Here’s a bit written for a magazine (.net) who ended up using ony a few words of it).
There’s been a lot written about how Barack Obama raised the funds that got him elected to the Whitehouse last month, with the total running at over $650m (compare that to a combined total of $696m for both candidates in 2004). Symbolically just as important as the huge volumes of cash was where it came from. Nearly half of the funds raised came from donations of under $200 (making up a staggering 93% of donors). And how did he do that? By using the internet.
Raising huge amounts of money allowed Obama to outspend his opponent in media time, including a 30 minute infomercial broadcast at primetime on multiple networks just a week before the polls. It allowed him to compete in traditionally Republican strongholds (many of which he ended up winning), and it allowed him to create a hugely effective on-the-ground campaign organisation. Perhaps most significantly, having 3.1 million donors means having 3.1 million active and vocal supporters who, in a very tangible sense, became part of the cause.
The millions who joined in the campaign through social networks and the its own websites (whether or not they gave money), created enormous momentum; allowing an unknown candidate to battle against the established Washington elite. The intelligent use of the network allowed the Obama campaign to shift its emphasis from traditional ‘command and control’, and to begin enabling groups and precincts to self organise. Given the right channels, the enthusiasm could simply flow. With the result being the huge crowds which came to see Obama speak across the US.
McCain and the Republicans saw the internet as a fundraising Channel. Obama saw it as a way to build and maintain a personal political movement. That’s a seismic shift.
Fundraising and race may make great headlines today but in the long term the Obama presidency will likely be remembered more for rethinking the nature of political organisation itself.
Obama’s presidency will defined as much by his independence from his party and the media, as the policies he pursues. More than any president in history, he has both the opportunity and the will to listen to and speak to his constituents directly, without needing to engage armies of pollsters or the press corp. And he also has the ability to speak independently of the Democratic party, allowing a more bipartisan approach and clearer, simpler relationship with the electorate.
Take for example change.gov – the website to understand individual voters’ visions of change during the transition – or the email sent to supporters before giving his historic acceptance at Grant Park:
I’m about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.
We just made history. And I don’t want you to forget how we did it.
You made history every single day during this campaign — every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it’s time for change…. We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.
The most remarkable thing about that email is how unsurprising it seems for a newly elected president to whip off a quick missive to the millions who supported his campaign. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of party faithful, iPhones in hand, who would have started beeping before Obama even took the stage.
How long before we see the US’s first truly independent president, running without party endorsement or organisation, a new stage for the concept of imperial presidency.
Hopefully, Obama and his nascent administration can continue in office what they have started on the campaign and we will start to see a vision of democracy which is worth exporting.
[UPDATE: really good post on topic of governing and consensus – but can’t the point be that many supporters want Obama to lead but to listen and to explain himself]