The End of Activism and the Renaissance of Organizing

By Al Giordano

Booman, thoughtful as usual, comments on my correction-critique of claims made by Open Left blogger Chris Bowers that Obama's "silence" had somehow been "deafening" regarding the Stimulus tug-of-war in Washington. Still, I thought Booman's title, Philosophical Differences in Activism, and its implicit presumption that we're all part of something called "activism" (or even all on the same side in politics) could use some punk-rock negation from me.

That's probably my fault, for not saying something explicitly which I will shout from the mountaintop right here, right now:

I am not an activist.

I don't believe in activism.

I think activism, as it is generally practiced in the United States, is more often than not a cop out and an excuse by some to avoid doing the heavy lifting of organizing.

What is the difference, you might ask, between activism and organizing?

To me, it's this:

Activism is the practice of preaching to the choir, rallying the already converted, and trying to convince other "activists" to do your work for you (say, call your Congressman, or write your Senator for or against a piece of legislation). Activists like to make declaratory "statements," hold "meetings," invite other activists (usually fairly hegemonic of the same socio-economic demographics as them), engage in group "process," make "decisions," veto (or attempt to do so) others from taking initiative outside of the groupthink that too often happens in activist projects, declare "party lines," enforce them, and claim that one is part of a "movement" even when there is no evidence that one really is.

Activism seeks media attention through protests and other means, errantly thinking it will draw others to its cause by doing so. This dominant tendency in "activism" becomes a circular, self-reinforcing, self-marginalizing, chest-thumping, bureaucratic and anally-retentive activity and a big waste of time with little impact on the issues or policies it seeks to change or defend.

Organizing is something completely different: It is based on attainable and quantifiable goals (be they small, as in, "put a stop sign in the neighborhood," or be they large, as occurred last year: elect an underdog as president of the United States). Here's a simple yardstick by which to measure: If it doesn't involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with people demographically different than you, it's not organizing. If it doesn't involve face-to-face building of relationships, teams, chains of command, and, day-by-day, clear goals to measure its progress and effectiveness, it's not organizing. If it happens only on the Internet, that's not organizing either.

Clearly, both tendencies involve some similar activities. An organizer may call everybody in the neighborhood (or go door to door) to get something done, whereas an activist will call those he knows already agree to recruit them to make some kind of statement that he believes - usually futilely -  is toward getting something done. And once an organizer or group of organizers has built an effective organization or base, some of the tools of activists (i.e. "call your Congressman") can then be deployed effectively. But that shouldn't cause activists to think that if they do that absent a locally based organizing campaign that it somehow rises to the level of organizing or is the same thing - or even on the same side of the barricades.

What's happening now is that, with the ringing in of 2009, the Community Organizing Renaissance is so clearly established that many dogmatic activists are in a kind of panic and some are even lashing out at the organizers (including the Community Organizer in Chief) to lecture us that we must do things their way. Some even go so far as to condescend to us, imply that we're Kool Aid drinkers, blind fanatics, or lockstep brownshirts, because we are calmer and more optimistic - although not less busy - than they are at this point in history. To which I can only say: Fuck them.

On some level, they must notice, if even unconsciously, that the organizers won, in 2008, so many of the battles that the activists paid lip service to for 30 years but had failed to achieve: constructing a multi-racial and multi-generational progressive movement in the United States, attracting millions of generally apolitical or apathetic people - regular folks that had rejected and shunned the activists and their ways for so many years - to take part in it, organizing neighborhoods and towns down to the precinct level, and changing American history in the process.

The current manifestation of this tension is, for activists, as always, the current "big conflict" in the media. Today it's the Stimulus Bill. Tomorrow it will be something else. Activists generally take the queues from the mass media and its conflicts-du-jour. Some seem to have grown addicted, in a way, to the adrenaline rush of the daily poutrage: the tantrum as aerobic exercise. They then go through the same routines over and over again: Insist that "this is the most important thing," that everybody else must recognize that and drop everything else to protest with them, and often with a recommendation for "action." Today it's to call members of Congress over a hodgepodge of concerns regarding the Stimulus Bill: Throw out the tax cuts! Keep this or that worthy program in it! Don't compromise not one inch with Republicans!

I just yawn.

And I laugh, since when Washington debates, in 2009, whether a Stimulus package should cost $900 billion or $600 billion, we've come a long way from when Congress rejected a $16 billion economic stimulus proposed by President Bill Clinton. If there are worthy things that don't make it into the final form of this Stimulus Bill, they're mostly things for which the votes exist in Congress to pass them in other legislation later on.

Often, activists demand that others who have done the organizing that they did not do must adopt their tactics and mission, oblivious to the reality that those tactics have not worked. (Often, they end up calling on us to do something we've already planned to do, but on a more carefully strategized timeline that requires laying other foundations first - and then they'll try to take credit for having "pressured" us into doing it, pat themselves on the back, and proclaim themselves "owners" of our labor, again. They also generally claim that it was a "movement" that somehow forced us - or the political leaders - to do it, but let's face it: they have not built an authentic movement or any significant base rooted in geography, and they delude themselves each time they insist that they do.)

