Would Obama be the President without the Internet? Yes, he would.”
That’s Peter Daou, internet strategist for Hillary Clinton. His perspective is more or less the mainstream opinion at a conference held by the Berkman Center in Cambridge today. For me, as someone who doesn’t study US politics nearly as closely as I follow African politics, this is a bit of a surprising opinion. After all, four years ago, a similar conference at Berkman was a celebration of the power of the Internet in political campaigns.
Obama’s campaign in 2008 was different. Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Forum, sitting next to me, noted, “This was the best top-down campaign of the 21st century.” Marshall Ganz, a political scientist at the Kennedy School who’s written at length about successful labor organizing, offers a useful distinction: carpenters and tools. Previous discussions about political organizing in a digital age have obsessed over tools - this conversation is strongly focused on carpenters.
Jeremy Bird of Obama for America focuses his discussions about technology as tools that allowed professional political organizers to be more powerful. There’s been little to no discussion of the idea that digital tools allow individuals to self-organize, or to allow the grassroots to feed information to professional organizers. If anything, the discussions have been a celebration of the power of traditional political organizing, and the small ways that email, Facebook, SMS messaging and online video give these organizers more tools to play with.
I’m reminded of an essay online organizer Zack Exley wrote about the Obama campaign. He identifies Obama’s success as a combination of bottom up and top down. Professional organizers work closely together using established political organizing techniques. They delegate some responsibilities - more than in previous campaigns - to local volunteers who design strategies to reach specific communities. The volunteers are enthusiastic and passionate because they’re empowered to do more than make phonecalls or knock on doors - they’re allowed to design strategy, at least on the local level. But the overall campaign was far from the sort of creative chaos of the Howard Dean campaign - it was a traditional, top-down political campaign that included messaging via every media channel and limited creative input from local organizers.
This afternoon, the conference will move from the political pros to the net enthusiast academics - it will be interesting to see whether there’s strong pushback on the limited ambitions associated with this model of online political organizing.
Other perspectives on the conference:
- From my colleagues at Berkman’s Internet and Democracy project
- From my Berkman colleague Gene Koo
This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's blog, My Heart's in Accra.