Continuing dialogue with Micah Sifry: Hope, health, activism and results

by Karoli on January 3, 2010 · 236 comments

Update 1/4/10: The final installment in this exchange is here. There’s also an excellent comment on Sifry’s original post from Spencer Critchley here. It’s been a great discussion, and in the end, we just disagree.

I appreciate it when someone responds to what I’ve written in a thoughtful way, even if they do open the dialogue with “a blogger who calls herself…” Before digging into the debate, I should probably clear up the personal and quite possibly ‘sentimental’ items in question.

My mother really named me Karoli…

It’s on my certified birth certificate. You could argue successfully that she was drugged when she did it, since mothers who gave birth in the 50s generally were, but nevertheless, I “call myself” that because she did it first.

Why don’t I use my last name on my blog posts? Because I married into a very conservative family who has some standing and name recognition in our real-life community. My spouse and I agreed early on that it was fine to raise the children as liberals provided I didn’t run around attaching his family’s last name to all of my liberal rants online. It’s worked for 21 years now, so I don’t plan to change that anytime soon.

Think of me as one of those people whose first name is strange enough that they really don’t need a last name. Still, I’m just as real as you are, and have videos of CNN interviews as well as an entire year of NewsGang Live recordings to prove it.

All politics is personal

Sifry opens with this:

It’s fundamentally a sentimental post, arguing that it makes more sense to be a “positive catalyst for change,” to take responsibility for making change into our own hands, and to “quit taking potshots at the President.” Why the latter is in contradiction with the former is beyond me, but whatever.

Now, now, there goes the cynicism again. Because I made statements about acting through hope rather than criticizing from afar, I’m sentimental? I guess that’s one way to describe it, though most who know me think of my beliefs and action style as passionate. Sentimentality suggests a sort of hands-off kumbaya kind of existence, where rational thought flies out of the window while I type in a starry-eyed stupor and play “Imagine” on a repeating loop.

Political thought begins and ends in personal terms. Call it sentimental, call it passionate, but what it is, whether framed in positives or negatives, is personal.

Settling on facts

Enough of the personal, let’s look at the facts still in dispute between us. Sifry continues to argue that the early campaign funding for Obama has some weightier influence than the later grass-roots funding. This contradicts an earlier post of Sifry’s written just after Super Tuesday, where he characterizes Obama as a ‘reformer’. In that post, he wrote:

If it were not for the internet, and all the campaign- and voter-generated activism that it has enabled, Hillary Clinton would already be the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, and Barack Obama or another reform-minded candidate would be trailing badly.

I read that statement as affirmation of my position: that the internet and grassroots activists were the engines that fueled AND FUNDED Obama’s campaign, not the traditional lobbyists, corporations, and special interests.

In February, 2008, Sifry sang the praises of an operation that relied on the internet grassroots for funding. In January, 2010, we’re told that all that was nonsense, that Obama’s true ‘keepers’ were those 2007 “financial backers”.

Here are a couple of facts: No lobbyist or PAC money powered the Obama campaign. All donors were limited to individual donor limits of $2,300 each for the primary and general election. When donations are added up to totals ‘by industry’, they include the Goldman-Sachs housekeeping staff along with the secretaries and investment bankers. My own contributions were classified as “financial services” or “health industry” because they either came from my small business which is a third-party pension consulting firm, or the paycheck I received from my employer, who was peripherally related to the health sector. We could actually go through the names of donors and pick out the ones we recognize, but it would be a huge waste of time. Take the totals, divide them by $4,600 and you’ll have a lowest-possible number of donors from that sector. The actual number giving might be much higher than that, and likely is.

Here’s Sifry’s source for the contention that the only donors who matter were the early donors:

So we’re clear: Obama got about 2/3rds of his donations from $1,000+ donors, while Clinton received 86%. 68% of Clinton’s donors gave the full $2,300, while less than half of Obama’s did. Even in the very early days of the election — that first quarter of 2007 — 22% of Obama’s donors gave $200 or less. In fact, Obama had more small donors than any viable candidate but Kucinich. (I don’t consider Gravel to have ever been a serious candidate, but Kucinich was in the beginning.)