There's been a lot of activity today on various "Netroots" blogs with such activist demands to call Congress on different aspects of the Stimulus Bill. But none have organized for any kind of accountability or measurement to find out just how many calls they have generated or even to whom. I figure that if you add up the entirety of all the Netroots pleas for people to call their legislator in Washington, that they generated, cumulatively, less than 1,000 calls today, and probably much, much less than that. But let's be generous and say it's 1,000: Divided among 535 members of Congress, that's an average of less than 1.9 per legislator, and even that smattering of calls ended up being with different and uncoordinated messages, sometimes conflicting, other times with talking points based on errant "facts" which only end up generating laughter and mockery by the staffers that answer those phones, and deservedly so, for their ineptness and lack of seriousness about the true facts of each issue.

On a certain level, they must be at least subconsciously aware of their own incompetence, which is why they call on Obama or others to do their work for them, often with macho posturing to infer that if he doesn't do as he's told he somehow lacks backbone. (Actually, the opposite is more true: backing down to pressure is precisely what reveals lack of a backbone!) And if we don't jump on their makeshift bandwagons, we're portrayed as somehow afraid to challenge the man, too. Well, fuck them twice, then.

So, back to Booman's post (I hope it's clear that I'm not saying fuck him): If I've so far left room for people to presume that I'm on the same side of the barricades as those I'm correcting, I hope I've now cleared that up.

Organizers don't play on the same field as activists, although many activists will insist otherwise.

Chess is chess and checkers is checkers, and while the boards look the same, they don't ever happen on the same set of squares at the same time. I consider myself 100 percent autonomous and independent from people of those purely activist tendencies, and don't find them to have shown themselves to be effective at changing much of anything - more often they screw things up for their own causes and for ours when we've allowed them near enough to do so.

I do think one question that Booman raises deserves a response. He writes, summarizing Bowers:

How are Obama's minions supposed to know what to advocate if they are not provided with better guidance?

Giordano glosses over this point as he explains how Organizing for America is proceeding and why they are proceeding in that way. Giordano's insights into organizing are incredibly valuable and accurate, but they don't address Bowers' concerns. And there are issues of concern that Bowers did not raise in this particular piece but which have been obviously disturbing the whole OpenLeft team since early on in the primaries.

Chief among them is what to do when activism and organizing goals are at odds or differ in priorities with the Obama administration and/or the Democratic Congress. Giordano, rightfully, emphasizes the feedback loop features of Organizing for America which allow members to influence policy and priorities. But Bowers is more concerned with what to do when that influence is ignored or rejected.

Left-wing activism isn't synonymous with the Obama administration or the Democratic Party, and it is not desirable that all left-wing activism be absorbed into the Organizing for America borg. Moreover, Organizing for America is just getting started and will always remain somewhat of a lumbering beast. The blogosphere is much more nimble and prepared to act and mobilize at a moment's notice. Rallying opposition to an unanticipated amendment or tactic is something that requires an alacrity Organizing for America is likely to lack.

Hmmm. I don't consider myself a part of anybody's "minions." Nor do I wait for orders from headquarters, and my experience is that most organizers view themselves as similarly autonomous. After all, once you know you can organize and win, you get to pick and choose your battles without waiting for others to choose them for you. Rather, we'll get fired up and busy when an action plan by anyone seems realistic enough to succeed at goals we share. That's why I'm impressed with Organizing for America: because I think its game plan can and will work much as it worked in 2008. Had the Obama organization proposed a different kind of project, one more "activist" and less "organizer," I probably wouldn't be writing or talking about it at all. The presumption that we organizers are "minions" is errant in that sense. It's not that OFA 2.0 comes from Obama that is attracting the organizers. It's that it's an organizing plan that has all the best ingredients to further our shared agendas.

If anything, there's a cognitive dissonance in pleading for Obama to "tell us what to do" especially when it comes from a website that contemptuously, again and again, accuses organizers and optimists of adhering to some cultish "Dear Leaderism." (Really, Bowers and Sirota ought to have that fight among themselves and get on the same page, since they're co-piloting the same plane on a currently erratic path, before lecturing other pilots of other airplanes how to steer. Short of that, could they please put a "black box" in the cockpit so we'll have a recording of the drama when it all blows up?)

As for when Organizing for America's priorities differ from mine or other organizers, it's pretty obvious what we'll do: We'll organize independently. Here's an example: One of Obama's campaign positions was not to rule out nuclear power. (There's even an effort in the Senate to put $50 billion for new nukes into the Stimulus Bill.) My longtime anti-nuclear colleague Harvey Wasserman wrote about it this week in the Huffington Post.

Now, that atomic company welfare provision might get taken out in the Senate, or knocked out in the House-Senate conference committee, or it might become law. But because we in the anti-nuclear power movement were so successful all those years ago and stopped a new generation of reactors from being built, we then went on, as individuals, to more current struggles, and today we're not organized sufficiently to flood the Capitol with sufficient phone calls or pressure to determine the outcome (although some of us - Ed Markey, John Hall - are members of Congress and may be able to kill that $50 billion before it is born anyway; that's another fruit of winning is that many of the winners then become bigger players).

