I was reading this article in Time about Joe Trippi, the man behind Obama’s online campaign, and one line in particular struck me:
“But while Obama rarely managed a clean win against Clinton in the big states — the ones that will count most in the fall — he kept winning delegates even when he lost primaries. By April, it became almost mathematically impossible for Clinton to catch him.”
Much has been written about how social media catalyzed the grassroots campaign, collecting dollars and votes along the way from a now-widely-connected population. But it seems to me that what crystalized – and tipped – the campaign, was Obama’s ability to win over key individuals as he went from state to state.
John Ralston Saul described in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi how he was flailing against the anti-tax right on a panel years ago and Obama came in and within a few minutes had turned the tide of the entire debate. He *knew* then he had met the first black US president. He didn’t realize Obama was going to be the NEXT president.
That kind of rapid change is noteworthy. And Obama’s kind of charisma is incredible to watch, because it translates across mediums. He sounds great on radio, he appears confident on TV, he is immensely compelling in person. And to boot, he has latched onto social media to promote his message in an unprecedented way.
Can a leader with these gifts translate that power into change at the individual level?
Because that’s what’s needed. As Michael Valpy wrote on the weekend, Lewis Lapham believes that what we’re talking about here is a complete reversal of the contract between the state and society. The US constitution provided checks and balances to prevent government tyranny over society. FDR’s New Deal preached a role for government that would guarantee wages, medical care, freedom from unfair competition etc. And under Reaganomics, as poor Mr. Saul found on his panel, it was all too easy to find people who believed that taxation is unlawful.
But then times get tough and now suddenly it’s hard to find an economist who doesn’t believe the economy needs a jolt of Keynes.
To manifest this kind of change, Obama will need to forge a new social contract. A new relationship between the state and society. Individuals will have to make sacrifices, and the kinds of changes (health care??) that are needed will necessitate a lot of patience.
He has shown he can sway voters. But as Valpy points out, those invididuals who were able to effect mammoth change usually had some help – i.e. things got worse before they got better, and heightened individual resolve.
It’s anyone’s guess right now, but from this historical perspective, it appears to me that we may indeed be looking at the perfect storm of individual charisma and a faltering economy.
But I think there’s a third and important factor in here that is a real wild card, and that is the Internet. Obama used social media to reach out to the grassroots. And while I’m sure that he will continue to use this medium to connect to his constituents, I think there’s a whole other level of change that could happen as the Millenial generation matures and uses the tools that they’ve become so accustomed to, to self-organize, lobby, and effect change.
We’re starting to see organizations such as Visible Government begin to take shape here in Canada. And while I suspect we have a long way to go before we see any type of mass online dialogue between the state and society, I think the seeds (pay parking tickets, renew health cards) are well planted and I’m eager to see them take root.