My father is an intellectual with a PhD in Political Science who spent a career analyzing threats and scenarios for the federal government. He lived in a world where you simply gave a presentation and the facts spoke for themselves. Life and death was determined by the actions of the people he presented to, so things like satellite photos and intelligence spoke for itself when put together. Unfortunately, in the world of politics, things are very different in what it takes to get things done. Not everyone shares his background, but many share his frustration.
There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t tell him that politics is about building a ground game, building relationships, and building action networks. I tell him that if he wants to have an impact, it isn’t enough to make a single presentation or write a policy paper. Al Gore’s movie showed us that even for someone as high profile as Gore, it requires not simply giving a single speech but a daily commitment to create the change.
For all of the policy disagreements I have with the conservative right today, their ground game shows the power of a ground game. They are way behind in the political debate nationally on most issues and their party is in serious trouble for the foreseeable future, but they were able to get their message across to Congress (even if they lose the vote). They showed how strong their opposition is to Congress on the energy bill by crashing the phone banks of Congress.
For whatever reason, only Barack Obama, during his campaign, has been able to create the kind of mass action on the left that is needed for political change in this country for the left. But most don’t realize it wasn’t built by one major action or some overly complex strategy. It was built by going back to basics. Sure, they used the internet effectively, but if you look at the strategy it was still basic. And it is one the right has used to mobilize people for years.
The key to politics and the most fundamental part of politics is built on relationships. Relationships are built on people being able to identify with each other, to find commonality and share experiences, and decide to act upon those experiences. It is why the first Obama meetings for their ground people started with telling “their story” about how they came to be Obama supporters.
It is the same method used by churches and the Christian Right for decades. How many have sat in a Bible Study or church group and talked about “how you came to Christ?” It is the same concept, using stories of how they came to a campaign to build quick identification that people can draw on.
It is that identification that makes people start to feel comfortable in being part of a group, in feeling supported and not alone, in taking action. The key is action. The Obama campaign and the Christian Right has taught us over time that it isn’t a single action by a single player that works, but rather getting several committed people willing to act.
If we think about the Congressional Phone Bank, one has to think that each member of Congress can probably carry five to ten phone lines, max. Each call may have a message service or a person to answer it. If each has them automated to take your message and deliver a short message before that, it may take two to five minutes per call, which means 300 calls would lock up a Congressperson’s phones in an hour. In a ten hour day, 3,000 calls could keep their phones locked up all day.
To show the power of a county, my county has between 55,000 Democrats and 95,000 Obama voters that could potentially take action on the climate bill being voted on. That means one single county could flood and shut down my local Congressman’s phones. It would only take one in thirty or so who voted for the President to actually call. So why did the political ticker point to the conservative side on the vote day?
They did because the right has maintained its long term ground game for over a decade. My local Congressman emailed and twittered “Today is the day to make your voice known on the Climate Bill” to all of his conservative followers. That doesn’t count the talking pundits like Rush who told conservatives to call in on that day. Between them all, they were able to get enough phone calls to shut down the phone banks. But the left doesn’t have the same kind of organization.
IF Democrats want to radically alter and erase the problems of the last eight years, they MUST build the ground game to do it. They can’t simply rely on a candidate to do it for them. To their credit, the national party is trying to organize through Organizing America and DFA. However, local parties need to organize.
If policy wonks like my father want to have a real impact, they need to find ways to organize their local counties. They need to create actions that send a clear message to their representatives at all levels that things are changing and they must change or get voted out. And the actions will create more energy from people in the center and the moderate right. Pragmatic solutions that show signs of really having an impact and being passed usually gain support from the middle.
It requires more than pontificating and wondering why no one else is acting. It requires daily action to create an organization that gets actions out of others too. That is the next step if the Democrats are going to solidify gains and expand their party into new areas.