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Column: Organizing for Obama

BY SHAWN GUDE | MAY 05, 2010 7:30 AM

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Maybe it was because of his background as a community organizer. Or his campaign’s 13-million strong e-mail address list. Or his grandiose rhetoric and hope-filled campaign that at times seemed to border on a broad-based movement.

But last year’s formation of Organizing for America, the Barack Obama campaign-cum-quasi-grass-roots group, wasn’t entirely surprising.

The past year has proven difficult for the group, however.

“The enthusiasm and dedication of the campaign have not carried over to the governing process,” political-science Associate Professor Cary Covington told me via e-mail, noting the difficulty of mobilizing for complex legislation, as opposed to a relatively straightforward political campaign.

Instead, Tea Partiers and others opposed to the recently signed health-care-reform law have dominated headlines and televisions segments. On the whole, Organizing for America hasn’t quite provided the pro-Obama push that acolytes were hoping it would.

“Congressional staff in both parties say [Organizing for America] has mobilized constituent lobbying, but do not say it was a major or powerful force on Capitol Hill in its first year,” stated a recent, 74-page report written by The Nation’s Ari Melber.

Despite my general support for Obama’s policies, however, the group’s ineffectiveness hasn’t left me feeling dour. And I remain unconvinced the inherently ephemeral organization is a good outlet for citizen participation, both young and old.

It would be wrong to dismiss Obama’s ability to attract young people to his campaign. As a Daily Iowan metro reporter who covered the presidential campaign, it was undoubtedly heartening to see people my age taking weekends — or even entire school years — off to work for Obama.

But the long-term prospects of our democracy don’t improve with sporadic spurts of mobilization and citizen participation, followed by years of quiescence.

As I’ve written before, young peoples’ political engagement shouldn’t oscillate, corresponding with the rise of an ebullient politician and falling with a stretch of drab ones.

You see, I’m more concerned with the strength of our democratic system than a single candidate or elected official. And akin to Obama, Organizing for America — while a potential boon for Obama’s policies — is more slick veneer than citizen vivifier.

That’s not good for our democratic system.

What unites us as a polity is not our political views, which run the gamut from democratic socialism to staunch libertarianism. No, the nation’s political bond stems from our support for the democratic process and its institutions and ideals.

It’s our “constitutional conscience,” as Michael Signer labeled the democratic commitment in his 2009 book, Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy From Its Worst Enemies. When strong, it leads to rejecting the self-interested populism of demagogues and, I would add, avoiding puerile commitments to a single politician.

In this sense, Organizing for America is a perversion of the fiercely democratic values that undergird grass-roots organizations. Its explicit goal is to advocate for the policies of the most powerful politician in the country, Barack Obama.

Grass-roots advocacy groups have traditionally — and, I believe, correctly — been conceived as bottom-up citizen coalitions who make their democratic voices head. And with its message of empowering ordinary citizens, Organizing for America ostensibly retains the core ethos of grass-roots organizing.

For example, the group prominently displays this famous quotation from Obama on its website: “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

Inspirational, huh?

My problem with it is similar to my underlying objections to Organizing for America: It inextricably links activism to a politician, rather than extolling citizen power that is exogenous to any particular campaign or elected official.

True grass-roots groups place pressure on elected officials. Their calling cards are activism and accountability, not sycophantic devotion.

And that’s where Organizing for America goes wrong.

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