Where Is That Online-Powered "Movement" Now?

If you paid any attention to the Obama campaign in the 2008 election, you heard a lot about building a movement. To the ears of the politically cynical, calling the campaign a "movement" was just a messaging maneuver to make it sound like Barack Obama had a broad base of support.

But for the politically hopeful -- and I'd say that term would encompass just about all of the campaign's staff and volunteers -- building a movement meant something more. We weren't just organizing for a particular candidate or a particular moment in time, but instead, we shared a set of values and a vision for what America could be.

Nothing could have embodied this approach to campaigning more than the technology that we built at the heart of the campaign. We chose to build and refine tools that helped everyday people tell their own stories, talk about their passions, and then take up the banner of the cause in their local community.

We had our own tools on My.BarackObama to help us. But fortunately for the campaign, the Internet in general was transforming into a network where the majority of content was created by individuals rather than institutions. Structurally, it was becoming easier and easier for individuals to talk about their passions and then to use technology to self-organize. Even though they were resolutely non-partisan, sites like Facebook and YouTube made it easier for passionate people to share and self-organize, which greatly benefited our campaign founded on these values.

But contrary to what a lot of people may think, it wasn't the technology that made the Obama movement possible. What went hand in hand with the technology was a resolute and unyielding focus on good-old-fashioned political organizing. As a movement, we measured our success by the number of doors knocked on, phone calls made, and dollars raised. The array of technology platforms that we used simply helped us extend our organizing capacity and refine our work.

So where is this movement now?

It's alive and well. The people who organized and fought so hard last year to elect Barack Obama as president still care just as much, if not more, about the issues that were central to the campaign. The values that we shared in common -- a commitment to rethinking politics, to transparency and openness, to personal responsibility, to a socially and economically just society -- are just as vibrant as they were a year ago.

What's missing is the organizing leadership.

To be clear, I don't believe it's up to Organizing for America -- the organization that emerged from the Obama campaign that continues to run barackobama.com -- to permanently employ thousands of organizers as the campaign did. An organization of that size inside the DNC would not be sustainable or desirable.

But I do believe progressive organizations of all stripes have a responsibility to understand what happened in the Obama campaign in 2008 and adopt a similar strategy. Regardless of the issue that a given progressive group is organizing for, there is much to be learned.
Some guidelines to start:

  • People are your biggest asset. They are not to be treated as a loose network of piggy banks spread across the country. Each person has her own passions, her own story, her own reason for caring. Listen to these stories, help these individual tell them, and make it easier for others to listen to them as well.
  • Give your supporters not just a cause, but a moment to rally around. Events are what galvanize people to action. Even for the causes that require long-term commitments, set a date and a goal to organize toward.
  • Embrace networking technology. The Internet is not just a platform to help you blast your carefully crafted and rigorously tested message as widely as possible. Whether it's on your own site, on Facebook, or on any other network, think about how you can use technology to encourage your supporters to speak and to spread their passion. Setting up a page and calling it a day is not enough.
  • Building support for a cause requires human contact. A slick online events platform will do you no good unless you have people on staff who know key people in key places who can get more people to host more events and turn out more attendees. State-of-the-art technology can only go so far. A good-old-fashioned conversation can take you the rest of the way.
  • Invest in technology and organizing. Neither of these things comes cheap, but when they have the proper budget, they can yield enormous returns.

There are tens of millions of Americans who care about progressive issues that affect all of us. If progressive groups fail to take advantage of this energy and demonstrated capacity, they will waste a uniquely potent moment in American history.