But I don't worry myself about it. Why? Because I know from experience how to organize to stop a nuke from being built or fired up. I even know how to organize to shut an existing one down. These are things I've done in this life: by organizing, going door to door, reaching out and calling people who are apolitical or apathetic and even those that start out disagreeing to win them over, and then by organizing an authentic movement (one that we organized in an era before there was an Internet) at the grassroots, local, level. We did it under the presidencies of Carter and Reagan, and if need be we'll do it under Obama. It doesn't matter if the federal government is with us or not. It doesn't matter if Obama is with us or not: the people will be with us against nukes in their backyards, and we'll win again. So why would I scream hysterically over a piece of legislation when I and others like me are holding the real veto pen in our own pockets?

And the same goes for any other matter upon which we may not like what the Obama administration does: there's no use complaining unless one is willing to back it up with the perspiration of old school Community Organizing. Otherwise, we just end up scraping our fingernails on the blackboard, causing the masses and multitudes to run from the room.

I'm also not seeing much evidence that the 2009 version of the Netroots is able to, as Booman phrases, be "nimble and prepared to act and mobilize at a moment's notice. Rallying opposition to an unanticipated amendment or tactic." I think at present, too many of its denizens are caught up in the "what Obama must do" hysteria and with the exception of Markos Moulitsas - who when he sets out to get something done is tenacious and organized enough to often succeed (hint: he's studied Alinsky) - the rest of the Netroots doesn't have that kind of "alacrity." (And that's why you often see the activists trying to tell Kos what to do for them, and most of that advice, he smartly ignores.)

I think there's a realignment of forces going on right now in the progressive blogosphere and I think the differences will likely grow greater and clearer, and reasonably should. The organizer and the activist tendencies on the Netroots are increasingly oil and water. Any suggestion that some of its B-Listers and I, for example, would be able to collaborate on anything at present do not seem reality based to me, because we don't share even basic concepts of how things get done. And I'm not quite convinced that many of them care that much about winning anyway. It's easier to pout, to be perpetually hysterical and indignant, and to hook up the mass media adrenaline IV to their veins for one more fix.

I meant it when I publicly divorced the Chicken Littles back on September 8. And overall, it's the same tired crowd that lectured "what Obama must do" and was proved wrong throughout 2008 that is squawking, today, "what he must do NOW."

Some have grown since then and others will surely grow to embrace the concept of organizing as the cure for pointless activism. You know who you are and it's great that we're collaborating in the present, especially after rumbling in the past. But I see zero chance that we organizers are going to start walking backwards to embrace the forms of activism that we walked away from each time we stepped deeper into organizing.

For those who want to organize, I'm always ready to collaborate.

For those who want to merely do "activism" but somehow call it organizing... Nah.


Don't cross-post this one, Al

Such an apt description of those 'activists' m.o. would go right over 95% of their heads, and I (for one) can do without a series of posts from "Anonymous" telling you why Obama's totally blown the next four years (maybe, FSM-willing, Howard Dean can make a run in 2012 and SAVE US).

I think right now the Orange Order is working their way around to demanding that Hilda Solis drop out as Labor Secretary because of that d-mned, distracting tax issue.  They're getting that hopeless.

I find it interesting that

I find it interesting that people are asking for marching orders about what to support.  Obama has been fairly forthright about listing the items he wants in the stimulus package.  Some that come to mind are infrastructure, particularly those projects that would produce energy independence, education, retrofitting buildings of all kinds to conserve energy, and tax savings for middle class and lower income workers.  There are probably others that I am forgetting at the moment, but my point is he hasn't made any secret of what he wants.  All one would have to do is to reread his statements on the subject.



and bring on the activists. I am so thrilled to hear this articulated so concretely, it is music to my ears. If I never see one more set of "informative" protest plackards on the road or people with megaphones delivering their litany of pet priorities to the public without an integrated community movement behind them, I will dance a happy dance.  Integrated community movements more often deliver sane objectives because they have had to compromise amongst themselves and face the hard reality of diversity before moving forward with a plan.  And the best ones are local, as Al states, because if they are not local, they are just a bunch of people from widespread pinpoints in a big city (or country, or world!) responding to an advertised rally to play up a pet project, they end up being intrinsically biased and unable to hear critiques of their own views.  Ideas hammered out in a local community have had to survive a crucible of hot internal debate before moving forward, refined like gold and ready to rock. Nothing can replace it. That's not to say that if it isn't done locally it is useless...I'm just saying it's ideal and I think I get what Al is saying in lifting up local as being ideal.

Do crosspost, please.

I always enjoy reading the reactions to your posts on DK - not as studied, usually, as the comments here, but sometimes highly surprising.  Besides, this is worth saying to a larger audience, even if most of them don't feel the impact immediately.

BTW, did you really mean "take their queue"?  I couldn't decide whether it was a typo or meant that they were accepting the lineup of priorities the MSM has at any given moment.

Re: Scott Knox

How I disagree...this definately should be cross-posted.

