Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Marshall Ganz on the Obama non-movement

Sasha Abramsky has a very interesting article on longtime organizer Marshall Ganz in The Nation, A Conversation With Marshall Ganz 02/03/2011. I worked with Ganz some back when he was organizing director for the United Farm Workers Union (UFW).

He got quite a bit of well-deserved attention late last year with his article, How Obama lost his voice, and how he can get it back Los Angeles Times 11/03/2010, which makes an important point. The times in which Obama became President called for transformational leadership. But what the Obama Administration has provided has been transactional leadership: "The nation was ready for transformation, but the president gave us transaction. And, as is the case with leadership failures, much of the public's anger, disappointment and frustration has been turned on a leader who failed to lead."

Abramsky gives a fascinating biographical sketch of Ganz, who was the leader of the "movement" aspect of Obama 2008 Presidential campaign:

In April 2007 Ganz met with Obama and David Axelrod at Harvard. Intrigued by Ganz's ideas, they invited him to campaign headquarters in Chicago the following month. In June, after a series of meetings, Ganz was charged with the task of setting up a Camp Obama network, intensive community organizing–style training camps in which young people would be taught to tell Obama's story, to spread a message and generate the enthusiasm of a true grassroots movement. Its success was phenomenal, ultimately generating one of the most effective and broad-based presidential campaigns in American history.

While media consultant Axelrod was the numbers brain, the wonk behind the campaign’s caucus-and-primary strategy, Ganz was the brains behind the movement-building. No one, including Obama, understood what made the campaign so effective, so good at connecting with young people in particular, so able to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of old loyalties and coalitions, better than Ganz. He understood how to unlock the "prophetic imagination" of youth; the willingness to take the world from where it is to where you want it to be. "The blending of a grassroots organizing capacity with Obama really worked," he argues. "But it wasn't because Obama was telling anybody to do it." [my emphasis]
But, sadly, as she also explains, after the election the Obama team wasn't interested in leading an activist movement:

President Obama, Ganz says ruefully, seems to be "afraid of people getting out of control." He needed the organizing base in 2008, but he and his inner circle were quick to dismantle it after the election. Yes, Ganz concedes, they kept Organizing for America, with its access to the vast volunteer databases, alive; but they made a conscious decision to neuter it, so as to placate legislators who were worried about the independent power base it could give Obama. Following a meeting of key members of the transition team, they placed it under the control of the Democratic National Committee. It became, if you like, something of a house pet. Yes, President Obama proposed, and continues to propose, many good policies; but, the community organizing guru concludes, the fire, the passion and the moral clarity were left out of his postelection rhetoric.

... Ganz surveys what’s left of candidate Obama’s promise to deliver a cleaner, more uplifting style of politics. After winning in November 2008, Obama and his inner circle wanted to control the terms of the debate rather than be pushed from below by a chaotic, empowered, activist community. They wanted to shift Obama's leadership style, Ganz believes, from the transformational aura of his candidacy to something different; they wanted him to be a transactional leader, a maker of deals, a compromiser in chief.

"He’s not a bad man," Ganz says of the president. "His policy intent is not bad. But you don't have the opportunity to change history every day. The Obama campaign excited the whole world. It created an opportunity to build capacity and do real movement-building."

In losing sight of that historic opening, and in tamping down the activist energies the campaign had unleashed, President Obama’s inner circle lost a chance to change the country he leads. And then, intellectual polymath that he is, Ganz quotes the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides. "Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable." [my emphasis]
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