a reality. That really can happen, but not while Medicare needs so many reforms and fixes. Trying to expand Medicare now could quite possibly kill single payer rather than solidify it. If we can push thru some reforms and change thinking about health and health care, maybe single payer will be a reality for our kids. Wouldn't that be awesome?

    One thing I know is that tearing down the guy with the most potential to allow movement in that direction is a huge mistake, which is why I felt compelled to aim at Sifry as hard as I did.

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  • lelawilley

    I have seen many who stayed in a job they hated just because they couldn't afford to leave and give up the insurance they had. These are often people who would like to start their own company or do something more artistic/creative. Even though this measure going through isn't perfect, it gives hope. Hope is what I am looking for for my kids, nieces, nephews, and grandkids. Hope is what we should be pushing.

  • lelawilley

    I have seen many who stayed in a job they hated just because they couldn't afford to leave and give up the insurance they had. These are often people who would like to start their own company or do something more artistic/creative. Even though this measure going through isn't perfect, it gives hope. Hope is what I am looking for for my kids, nieces, nephews, and grandkids. Hope is what we should be pushing.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danny6114 danny6114

    Thats what I'm talking about! You don't build a house without putting down a foundation, any step in the right direction is progress. People should quit bitching that they're not getting it all right NOW!

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  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    danny,

    I'm starting to think we are so caught in the 'culture of right now' that it's impossible for some to see what is in front of them without hungering for what isn't.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danny6114 danny6114

    Thats what I'm talking about! You don't build a house without putting down a foundation, any step in the right direction is progress. People should quit bitching that they're not getting it all right NOW!

  • http://twitter.com/selfdeprecate Jason Parker

    Like many on the left I supported Obama as a candidate and donated before his intentions were even officially announced. Loooong before the word “Change” was tacked on to his candidacy by some douchebag Marketing/Advertising major. Just because some folks got together on his campaign and went with the word “Change” to appeal to the brain dead masses doesn't mean anything to me.

    Most of his supporters who follow politics and news aren't interested in this “Change” buzzword that keeps getting thrown around. That's like labels with the word “WOW” or “AWESOME” on them and people writing articles later that the Cocoa Puffs were neither “WOW” nor “AWESOME” at all.

    It's appalling seeing credible journalists caught up in this Change bullshit. It's a fucking marketing term people, damn. I'm surrounded by idiots. :D

    Feds respecting state's marijuana laws
    Stem cell ban lifting
    Giving Teacher's unions the kick in the ass they deserved
    easing Cuban restrictions
    SCHIP after Bush robbed children of healthcare the year before

    These are just a few – I'm McLoving the guy.

    Rove used Patriotism to get the retard masses vote in 2000 and we used Change in 2008.

  • http://twitter.com/selfdeprecate Jason Parker

    In other words, the different factions that came together to unite under the OFA umbrella when it was “Obama for America” have now retreated to their own fiefdoms, a fragmented and sometimes ragtag group of specific interests.

    Brilliant observation, now please inform others of this miraculous concept.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    Jason, I agree with you to an extent, though I think it's fair to say that he used the Change meme to inspire. The problem is that critics only heard “change” and not “we”.

  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    danny,

    I'm starting to think we are so caught in the 'culture of right now' that it's impossible for some to see what is in front of them without hungering for what isn't.

  • Rick Ladd

    No matter what, change is up to US. WE must be the ones to continually pay attention and make our voices heard when necessary. Although the America (indeed, the world) I want to see is way different than anything I can envision happening in what remains of my life, incremental change that improves people's lives is valuable and necessary.

    I tend toward cynicism myself. Thanks for an eloquent reminder of how difficult change really is and how important it is to recognize and use OUR power.

  • several

    Karoli, you are the hitter-of-nails-on-heads.

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  • noislamocommie

    Do you think that this effort can be geared towards protecting America against Islamic infiltration?I read the Muslim Mafia book and it scared the beejesus out of me.

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  • http://www.drumsnwhistles.com/ Karoli

    I honestly have no idea what you are talking about.

  • http://www.scrutinyhooligans.us/ WNCBlue

    “Last time I looked, Congress legislates; the executive either signs or vetoes.”

    Are you seriously proposing that signing or veoting legislation is the only role the President has in crafting legislation? Look back through the news about health care reform and you'll see plenty to suggest that the Obama administration, like every other administration since, well, Washington, has had an active role in shaping what comes out of Congress.

    You can see a number of times where the President has called players in negotiations to the White House, where the President has gone to Capitol Hill to urge congress to move forward, where the President's staff – Rahm Emmanuel especially – has been active in negotiations. Perhaps the most prominent example is the PhRMA deal: whether there was a deal or not, there certainly were meetings between White House staff and PhRMA lobbyists (just as there were meetings with lobbyists from other groups on all sides of the issue, though Congressional Progressives didn't get theirs until late in the process, and single-payer advocates basically had to stage a sit-in). It seems odd to me that PhRMA would even bother going to the White House if the President had so little control over what happens in Congress.

    Ultimately, too, I think “cynical” is too strong a word to describe Sifry's piece. I would call it criticism, of the constructive kind that I would guess by your conclusion you would welcome. What I take away from this is that the Obama administration, and the ongoing Obama campaign, have yet to figure out how best to work with a grassroots organization that is tied specifically to a politician in office. Since 2006, progressive organizations have looked to an inside/outside approach by which grassroots groups would try to move the debate further to the left by applying, or at least appearing to apply, pressure on politicians to move leftward in their policies. In that model, OFA is a contradiction in terms: if local groups are receiving direction from the DNC or Obama operatives, then Obama is ultimately accountable for their actions. This direct connection creates a situation in which he may either a) seem to be negotiating in bad faith, because his organization is calling for stronger action than those he's negotiating with will agree to, or b) have to limit his organization to simply cheerleading any possible compromise that might come out of the process.

    There's probably a solution here, and Obama, with all his gifts, may very well find it. But is it cynicism to provide the feedback that a lot of us are concerned that he and his people have chosen option “b”?

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