The Paradox In Organzing For America


By Joe Campbell
March 26th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Last week, I received a phone call from an Obama-affiliated group asking me to “Call my congressman and tell them to support Obama’s budget,” or something along those lines. I didn’t. Apparently, many others didn’t as well.

At the same time, Organizing for America, the follow-up to the Obama campaign organization run by David Plouffe, sent out emails and organized people to knock on doors to encourage support for Obama’s budget. From what I’ve heard and read, all this push is having an effect, but it’s been underwhelming.

Here’s my thought:

The Obama campaign was extremely effective about this because it people knew they had to make a choice and vote. Knowing that this was coming up, they evaluated all the information they came across with this in mind. Those who settled on Barack Obama then had to defend their choice – and if they were of a particular type of person – they could promote his candidacy. And so it was that hundreds of thousands of people became convinced to try to achieve a single shared goal. This group proved extremely effective – at fundraising, knocking on doors, defending Obama against attacks, mounting attacks against his opponents, and eventually, getting people out to vote.

The process was something like this:

  1. Citizens realize they must make a choice.
  2. They evaluate the choices.
  3. They make a choice.
  4. Their goal becomes to convince others to make the same choice.
  5. As more citizens become convinced to take on this shared goal, the process accelerates.

Organizing for America faces a different challenge on several levels – the first of which is the difference between choosing a candidate and supporting a policy that you will not be required to vote on. In the first case, there is a level of personal responsibility inherent in choosing and voting for a candidate. Regarding legislation though, the people have no direct voice. Their only direct responsibility is to vote in the right people to make these decisions. The influence they might or might not have is indirect. That’s why organizing people for this purpose is more complicated. The tendency is for people to take a more passive approach to legislation – “Let’s give them a chance” rather than “This is the best policy.” Citizens evaluate information differently if they know they will be forced to make a choice based on their evaluation of the information.

It seems the Obama administration and Organizing for America are aware of this – and are trying to figure out how to keep people involved, to change the expectations and force people to take a position, to make a choice. Thus they are encouraging people to pressure those representing them and to try to convince other citizens of the worth of Obama’s budget. But the problem is this type of movement will never gain momentum unless people first have a shared goal. 

So, the Catch-22 is that without a shared goal, citizens are less likely to organize; citizens are less likely to have a shared goal unless they are forced to make a simple choice; the main means Organizing for America is using to force people to make a choice implicitly assume a shared goal.

There is some reason to have faith that Obama can overcome this seemingly impossible loop. Because he already did so with a similar loop – which I described in The Paradox of Obama. Or even better, and more appropriately, the answer might come from citizens discussing these ideas within the tubes of the internets.