Obama's Army: Its Failures, His Failures, and a Lack of Democracy
Sep 14, 2010

Obama's Army: Its Failures, His Failures, and a Lack of Democracy

Ever since his election, democrats have been lamenting how the massive grassroots political machine Obama used to get himself elected has withered and now essentially evaporated. 8 million volunteers strong and led by Organizing For America, the so called Obama's Army has been of limited use since this time, shrunk enormously in size and participation, and hasn't moved into large pushes for issues outside of getting Obama elected. The complaint that so many on the left give is that Obama underutilized this support, leaving it both undirected and effectively leadership. Hence, they argue,  there was a real missed opportunity to use this political machine and support to push for more progressive policies in a stagnating Washington. Quite possibly true, except, they miss the point.

The problem is, they actually have it completely backwards and further it isn't really democratic. The democratic ideal is of the people being the ones who are raising the issues, of the people being the ones who are forcing and enacting change in the country. It isn't for Obama to raise the issues that these people should be pushing for. The direction for this supposedly undirected grassroots political organizations shouldn't come from Obama it should come from the grassroots people involves. That is how democracy works, from the bottom up not the top down.


Part of the blame is on the people involved. Electing Obama over McCain was a good thing, but it isn't enough. We should all still be holding Obama's feet to the fire holding him to at the very least the centrist progressive issues he campaigned on. I submit the vast majority of Obama campaign volunteers before the election would certainly agree that universal health care was an important value if not a fundamental right, yet gave the issue of influencing the corporate cop out that the healthcare bill is nowhere near the kind of levels of support seen for actually electing Obama in 2008.  The source of power in a democracy is and should be the people and ultimately it will always be the responsibility of the people to ensure fair democracy, not to simply head back home because the man you elected chooses not to sufficiently use you any more.

That said, the other part of the blame is on the system that makes true group up democracy so very difficult. The institutionalization of a top down democracy where the respective (very similar) parties essentially choose the issues and tell us how we are going to not just vote but also how we are going to actively campaign. Being able to coalesce into a bottom up organization that actually has influence is very difficult, and the way the bottom of the political organization just fell out after the election is indicative of just how difficult it is. For instance, it is well understood that advertising (a very important tool in institutionalized top down democracy) is intended for the express purpose of deceiving people into making an irrational choice. A shampoo brand isn't innocently informing us of a new product, it is tempting us with sex appeal and other tricks to choose that product over another because of the irrational association with sex appeal. Seen in this context then, it isn't a coincidence that the Obama Campaign won the advertising industries top award for 2008. I think really speaks to the way the entire campaign is a function of a top down, highly successful, advertising campaign and while it certainly gained popular and energized appeal it wasn't a true bottom up or grassroots campaign in any sense and shouldn't be judged as that.

The answer to all of this is to simply try and be part of real and legitimate grassroots efforts that bring the issues to the politicians and elect politicians from within their ranks opposed to campaigning on the prescribed topics by the prescribed leader. A large part of this is focusing on voting in third party candidates. One of the largest issues is managing to coalesce into an important and influential organization without becoming saturated with the top down support of established parties. It can be done however, one can look at Bolivia as an excellent example of true bottom up democracy, and there should be considerable hope for the future.

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