So, President Obama recently came to Columbus, Ohio, to launch his re-election drive. I was there, with thousands of other Obama supporters, seemingly for hours. We waited for Obama, like minor players readily waiting to receive orders with a snappy “yes, Sir” and to follow them, in whatever minor roles the President and his major players had seen fit to imagine assigning us.
You know… the usual stuff: Register “x” new voters per day (Yes, sir); knock “y” doors per day (Yes, sir); make “z” phone contacts per day (Yes, sir); set up organizational wherewithal to make all the preceding outcomes happen (Yes, sir) In short, the major players tell us what they want us to do to help re-elect our candidate. Then, the nominally higher-up minor players start telling us that how we do it is up to us—which is to say: we are “free” to choose how we go about doing all those things that we through our “Yes, sirs”, indicated our willingness to do.
Please notice that none of the real higher-ups has directed either the voter registrators, or the door knockers, or the phone dialers—not the low-level leaders, and especially not the paid staff, so far as I can tell—to send in from their positions closer to the ground—questions, substantive information, new ideas, different ways of approaching things, contingencies that might develop, potential openings in the opposition’s approach. That is to say, none of the really higher-ups has validated “feedback”. Out here, we are supposed to collect, summarize, report up the chain, and repeat.
As I wrote back in 2008, creating and institutionalizing presidential campaigns as two-way learning organizations could greatly improve both the quality of information asked for and the level of buy-in to our candidate and to his government.
I had given up hope for this idea until literally, just minutes before President Obama walked onto stage in Columbus on May 5th. What changed? The higher-ups opted to show a video of Senator Obama’s recounting the story of the origins of his signature cheer: “Fired Up?… Ready to go.”
In a video shot in Manassas, Virginia on the eve of the 2008 election the now-President recalled a rainy and windy campaign stop in South Carolina, ahead of that state’s 2008 primary. His umbrella had broken, and only thirty people had shown up. Fortunately, one of them was Edith S. Childs, a councilwoman from Greenville, South Carolina. Mr. Obama credits her with starting the chant and for keeping it going for five minutes. Then he divulged: “After a minute or so, ya’ know, I’m feelin’ fired up… and I’m feeling like I’m ready to go!” Then he got to his main point: “It shows you what one voice can do: “One voice can fill up a room… [and eventually] change the world.”
Now, normally, that’s where this feel-good story would end. Ms. Childs would get the credit that she deserves for having a good idea, sensing the opening, converting enthusiasm into energy, and persisting in doing so long enough for Obama to realize the possibilities inherent in what Ms. Childs was doing. And, normally, that would be far enough to take the discussion, particularly because I would sure want to allow her to enjoy the attention; she deserves it.
But, there really is more to the story: it demonstrates, at an extremely small scale (perhaps the scale envisioned by the Framers?), the value of access to power in political life. Ms.Childs drew on her enthusiasm, her strong voice, and her persistence, as well as on Obama’s open–mindedness which later, surely helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize. She drew on those qualities to create one-on-one access to the President of the United States.
Such a remote possibility is this that I have not heard, nor seen anyone consider the comparison. I mean, I haven’t seen any headlines to the effect that “SC woman gains President’s Ear for Free; K-Street Types Demand Assurance of Continued Access for Monied Classes”.
But, look at the benefit that everyday people—the non-monied classes—got from Ms. Childs’ conversation with the President! Obama lead the country to Healthcare Reform! Out of Iraq! Increased Fuel Economy Requirements! Stopped Discrimination against Gays in the Military! And demonstrated the courage of a true leader by avowing Allowing People to Love Whom They Love! For me personally, I most appreciate all that President Obama has done to earn back the regard so many other countries after President Bush 43 et al gave them all the middle-fingered salute! And those accomplishments are just for starters!
Which gets me to two-way learning. Over time, things change. And, governing institutions often fail to keep up. See Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982 or so); also, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robison’s recent Why Nations Fail. The inability of groups to discuss substantive differences civilly portends further troubles in solving problems through anything resembling civil discourse.
We can’t even speak civilly about what those problems are, or how we might go about learning how to discuss our problems civilly. Plus, the US Senate has become an immoveable obstacle to any and every effort to do or to undo any and every effort to change.
Complicating things further is the notion felt widely across the country that the government isn’t listening to them anymore, as if it ever did listen to anyone who wasn’t solidly ensconced among the 1-percenters.
Necessity is sometimes seen as the Mother of Invention, but if that’s so, then it’s primarily because accepting Mother’s change would be less bad than fighting change. That is my primary reason for expanding institutionalized two-way learning that is already available between Government and the 1-percenters to provide similar access by 99-percenters like Edith Childs to their Government. Fired up yet?