One of the organisations that has best utilised the Dean (and now Obama) campaigning lessons on using the internet and mobilising activists has been Avaaz.org. As their website states, they are “a new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want. “
They have produced a short video clip which explains the importance of the election to the rest of the world, and why people around the globe like America and want it to play a positive role in world affairs / issues.
When I initially received an email about the video and the accompanying petition, I was sceptical about how this ad might be perceived in the US. Another ‘Guardian letter-writing in Cook County, Ohio’ episode was my first thought. But I am more reassured having read the email fully and seen this explanation Avaaz offers:
US Avaaz members have asked for this help. The ad doesn’t tell people who to vote for, but its overriding message of tolerance, diplomacy, human rights and equality is unmistakable. If the ad hits the media airwaves, it will reach the nation’s undecided voters just as they are starting to tune in, and are determining which issues will underpin their vote.
I am yet to be convinced that their idea – of making it a global youtube hit that the US media will report on and a million or more American voters will watch – will actually work. I hope it does, and I’ve signed the petition too. But the video does make the case more eloquently and visually appealing than I could ever do about non-Americans’ motivations for taking an interest in these elections and the hope for a better relationship with the US ahead.
A year ago – October 2007 – I was in Zambia for a British Council-run leadership course involving 200 people from across Africa. Barack Obama was a hot topic of conversation even then. I wanted to take the opportunity a year on to email my African friends and let them know my experiences of supporting Obama and where that journey has taken me. So on the plane over from London to Denver, I composed my thoughts. Below is an edited version of that letter. It is not the full answer to the “what drives you?”, “why are you so interested in this election?”, “why do you support Obama?” questions I am often asked, on both sides of the pond. But hopefully it goes some way to explaining some of my passion and motivations.
Dear Interaction friends,
I want to share an exciting story with you: one which you have helped shape, which involves me being there in the stadium that historic night in August when Barack Obama accepted the nomination, and one which hopefully should culminate on 4th November, with the election of Obama. Inshallah.
Remember back to the ‘African Wall of Greatness’ exercise. One of the 3 bricks I created displayed the cover to Barack Obama’s book ’The Audacity of Hope’. As I explained at the time, I chose it for two reasons: (i) the way that phrase and what it means – the optimism and drive often despite the adversities – to me encapsulates the African spirit; and (ii) Obama himself – his values and politics, and also the positive symbol of achievement that he represents, for America(ns), and for Africa(ns). I recall some positive and quite emotional responses. Given that this was before a vote had even been cast in the primary elections, your knowledge and appreciation of Obama and hope for his victory was impressive; and it brought home to me what his candidacy obviously meant, and the power of that.
And I have taken those sentiments with me, on my Obama journey ever since. I have closely followed every little twist and turn of the election campaign; staying up late at night to watch live on screen the events unfolding, and tracking the conversations and first-hand experiences of activists via websites and blogs. Obama’s speeches, especially the ones during the Primary campaign, were moving and inspirational. It wasn’t just how he delivered them but the actual words; reflecting so much of the values and spirit of ubuntu, community, collective action and leadership that were integral to the Interaction programme.
The other aspect I have so enjoyed and been inspired by has been following, learning about, witnessing in action and finally taking part in the grassroots movement and new technologies that are driving progressive politics and the success of Obama’s campaign. It is humbling to see people get so involved, to see the process of – in Obama’s words – “brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand, we can change the world”. And it also fires me up: both to want to take part, and also to try and apply those lessons to my job and to political activity in the UK in general. To give you but one example from Obama’s campaign: the ‘50 state strategy’. Put simply it is about a commitment to campaigning and organising in every part of America, rather than targeting just a few states that traditionally decide elections. It is about saying to millions ‘your voice, your vote matters’; and that community organising and investment in people is worth it. That means a lot to me.
The more I have been following the Obama campaign, the more I have been fired up by it; wanted to follow it more; be part of it; learn from it; share my passion and learning with others; and be further enthused by people’s response. It’s been a reinforcing cycle that’s meant I have enthusiastically devoted ever increasing amounts of my time and energy to it.
