July 30th, 2008
Cross-posted on techPresident
Eight million list members. One million MyBarackObama members. Nearly two million Facebook/MySpace “friends.” A couple of million online donors. By the time November comes around, those numbers will have grown — and Barack Obama is likely to be on his way to the White House. Assuming he wins, what will he do with his online following? Will Congress be next in his sights?
Candidates running for president usually promise big changes, but Congress always has the ultimate say. And as presidents from Jefferson to Bush have found, the leaders and members of the legislative branch have their own agendas, even if they nominally belong to the same party as the Chief Executive (lucky Washington pretty much got a free ride). Broadcast-era presidents discovered that the new media of their time could let them bypass congressmembers by speaking directly to their constituents/voters — think of Roosevelt’s fireside chats or Reagan’s press conferences. Obama will be the first true president of a different media age, the era of networked communications, so will he use the new online tools to shape his millions of supporters into a club to shift votes on Capitol Hill?
Advocacy groups by the thousands bombard Congress with emails and phone calls every year, but we’ve never had a president both with Obama’s passionate personal following AND the effective means to mobilize them for instant political action. After an interminable primary season and what looks to be a fairly bitter fight in the Fall, they’ll be primed for action — and besides the individual list members, tens of thousands of “super-volunteers” will be trained to organize people locally.
Imagine a Hill fight in the Fall of 2009, perhaps over global warming legislation. Despite years of work by individual senators, representatives and and advocacy groups, global warming bills have always stalled in the Congress, killed off by well organized interest groups, industry coalitions and congressmembers from districts seen as being harmed. After months of bickering, Obama unleashes his online followers. Members’ Hill and district offices are deluged with calls (and visits) from constituents. Members’ own phones ring with calls from sizable donors. Local TV news gets great footage as Obama supporters stage events outside district offices. Local newspapers are flooded with letters to the editor and Obama-supporting op-ed column submissions, while neighborhood activists walk the streets and rally door-to-door. Would enough members bend from the pressure that Obama gets his way?
Of course, a president could only use a club this blunt so many times, but we could also imagine a more surgical operation, with super-volunteers and other trusted spokespeople speaking to the media and visiting district offices, and large Obama donors and organizers in a district making discreet phone calls. What should give Obama’s network particular strength is that congressmembers KNOW that his people donate and that they vote — and if they’re angry enough, they could yield a primary challenger even in a safe Democratic district. That’s the ultimate threat behind Obama’s list — that it could be used against an incumbent during an election, not just a Hill vote.
The unintended consequences of an Obama advocacy blitz could be interesting in themselves, since once people get riled up, what’s to stop them from staying on the case even when they’re asked to back off? What if local activists get motivated enough to start working against incumbents whom Obama supports? Plenty of demagogues have raised a mob in the past that they ultimately couldn’t control, and since Obama’s supporters already have noteworthy cult-like qualities as it is (the Daily Show’s walking-on-water jokes about his Holy Land trip were funny-’cause-they-were-true funny), who knows what will splinter off? I’d be shocked if the Obama army marched too far off the reservation, though, since I suspect he’s more likely to face the problem of dealing with disappointment, the kind that sets in when his True Believers realize the kind of compromises that any politician has to make if he wants to get something done.
Whether Obama uses his list to cudgel Congress or not, somebody will — plenty of politicos (and radio hosts and bloggers and Tila Tequila) are building up their own independent networks of supporters. At some point, a president WILL use new media to bypass his opponents by speaking directly to his followers among their constituents. The only question is whether or not it will work.