Why every party wants to conduct a campaign like Obama's... and why, in the Netherlands, only the SP can

1 March 2010

Why every party wants to conduct a campaign like Obama's... and why, in the Netherlands, only the SP can

On 16th January 2007 Barack Obama, a relatively inexperienced member of the United States Senate, announced via a video on YouTube that he was considering launching a campaign for the Presidency. Obama and his newly-formed team did not for a moment at that time believe that they had a realistic chance of winning. Nevertheless, just two years later he was inaugurated as President of the US. The reason? A unique candidate, with a unique campaign, in a unique political era.

by Kevin Levie

As a relative outsider Obama, after eight years of Bush, fitted seamlessly into the American people's needs. He stood for the need for change, an alternative to the Washington political circuit, and Change We Can Believe In. Campaign leader David Plouffe describes in his book The Audacity to Win (1) how Obama needed above all to win the primaries and other pre-election contests in states such as Iowa and how for that reason they worked on setting up a grassroots campaign. Obama’s past as a community worker in Chicago played an important role, convincing campaign staff to believe in the possibilities for success of a campaign in which in the first instance one-to-one contact with voters and the building of a movement took centre stage. Via the Internet people were given the wherewithal to organise for themselves locally in all fifty states. For the most part it was young people and people who were not normally politically active who contributed to the campaign in their neighbourhoods and towns.

From the very beginning the Internet formed one of the campaign's most important pillars. A strong new media team was formed, with ex-employees of firms such as Google and Facebook. Eventually the Obama campaign would assemble an e-mail list of over 13 million people, each of whom received during the last three months of the campaign more than eighty messages. Millions of text messages concerning important campaign events were sent: the choice of Joe Biden as running mate was, for example, first announced by SMS. On Facebook, meanwhile, Obama counted seven million fans, and on Twitter three million followers. The database of sympathisers and voters was structured, maintained and used for analysis and assessment of results: how many people who were at a certain meeting had later donated money, offered to help, or voted in the primaries?(2)

The campaign organisation produced more than two thousand videos of its own – often with an extremely personal and moving message – while there appeared on the Internet a further 100,000 or more in which people expressed their support for Obama. The campaign's own site MyBarackObama.com became a central point where volunteers could organise, come together with like-minded people or those from their own neighbourhoods, or organise their own fund-raising or telephone campaign. A clear ongoing oversight of the campaign activities in which people could participate was presented via the Internet: from donating or approaching people by telephone, to going door-to-door to speak with people. The Obama campaign raised no less than €665 million, 500 million of it via the Internet – primarily thanks to canvassing by means of personal emails.

The European imitators

Such a dynamic in an election campaign, both online and offline, is something which every politician would like to see. Throughout Europe political parties are currently asking themselves – what can we learn from Obama? How can we organise a similarly enthusiastic community around our ideals and activities, and how can we put to use the potential offered by the Internet in doing so? This year, for example, will see parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. The Observer predicts that these elections will be 'won with blogs and tweets'. The Conservatives, following the example of MyBarackObama, have set up MyConservatives.com, while Labour has on its website a programme through which people, helped by a telephone script on the screen, can phone hesitating voters. The Norwegian social democrats have for some time used MittArbeiderparti.no to organise their house-to-house activities. In the Netherlands many political parties do not as yet appear to have got this far, but in the European election campaign extensive use was made of Twitter, and Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende invited each of his 190,000 'friends' on Dutch social networking site Hyves to his official workplace in The Hague, the Torentje.

So the unique momentum of the Obama campaign is under threat of being reduced to a number of technical novelties, which can be freely deployed in an attempt to win more voters and activists to your cause. What many European politicians don't seem to realise is that the manner in which a campaign is conducted is not unconnected to the campaign's message. Obama's promise of renewal and change supplied an unprecedented enthusiasm for working with his campaign. It is, however, implausible that people would exhibit the same enthusiasm for such 'grassroots' campaigns conducted by parties such as the PvdA (Labour Party) or CDA (Christian Democrats). "Take responsibility" and "explain difficult choices" is definitely not the same as "hope" and "change". The saddest example of such a discrepancy between content and medium was probably the podcast by Christian Democrat Minister Piet Hein Donner a few years ago, which has been described on the Internet as the best sleeping draft you can get without a prescription. Many attempts by established parties to imitate the Obama campaign and make use of the social media are rather a desperate ploy to regain their legitimacy and build anew their contact with the people, more than a logical reinforcement of their message.

