Campaign Deconstruction and Movement Building

Many progressives have become involved in the Obama campaign, because they make him out to be a charismatic leader with the potential to unite the nation and restore the American dream after what they perceive as years of disenfranchisement. Because his speeches reach beyond class, race, religion, or other factors that usually foster divisiveness, these progressives feel connected once again –as a people and as participants in the political game. As it sweeps through, this wave of energy could transform the nation, but only if sustainable in the long run. Which is why one needs to question how the dedicated campaigners will react if their dream gets shattered. Will they go home and start business as usual until the next charismatic leader comes along, if that were to happen again? Doesn’t it denote a rather immature stance for a people to believe that they can only be rescued by a powerful and compelling figure backed by corporate money?

There is a tendency for American politics to be fixated on such a vertical model because it doesn’t require taking responsibility for community building, a very challenging proposition for a nation based on rugged individualism and theoretically rooted in meritocracy. This propensity is in fact shared by many radicals outside the Obama campaign, such as advocates of non-violent resistance who promote acts of civil disobedience when it is clear that a vast majority of law-abiding citizens are not ready to join in with such tactics. Again, there is a tendency to agitate from the top down, touting indefatigable activists as heroes and challenging others to emulate their self-sacrificial actions. When I heard a friend who had already spent about 5 years in federal prison for nonviolent civil disobedience over the years declare: “What I have done is not enough’, I concurred in principle. Indeed, in view of abhorrent policies and of the lives affected by them, nothing can be deemed sufficient. On the other hand, are others inspired to go and spend months in jail because of his statements? Not really, even if they devote a fair amount of time and energy to speaking out against the same policies. In order to convince us that civil disobedience is the definitive tool for change, the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi are brought to the forefront. Again, beyond making some of us recoil with guilt, this type of rhetoric carries little impact on the wider public. As an average white woman, I find it difficult to identify with such extraordinary men. Both of them experienced racism in their life, while I never did. I have been on the receiving end of sexism, however, which for me translates into an immediate feeling of community with women anywhere on the planet, leading me to work on women’s rights rather than model my behavior after these exceptional men.

Only with a firm basis can a campaign take root and produce good yield. When there is community on the ground, one skilled and inspiring leader can then be the spark that ignites and carries the situation to new heights, as did Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., in contrast with a few activists being heralded as heroes amidst the status quo. The hero is a product of our individualistic culture. He confronts the powers that be head on, even on his own if necessary. With a community base, the powers that be can be challenged on many different levels. In fact, civil disobedience advocates are aware that it is a requirement, which is why they train people to first get together in affinity groups. The affinity group is the shortcut found when community building on a grander scale has not been effective, and the populace is not showing up en masse to resist. Also, being a priest, my friend was supported by his community of faith whenever he faced arrest and incarceration. This doesn’t detract from his extraordinary courage, but sets the ground for such actions. So the truth is that the horizontal approach, despite requiring extra work and time, ought to be considered the pre-requisite for any effective campaign. The Latinos who walked out on their jobs one May Day were united owing to their heritage and the adverse conditions they had been enduring, just like the young African Americans who occupied the lunch counters in the sixties were united because of segregation.

In the past few years much movement building has taken place over the Internet, a wonderful tool with severe limitations. Because it pre-supposes the use of expensive technology, it generally targets more affluent segments of the population. What it accomplishes also differs from real life encounters, which foster dialogue, and the sharing of skills and work. Dialogue means vulnerability to another’s point of view, and real life participation offers the opportunity to empathize with another’s plight, often leading to new alliances and commitments. Many who went to New Orleans and got their hands dirty after Katrina found this out. When the long and painstaking process of community building has been tackled first, it becomes possible to tap into the group’s creative voices, a healthy departure from simply witnessing what appears to be the reactive stance of a few morally superior individuals. It also becomes possible for a movement to endure in the event of failed leadership. That is why I like to ask Obama supporters what they have been doing to fulfill their dream of unity during the past five or ten years in regards to the issues addressed in his speeches, such as the healthcare gap, immigration, veterans issues, Katrina, etc…. And, more importantly, what they will be ready to do in order to fulfill it in the future (beyond supporting the movement at a time when the momentum and hopes are high), since without a true people’s movement behind it, or rather ahead of it, government rarely enacts legislation that truly benefits the people and the planet. In the end it appears more crucial than ever to reflect on what defines such a movement, to exchange perspectives on what inspires us to mobilize and create alliances, and to design long-term strategies that we shall be able to draw on, regardless of what tomorrow’s political climate might look like.

