lessons from America

Denver Diary – Mon 25 Aug

“This November again the torch will be passed to a new generation of Americans.”  Wow. Deep intake of breath time.  There could only be one man alive who could so meaningfully invoke JFK’s famous image, and that man is Senator Edward Kennedy. Here in Denver tonight we have witnessed something special in terms of Democratic history, dynasty and symbolism.

But first back to the beginning of the day. I walked down 16th Street Mall and here are some of the sights and merchandise I passed, including that infamous Obama action doll.




And so to the Big Tent. 


Here are some views of the hive of activity, networking and blogging that is the ground floor:


People I chatted to today included the official Maine State blogger and a precinct captain from Pasedena, California.


I also attended several sessions upstairs at the Digg Stage.  A veritable who’s who of progressive politics and community-building, including Markos, Arianna Huffington, John Podesta et al.  Surprisngly, these events weren’t as well attended as I expected and that they merited.


Away from the hall, I did a radio interview with a New York progressive radio station WBAI 99.5FM.  They have a news show called ‘Building Bridges’ and they asked me to give a UK perspective on the Convention so far and on my impressions of the US progressive movement.  I was on with two other bloggers / non-profit campaigners and the entire thing lasted 20 mins.

Then it was back to the Tent for dinner and following the coverage of the opening night of the Convention. Teddy Kennedy’s speech was so emotional.  The crowd in the Big Tent was applauding and shouting.  The crowd in the Convention Hall (on screen sadly) went just wild.  Senator Edward Kennedy’s live appearance and speech was powerful stuff, full of poignancy and meaning.  He even promised he’ll be on the Senate floor come January. 

Michelle Obama tugged at different heartstrings. Sitting in front of me in the Big Tent three Chicago natives whooped it up at her entrance.  There were big cheers when Michelle mentioned (and praised) Hillary – the “18 million cracks on the glass ceiling”.  Someone pipped up “that’ll be the only story tonight … she mentioned Hillary”.  Cue lots of laughs.  It got qute buzzy; the speech went down very well, aided probably by the free beers at the Big Tent. And with a crescendo of phrases that echoed her husband’s soaring rhetoric and campaign messages she ended her speech … and the screams and applause continued for a quite a while.


The humanising of Barack, projecting him as an ordinary guy for those people who still see him as elitist and out-of-touch, then went into absolute overdrive. Immediately after Michelle’s speech you had a live video link up with Barack.  Michelle and the kids on stage, Barack on the screen.  Sasha and Malia talking to their dad, we all went “ahh, that is so sweet” and laughed and cooed and cheered. It seemed so natural, so happy families, so cheesy, apple-pie ‘American’.  It was a winner here in the Tent.  It seems to be a winner on the blogs. And I reckon it is likely a vote winner more widely; a step towards that goal of the Obama’s becoming the First family. 

Back to my evening. I finally made it out of the Tent and back to my host’s watering hole, the champagne bar where Tyler works.  The alcohol flowed into our glasses and beautiful people flowed through the door.  But politics wasn’t entirely absent …



August 26, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Denver Diary – Sun 24 Aug

Up in the Rocky mountains for me today.  Breckenridge, Loveland and a few scenic stops en route.  Went with Hunter, my Denver flatmate / host, and his girlfriend Jordi.  Altitude sickness didn’t hit me too bad and it was a lovely day.


In the evening I made my way to the Young Democrats party, in a club just south of the capitol building.  Lively event certainly.  I met a fellow Big Tent-er, and some local journalists.  One was covering the Colorado delegation and said that they were not looking forward to the protests starting tomorrow.  One of their number was going to meet with the protestors and the journo was going to go along too, with seeming trepidation.

I ended up hanging out with a couple of locals. I say locals, but they were East Coast girls who had moved to the Denver area within the past year. Not political at all, but just really excited by the range of people coming into town and the oomph and diversity of the Democrat crowd.  Inevitably, they were starting to be caught up in the Obama infectiousness and so I wouldn’t be surprised if they voted Democrat come the Fall. 

Just as I left the club, a team of artists were plastering a nearby wall with the iconic Obama ‘hope’ posters.  Cue a queue for photo opportunities, which I duly got sucked into.


August 25, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two academic responses

Here are two well-considered responses to my previous post: my report and opinion on David Lammy’s speech on lessons from America.

1) Sunder Katwala – Fabian Society

Malcolm, A good analysis of the speech. My own (unofficial!) reading of this was that the critique you are looking for was implicit in what Lammy had to say about the difficulties of defining yourself negatively and the politics of managerialism and the need to connect with and mobilise broader movements. The shortcomings of micro-targetting are quite close to that.

If he was unwilling to spell it out, I felt that it had perhaps as much to do with his several times steering a bit clear of questions asking him to discuss or predict anything about the US general election battle between the parties (as opposed to the lessons of the primaries), and perhaps feeling the question fell into that category. He was somewhat scrupulous in noting that he had to observe the formalities of government neutrality about the race. (He was rather imaginative in finding quite so many ways to make his argument about lessons from Obama AND McCain, although his personal support for Obama is hardly a secret and was pretty clear despite his observing the letter of the diplomatic code).

On the other hand, I think he wanted to place the emphasis on changing the culture of our politics: I guess that he may perhaps be sceptical as to whether and how far institutional reform necessarily brings about a cultural shift. So you will have to try to work on him to make the link – but he’s clearly opening up a debate that we need about the culture of our politics.

