(This is the third part of a three-part TDS Strategy Memo. A PDF version of the entire memo is available here)
Immediately after Obama’s inauguration, there was a widespread sigh of relief and a collapse into exhaustion among huge number of Obama’s supporters. Responding to this sentiment, and occupied with the transition, the DNC and OFA made relatively few attempts to organize directly “political” activities and events or to build a formal network of “real-world” local organizations in the first several months of the Obama administration. The general view was that “everyone needs a break.”
This, however, reflects a severely limited definition of what constitutes “political” activity. In democratic countries around the world many political parties routinely support a wide range of grass-roots community activities that are not explicitly “political” but which play a significant role in maintaining their political support. They sponsor local soccer teams, hold street fairs, run youth clubs, manage pool halls, arrange holiday trips and organize hobby groups. Small businesses that support the parties put permanent banners in their windows and build their customer base around a sense of community cultural loyalty to the political party.
During 2008, the Obama campaign began to evolve in this direction. The “Yes We Can” campaign took on characteristics of a social movement rather than just a traditional political campaign. The explosion of creativity expressed in music, art, videos and other media were inspired by Obama but reflected more than simply a campaign to elect an individual candidate. There was a clear feeling that Obama represented a cultural movement of the young rather than the old, of the urban, hip and educated rather than the small town and traditional. The Obama campaign became a broad social movement united by a common outlook, sensibility and identity. The Republicans were the past and the Democrats were the future.
It is now vital that Democrats reignite this spirit and energy and find the ways to carry it into daily community life. To be specific the Democratic community needs to launch a renewed “Yes We Can” movement – not a narrowly “political” campaign to support Obama’s specific proposals, but a broad cultural response to the negativity, nihilism and divisive “real America” chauvinism of the Republicans. It must express an outlook and perspective that is based on hope for the future and openness to change.
There are two different sub-groups to whom this must be addressed – Obama’s natural constituencies and the broader group of “persuadable” voters who are open to his message. Each requires a distinct approach.
The first sub-group is Obama’s natural constituencies and social environments
•College campuses and urban America – Some key steps in building a revitalized “Yes We Can” movement include building rapport with rock bands and DJ’s (e.g. by providing free items like specially developed high-quality designer clothing), sponsoring free rock concerts and art shows, Setting up special film screenings, book signings and neighborhood street fairs, engaging with the major social networks through art and music as well as narrowly “political” discussion and sponsoring sports teams in urban marathons, bicycle races, skateboarding and roller skating events.
•Stores and businesses (e.g. coffee houses, bicycle shops, environmentally friendly products stores, independent bookstores) – some key steps include encouraging “Yes We Can” sales days, happy hours, special events and neighborhood parties and developing business-connected give-away “goodies” for display and distribution (coffee cups, chocolates, tire gauges, natural soaps).
•Ethnic, political, social and community organizations. Some key steps include piggybacking on existing events and activities, incorporating “Yes We Can” motifs into ongoing programs and participating in organization-sponsored volunteer activities under a “Yes We Can” umbrella.
The first step in this process is to organize a major, coordinated re-launch of the “Yes We Can” campaign. Such a re-launch could begin with a national competition to create a comprehensive set of new music, new graphics, new logos, new art, new videos new slogans, new teashirts and posters for a renewed “Yes We Can” campaign. Such a contest can have dozens of awards for the best entries in specific genres (posters, videos, music etc.) and within specific states. The competition could be planned to culminate in a major live and online event with top stars, music and the awarding of serious prizes.
The success of a renewed “Yes We Can” campaign would ultimately depend on its generating ongoing “bottom-up” spontaneous grass-roots activity. There could be a closer ongoing connection with OFA and the DNC than would be advisable with the “Democratic Minutemen”, but the campaign should still not be administratively controlled by any official Democratic organization. Rather the renewed “Yes We Can” campaign should be loosely coordinated by a broad voluntary coalition of well-known figures in music and popular culture following the models of the “Live Aid”, “Farm Aid” and “We are the World” campaigns. In all of these cases a few well-known and passionately committed individuals took the lead in organizing their peers around a social issue campaign and stitched together an informal steering committee structure to make decisions.
The second sub-group a renewed “Yes We Can” campaign would need to target are the more open-minded, moderate voters in “red state” America
•Businessmen and women
•small town voters
Despite the media images and clichés, not all voters in these categories are conservative. On the contrary, depending on the specific issue as many as half or more may actually be relatively “moderate” and open to Democratic candidates and to messages that are framed in the language and concepts of their broad cultural perspective. The 2006 election demonstrated that there are substantial numbers of “red state” voters who can be won by “heartland Democrats.”
In the current situation — in which Obama is struggling against declining poll numbers and stiff opposition — imagining an outreach campaign to this group may seem totally impractical. But such a campaign cannot be ignored until late in 2011 if it is to have any chance of influencing the election in 2012.
The predictable first reaction to a set of proposals of this kind is to argue that initiatives of this nature are important but must be postponed until the immediate challenge of passing a health care reform package is successfully completed.
This reaction is understandable but wrong. The setbacks to the health care campaign that occurred in August were in significant measure the result of the failure to begin systematic long-term organizing in January. By the time a health care reform package is passed this winter, new challenges will have already emerged that seem equally urgent and which seem to offer equally compelling reasons to delay long-term organizing once again. The result is a vicious cycle in which systematic long-term organizing never gets done.
Consider a simple and somewhat ironic fact: it is today much more difficult to launch a long-term campaign of this nature than it would have been in January when Obama’s popularity was at its peak and grass-roots enthusiasm was still high. Equally, six or nine months from now, it will in all probability be harder to launch such a campaign than it is today. At that time, hindsight will clearly suggest that September 2009 would have been a much more propitious time to begin such a campaign than “now” – whenever “now” happens to be.
The major problems that emerged for the health care reform campaign in August were severe and require careful rethinking of Democratic strategy. But the problems are not limited to the specifics of health care as an issue or the legislative strategy that was chosen to enact a bill. The setbacks also exposed profound weaknesses in the basic Democratic message strategy and in the strategies for mobilizing mass support and for building long-term pro-Democratic community institutions.
These problems affect the foundation of every future legislative campaign and every future election. Democrats must begin now to remedy the weaknesses exposed by this summer’s setbacks in the struggle for health care reform.