The SP is one of the few parties in the Dutch political landscape – probably together with the Green Left and the centrist liberals of D66 – for whom the party's message can in reality find a logical connection with a new campaign dynamic which unfolds in part via the Internet. We have in this respect during the last few years already recorded a certain success: we were for a long time the most admired political website: our ‘viral movies’, such as helpjanff.nl, were watched by 1.7 million Dutch people, around a tenth of the population; and in 2006 Jan Marijnissen was declared the best political weblogger. Many of our initiatives have through the years been imitated by other political parties.

Not only the SP's message, but also our party's ways of working connect logically to the kind of grassroots campaign conducted by Obama. For a number of years the Labour Party in the Netherlands has begun to 'canvass', which they present as something borrowed from the campaigning methods of Obama. But the SP was already 'canvassing' in 1972, referring to it generally as 'going from door to door'. We are the only political party with a tradition of going into the neighbourhoods, listening to people, making people conscious of, and confident in, the possibility of change, and working together with them. Activities on the Internet which are directed at mobilising people and at activism, could be seen as a logical extension of these street-based working methods. That does, of course, require us to realise that the Internet is not simply a classic one-way mass medium useful only for spreading our own message, but that it can also be a way of listening to people's opinions and of organising.

The future of democracy

“People communicate via rapid, short little messages... without any feeling of 'we' our existence becomes empty. This emptiness cannot be filled by virtual meetings; on the contrary, distances are simply made greater." So said Queen Beatrix in her annual Christmas speech last 25th December,. Didn't Beatrix understand that the Internet and social media led precisely to more contact? To renewing old contacts and maintaining contact with family abroad, but also to new exchanges with people whom you would otherwise never come across – contacts which are sometimes fleeting, but sometimes also extremely intensive? The founder of Hyves, which with nine million members is the Netherlands' biggest social networking site, offered Beatrix an account. In her speech the queen made a sound, legitimate point about rampant individualism and the need for a feeling of community and solidarity. But as for the Internet, she had little understanding of it, was the consensus.

Technology leads to possibilities for contact between people, and also to change in the content of communications amongst one another. The politics and the democratic system of the Netherlands are no exception to this. Technology will lead to fundamental changes in the way in which people organise themselves and become involved in their society – even if no-one as yet knows how this change will pan out precisely and people differ over the tempo at which it will proceed. That it remains a fact that not everyone is politically active and involved through the Internet has increasingly less to do with lack of knowledge of the Internet and more with the same mechanisms which play a role in the real world: lack of time, indifference, distrust, and the idea that politicians 'in any case only do what they want to do'. The SP has a tradition of breaking through these mechanisms and can also play a part in breaking through them on the Internet.

Learning from Obama

In America, criticism of Obama is on the rise. This is not only because of the content of his policies, but also because he has made insufficient use of the social movement which came into being in his campaign as a basis for carrying through fundamental change in the country. The Democratic Party has, it's true, tried, with Organizing for America, to encourage people to campaign for a better system of health care; but in reality, too little consideration is given to handing the power and resources to the people. “I've always thought that the idea of Obama as grassroots champion was more myth than reality... but I also thought it was a useful myth because it generated rising expectations.....not only in what Obama might do if elected president, but also in what anyone might do today using their greatly enhanced powers to communicate and collaborate around common causes," writes Internet democracy expert Micah Sifry. But when Obama was elected, the volunteers turned out to be no longer necessary. Campaign leader Plouffe, Sifry argues, wasn't really interested in grass-roots empowerment, he was in the end more interested in building voter support. (3)

The American political situation is not comparable with that in the Netherlands. Dutch politics is not about polarisation between two big parties, and is to a much lesser extent characterised by a cycle by which every four years large groups of people commit themselves in the short term to campaigning for a single candidate or goal. It is nevertheless possible to take inspiration from many matters raised by Obama in his campaign. We should not, however, unthinkingly emulate his Internet novelties. Even had it been merely the technical possibilities which enabled Obama to win in 2008, in 2010 these are already old-fashioned. The SP is one of the few parties which, both at election times and outside them, really believes in organising people at the grassroots. And this we will continue to do - online and offline.

(1) David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory, Viking Adult 2009
(2)The reports Online Tactics for Success and Learning from Obama go into more details about these matters.
(3) Micah L. Sifry, "The Obama Disconnect: What Happens When Myth Meets Reality" December 31, 2009

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