The upshot is that this year I have been living my passion and my dream. Some highlights of that journey:
1) Hosting a ‘Super Tuesday’ party (the biggest election night during the period when the presidential candidates are chosen) . The date happened to fall during Module 3 [of the Interaction course], and so I organised a party in my hotel room and invited all the UK Interaction participants and trainers along. My enthusiasm for Obama was obviously infectious, as 12 of us squeezed into my room from midnight to watch the results and to learn, discuss, eat and drink. It was a case in point of “if you build it, they will come”.
2) Experiencing the atmosphere of the Democratic Convention in Denver. Being part of the ‘Big Tent’ - seeing and learning from the activists and the netroots (bloggers) in action. http://sixfifty.wordpress.com/category/denver-diary/
3) Invesco stadium: Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech. As I wrote at the time: “I was there to witness history being made. I was there to celebrate Obama’s nomination with 80,000 Democrats (and a lot of media). I was there to stand up for change.”
And now …
4) US Elections trip – experiencing and participating in the final ten days of the campaign; hopefully ending up in Chicago – Obama’s hometown – for election night itself. Canvassing (going door-to-door) and volunteering at campaign events en route.
Hey, I’ve arrived as a blogger. This morning I received my first troll comment: a rant with all the usual anti-Obama talking points and Obama myths. You name it, it is there:
(i) Obama not being a natural-born citizen of the US (ii) birth certificate fakery (iii) the anti-American Michelle (iv) Ayers (v) Acorn (vii) pastor (viii) raising taxes (ix) anti-Israel (x) earmarks (xi) Obama never running anything or in charge of a budget.
That last one cracks me up. How many hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of people (staff and volunteers) is Obama ultimately leading during his primary and presidential campaigns?
But the misguided troll then asks “do you trust Obama?” Basic rule that this guy forgot: never close your argument with a question that could be answered it in a way you don’t want. I won’t be approving his comment for publication on this blog, as it is not an attempt to engage with any discussion on this site or respond to any particular post. But I will answer his question for him:
Yes, I trust Obama.
I spent the last week at Labour Party Conference, in Manchester. I proudly wore my Obama buttons - brought enought for a different badge each day – and consequently had lots of conversations about the US elections. I was surprised how many people were asking me “can Obama really do it?” and were pessimistic about his chances. They were simply looking at the polls from the past few weeks, Palin’s bounce for McCain and adding in a dose of British natural cynicism for good measure. And hey suddenly they were downbeat about Obama. Our media was also doing down Obama’s chances too.
So there I was, almost single-handedly I felt, having to reassure and convince Labour people that Obama was still ahead and going to win, albeit in a close election. I guess most people just read a couple of blogs or newsites, see the realclearpolitics tracking figures and take the state of the race at face value. But that is a complete misreading of what is actually going on.
As Bill Clinton didn’t quite say: “it’s the ground game, stupid.” What we don’t see in the polls and focus groups is what’s actually happening on the ground; the mobilising, voter registration, get-out-the-vote efforts; and the changing demographics. All of these favour the Democrats this time, and have been doing all year.
Joe Trippi (Howard Dean’s campaign manager from ’04) describes the electoral significance of this:
“[Obama's] campaign organization should deliver a 1 to 3 points in additional voters to the polls in get-out-the-vote operations in key states the campaign is targeting. So if these states are close in the closing days of the campaign Obama is likely to win most of them.”
Disappointingly many at Labour Conference just didn’t get it, or didn’t believe it, or thought it the wrong tactics. But if we are not into believing in the power of humanity and collective effort; that by talking to and persuading our peers, building a movement ”brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand” (as Obama said in one of his speeches), that is the right thing to do, as well as what can win us the election, then what is the point in being Labour / progressive at all? It’s certainly what helps drive me and makes me optimistic that Obama will win in the end.
Back home in England, two sets of good friends got married today. I chose to be in Denver and with the Democrats at this time, but it still makes me a little sad to be missing these happy occasions and time spent with friends. So mazel tov and I’m thinking of you Danny, and Arry & Keith.
But something does connect these friends, Denver and Obama: Africa. Africans. And the audacity of hope. Arry I first met whilst living in Tanzania; Keith when campaigning on drop the debt and other international social justice issues; and Danny on the British Council’s Interaction leadership programme, which has at its heart the philosophy of ubuntu and the celebration of what’s good from and we can learn from the continent.
