Ethics and Believability in Politics: On Sifry's Theory of an 'Obama Disconnect'

Micah Sifry has written a widely discussed essay about the denuded Obama grassroots movement, touching on a broad range of issues, from the campaign team's exertion of top-down control to their missteps post-election to the myth-making and marketing of hope and change. There have been a couple of extended critiques and Sifry has written a series of follow-ups to address questions raised by his thesis.

I'd like to focus on one important aspect of the original essay, namely the motivating factor(s) behind Obama's grassroots support. Sifry says:

In The Audacity to Win, [Obama campaign manager David] Plouffe writes often of an "enthusiasm gap" that he saw between Obama's supporters and the other Democratic candidates, notably Clinton. Back then, there was plenty of evidence to support Plouffe's claim: Obama was surging on all the online social networks, his videos were being shared and viewed in huge numbers, and the buzz was everywhere. We certainly wrote about it often here on techPresident. Now, there is a new enthusiasm gap, but it's no longer in Obama's favor. That's because you can't order volunteers to do anything--you have to motivate them, and Obama's compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating. The returns OFA is getting on email blasts appear to be dropping significantly, for example. ""People are frustrated because we have done our part," one frustrated Florida Obama activist told the Politico. "We put these people in the position to make change and they're not doing it."

This is the crux of the issue: a potent grassroots message is indispensable for online success. I made the case in a December '08 post:

The pyramid of Internet political functions consists of message (communications), money (fundraising) and mobilization. Atop that pyramid sits communications. Message drives money and triggers mobilization. Devoid of a compelling message to spur their use, the most advanced web tools will lie fallow. The impetus to use technology is always external to the technology; the impulse to connect and contribute begins with the inspiration to do so and the inspiration derives from the message. Notwithstanding that hierarchy, the wave of Internet acclamation in the aftermath of the 2008 election has been focused primarily on mobilization and money, on networking tools and techniques, their effect on governance, and on the medium's capacity to generate eye-popping revenue. Less noted is the impact of the ever-growing online commentariat...

Perfect example: with an unshakable image as prohibitive frontrunner and indomitable establishment powerhouse etched in voters' minds, it was an uphill struggle during all of 2007 for Hillary Clinton to generate the grassroots passion of an insurgent candidate. In a nutshell: "you're winning, it's a done deal, you don't really need my help." Fast forward to early 2008, after she announced she had loaned her campaign money to stay afloat - the online floodgates opened and tens of millions of dollars flowed in through the website, inspired by a powerful, believable grassroots message: "I'm a fighter, I'm fighting for the things you and I believe in, I can't do it without you."

In my Dec. '08 post, I argued that the Obama campaign's success was not the momentous online revolution many claimed it was (a point Sifry makes at length in his piece and that Plouffe affirms):

Even this die-hard Internet evangelist acknowledges that the web's role can sometimes be overstated, or at least misconstrued. The truth is that the Obama campaign was a triumph of integration more than technological innovation. It was the wildly successful marriage of time-tested political strategies and tactics, executed with acumen and discipline, seamlessly combined with cutting-edge technology and tied together with an empowering grassroots message. With a brilliant candidate at the helm. That, in itself, was innovative.

That's not to deny the massive online fundraising and streamlined efficiency of web-based organizing, but it's now a truism that without something inspiring - and believable - to get mobilized about, all the online solicitations and newfangled tools in the world won't do you much good.

Which brings me back to an inherent tension in Sifry's analysis: if Obama's online movement was fueled by a myth (his title is The Obama Disconnect: What Happens When Myth Meets Reality) then why bemoan its loss or puzzle over reactivating it?

I assume his answer is that a "useful myth" (a term he uses) that results in such mass participation and enthusiasm is worth maintaining or salvaging. It is. That prompts the question of how to do so. Sifry looks back and proposes a couple of ways it might have been done:

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. 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. This is the missing piece that could have altered the track of Obama's legislative agenda--visible, insurgent, civic pressure groups keeping the heat on each member of Congress.

These are both organizational solutions, and valid ones, but the bigger problem is still the one Sifry identifies here: "You can't order volunteers to do anything--you have to motivate them, and Obama's compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating."

