Change '08


7-24-08, 4:25 am

There's 'a change a-comin'.' It's gonna be big, huge. Think China earthquake; think tsunami. Like an earthquake it's going to shake the foundations of US political life from the ground up. Like a tidal wave, it's going to wash away the deadwood and Bushes standing in its way.

US politics is at the beginning of one of its biggest upheavals ever. Think topside down, transformative, or transcendental. What's coming is a realignment of US politics. There have been few moments like it – maybe the Civil War and Reconstruction or, closer still, the Depression and the New Deal. A few percipient souls sensed its potential scope. Lawrence Goodwyn, in a Nation cover story in the spring of 2007 glimpsed its grandness: 'It is not enough to suggest that a big Democratic win is possible in 2008,' he wrote, “Something far more strategic is at work: large-scale party realignment with historic implications.'

Sam Webb in the fall of 2007 put it this way, “We are at the cusp of a new stage of struggle that that has the potential to shift the balance of forces not incrementally and momentarily, but decisively and enduringly in favor of the working class and people.”

A young blogger, Andy Holmer, back in January 2008 saw it. He connected the moment with the upsurge occurring around Barack Obama and viewed him as the only candidate with 'the potential to spur an electoral shift that will realign the American political landscape and create a Democratic majority that will last for a generation.' Holmer stressed two important reasons: 'What we saw in Iowa was Obama' ability to do two things that both parties have been desperately trying to do for decades: he overwhelmingly won the independent vote, and he got young voters to put down rally signs and go to the polls.' The last statement is particularly important, because young voters who establish Democratic voting habits early on will be the backbone of a lasting majority, he added.

While occurring within the framework of a two-party system, the coming realignment is potentially much bigger and deeper than a mere shift in power between Democrats and Republicans. First, because it marks an ideological shift away from the dominant conservatism of the past period; second, because it takes place within the framework of a tremendous financial crisis in the capitalist system; and third because it represents a new, independent, Internet-driven political force, the crystallization of an innovative 21st-century means of engaging in political struggle.

Decline of conservatism

That the conservative era is now over seems indisputable. Writing in the liberal American Prospect, historian Sean Wilentz sees it as almost self-evident, 'No matter who wins the presidency in 2008, an entire political era, dating back to 1974, appears to be ending.' 'Republican hegemony,' he continues, 'looks like a mirage, no matter how well the Republicans fare in the next elections.' Even the coalition that gave rise to the right-wing ascendancy is in shambles. Wilentz quotes Republican activist Ed Rollins. 'It's gone. 'It doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore.'

Wilentz cites several reasons for national disgust with the politics of right-wing extremism – among them the Iraq war, Katrina, the Terri Schiavo case, and Congressional corruption under the regime of Tom Delay. This is only part of the explanation, however, as he notes. The ideological and political drift away from right-wing extremism actually started a decade before, during the height of the Republican Party's greatest electoral success. Wilentz continues, 'American voters have actually been moving leftward since the mid-1990s ...The political tide began shifting in 1995, when Gingrich lost the battle over the government shutdowns.'

Great consideration in understanding this process also has to be given to economic factors, particularly the 2001 recession, the jobless recovery and wage stagnation. Add to this the economic hardship and anxiety caused by the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the soaring cost of gas, and a clearer picture of the reasons for the country's move away from the right begins to emerge.

Indeed, mass rejection of the right came forward to such an extent in 2006 that the mid-term congressional elections saw a complete reversal of Democratic fortunes, with the recapturing of both the House and Senate. More importantly, the new grassroots politics was beginning to make itself felt on the floors of Congress, in the form of the struggle to end the war in Iraq, defend the environment, win a living wage, further women's equality, and more. As Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in The Nation, 'this kind of politics is not about the next election ... it is about people coming up for air and getting something done that has a chance to get done.'

Added to this list are significant movement towards passing the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act, along with single-payer national health care, as represented by H.R. 676 and other legislation.

Leftward trends

Just as important, however, is an ideological shift that had been taking place 'below the radar” for some time. In fact, it is arguable that the much vaunted 'shift to the right' never occurred at all among the working class and poor, but was rather a feature of the upper-middle class and rich. Even here, however, as polling data on race relations and other attitudes suggest, great strides have been made away from backward right-wing thinking. Any doubts people may have had on this score were brilliantly cast away by voters across the country in this year's Democratic primaries. In addition, as many have noted on issue after issue, the debate in the 2008 contest has shifted to the left in comparison with previous contests. Today, climate change, health care, ending the war, and union-organizing rights are driving the debate. Most important, however, is an almost universal disgust with the excesses of Republican extremism.