Maybe 95% will miss the point and respond in some indiginant, self-rightous, angry fashion.  But come on - that's pretty amusing.

And if it gets "heard" by 5%, and sets off a light bulb for half of them, then he's done a good job.  The community gets just a bit bigger.

Another difference

Activists think they can do it all by themselves-- one million unconnected dots have no power.

Organizers know that change comes about through collective action.


This one's a keeper.

Thank you for this. The pleading for Obama to tell us what to do has been pretty odd. We're going through some similar issues in my own grassroots organization (it's been a recurring theme, really). What's been interesting to me is a small contingent of fantastic, hard-working organizers who get sidetracked into activism and the trappings of activism. Keeping beautiful loser syndrome at bay is a constant challenge. 

Thanks for the clarification on the vocabulary.

Activism always seemed silly to me, even when I agreed with the cause.  I never felt that way about the Obama campaign, and now I know why.  It was organizing!

On Fire

President Obama is on CSPAN live right now talking to the House Democratic Caucus.  He is obliterating the spurious Republican talking points. Enjoy.

On Fire II

The President's speech was less than 15 minutes and then the coverage pulled away as Representatives began to ask questions.  My point in drawing folks' attention to this moment was the manner in which Obama was basically organizing the House Dems. The sound was that of a coach at half time telling his players that they hadn't shown up to play in the first half, but the win was in reach in the second half. The game plan was simplified and everyone was asked to elevate. This was an extraordinary speech because it was the voice of candidate Obama (hope and promise) speaking from the authority of the presidency (urgency and a demand for real action now). Talk about saving your fire for when it is most needed. (Of course, this was just a taste.)  I will be watching closely to see if the 11 Democratic hold-outs in the first stimulus vote, including my Representative (Brad Ellsworth), get religion after this. This speech had the look of masterful organizational choreography--putting the most effective pieces together in the most effective pattern. 

15 minutes too late

It appears that I signed in 15 minutes too late. If anybody finds a link to the speech Brendan talked about, please post it here. Thanks.

C-SPAN has the video on-line

C-SPAN has the video on-line now:


The Renaissance of organization

Al, Al, Al.  How great to have a grown up to read on these here Internets.  I've had to stop reading Glenn and all the fire breathing lefties, as they've all morphed from Bush-haters into Obama-haters.  I get screeching emails every day demanding that I write my Senator, Congressperson, City Council, Governor, or local newspaper about the Democratic outrage du jour. And then asking for donations. It's very tiresome.  If that is "Activism", it's turning off the activists.  Speaking as someone who left it all on the ground during the Campaign.

Please keep applying some balm of gilead and reminders on the Alinsky principles.  I am really interested whenever you write about Alinsky.

Here's the link to the video

It was an amazing speech, gives one hope about how he will be able to use the bully pulpit in the future.

The president's remarks

I'm watching President Obama's remarks from tonight right now from

And, Al, I have to congratulate you on yet another very smart analysis. I'm sick of "activists" who either can't keep working to make change or can only talk to their own self-selected crew.

I do think the WH communications shop was a bit slow on the stimulus bill, but if there's anything Obama taught, it was that nothing comes from a single leader but from concerted, organized action.

We have to keep doing, keep working.

King of the hill

What's the difference between an activist and an organizer?

To me, the activist sees a hill of garbage, climbs atop and shouts: "Isnt' this terrible? Look at me!"

The organizer assembles the village living next to the trash heap and together they cart off the garbage to be recycled or otherwise disposed of to the benefit of the Earth.

It's that simple to me.



OT: "Chicago Tonight" will have a

John Calloway interview with Alinsky biographer Sanford Horwitt tomorrow night, 7:30pm (local) on WTTW-11.

Thanks for the lesson!

I needed the clarification that you offered here.

I had been at a loss to understand why many of the bloggers that helped me maintain my sanity during the Bush years, seemed now to be going over the deep end.

President Obama and Obama for America demonstrated how it's done, and what we, as Americans, need to try and emulate to get things accomplished.




Al, thank you for this fantastic and illuminating post.

lamh31 -- thank you for the weblink -- I missed the original broadcast too

And can I just say...the Prez is FUNNY. He opened with a few jokes. The one that really got me was abot how Rahm isn't really all that mean...he teaches profanity to underprivileged children in his off hours. "He's got a soft spot." LOL

"I found this deficit when I showed up." THANK YOU.

"This is not a game." AMEN.

"Then you hear: 'This isn't a stimulus bill, it's a spending bill.' Well what do you think a stimulus *is*?!? That's the whole point. No, seriously. That's the point." GRIN

I like the energy conservation/expansion of alternate energy in this. He really does a great job explaining how important it is.

"Let's put America to work doing the work that America needs done." Man, put that on a bumper sticker, eh?

