Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Obama Campaign: A Progressive Sourcebook

By Rayyan Mirza

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has proven to be one of the major political events of our time and progressives everywhere can draw a number of key lessons from it.

speech to the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in November 2007 provides a useful starting point when judging his policies. In it, Obama delivers a superb analysis of the trajectory of US politics over the last thirty years, highlighting how a divided political system and the influence of corporate power have blocked any solutions to the problems that continually dog American society.

He outlines what needs to be done: replacing a healthcare system that provides no cover for 47 million people with one that covers everyone; ending the gulf between rich and poor by continually raising the minimum wage and improving education for all children; and restoring America’s reputation abroad by withdrawing troops from Iraq, pursuing diplomacy with foreign leaders, closing Guantanamo Bay, and leading world efforts to combat climate change and poverty.

In order to do this, he believes America must move beyond the “battles of the 1990s” between “red” and “blue” states to unite around common causes: indeed, the great achievements of past American presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt were only made possible when the nation was brought together. Obama presents a combination of idealism and pragmatism, suggesting progressive outcomes can be forged but only when consensus has been reached.

Lesson one: We can only beat the biggest challenges when we assemble the widest possible coalitions.

Some of his policies deserve serious criticism from progressives, but it is not so much what he wants to do with the power of the presidency than how he has campaigned for it that we can really learn from.

Spreading his core message via viral videos on
YouTube and existing online communities like Facebook, he has combined internet technology with the kind of door-to-door field operation he learnt during his years as a community organiser. Most Obama events are not directly organised by his own staff, but results of how he has encouraged his supporters to run their own activities, such as during the Unite For Change day of action, facilitated by his website that acts as a one-stop-shop for anyone wishing to volunteer or donate to his campaign.

strategy to register voters and campaign in all fifty states aims to end the old red/blue distinction and is nothing short of revolutionary given that presidential candidates traditionally focus on “swing states”. Whilst benefiting from some big backers, his campaign really relies on more than 2 million individual donors, most of whom have contributed small sums of US$200 or less: without them, he would not have won the nomination and could not hope to win the general election. An infrastructure has been built from the ground up that will allow ordinary Americans to campaign for change long after this election is over, matching his rhetoric.

Lesson two: We must use technology to help people build campaigns that belong to them.

In politics, if a person’s origins form an integral part of the narrative they weave around themselves, then few stories can be as compelling as that of Obama himself. Born to an American mother, and a Kenyan father he hardly knew, his life has been a journey of self-discovery: from the sands of Hawaii to the fields of Indonesia, from the streets of Chicago to the townships of Kenya and back again, he embodies the search for a place in the world that lies at the heart of the American dream.

His beautifully written
biographies have been instrumental in establishing his identity with the American people as someone who eschewed the traditional path to power by giving back to the community when he could have made millions on Wall Street. When there is a growing consensus among the nation that politics has to change, he has become a symbol for that desire for change. His timely treatise on race and many others demonstrate his uncanny ability to both articulate the mood of the moment and envisage a better future. Such qualities have characterised him, and by extension, his campaign.

Lesson three: We must inspire the best in others with strong personal narratives.

Biog: Rayyan Mirza is a campaigner for the Green Party in Lewisham, where he is also the Chair of the Green Party group and a Trustee of the Students Union at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at http://rayyanmirza.wordpress.com.

No comments: