Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.
At the recent Netroots Nation conference in Austin, Texas, the Obama campaign put on a panel about its on and off line organizing. Moderated by New Media Director Joe Rospars, it was a compelling presentation, and I, for one, am still thinking about it a great deal all these weeks later. What was most striking to me was the persistent use of the term "community organizing," and how the campaign, had from the beginning, set out not just to win an election, but to create a lasting progressive movement capable of bringing real change to the country. While these are words spoken by many over many years, you got the sense that the Obama people meant it, and actually have the money, the organization, the candidate, the moment and the determination to do it.
I've been working in politics for two decades now, and for the past five years, I've been involved in various efforts to "build progressive infrastructure" to combat the conservative ascendancy by competing with the right's think tanks, leadership schools, candidate training centers and other organizations. I was an early advocate of the blogs and netroots, which have involved millions of people in politics as never before, and helped bring much-needed vibrancy and debate to left-of-center politics. I was instrumental in launching the Democracy Alliance, a consortium of funders who have channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into progressive organizations. I've also helped provide direct support to several of these groups, including Media Matters, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Democracia USA and what we now call Netroots Nation.
I strongly believe we will look back at this decade and see it as one of extraordinary progressive revival. It has been a time of tremendous institutional entrepreneurship on the center-left, but has also been a time when millions of Americans awakened politically. Dozens of new organizations have been started. Hundreds of new candidates have been elected to office, and once there, they have hired thousands of new staff. Thousands of blogs and bloggers have sprung up, creating a whole new class of thinkers, writers, analysts and powerful voices. The Internet has allowed millions of people to become engaged in a much more meaningful way in the life of their nation. All of this is creating a much larger, more dynamic ecosystem of progressive politics, with millions more activists, making the movement much bigger but also creating a much larger pool of future elected officials, writers and leaders of all kinds. All of this is very exciting to watch.
And into all this comes Barack Obama and his inspirational campaign. Unprecedented crowds, money, volunteers, viral activity, votes and enthusiasm -- a sense all along in this campaign that he was summoning something deep inside himself to help inspire us to -- as they say -- have the "courage to change." He has told us all along that we are the change that we seek, that this campaign is not about him, but about us and our desire to bring about a better America. But is all of this just talk, tactics to get elected?
After listening to the Obama team in Austin, I was convinced that this historic campaign is trying to do much more than win an election. They are going to do everything in their power to unleash the passion of Democrats, progressives, indepenendents, Republicans -- Americans -- across the country and wage a truly national campaign, hiring staff in all 50 states, unveiling a national voter activist tool, opening up an unprecedented number of field offices, working to expand and redraw the Electoral College map and elect Democrats up and down the ballot in every state and prepare for redistricting in 2010. It is a bold and audacious vision, and one that I now know they intend to work to pull off.
But what made this presentation so powerful was their argument that this vision could only work if they could identify, train and develop a whole new generation of community leaders -- in every community -- who would become bottom-up advocates for a better nation long after past this election itself. They told a story of one of their community leaders from the South Carolina primary who used the network he built in the primary to run for office for the first time -- and amazingly, he unseated a 13-year incumbent by a single vote. They talked as if they understood that this election, and the Obama campaign, was just one piece of a much larger battle to bring change to America itself. They have invested in training thousands of these new leaders in every community across the country -- firemen, nurses, teachers, veterans, college kids, moms -- who are the foundations of their communities and have become highly trained community and political activists. They will be working this cycle for Senator Obama, but many will continue on to help pass the Obama agenda, elect future Democrats, get involved in local politics and even run for office themselves.
The staff, including a very inspiring Steve Hildebrand, argued that this was Barack and Michelle's vision from the very first day of the campaign -- that this was not a fight for him, but for us, for our country, and that if it went well, they needed to build a national movement for change that would long outlast the Senator and that would leave behinds millions of new activists and tens of thousand of new leaders capable of fighting future battles beyond 2008.
As someone who has worked to improve our nation for more than 20 years, I was, simply, blown away by this presentation. For reasons I still don't really understand, the campaign has not talked about all of this work very much, and I felt lucky to have been in the room. I hope that it will be up on the Netroots Nation Web site soon, and I would strongly recommend watching it online if you can.
The Obama effort, coming on top of the already incredible work being done through the progressive movement, makes one believe that a sustained period of progressive dominance, led by many new, emerging leaders across the country, is truly possible now. The ecosystem necessary to build a long and sustained movement for change is rapidly coming together, and it just may be that the Obama campaign's historic organizing effort -- the marriage of the grassroots and the netroots -- will become seen as a critical "tipping point" for the long-term success of a new 21st century progressive politics.
NDN will be continuing this important conversation at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. On Tuesday, August 26, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., join us for Two Million Strong, and Growing. During this discussion, I, Internet pioneer Joe Trippi and Google's Peter Greenberger will lead a lively discussion of how a new set of media and technology tools are creating a much more decentralized, people-based model for campaigns and advocacy in the 21st century. Two Million Strong is at the Westin Tabor Center, 1672 Lawrence St., Tabor Auditorium, 3rd Floor Mezzanine Level.
On Thursday, August 28, at 11 a.m., I will take a closer, in-depth look at where American politics is heading in the 21st century in my presentation, The Dawn of a New Politics. The presentation, seen by many progressive leaders and groups across the country, focues on the big changes in media, technology, demography, race and governing agenda which are making the politics of the 21st century very different from the one just past.
So join us at the Hilton Garden Inn, 1400 Welton St., in the Titanium & Zirconium Rooms, 5th Floor on Thursday, August 28.
For more on our events around the Convention, visit our website.
Crossposted at the NDN Blog.