Organizing 101: Question

I have a question for anyone with the data: is there evidence that the form emails--sent out by countless organizations letting you plug in your address data and perhaps append your own message to the group's statement about said issue that will then be sent to an elected official--work? Surely this increases the volume of emails received in a given Rep's office, but how do the Reps receive these? Personally, I prefer phone calls and snail mail letters. But, then, as Al is saying, without coordination, isolated letters/emails/calls risk getting lost. And, to be clear, I know that such "letter writing" is basically armchair democracy. Nevertheless, for lots of folks, calling Congress or writing a letter to the editor of a local paper is the first step to participating in bigger or more structured actions as opposed to the reading of blogs for entertainment. So, is there any hard evidence that calling or letter writing elected officials does anything


Once again Al.  I think that you are masterful in how you articulate the difference between those who are activists and those of us who organize.  Kudos and thanks!

Chris and David are not planning to organize a house party this weekend to discuss the economy.  They have no interest or plans to move beyond their own comfortable bubbles.  They are making good livings as oracles of "truth."  The rest of us who have to struggle to live day to day in CRAPPY neighborhoods don't have that luxury.  So my time will be spent on Saturday running a meeting of 50 people to build grassroots support for addressing some of the economic issues facing my community.  I put out an open call.  We will meet at the local library.  I don't know half of the people who are attending the conversation but I am excited to meet them.  It's all about base building.  No need to wait for instructions from headquarters for that.

Thanks Al

Thanks as always, Al. Getting my edumacation. I have one question: when we were e-mailing the newspaper editors during the AP-fake-survey-about-racism episode, it felt like a combination. We organized to get the list together, state whom we would contact, and study up on their positions. But were the contacts we actually made activism? I'd be interested in your thoughts.



@ Brendan

I've often wondered about that, too. There's soft evidence that thought has power, so the activity adds energy to an idea.

Release the hounds!

Al, You and Nate Silver make a good one-two combination, and you just delivered a knockout punch that would make Muhammed Ali blush.

Speaking of which, it's great Nate got a $700,000 book deal, but frankly your voice is much more important for these times now. You're like calm in the storm. As someone who started getting frustrated with protesting and "activism" as a teenager, after watching so much energy and time go into so few results, your ability to articulate this dynamic so well has been incredibly useful for my own development.

Hmmm...maybe that would be good for a Fieldhands action alert...getting publishers to realize that this man needs a Silver-sized book deal?  Imagining Al with a hefty budget...damn.  All 'Hands on deck!


Great.  Just talking about Saul wasn't enough for ya?  Now ya gotta be showin his picture too!  That's rural and unusual punishment.

Booman's response is an interesting one

Written here (this is an interesting take on

I do recognize the difference between activism and organizing as Al Giordano defines it. Although, I think you can lump them both together under the name 'activism', which I did. I'm not much interested in semantic disagreements, so long as we all know what we're talking about. What Giordano and I share is a history of community organizing (not that my brief career can compare to Al's) and the mindset that flows from doing fieldwork. Field workers develop plans and metrics, and measure progress incrementally. A good field worker can tell you when a plan is going to succeed long before the date of fruition because he or she knows that the plan is solid and has reached a point of self-sustainment. They can also tell you when the whole effort is completely hopeless, for the same reasons.
This is probably inherent in what Booman is saying, but I think that organizers, who by definition must be strategists in order to be effective, understand the importance of the war as opposed to the individual battles (they know which battles need to be fought and which ones are a waste of time and effort). I'm not an organizer myself, but I respect individuals who are able to combine strong strategic and tactical prowess with the ability to organize and rally members of their community with a coherent set of goals. So kudos to the Boomans, the Al Giordanos, and of course the Barack Obamas of the world.


"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie; deliberate, contrived, and dishonest but the myth; persistant, persuasive, and unrealistic" JFK


After spending a lot of time at Daily Kos over the past 2 years, I was starting to think most people who post there had never heard of Alinsky; glad to know at least Markos has.


Until just recently I used to make the same argument Booman's making here where he's talking about all these approaches having value, but I've had a change of heart recently (probably from hanging around here too much!).

I've started to feel like the "activism" Al talks about is much easier and more "sexy" than the really, really important work that needs to happen, and that's pounding the pavement organizing. The balance is way off in the Netroots. Since it's easier and more fun to get wrapped up in online squabbles as we sit in our skivvies, than to head out in the cold rain and have doors slammed in our faces, most people will gravitate to the warm and dry approach, which also happens to be much less effective. Obama talks about this activist/organizing debate in his "Dreams..." book. Guess which side he ends up favoring.

If real fundamental changes are going to happen in America, it's going to take actual organizing much more so than message control. Just ask our President.

This is a golden moment in history that we can all be a part of. I've decided to stop worrying about hurting anyone's feelings and try to make everyone feel valued, and instead, strike while the iron is hot IN THE MOST EFFECTIVE ways possible. I'm hoping others start understanding this before it's too late and this moment slips by, since we'll probably never get another chance like this in our lifetimes. The clock is running. Tick tock...tick tock...

Add John Aravosis to that list of 'activists'

Looks like John at Americablog is waiting for Obama to call him for help too:

He's been flogging this for days now. It's exhausting to read.

and this after Rick Warren dustup. (ugh!)



Gadfllies do have their

Gadfllies do have their place in the bigger scheme of things, I hope they aren't being confused with what Al is attempting to flesh out here, in regards to activists.