Danny and I spent a week in Zambia, attending a conference with 200 community leaders from across Africa. That was back last October, and already the positive support for Obama amongst the delegates there was papable. They were proud of Obama – his Kenyan roots, his dark skin – and they were excited by his message. And the ‘audacity of hope’ that Obama wrote about was very much part of their lives and resonated hugely with them.
That overwhemingly positive reaction continues to this day. Even the Senegalese taxi driver who i just got a lift from this evening enthused about Obama and the opportunities that his presidency might open up – in foreign relations, in community relations, and in the self-worth (and maybe even real-worth) of Africans.
How to prepare for Denver? That’s my challenge. In under a week I’ll be there, following the Convention from my base in the Big Tent. So I’ve watched the West Wing – the final two series all about the post-Bartlet primaries and the general election. You can see the Obama candidacy emerging first on screen, mapping the path to the White House for a political outsider with a funny name and non-white skin who proclaims a message of change and fires up the young people and Democrat activists.
Then I watched the entire run of Commander-in-Chief. A Hillary-vehicle, some cynically said, as it offers us a world with a credible liberal woman as the first female occupant of the White House. The series ends as battle lines are drawn for an election run, so we never know what happens next. Intriguingly, the show not only sympathetically features a black chief-of-staff, but also has him about to take up the post of Vice President. A case of hedging bets before the primary season perhaps?
Now, I’m at the Edinburgh Festival. Along with happily sampling the usual comedy, musical and theatrical fare – and some fantastic live African music – I’m trying to discern if there’s an American election undercurrent around. In past years (this is my 4th Festival in a row) I’ve managed to pick up and follow a theme: one year it was blogging and diaries; another it was constitutional reform (you gotta believe it). I am on the hunt to see if US electoral politics is on the menu. And I don’t just mean anti-Bush rants / jokes. I’m looking for Obama and McCain gags, “Si si peude” chants and November references.
Leafing through the fringe guide, there weren’t nearly as many obvious references to election year as I imagined. Only two shows have it in their titles: Jeff Kreisler ‘08 (an American comedian’s stand-up show taking aim at contemporary political and pop culture); and ‘Tina C – Tick my box‘ (a spoof about a country & western singer running for president). Both have ads in the guide which depict electoral images, like ballot papers or campaign posters.
There were another two shows that focused on politics and elections stateside: ‘The Americans’ (a sketch show from a trio of Comedy Central actors depicting the nation as a once proud family on the verge of collapse); and ‘Queen of Wyoming’ (a musical about the protagonist’s father running for Governor of a Midwestern State). ‘Attack of the Soccer Mums’ sounds like it could be an account of the 1996 election, or even a Obama horror story, with women rising up to support Hillary Clinton, but is no such thing; instead being about over-competitive parents. Another that flatters to deceive in its name is ‘Jaik Campbell – The audacity of hopelessness’ – but full marks to the riff on Obama‘s book title. I wonder how many people here actually get that joke though?
I did however manage to dig up one show that Obama would be proud of. ‘Word-up’ is billed as an insight into the hip-hop generation, dealing with the post-segregation world and the fall out from global economics. That sounds more like the spirit of change.
Two long-running Festival favourites that draw heavily on the elections are ‘News Revue‘ (the satirical look back at the year) whose finale features Bush, Condeleeza, Clinton and Obama in a Bat out of Hell pastiche; and ’Political Animal’, a revolving group of comedians talking and joking about politics nightly.
The legacy of Bush‘s ‘War on Terror’ is perhaps the one issue that has captured the passion and imagination of artists. The Patriot Act (a serious play); ‘The Axis of Awesome’; Jesus: the Guantanamo years; Eco-friendly Jihad all draw inspiration in their titles – if not always their content – from that rich artistic vein.
Iraq may be a lot less prominent that in previous years, but Bush’s chief ally – our very own former PM – still attracts an audience; with two shows about him (Tony of Arabia / Tony! The Blair Musical). He is on a par with Mugabe, who also gets two shows about him: ‘I am Mugabe’ and ‘Requiem to Robert Mugabe’. Compare that to Gordon Brown or John McCain: neither get to be the subject of shows. Neither may get to win an election either.
And so the November election. ‘The Americans’ ends with Obama in the ascendant, but possibly about to be denied victory by someone fixing the election for the Republicans. Only time will tell whether life imitates art in this respect.