No greater example of this is the shift in majority thinking on the issues of race, gender, and LGBT equality. In the summer of 2008, for example, what can only be considered an overwhelming majority of Americans is ready to accept the idea of an African American president. A Washington Post news story put it this way: At the same time, there is an overwhelming public openness to the idea of electing an African American to the presidency. In a Post-ABC News poll last month, nearly nine in 10 whites said they would be comfortable with a Black president. While fewer whites, about two-thirds, said they would be 'entirely comfortable' with it, that was more than double the percentage of all adults who said they would be so at ease with someone entering office for the first time at age 72, which McCain (R-Ariz.) would do should he prevail in November. The Post also queried respondents about perceptions of the state of race relations: Overall, 51 percent call the current state of race relations 'excellent' or 'good,' about the same as said so five years ago. That is a relative thaw from more negative ratings in the 1990s, but the gap between whites and Blacks on the issue is now the widest it has been in polls dating to early 1992. Public dismay with Republican policy has grown to such an extent that according to recent polls a whopping 80 percent think the country is moving in the wrong direction. While Bush ranks miserably in the poll as well, with an approval rating near his all-time low at 29 percent, the American people are also unhappy with Congress, giving it an approval rating of only 23 percent.

Such profound changes in thought patterns also reflect a movement in party affiliation. Time magazine, for example, recently pointed out that when asked about party affiliation, '37 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 23 percent said they were Republicans, and 23 percent said they were independents.' Trailing by 14 points behind self-identified Democratic voters, Republicans face tough going in November, pointing again not only to a Democratic victory for the presidency, but also continuing big gains in Congress.

In this regard, E. J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post that Obama should be strongly favored because of his support from independent voters, as well as the partisan advantage of Democrats. Polls show “Obama enjoyed a seven-point advantage among independents, but Gallup noted that even if independents were excluded from the analysis, Obama still had a five-point lead because Democrats now outnumber Republicans 37 percent to 28 percent. When independents are asked their partisan leanings, the Democratic advantage reaches 13 points.”

There is also strong 'evidence for a realignment in a steady move of middle-income voters toward the Democrats,' partly in response to 'the pain of the Bush economy,' he wrote.

Other signs of a party shift include the NBC/Journal poll's finding that 'voters preferred a Democratic Congress to a Republican Congress, 52 percent to 33 percent, even though 79 percent disapprove of Congress itself.'

This bodes well for increasing the Democrats' razor-thin majority in the Senate. The Nation's John Nichols reports that 'Party insiders say that if the Republicans only lose three seats, they will be doing well.' Nichols estimated that Senate seats in New Hampshire, Colorado, and New Mexico 'are looking like increasingly easy pick-ups for Democrats.' Virginia is also a strong possibility for a Democratic victory this fall.

Added to this, according to Newsweek's Michael Hersh, is that Obama is stronger at this point in the election than Democrats in previous elections. 'Obama is running much stronger at this point in the race than his two most recent Democratic predecessors, Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore, who both failed in their bids to win the White House,' writes Hersh. Kerry and Gore held slight advantages or were even with George W. Bush at this stage.

Independent realignments

It is for this reason that the Obama campaign is pursuing a 50-state strategy. First postulated by Democratic National Committee Chair, Howard Dean, the 50-state strategy seems to have at least 3 goals in mind: to put in play states traditionally in the Republican column; to force the opposition to spend money it doesn't have; and to assist anti-rightwing forces running in Congressional races. Newsweek's Michael Hersh writes:

“Pennsylvania's governor, Ed Rendell, who won his state for Hillary Clinton but now backs Obama, suggests the 50-state approach is more like the arms race with the Soviets than a presidential-campaign strategy.” There's something to be said for “ making sure the other side spends resources to defend areas that they don't normally spend resources in,' he said.

But the House and Senate races also lie in the background, Newsweek reported. The 50-state strategy could help win crucial congressional victories and strengthen an Obama administration. 'While we might not win Wyoming, there's a very important congressional seat that the [Democratic] candidate lost by 1,200 votes in '06,' Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy national campaign director, told Newsweek. 'What can we do in '08 to help [the Democrat]? Can we register new voters, or increase the number of Democratic voters who turn out? Can we use our volunteers that are motivated by Barack Obama to help him? We don't have great expectations that we can win everywhere. But we “ might help elect members to Congress. And they might help pass universal health care and bring the troops home from Iraq.'

Here, too, lies the reason behind Obama's decision to opt out of public financing for the November contest. With a huge fundraising machine of 1.5 million donors, much of which is outside of the Democratic Party machine, Obama will have the financial muscle to win a landslide and a governing majority in Congress. To this end, the Democratic nominee is aggressively fielding a national operation that is both inside and outside of the Democratic Party and that is using traditional and innovative campaigning techniques.