If I may add to this, what is really amusing, are the it's-hip-to-be-radical "activists", who rallied around third party candidates, who are now inventing horrors, feigning outrage,  and predicting doom. These types often  latch onto some tactical move by Obama that goes over their heads, and use it as a launching pad for their diatribes.


Others of the third party activist stripe are  delusionally monomaniacal and truely angry that their third party candidate wasn't able to win. They might have some valid criticisms about being shut out of debates, but that's beside the point, general election debates with "the big two" still wouldn't have secured a  victory for their candidate, no matter how much they want to believe such a thing. This type might actually mature and come around at some point, as many of the more fierce Clinton supporters have.

Sorry for the Hamsher Update

Pathetic, really, but here goes:

She wrote a piece stating that Rahm threw Nancy Pelosi under the bus in stating that anything wrong with the Stimulus bill was Nancy Pelosi's fault.

According to Hamsher, Obama has lost the messaging war, and in an effort to prevent the Hillarycare debacle only two weeks into his administration, he authorized Rahm to sell out Pelosi.

She manufactured the following:

That may well be because the architect of this strategy is Rahm Emanuel himself, and his first step was to leak that Obama was commiserating with House Republicans about how awful the bill was.  Then using Jim Cooper as a cutout, it was leaked that Obama was unhappy with the waste in the stimulus bill and that his people had urged Cooper to vote against the bill and oppose Pelosi.

I apologize for linking to her self-aggrandizement at any cost, but her fiction was picked up by David Shuster on MSNBC.  He called it "reporting."

Again, my apologies for this update, but Al doesn't follow her, understandably, and Obama addressed this ridiculous meme when he stated that Rahm teaches underprivileged children to swear. (This is at the beginning of the speech to the Democratic retreat.)

He then stated that Nancy was a rock.

Jane Hamsher is making it up.  She has no shame meter.  She is driven to call attention to herself by baseless character attacks.


Sometimes I feel like the netroots is this: some people who liked the idea of "getting involved" found a medium and said "Hey! I can affect change, make things happen, sound important, and do it all in my pajamas from the comfort of my home internet connection"

So, to a certain degree, the netroots is sort of like one of those "too good to be true" business opportunity commercials; it sounds great, seems like it would work, but, in practice, isn't as effective as good, old-fashioned getting out there and organizing.

I mean, come on, pressing "send" and picking up a phone is not organizing.

That's not to say it doesn't play its role. In fact, it can be a very capable balance to the right wing noise machine. But, we have to be honest about what it is and isn't. And when the David Sirotas of the world bloviate, we have to take it with a grain of salt, just as we did Limbaugh's grand plan for economic relief.

Brilliant post

John at AmericaBlog is freaking out because Obama didn't ask him to help on the stimulus and he needs to be told what to do. He sounds like a whiny baby and most responders told him so.

I volunteered for Obama and I have been empowered since then to take action, sometimes against Obama, and I don't need to wait for orders from the top. I was a traditional activist in college and I know how very little we accomplished. That is why I am so sick of all these bloggers who complain and write with no action.

So happy to find this blog!

Thank you for this insightful commentary!  I wish there were more self-awareness out there in the blogosphere.  After spending eight years denouncing the "never let facts get in the way of an opinion" conservative communities online, a lot of those critics are engaging in exactly the same behavior; the only difference is where the surreal POV is coming from. 

Over the past couple of weeks, I have read some widely-accepted opinions on left-leaning blogs that made my jaw drop.  For example, "all the detainees at Gitmo are completely innocent because there were never any charges brought against them, and Obama is betraying us by not releasing them immediately with compensation" or "Obama secretly supports torture" or "Obama's presidency is already a total failure and he has betrayed us [by not doing X, Y, and Z that WE wanted him to do, nevermind that he never promised to do any of it in the first place]."  These weren't trolls; these were "well-known" members of the community.  I suppose it has never occured to any of them that Obama has probably thought through these issues on the basis of more complete information!

The worst part is that many of the people on these blogs grossly overestimate both their numbers and their influence (one more "Obama MUST DO THIS" diary and my head was going to explode--hence my current blog-weaning process).  In my political and community service work, I rarely come across anyone who even knows what Daily Kos is (aside from its infrequent mentions on The Colbert Report), much less reads it. 

I talked to hundreds of voters and volunteers this fall, and none of them wanted a left-wing revolution from Obama--they wanted exactly what they're getting, which is a pragmatic leader who is not going to be paralyzed by the need for ideological purity.  And ironically, the more the far left-wing howls in outrage, the more these normal, everyday folks think "Hey, Obama's not some crazy liberal!  What a relief!" and conservatives on the fence think "Hm, he must be an OK guy if the left wing is mad at him."  If anything, their dissatisfaction with him only strengthens his overall support.

I really don't know what else to say but this:  The need for a reality-based community goes both ways.


The question is who is organizing who and for what reason.

According to the author's own definition since Obama's campaign didn't involve knocking on doors, making phone calls or otherwise proactively communicating with demographically DIFFERENT people, it's wasn't organizing.  The movement that was constructed was certainly not multi-racial and not progressive since the only attainable and quantifiable goal was changing the face of this racist capitalist government.