Sifry asks this question again:

Obama’s small donor surge came later, but who do you think he remembers?

My answer: He remembers the millions who dug in and gave what they could, including that 22% who dug in at the time when he had the lowest chance of overcoming the ‘establishment money’ pouring in to Clinton. C’mon, Micah Sifry. Bill Clinton was THE fundraising machine for the Democrats until Obama usurped the Clintons altogether.

As further evidence, Sifry cites the 39.6 million received from the financial, real estate, and insurance sectors overall. Yet my original fact set still stands: Even when aggregated, these donors represent a small fraction of the total funding received by Obama. He completely ignored the $42 million received from retirees, while giving a nod to the $43 million given by lawyers and law firms.

Power shifts and grants

The last area of rebuttal concerns the grassroots and role of the OFA leadership and Obama himself in stirring them to action.

The critical issue, which Karoli completely skates past, is the actual trajectory of how OFA was slowly put together after the election, and the actual structure of the organization. This isn’t about whether or not grassroots volunteers were empowered during the campaign–it’s about what kind of organization was, or wasn’t, offered afterwards to carry their momentum forward. That’s what my first post was about, and it’s still the topic worth debating.

I suppose I lack the ‘insider knowledge’ to know exactly how NOT to skate past it. From what I see as an early supporter, organizer and continuing contributor, OFA has continued to serve its purpose: Mobilizing and informing supporters. Even though a year is a long time, it’s not all that hard to point to some key ways that OFA and field organizations were utilized, particularly with regard to health care reform. Rather than outline them here, I’ll point you to this post on TechPresident about the efficacy of gathering real life stories through the OFA organization and outreach, this TechPresident post about OFA’s conference call and appeal for their organization to organize and speak out for health care reform. Both of those point to an organization poised to utilize those grassroots supporters as groundswell support for the issue itself, preventing Congress from allowing it to fall by the wayside of partisan (or bipartisan) hubris.

It’s probably appropriate to point out that no President has managed to get a comprehensive health care reform bill this far through Congress–passage in both Houses, House/Senate compromise pending. Details released today about how the two bills will be reconciled indicate a fast track to the President’s desk. Without grassroots participation, organization and pressure, it wouldn’t have made it past the Senate Finance Committee. There is no question in my mind that it was an effective use of the organization put in place during the campaign.

Score one for the OFA organization. A big one, in fact. All hail the power of the grassroots, even when called to push against their grassroots opposites.

What could have been different?

In an earlier post today, Sifry addressed other aspects of the Organizing for America decision tree and leadership matrix. I’ll shift to those for the balance of this post.

First, the Obama team could have immediately made “keeping the movement going” as high a priority as the formal transition process was in the months of November/December/January right after the election. Their failure to do so should be seen as an act of criminal political negligence.

Hmmm. I can’t speak from the inside, but I can speak as a member of the OFA grassroots.

  • On December 4, 2008 I received an email inviting me to sign up to host or attend a Change is Coming house meeting on either December 13th or 14th.
  • On December 9, 2008 I received an email reminding me to attend one, with a link to a listing of area meetings and a video to watch.
  • On December 16, 2008 I received an invitation to sign up for service projects, parades, whistle-stop rallies, ticketed inaugural events and other local community service projects.
  • On December 19, 2008 I received an email asking for input on how to best organize/utilize our voices going forward, along with a link to some results from the house meetings.
  • On January 23, 2009 I received an email with a link to a video made by Mitch Stewart and David Plouffe about the future of OFA
  • On February 7, 2009 I received information and a link to a video from the President about his economic recovery plan (ARRA)

The list goes on. A quick search of my email turned up about 200 communiques mostly focused on issues, disseminating information, and trying to get ahead of the message machine that is our ‘media’.