The second half of that sentence is vehemently contested by Obama's supporters, and in the calculus of the administration's strategists, passing health insurance reform will, in the long view, trump all today's doubts and doubters. But there's no denying that the Obama Hope bubble is deflated - you can sense Sifry's anguish that a significant moment in history has been lost - and now the interesting and important question for progressives is whether that year-long deflation is irrevocable. Correspondingly, and to stretch the metaphor, has it provided the air to inflate the Tea Party bubble?

We don't know the answer, but it's always informative to look carefully at the start of a negative process to divine where it's headed. By now, tons of cyber-ink has been spilled over how Obama has betrayed this or that promise, has morphed from this ideology to that, has coddled some interest or another. Some of the criticism is fair, some not. Still, very early on, the new administration had warning signs that they were running afoul of their progressive supporters, some of whom were new to politics and idealistic, but many of whom were experienced activists and political observers.

The early rumblings of discontent had little to do with legislative wins or losses. Nor even so much about specific campaign promises made and broken. Rather it was about hewing to firm principles and having a clear moral compass. It was about forcefully and completely repudiating Bushism in word and deed. It was about bringing fresh voices into the administration. It was about sidestepping rancid Beltway culture. It was about keeping the Obama myth - if it was a myth - believable.

I expressed it this way last May:

As has been the case for years, Democratic leaders, operating within the Washington bubble, misconstrue the concerns of the netroots and often privately dismiss them as the rantings of immature outsiders and political neophytes. But as always, the progressive community, a far more efficient thinking machine than a handful of strategists and advisers, is looking ahead and raising a unified alarm. The message is this: anything less than absolute moral clarity from Democrats, who now control the levers of power, will enshrine Bush's abuses and undermine the rule of law for generations to come. Setting aside all the campaign slogans about hope and change, what Obama really signifies is a razor sharp break from Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Rice, Rumsfeld, Addington, Libby, Bybee et al. After eight years of damage to the fabric of our Constitution and our nation, the entire point of a new face, a smart, youthful, inspiring Democratic president is to completely and totally reject the Bush years, to reject the lawless behavior, the Orwellian rationales, the blatant disregard of the Constitution. Neglecting to do so, and leaving any doubt about where Democrats stand on these issues, is profoundly detrimental to the country.

In July, I wrote a similar post, contending:

Health care is not the defining moment or issue of Obama's presidency. There will be many more watersheds, many unforeseen events, many highs and lows, many poll dips and spikes. In the end, Barack Obama's presidency will be defined by the extent to which he attempts to right America's (badly adrift) moral ship. Providing universal quality affordable health care is only a part of that process, albeit a significant one. In practical terms, it starts with reorienting the administration's focus -- placing less emphasis on the political insiderism, Rahm-style deal-making, image-management and perpetual campaigning the Obama team is so adept at (and the Gang of 500 is so enamored with) and using the bully pulpit to champion bedrock principles of justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity. It's what swept Obama into the White House, the soaring ambitions, the pervasive sense that he would be the ethical antidote to Bush/Cheney, the hope that an Obama presidency would be the dawn of a new and better America. That may sound idealistic considering the inevitable transition from lofty campaign rhetoric to governing, but it has the benefit of being the right thing to do and being politically wise.

Back to Sifry's essay and the importance of a strong message: the core of Obama's campaign narrative was based on ethics, on doing the right thing and empowering people to do it together. Obama's entire persona embodied it. Change. Hope. These were euphemisms for rejecting the false moralizing of Bush and Cheney, championing peace and justice, giving a voice to the voiceless.

Sure it's flowery, but that's precisely what motivated so many young people, so many political neophytes, so many jaded operatives, so many reporters, so many people around the globe. We all have that kernel of hope that this world can be a MUCH better place. The Obama campaign tapped into that beautifully. The message was compelling and believable.

Getting back to that ethics-based message is the first step toward answering Sifry's dilemma of reinvigorating Obama's grassroots movement. The difference now is that being in charge means you have to govern that way too.

Or people stop believing.