No More Drama
“It’s up to us to choose Whether we win or lose And I choose to win.” - Mary J. Blige Karen Tumulty begins her wrap-up of the Democratic nomination contest with this story:
Barack Obama was campaigning last October in South Carolina when he got an urgent call from Penny Pritzker, the hotel heiress who leads his campaign’s finance committee. About 200 of his biggest fund raisers were meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, and among them, near panic was setting in. Pritzker’s team had raised money faster than any other campaign ever had. Its candidate was drawing mega-crowds wherever he went. Yet he was still running at least 20 points behind Hillary Clinton in polls. His above-the-fray brand of politics just wasn’t getting the job done, and some of his top moneymen were urging him to rethink his strategy, shake up his staff, go negative. You’d better get here, Pritzker told Obama. And fast. Obama made an unscheduled appearance that Sunday night and called for a show of hands from his finance committee. “Can I see how many people in this room I told that this was going to be easy?” he asked. “If anybody signed up thinking it was going to be easy, then I didn’t make myself clear.” A win in Iowa, Obama promised, would give him the momentum he needed to win across the map — but his backers wouldn’t see much evidence of progress before then. “We’re up against the most formidable team in 25 years,” he said. “But we’ve got a plan, and we’ve got to have faith in it.”
So, you see, Field Hands? Millionaires can be Chicken Littles, too!
Even more interesting to me than how millions of Americans changed the results of the primaries and caucuses is how they were changed by their participation in an electoral movement. Obama’s online fundraising and organizing advances were logical extensions of what Howard Dean, and, later, John Kerry had accomplished in 2004. That was an inevitable advance that somebody was going to make in US politics. Obama was lucky enough to have been young enough to be able to understand it and implement it in ways that his rivals did not.
There are two other breakthroughs that have just come to maturity in the United States that were not inevitable, that required a perfect storm of factors - and the right catalyst or leader at the right time - in confluence.
The first is that the Obama campaign is the first mass multi-racial collaboration in the United States since the Southern Civil Rights movement.
For many of the millions that volunteered, donated and attended campaign events, this was the first time they worked hand in hand with people that did not look like them.
About fourteen years ago I had the opportunity to interview Gore Vidal, who is thankfully still with us, but even back then was speaking every sentence as if it would be his last. And he lamented that, “in America, everything comes down to white against black or black against white.” And in the years since, the fragmentation of American life worsened. What I often call “the market-niching of America” was underway, in which media, advertising and politics were increasingly targeted toward smaller and smaller demographic fractions (as exemplified by Mark Penn’s book Microtrends). Not only were Americans still being divided and economically segregated as white against black against brown against red against yellow, but by far more trivial lines of division: Apple vs. PC users, vegans vs. meat eaters, or dog owners vs. cat owners, or, concretely and absurdly back in my home town: dog owners versus young parents are at Civil War already in some neighborhoods when it comes to policies of determining the use of public parks and playgrounds in New York City.
The American home had become a bunker. People gathered around the TV, then the TiVo and the computer screen, and when they did briefly emerge from their bomb shelters it was to sterile office and workplace environments, where they are subordinate, or to socialize or worship generally with people very demographically similar to themselves.
Worse, the bunkers themselves have become echo chambers and, by and large, dysfunctional and disempowering places, in which all the injustices of the world are compressed and internalized, often with violent and despairing results on the individuals inside them.
Those of us, in recent decades, that organized (or tried to organize) political movements ran up against tremendous inertia in that most Americans – including “progressives” – did not really want to collaborate with people that were not nearly identical to themselves: in appearance, education level, and ideology.
That has suddenly changed. The black-white progressive alliance that was responsible for every advance in American politics in the middle of the last century is back. And that makes organizing of future political movements – electoral and non-electoral – possible again.
The second breakthrough is that a critical mass of progressive Americans are learning political discipline again: the disciplines that had been carried like rare seeds through a decades-long desert by the few and the proud that had continued the study and practice of community organizing.
We are today reading a plethora of columns by pundits and reporters marveling at the discipline of the Obama campaign and its successes. Every single one of those successes can be traced to a single core factor: Barack Obama was one of the few, even in politics, that had carried the community organizer torch all these years. Those principles were infused into every aspect of the campaign. The community had simply become an entire country.
…about two weeks before he announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for President, Obama laid down three ruling principles for his future chief operating officer: Run the campaign with respect; build it from the bottom up; and finally, no drama.
The “no drama” point is paramount. The self-indulgence created in a society that has been market-niched into 280 million “countries of one” is perhaps the highest obstacle to change in the United States. Individuals have been taught that we are, each of us, nation-states that have territory, customs and immigration agents, and so much of life is wasted on stamping the visas or not of those that are seen as entering or infringing upon those micro-territories.
That attitude is still pervasive. It could be heard this week in the admonitions to “give Senator Clinton space.” The statement stuck in my craw: It wasn’t as if Obama or his supporters had planned an uninvited visit to her home or even to her rallies. The post-1970s concept of “personal space” has become a rampaging and twisted monster over all efforts toward a progressive America and for some extends dangerously to public space. The individual concept of property extended to a non-physical realm over the national community’s collective good.
In recent months, as I’ve been tazing and hazing the Chicken Littles with such vigilance, part of my compulsion has been mere utility: keeping the drama to a minimum. So many of the media-fed mini-scandals over which people were freaking out are not even remembered today, they were that insignificant. But it has also been a personal moral imperative; a crusade, if you will.
The presumption by so many Americans (the international leader in these indulgent personality traits, and this, one of its last export products to the rest of the world) that their precious sense of “individuality” gives them the 24 hour right to use all public forums as personal therapy sessions to vent and inflict their every perceived psychological misery upon others is a big part of what has made serious political movements in the US impossible for so long. Anybody that has attended a political “meeting” at which there was a “decision making process” has seen the tyranny of the individual crash down upon the collective imperative again and again. “Acting out” – without discipline nor regard for the hijacking nature of such behavior – had become considered a sacrament, rather than the sabotage that it was and is.
I had wondered whether any mass political movement across demographic lines would ever be possible in the United States in my lifetime, and I had mostly concluded that it could not. I certainly did not expect it from an electoral campaign.
And that’s why, although at moments I consider Obama to be more centrist or timid on specific matters of policy than I am, although I remain acutely aware of the limits of electoral politics, even if he were to have a somewhat less progressive platform on “issues,” I would probably still be fascinated by the phenomenon what this electoral campaign has done to and for American society.
Progressivism is not merely a checklist of issue positions and stances, but, at its core, it is a way of life. And while most community organizers are politically progressive, it has not been the case that most political progressives have embraced their principles at the level of daily life: in the submergence of the “self” into the larger community around us.
Obama and his team have not only drawn millions of Americans out of their dysfunctional bunkers and market niches to collaborate across those lines again, but he’s created and trained a new wave of community organizers with the discipline and the understanding that “no drama” essentially means putting the community ahead of individual neurosis and self-indulgence. For those few that carried those community organizing seeds across the desert all these years, this new and fertile societal terrain – upon which those seeds are now being planted - is nothing short of a miracle.