Isabelle Andre is a women’s rights and social activist, who has been an organizer with Amnesty International, the Global AIDS Alliance and CodePink . She lives in Longmont, Colorado. Read other articles by Isabelle, or visit Isabelle's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rich Griffin said on April 11th, 2008 at 6:13am #

    I have said this so many times, and will continue until I’m totally blue in the face! We have got to face facts and ABOLISH THE US PRESIDENCY! The founding fathers even recognized the need would come to tear down our system and replace it with something better (and that would be replaced in time, too) – this is why I advocate for a parliamentary system.

  2. Eric said on April 11th, 2008 at 9:21am #

    There’s no doubt that progressives are tugged by Obama’s eloquence (this Green Party supporter will admit it about himself); part of this comes from the fact that he is the first presidential candidate I know who talks about things like the dangers from “introducing children to adult information” with a “media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of materialism.” Or specifically criticizes trickle-down economics. Or who says that “we have individual responsibility, but we also have collective responsibility to each other.”

    These aren’t your typical liberal talking points, and it’s refreshing to hear. Of course, they’re just words, and the guy’s raising like $30 million per MONTH and I doubt it’s all coming as $20 donations over the Web.

    But what’s the alternative? There is no mass progressive movement and won’t be by November. We’ve seen the difference between Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism. The first is disheartening. The other, devastating.

    Yes, we need sizable, transformative changes in our politics and social arrangements and no corporate-Democrat will bring them. My old Marxist friends used to admit that it would probably take wild social disorder – like a nuclear war – to bring about the revolution they dreamed about. I don’t think we need such drastic disasters (yikes!), but maybe a bankrupt economy, a $3 trillion out-of-control war, growing WW hatred towards Americans, outright criminality in the white house, a crumbling national infrastructure, planes ready to drop from the sky, and who knows what else lurking in 2009 might just be enough to spur an activist awakening beyond the nascent web-based progressive community we already have.

    In the meantime, doesn’t Obama represent the best realistic option available?


  3. cemmcs said on April 11th, 2008 at 11:52am #

    “Doesn’t it denote a rather immature stance for a people to believe that they can only be rescued by a powerful and compelling figure backed by corporate money?”

    Why, yes, it does.

  4. Jerry D. Rose said on April 11th, 2008 at 12:20pm #

    ERIC “In the meantime, doesn’t Obama represent the best realistic option available? ”

    Wrong, question, Eric, should be: does Obama represent ANY “available” option? Neither he nor Hillary Clinton is an option that the American voters are going to take. Both are incredibly vulnerable to the most toxic ingredient in U.S. politics: the tendency to reject outright any candidate or official whom is deemed to be “corrupt” or deceitful. Clinton will fall on the sword of her lies about her record on health care, her “sniper fire” non-experience, etc. etc. Obama will fall at the instant a grand jury returns an indictment of him (even as an unindicated conspirator) for his part in corrupt fleecing of public housing programs in Chicago. Is McCain any “better?” Objectively, probably not, but he has somehow acquired the manner of a “straight shooter” who tells it “like it is” even though what “is is” changes somewhat over time. So McCain is going to win this “purity contest” in an electorate of morally-corrupted voters (me and thee) and then there will be hand-wringing aplenty among progressives whose darling, Obama, has been Spitzer-ized. Better I say for progressives to seek out a presidential candidate not subject to this vulnerability (can you say Cynthia McKinney?) and even if he/she loses, the campaign would be the prelude to the building of the “progressive movement” that the author (and I) advocate.