2) Nick Anstead -doctoral student, Royal Holloway University

Malcolm, many thanks for name checking my comment. In the seminar, I was really responding to a point made by a previous speaker, which seemed to be implying that what is happening in the US in 2008 is analagous to Labour’s 1997 successes in the UK. I don’t think it is. The British events fit into the classic single election cycle, personality driven upsurge. Furthermore, it only partially and briefly offset a long term trend – reflected in both declining partisanship and membership. In the contrast, the 2008 seems to be part of a much more significant civic upsurge in the US.
But I have to confess that I think you are wrong about David Lammy – for my money, he entirely gets the key elements of this issue, what is driving it and offers good ideas on how to harness it. I also think your focus on the fifty-state strategy is actually misplaced. I would volunteer a number of reasons as to why.
Firstly, I am yet to be convinced that it is more than a rhetorical device. There certainly seems to be precious little data out there which proves a big shift in the spending priorities among Democrats. The DNC took on a some field activists and sent them off across the country, and then flagged it as a big triumph for 50-statism, but I’ve not seen any data which indicates changes in the bulk of their election expenditure has been shifting. Furthermore, the DNC accounts for a tiny proportion of Democratic expenditure – the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees, as well as (obviously) campaigns, are huge spenders. I have recently been doing some interviews for research purposes with activists and professionals who have managed campaigns at the congressional level, and they assure me that the single most important factor in deciding whether you win is if you manage to gain support from the DNC or the DCCC. In order to get this support, candidates have to show viability in the early stages of the campaign (they do this through both opinion polls and fundraising). If you get party support, you are in a strong position, if you don’t you are fatally weak. So there is clearly still massive targetting of resources going on.
Obama’s campaign has also (I think mistakenly) linked with the fifty-state strategy. There are two reasons for this. Firstly due to how he won the primary competition. While Obama’s geographic coalition was broad, what he actually ran was a small state strategy, using big wins in small states to offset small loses in large states. Make not mistakes: Obama’s primary strategy was wholly about winning the nomination, and he took what was essentially the only route open to him. Secondly, there is a belief that Obama might reshape the general election map and bring more states into play. Possibly – it is really too early to say yet. He is certainly looking at a large playing field. But let’s also keep things in perspective. Obama’s campaign have just taken out it first ad buy, which encompasses twelve states, not fifty (rather than the normal six). In part this is because he can afford to, and in part it is because he looks weak in some traditional swingers (i.e. Florida) and needs to bring other states (North Carolina and Virginia) into play. I also suspect the field will contract as we move towards November.
But let’s assume that the fifty-state strategy does amount to a significant change. Should it be something that British parties seek to emulate? I’m still not sure. I think you make the mistake of assuming that the fifty-state strategy is causing change and re-engaging activists. Might it not equally be argued that it is a sypmtom of other changes that are occurring? The Democratic Party is in the ascenency, its fundraising is good (although interestingly the DNC is the exception to this rule – their fundraising is actually relatively poor at the moment), the GOP and President Bush are very unpopular, and the US is on the verge of recession. If strategy is generated by circumstances, then we have a problem. The Democrats are in a huge position of strength, and have a groundswell of support with which to work with. With the best will in the world, Labour is not. That, necesserily, has impacts on the strategies a party is able to adopt. Labour’s finances alone would seem to be a very high barrier to funnelling resources into seats which are, in the short term, unwinnable.
And finally, I also think that comparing states with constituencies is a flawed analogy. The obvious difference is size. A more appropriate analogy in this sense is the congressional district – and there is no way that either the Democrats or the GOP are active in every Congressional Distict. But more importantly, states, unlike any political sub-unit in the UK (even the devolved assemblies) are stupendiously self-contained and powerful – they control taxes, gun legislation, the death penalty and other huge issues. They are not just unitary political prizes, but contain multiple centres of power and genuine internal political competition. For this reason, they also have their own party systems. It might even be argued that the Democratic Party isn’t one party but fifty stuck together. This changes the behaviour of voters too, who have are culturally comfortable with “ticket splitting” – that is voting for different parties for different offices. This creates a level of flexability in the system which almost always makes some form of state level competition a worthwhile activity. In contrast, in the UK, our political discourse is so focused on the unitary authority of Westminster, people almost always use their vote, in any election, to make a point about national politics. There is little scope for regional, much less constituency parties, to run independent campaigns. Without this, it is hard to imagine a fifty-state style strategy working. Whereas Vermont and Texas Democrats, for example, are able to offer a radically different plaform to appeal to their respective constituencies, it is very hard to imagine who Labour would balance the competing political ideals of the North East and South East.
This isn’t to suggest that active parties aren’t a good thing. Far from it. But I can’t help feeling that any attempt to impose an alien political strategy, derived in very different circumstances would be a mistake. And more than that, I think it might actually engender exactly the wrong ideas about campaigning at a crucial moment. Any kind of central dictate (we will campaign everywhere and distribute resources accordingly) builds the idea that campaigning is something that comes from Washington / London. I would much rather see an organic growth in campaigning, fuelled by grassroots activism and decision making. I might be active at the next general election, but you can get your life I will get on a train and go to a marginal constituency to work. People will vote with their feet and we should trust them to do so. What Labour should be doing is opening up its institutions and lowering barrier to participation, and then trusting supporters to decide how resources are distributed.

August 24, 2008 Posted by | 50 State strategy, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment