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The First Lesson of the Obama Victory: To Bring Fundamental Change You Have to Have More than a Campaign Organization, You Need a Movement

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Barack Obama's victory would not have been possible had he simply created a traditional campaign organization. To win, Obama needed a movement. The same will be true in order to enact Obama's agenda for change in the months ahead.

There is no doubt that Obama had a marvelous campaign organization. David Plouffe and David Axelrod orchestrated a virtually flawless campaign. At every level there was a commitment to precision - to the view that no stone should ever be left unturned. The press work, the ads, the field operations, the fund raising all set the bar for political excellence and innovation.

An organization like that was absolutely necessary to win, but by itself it was not sufficient for victory. Axelrod and Plouffe knew they needed a movement.

Movements have qualities not necessary shared by simple organizations - even the biggest organizations. To become a movement an organization must have three critical elements:

1). Movements are viral. In normal organizations people relate through an organizational structure, or chain of command. Typically they are recruited and mobilized directly by the organization - either individually or by a leader who has followers.

In movements, participants spontaneously recruit and mobilize others. Movements involve spontaneous chain reactions of participation. The organization doesn't recruit or mobilize each person individually - or even through leaders (like unions or constituency groups). Instead people tell people who tell people who tell people. There is a geometric expansion of participation.

Over the four decades that I have worked as an organizer and strategist in politics there have been very few instances of spontaneous chain reactions of political participation. The civil rights movement and movement against the Viet Nam War met those criteria. A limited number of electoral campaigns - like the campaign to elect Harold Washington the first African American mayor of Chicago -- have as well. But mostly for the last forty years progressive organizing has involved traditional organizations - not movements.

The Internet has provided a new latticework that has profoundly increased the opportunity to generate viral activity. MoveOn.org became a movement when it was first organized to stop the impeachment of President Clinton. It exploded geometrically. But to work, the Internet, and all of the other more traditional word of mouth means of driving viral expansion, must be powered by element number two.

2). In order to "go viral" movements must be fueled by inspiration. Inspiration is always about one thing: the feeling of empowerment.

To be inspired a person must feel empowered. That in turn requires two conditions. To feel empowered someone has to feel that he or she is part of an inherently meaningful cause or activity that is bigger than himself. Second the inspired person must feel that he or she can personally play a significant role in that larger, meaningful cause.

Obama knows how to inspire voters - and activists - better than any Presidential candidate in 40 years. And his organization - including his Internet tools -- made it possible to engage massive numbers of people to do discreet activities that made them feel that they could personally contribute to an historic outcome.

Movements are not led by leaders who tell people what they will do for us. They are led by leaders who call on others to be part of a massive collective undertaking. They are lead by leaders that call on voters and activists to sacrifice - to do whatever is necessary to change history.

John Kennedy called in Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Not since his brother Robert Kennedy's last campaign in 1968, have we had a leader who has so consistently called on Americans to sacrifice for the common good - to take history into their own hands. Not until Barack Obama.

At first it might seem ironic, but a sense of personal empowerment isn't about "where's mine". Empowerment happens when you are called upon to make a commitment to something other than yourself.

Of course, for African Americans - and all people of color -- Obama is particularly inspirational. Obama inspires all types of people by what he says. But he is especially inspirational to African Americans because of who he is.

All inspiration involves the way the listener feels about himself - not just the candidate. For many African Americans, Obama's victory was not simply about changing America's course, or electing the best candidate. It was about their own sense of identity. It changed the way African American children look at themselves and their futures. It has enhanced the sense of personal empowerment for all African Americans - for all people of color.

3). To be sustained, movements require organizations built to allow each individual to make a personal, meaningful contribution to achieve the goal. Movements that do not have strong organizational infrastructures fissile like meteors. They aren't sustainable because strong organizational structures are necessary in order to offer people the essential ability to regularly, systematically make meaningful contributions to the overarching goal over time.

You can have a strong organization without a movement, but you can't have a long lasting movement without a strong organization.

Paul Tewes Directed the Iowa campaign that propelled Obama to victory in the Iowa caucuses. On the day he took the job he said that his major problem was to figure out how to construct an organization that could sustain a movement over the next 21 months.

Tewes, Obama Field Director Jon Carson, and the incredible Obama Internet staff, built an organizational structure - both on the ground and in cyberspace - that was geared from day one to encourage, nurture and sustain a movement. The same was true of the campaign's fundraising apparatus.

In the end that produced an army of 500,000 who got out the vote Election Day and 3.2 million individual donors -- people who were "Fired up and ready to go."

Movements have a power exponentially greater than everyday campaign organizations. And movements can command far more commitment from their participants, since the very act of participation makes people feel more powerful.

To win the battles to enact Obama's ambitions program we need to sustain the Obama movement. Passing health care for all, crafting a program for energy independence, creating a bottom up economic revival, changing the way campaigns are financed - all of these things will gore a lot of special interest oxes.

To be successful we need more than the power of the Presidency, we need more than leadership in Congress, we need a massive movement for change that will hold Members of Congress accountable. If we want to grasp the opportunity to create a new progressive era, then maintaining and fueling that movement must be our top priority.

Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.