What Planet Are You On?

Carl - You're welcome to your opinion that the election only "changed the face of this racist capitalist government" but you are not entitled to invent falsehoods and call them fact.

In 2008 I reported on the primaries and election from Nevada, Texas, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Illinois and throughout the country I found and reported on:

- A genuinely multi-racial movement, more so than anything that the activist left has organized in 40 years in the United States (when I've likewise reported on and been involved in it).

- Daily door-to-door canvassing, quantified at the end of each day by field organizers adding up how many doors were knocked and categorizing the people reached according to their own words of where they stood (i.e. "strong Obama vote," "leaning Obama," "undecided," "leaning Clinton (or McCain)," "strong McCain," etcetera.

- Daily telephone banking to those voters, and the same daily measurement, adding up to thousands of door-knocks and phone calls in every local region, every single day.

- It was black folks calling and knocking on white folks doors and vice versa, Mexican-Americans and Asians doing the same, young and old, working class and poor, a rainbow like which zero activist efforts in the United States did throughout the 80s, the 90s and the first part of this century have achieved.

I really have to wonder what planet you are on that you could be in such denial about what happened in the US in 2008. You don't want to believe it, I presume because it suggests that your type of activism has been an utter failure to change anything all these years, but that's your problem. You would do much better to study that movement and fix your own tactics to borrow from it the things that work than to sit there in amazingly embarrassing (for you) denial.

I get it. You're bitter. But you can't expect me to take you seriously if you go to such lengths to deny the reality that is in front of your eyes. I could never imagine collaborating with somebody so delusional as to deny a truth simply because it is inconvenient. Open your eyes or doom yourself to a lifetime of wasted complaining.

A Multi-racial Movement

Carl, I went canvassing in Pennsylvania with a group of Obama supporters that contained two white women, a black Hispanic man, a Hispanic woman, and an Indian woman. The doors we knocked on in a low-income rural part of PA were nearly 100 percent white households. I would definitely consider that a multi-racial experience that entailed "proactively communicating with demographically DIFFERENT people." Nearly every experience I had volunteering on the Obama campaign was as racially and ethnically diverse. It was the greatest thing about it.

you're right, but a little harsh

First, thanks for this article.  I loved it, and I'm going to send it around to others.

Second, I think you're missing one thing in this article.  What I've found is that a lot of activists are well-meaning but ineffective because they don't know any better.  Once people learn, they do better.  Many folks currently writing in the left-blogosphere have never learned enough to know what they don't know.  The same is true off-line. 

The truly amazing thing about the Obama campaign was the number of people (many former "activists" in your parlance) that were taught how to be organizers.  This will continue in Organizing for America and it will transform this country.  Criticism has its place, but we also need to teach, both online and offline (mostly offline).

to Carl

Carl, could you please tell me how you arrived at your conclusions about the Obama campaign?  Were you a volunteer?  If so, where and when?

Your comment does not reconcile with my experiences over the course of almost two years of phonebanking and knocking on doors with people of all races, religions, regions, ethnicities, and ages.  We were gay, straight, male, female, transgender, bisexual, republican, democratic, independent, unaffiliated, rich, poor, disabled and non disabled.

One of the best things about being involved was the opportunity to be part of an inclusive, diverse community of people.  And the work continues.  Our goal wasn't just to elect President Obama, but also to join with his administration to make progress on the serious issues that helped to bring us all together.


I don't mean to pile on, but Carl Webb must have missed 2007-2009 in some sort of time warp or something. The spurious claim that the Obama campaign was somehow not demographically diverse--along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, faith, profession... or sports fandom... is the silliest (and I am being extremely kind) thing I have seen so far in 2009. All I can say is "Dude@#$#!*&#!"

following up on CSPAN speech

Great article from WaPo on need for economic intelligence amongst the political classes.

Response to question about impact of netroots calls to action

Actually, I'm quite fearless about calling myself an Activist. I just happen to be an organized Activist. In my metal map, an activist is simply someone who can be counted on to take action -- the more organized, the better. The problem (as I see it) is the popular misconception among netroots heavies and their supporting cast that generating a constant stream of oppositional chatter has a greater impact on shifting the balance of power than, say, getting out and doing the work. Maybe the word you're really searching for is "free rider."

I wanted to respond to an earlier question about how effective netroots email and call-in actions are. First of all, there's a good reason that MoveOn and groups like it keep response numbers very close to the vest. It's much cooler to boast about having 5 million members than to talk about the fact that less than 3 percent typically respond to feedback surveys. And people are a lot more likely to respond to a web survey asking for their opinion than they are to pick up the phone and call their members of Congress, or show up for voter outreach work during a campaign. Don't get me started on that last one.

But here's a real life example. In 2008, a netroots group with more than half a million "members" mobilized their list to email letters to the Department of Labor to oppose proposed changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act. 4,000 letters were received, but since the letters all came through one organization, it was counted as a single response. Futhermore, since the DOL's RFI was very specific and not open to general public comments (which had been invited at an earlier stage of the process), the entire batch was deemed irrelevant and had no impact on the final decision-making process. (I only know this because the information was published in a DOL report). So here you have 4,000 people thinking they're going to change the direction of public policy through one-click activism, and the real impact is a big, fat zero.