Massive voter registration and 'micro-targeting,' according to the New York Times, are at the top of the list. Micro-targeting uses 'focus groups, magazine subscription lists and census studies, the first steps toward an intensive door-to-door drive' along with 'messages tailored to their interests through mail, e-mail and word of mouth.'

As of this writing, Obama leads in key western states that were former Republican strongholds but now boast Democratic governors. He leads as well in the crucial “battleground states” of the mid-West. It should be noted however that polling so early out rarely is indicative of the November outcome. A lot could still change.

21st century campaign

At the center of the Obama campaign's national strategy will be an all-out effort to expand what worked in the primaries: continuing to build the movement for unity, hope and change, while building its independent base. How will they do it? Why, 'It's the networks, stupid,' according to Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's on-line presidential effort in 2004. Trippi, in a written response to a June Google panel discussion on the election campaign suggested a completely new era is afoot in presidential politics. The reason? The multi-platform power of the Internet. Trippi pointed to three unprecedented developments to make his point.

First, the explosion in the number of bloggers in four years from 1.4 million to 77 million today. Second, the role of independent initiatives by citizen bloggers. One of for example, independent of the Obama campaign, created a Million-for-Obama social website that gathered, in just a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of members. Third, the geometric growth in the number of broadband connections. The combined result of these processes, Trippi suggested is that the US is on the verge of the first “interactive presidency,” where the new president will use the vehicle of on-line organizing, not only to get elected, but to mobilize a grass-roots, on-line community of millions to get his legislative program implemented – in other words, to get people active in the process of governing.

Most people may see the Internet as a means of communication. The Google panelists, who comprised the on-line directors for many of the Democratic and Republican candidates, rubbed that notion into the dirt. Peter Daou, who worked with the Clinton campaign, spoke of the Internet as having three basic aspects: fund raising, organizing and communications. Another panelist, Mindy Finn, who worked for Mitt Romney, summarized it nicely as message, money and mobilization.

Daou spoke directly to the issue of message, claiming that the interaction between traditional and new media forms has created a dynamic new 24-hour 'chattering stream', or interactive loop of information. The agenda-setting role of traditional media, he said, is gone. Now, he suggested, controlling the flow of the 'chattering stream' is key to winning elections. 'The candidate who controls the stream is the victor,' he added.

Joe Rospers, who heads the Obama campaign's online work, pointed to the huge importance of organizing interactive networks around the three principal pillars of the Obama campaign. With 1 million participants on the Obama campaign website and another 1.5 million donors, the campaign has managed through social networks to:

1) Build campaign constituencies in tens of thousands of communities;

2) Bring those people into electoral activity during the primaries; and

3) Involve them in several dimensions of the campaign's organizing, fund raising, and communication activities.

The Obama campaign has managed to leverage networks of supporters in order to build relationships between different groups, allowing them to reach out and get their friends involved. One example of this is getting first-time contributors to agree to give a second or third time on the promise that they will get matching pledges from another first-time contributor. They then communicate with that person, sending them messages through the site or directly via e-mail, thereby building relationships and building the movement.

Richard Cohen, writing in the New York Times, stressed just these issues: 'More than any other factor, it has been Barack Obama' grasp of the central place of Internet-driven social networking that has propelled his campaign for the Democratic nomination into a seemingly unassailable lead over Hillary Clinton.'

Obama, says Cohen, has a sense of history and of the moment: 'He could not have achieved this without a sense of history, a conviction that the nature of the-post-9/11 world – the one beyond war without end – is going to be determined by sociability and connectivity. In the globalized world of MySpace, LinkedIn and the rest, sociability is a force as strong as sovereignty.'

With the coming together of politics, ideology, culture, communication, video, and audio in a single interactive platform, the decision-making process itself is changing. Politics has entered a new stage. Sociability and connectivity are empowering working-class citizen-activists in ways unheard of a few years ago. Today independent politics has taken on a new and unprecedented form. Indeed, the essence of this new grassroots movement is political independence. This more than any other factor is what defeated the Clinton Democratic party machine and led to freshman senator from Chicago's unprecedented victory.

In the 2008 election, the man has met the moment and is helping create a new movement. Obama has raised the bar on campaigning in the 21st century, and any political party aiming to build a movement, make lasting change and achieve electoral majorities must come to grips with how he did it and carefully reexamine its own methods and activities. The future begins in November!

--Joe Sims is publisher of Political Affairs. Send your letters to the editor to