  5. HR said on April 11th, 2008 at 5:32pm #

    Eric, no, Obama does not represent the most realistic option. He is really no option at all, any more than Clinton or McCain are. He is simply more of the same, with his own brand of sugar coating on it.

    There are two much better options at the moment: McKinney and Nader. They actually are progressive and make no bones about it. The only reason they are not considered realistic options is because progressives have sold themselves to the status quo, buying into the notion that neither is electable. The only damned reason they’re not electable is because progressives are too damned brainwashed to mark their ballot according to their conscience, afraid of “throwing their votes away” … and the neoliberals, conservatives, and faux liberals who call themselves Democrats, laugh all the way to the bank. And we are left with the lessor of two evils, ad infinitum.

  6. Rich Griffin said on April 12th, 2008 at 2:14am #

    When I see Obama, I see a materialist. I see a money grubber. The way he talks, moves, dresses, thinks – he could win due to the economy; but i don’t think he will run on the issues that could make him the president. Of course, the presidency is a dangerous thing for us…

  7. Tom Yager said on April 12th, 2008 at 6:33am #

    Obama makes good speeches, but the Greens have good policies.

  8. Eric said on April 12th, 2008 at 7:43am #

    I don’t disagree on principle with anyone here who calls me out on my “Obama is the best realistic option available.” But let’s be honest: A President McKinney or President Nader would be helpless to do ANYTHING without Green/Progressive support in Congress, in state legislatures, among school boards….There is no support – today – for a Green/Progressive president. I wish there were! But shooting for the stars is no way to build a progressive movement.

    Shouldn’t we instead be working to build an electoral base, where progressives sit on local boards, town councils, then maybe state legislatures, and then congress? Imagine if 20% of the House were made up of Greens, or 20% of the Senate? That’s when there’d be a chance for a effective progressive president. Without that there really isn’t any. Even the imperial Bush had a majority Republican base and compliant Democratic minority that let him operate with impunity. You think a congress soaked in corporate dollars would let President Nader pass a single law?

    Meantime we have real issues, which need urgent attention. Seems to me that web-based action groups (Move On, and other moderate-to-left groups) are bringing a new kind of anti-corporate grass roots ideology to more people than we’ve had in a long, long time. Small steps, sure, but considering the utter absence of progressive political activity during the last 25 years, it’s a very good start. At the very least, I don’t think President Obama would stand in their way.


  9. hp said on April 12th, 2008 at 9:31am #

    I don’t think it’s wise to refer to Bush in the past tense. He’s not quite finished his torturing yet.
    Even as he has a majority Democrat base and a compliant Republican minority.

  10. Rich Griffin said on April 12th, 2008 at 11:23am #

    I agree: run for offices as progressives. BUT, it costs too much money; incumbency is too powerful; we have to do something important first: CHANGE our fourth estate, so we can be “viable” and all that crap they throw at us – I did run for city council – the two who made it to the final were backed by big money interests, and got all the media coverage & support. Find candidates I can support, and I will volunteer – LOCALLY!

  11. Jerry D. Rose said on April 12th, 2008 at 12:26pm #

    ERIC, you and others posting here and elsewhere continue to be accepting of Obama as the “best we can get.” You ignore the point I made in my last post, that Obama is not going to be “gettable” once his opponents’ campaigns—especially the Republican one—begin to bear down on the ethical dubiousness (to put in mildly) of his Illinois political career. If my few words don’t convince you, look up one of the several investigative reports of Evelyn Pringle, for example:

    A word too on your “bottom to top” view of the way a progressive political force could be built. I agree to an extent but certainly not to the extent of arguing that an all-out run for the presidency must await the creating of political power at more local levels. The problem is: how is that local power—for example the election of Greens as members of Congress or county sheriffs—to be accomplished? I would argue that a “successful” run for the presidency (say one that captured 20% of the popular vote) could have an incredibly invigorating effect on the willingness of closet progressives to run as progressives in local elections. Rather than a bottom to top vs. a top to bottom argument, I think we need action proceeding in both directions; and with McCain, Clinton and Obama all grievously out of touch with the mainstream of Americans’ political feelings, what better time to launch such an electoral effort at the presidential level?