It's my theory that the netroots-generated activism has accellerated the obselence of once-effective organizing tactics, in the same way disorganization in the anti-war movement has turned anti-war demonstrating into something to be avoided. When the netroots was all shiny and new, it was a big deal to get half a million signatures on your online petition in 24 hours -- people paid attention and the freaking New York Times ran a feature story. Now, legislators aren't interested, and they simply ignore emails from constituents. My bet would be that most MoveOn members hit the delete key more often than opening the daily call for superurgent action to raise bucks for the latest tone-deaf ad campaign. The netroots is pretty good at fact-finding and making noise, not to mention raising money. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a clue about how to mobilize those extremely valuable resources effectively.

I have serveral concerns about how Organizing for America is rolling out, but my biggest concern is the over-reliance of the OFA 2.0 model on online social networking tools to generate event attendance and bring new volunteers into the fold. It just doesn't work that way, at least not here in New Hampshire. You still have to go out and build relationships with people if you want them to show up and pitch in. Some of our most dependable and talented grassroots volunteers here don't even read email every day.

By the way, I don't think Rules for Radicals is the hoily grail. The opportunity before us is to rethink all of our cherished organizing models, and focus on what really works given the opportunities and constraints of this particular social moment.

Thanks for your perceptive writing on this issue, and the opportunity to weigh in.

Bredesen at HHS?

I'm profoundly disappointed in reports that Gov Phil Bredesen is now the leading candidate for secretary of HHS.  I'm hoping they are wrong.

I believe that Tom Daschle's financial ties to the health care industry were a much bigger issue than his back taxes. Bredesen's not just tied to the industry, he ran his own company.  Did they learn nothing?

Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn both have strong words.

Honestly, I feel like this is a battle that shouldn't even need to be fought.  The consideration of Bredesen is really demoralizing.

Al is exactly right. Carl is exactly wrong.

I was an organizer in an Obama field office. I was only one of two non-black organizers. 90% of our volunteers were black. There were Carribean, Haitian, and American black volunteers. Another office had tons of Jewish and Hispanic volunteers.

Carl's statement is a dumb, ignorant lie.

Al's article, as usual, is spot on. The old guard liberals are frightened by the effectiveness and pragmatism of the Obama revolutionaries. They want to talk to us about their time in failed causes and failed campaigns like it has any significance. Well, it does, but not a positive significance. How dare those assholes lecture us on organizing and building a movement?!

POTUS BO to visit Elkhart, IN and Ft Myers, FL

next week. Woohoo!!!! The biggest organizer himself is taking his behind to 2 states that have Republican governors and their constituents are feeling the pinch. Now, how's that for taking it to the streets?

About OFA 2.0, I think that the organization is hitting the ground running. And, it could not have happened soon enough. People are taking initiative all over the place.

I am attending 2 different gatherings. Tonight is a meeting in an apt. living room in one of the leafy and originally aristocratic Chicago North Shore suburbs. The second meeting is being called by a mayor of one of the North Shore suburbs to discuss Repower America. The mayor will be joined by a local business owner who has a green company. The meeting notice mentioned that they invited Congressman Mark Kirk-R. I am taking bets that he may not attend. Too much out of his control...

@ Rachel Q

Speculation about who is being considered and who is up and who is down is just that. Half the time, these reports are completely wrong. Save the worrying about Breseden if and when he is selected, right now it is a hypothetical and not worth the mental/emotional stress.

@ Laura

I figured out that I was getting poutraged too soon. :-)

I'm hoping this is a head fake on the part of the WH - maybe so the left will accept a better choice who is not Howard Dean.

There's no report at all on who's being considered to lead the WH reform effort, which is really the more important post for determining the shape of comprehensive reform. The HHS secretary is going to have as much or as little input as the WH wants him or her to have.

POTUS BO to visit Elkhart, IN and Ft Myers, FL

And he wants a cigarette.

[Gibbs called is "restless."]

The poverty of activism

From Openleft

Others have suggested repeatedly that it goes back to his absent father, and while I think that's part of it, I think it's also possible that a more positive encounter with social change potentials in early adulthood could have substantially compensated for that childhood experience, at least in the realm of his political attitude, orientation, and philosophy.  It's the combination of the two that I think we have to reckon with.  Obama has, quite simply, no life model of what it means to really win.  And that is a really big problem if you're the leader of a political party, particularly if you're President.

And for some reason, I am reminded of this:

On a certain level, they must be at least subconsciously aware of their own incompetence, which is why they call on Obama or others to do their work for them, often with macho posturing to infer that if he doesn't do as he's told he somehow lacks backbone. (Actually, the opposite is more true: backing down to pressure is precisely what reveals lack of a backbone!) And if we don't jump on their makeshift bandwagons, we're portrayed as somehow afraid to challenge the man, too. Well, fuck them twice, then.


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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