Let me answer a question with a question: Given that OFA placed primary focus on issue-centered questions, should they have de-emphasized issues for organization around future candidates?

If issues-based activism was the right shift to make from a ‘person-based’ campaign, then they handled that transition in a pretty efficient fashion. The disaffection alleged to be happening within the ranks of the organization may have more to do with the reach of the liberal ‘big tent’ and inevitable agendas that arise from that, from single payer advocacy to more moderate versions of health care reform. But without question, the single most damaging message to those who support the OFA organization is that they have been ‘sold out’, and this is a message that Sifry has reinforced, rather than refuted.

Because the Democratic party serves such a wide spectrum of interests, there are some who are disappointed, some bitterly so. So bitter, in fact, their message has turned from hope to disdain, as though the President was elected to be a big daddy to serve their interests alone. I am not sure there’s much of anything anyone can do to assuage that, because it’s entirely personal and somewhat irrational. (Because…sing the chorus now, politics IS personal…)

Sifry’s second criticism:

Second, and this is the most critical part in my view, they could have set out to introduce and connect local Obama supporters to each other, organized by congressional district.

Here’s an excerpt of an email I received in June from our local OFA organizer, who is now campaign director for a local candidate:

Organizing for America has dispatched two wonderful Summer Organizers to Congressional Districts 23 & 24. While their primary goal for the summer will be to organize around Healthcare Reform, they are also curious what local groups and activists are up to. Please take a moment to e-mail these two terrific organizers and tell them what’s occurring in your community, what you would like to see happen on a local level and how you would like to be involved.

It went on to give their names and email addresses for contact information.

Looks like OFA agreed with Sifry’s ideas about strategies, and so do I. We only disagree about whether it was done. He says it wasn’t; I prove that it was.

Ending on a positive note

Sifry’s question here is one with which I wholeheartedly agree:

I would also ask why most observers and analysts pay so little attention to the details of political organizing. Politics is not only about what leaders say and do in Washington and on TV. Political organizing is the basis for political movements, which in turn alter the climate for politics inside Washington.

If there is one single frustration I could point to, it’s this one. The day Nancy Pelosi published the House health care reform bill, I read it and posted the high points. Within hours, the lies about it came online. I rushed to post a series of rebuttals, all with facts, all trying to quell what I knew was going to be an onslaught of nonsensical lies and more lies about the bill.

What did our mainstream media do with that? They amplified the lies, to the point where I ended up actually calling THEM out as liars.

Media Matters for America and Politifact caught on to it, but not before the lies got major traction and played out in the reporting of the summer tea parties and town hall meetings.

If there has been one consistent failure in the past year, it has been the failure of our media and press to give any attention to the substance of our political discourse. If there has been one theme that has run through those of us who support the President and health care reform in particular, it has been that our voices don’t matter to the media this time around, at least in the context of what has been reported and highlighted for the public at large who may not be as obsessed with politics as I or others. Or at least, they don’t matter unless we’re consistently critical.

We can organize all day long, but as soon as the teapots started whistling, our voices were effectively silenced in the dialogue taking place on mainstream media channels. Ironically, they’ve only received attention recently, as some of the netroots has become quite vocal in their opposition and criticism of the President since health care reform has not taken the shape they hoped it would.

Going forward after health care reform, the question will be whether or not the netroots and grassroots are ready to shift focus to more local concerns. They’ve had their eye on the national arena for three years, via a focus on electing the President, and then the year-long focus on health care reform.

When I write about hope, I do it because my goal is to bring more like-minded politicians into office so that we’re not beholden to the Liebermans and Nelsons in Congress, or the minority tyrants that stymie California politics. Cynicism doesn’t win elections. That’s the lesson here. Activism wins elections, and activism is powered by hope of things to come that are better than what we have today. Individual hope, collective hope, and the power to move that from a “sentiment” to a result.

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