Famed author Malcolm Gladwell penned a controversial article in The New Yorker this week questioning whether online organizing can facilitate social change. Yesterday former Obama campaign blogger Sam Graham-Felsen, an ex colleague of mine at The Nation, authored a great response to Gladwell at the Huffington Post.
Sam also assigns Gladwell a homework assignment: my book.
If Gladwell actually wants to understand how technology can be leveraged to spur meaningful activism, I’ve got some homework for him: Ari Berman’s deep and considered look at the Obama campaign, Herding Donkeys.
While every other book I’ve seen on the Obama campaign focuses on inside baseball — the attacks and counter-attacks and top-down decisions that supposedly defined the campaign — Berman’s is the only account that delves deeply into the campaign’s marriage of online and offline organizing.
As Sam notes, “Any online organizer worth his salt recognizes that his job isn’t to get people to “like” a page on Facebook, but to empower people to take tangible, real-world actions: making phone calls, knocking on doors, attending rallies, hosting house meetings, and donating.” The Obama campaign gave its grassroots supporters the tools and the freedom to effectively organize their own areas, with powerful results. The marriage of empowerment and innovation was a potent concoction. And, as Sam details, that’s exactly what has been missing from Obama’s White House.
The people on Obama’s 13 million person email list have been asked to sign e-cards for Obama’s birthday and buy souvenir mugs; exactly the kind of “weak tie” activism Gladwell derides in his essay. They could have been asked to take action that requires sacrifice and struggle — like pressuring the Democratic Senators who stood, for so long, in the way of passing health care reform. Instead, they’ve been told to voice soft, inoffensive support for Obama’s initiatives, to essentially keep quiet while the President’s inner circle negotiates with Congress behind closed doors.
Presumably, this approach to the grassroots is coming from the top. This is why the news of Rahm Emanuel’s departure — and perhaps more significantly, David Plouffe’s possible entry into the White House – could be an opening for a return to the grassroots strategy we saw on the campaign. Plouffe understood what Gladwell doesn’t: that technology can be used to strengthen real-world ties, organize people to do real things, and empower people to create meaningful change.
Let’s hope everyone in Obamaworld reads Sam’s blog.