Politics

[The view from the left]

What do we change now?

With Barack Obama triumphant, his grassroots movement works to keep the momentum going

Image
September 6, 2007 - Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama speaks to supporters during a rally at the Doolittle Community Center.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Dogs For Obama! (495 Members)

Dogs (and dog lovers, too) for Barack Obama!!! Welcome Labradors, Weimaraners, Retrievers, German Sheps!! Welcome Beagles, Terriers, Bulldogs, mutts, welcome all!! Dogs for Obama Unite!My.barackobama.com

There’s genuine joy in the voice of Clark County Democrats spokeswoman Erin Bilbray-Kohn when she characterizes the Obama movement: “It’s like JFK proportions.”

The charisma, the leadership, the sense of connection with the people, the hope—the skinny senator from Chicago rocked the worlds of a bunch of people who were previously given to distrust and apathy, disenfranchisement and doubt. Now, having cannon-balled into the vat of Kool-Aid and washed themselves free of irony and shruggishness, Obama’s fans and volunteers aren’t ready to quit. In fact, they’re exhilarated. They’re high. They’re wildly aware that they’ve got something bigger than a single presidential campaign going here—they’ve got a network of 10 million people who are itching to do something more. But what?

As The Onion recently quipped, if someone were to come along with “a catchphrase as simple and vapid as ‘Yes we can,’ they would have an entire army of extremely energetic, insufferably annoying, mindless pawns at their command.”

Already this diverse collection of supporters has been the subject of power wars, as reported in this LA Times article on November 13:

Vast Obama network becomes a political football

Some Obama advisors want to blend his campaign operation with the Democratic National Committee. Others worry that such a move could cause the grass-roots organization to unravel.

It is the biggest and broadest American political force ever created—a vast, electronically linked network of activists, neighborhood organizers and volunteers who raised record amounts of money and propelled Obama to the White House.

Now, as Obama turns from campaigning to governing, his advisors are struggling to harness this potent web of supporters to help him move his agenda over the next four years.

It’s a network that reaches around the globe—the Netherlands has a volunteer group on My.barackobama.com; so does China. Here in Clark County, the volunteers who made thousands of campaign phone calls and pounded on doors are still meeting, still pumping each other up, still determined to make the world a better place.

Last week a bunch of Democrats met in the Clark County Commission chambers for a post-election regrouping.

“I think the biggest result we saw is that Obama supporters still want to be engaged,” says Bilbray-Kohn, who has worked in local Democratic politics for more than 20 years. “The election is over, and you think they’d d be tired, but they’re not. I’ve never experienced this before …”

Bilbray-Kohn says the challenge is to come up with a game plan that can be quickly implemented so as not to lose momentum.

“Our next focus is municipal races in the spring. People are still doing house parties and meetings,” she says. “A few years ago people were apathetic, and people are now engaged, and you don’t want to lose that.”

Bilbray-Kohn says that, so far, a few working groups have emerged: a Green (environmental) Team, a Translation Team; an Art Caucus; and a group called Democrats Care, which collects food donations for homeless families.

“That is all a direct result of having the Obama network engaged,” Bilbray-Kohn says. “Obama gets 85 percent of the credit because he’s so charismatic.”

1st Volunteers, now Friends! (143 members)

Any reason to keep these good feelings of accomplishment for all of us to share with others, is a good reason to do this over and over. Did you feel a void or a little letdown after a day or two, after the election? WE DID IT!!! ....

–my.barackobama.com

Entering My.barackobama.com is like delving into an entire Facebook network devoted somehow both to democracy and to one man unanimously. It’s a social site designed much like Facebook, with a dashboard and personal blogs along with events and groups—all related to Obama: Nurses for Obama, Hunters for Obama, Veterans for Obama, Henderson Nevada for Obama, Pro-Obama Dungeons and Dragons Crowd, Anime Fans for Obama.

It becomes quickly apparent that not only did something huge happen for the nation this fall, but a lot also happened in the lives of innumerable individuals.

What’s more, the groups are still meeting, the bloggers are still blogging, commenters are commenting on the latest speech or appointment or plan. Just because Obama is now the president-elect doesn’t mean the Obama movement is over.

Barack Obama, 2008, INVESCO Field.

Barack Obama, 2008, INVESCO Field.

Diane Butner, a volunteer who is hosting an Obama network event later this month for Las Vegas Artists For Obama!, explains, “I was never involved in politics before. I never dreamt that I would’ve been involved. But he’s just a fresh approach to politics, mainly.

“A friend turned me on to it,” Butner continues. “The more I learned about him, the more I liked him. ... And it’s such a horrible time, a crazy world situation. Something needs to be done.”

Butner is an events designer at MGM Mirage, and says her heart is in education and the arts. In the network, she is also linked to the Obama Music and Arts File Sharing Project, where Obama people are encouraged to submit their works in music, film and poetry, as well as share files. For example, here’s some of the lyrics to a song by Rachelle Cano posted on that group’s my.barackobama.com space:

Peace, Hope, Prosperity

Let’s leave this country what it’s been / A field of hopes and dreams for men and women / To fulfill their destinies / We should respect each other’s dreams

Peace, Hope, Prosperity

There’s no room for disbelief / We must believe that we can make a change / One that can save humanity / We should respect the future’s dreams

CHANT OUT WE BELIEVE IN HIM YES, OBAMA CAN, ALL TOGETHER, WE CAN MAKE A CHANGE, YES WE CAN, YES WE CAN, YES WE CAN...

At Butner’s meeting on December 13, they’ll go over “[Obama’s] policies and ideas and hone in on difficult areas in our communities ... They [Obama reps] asked us to brainstorm on ways to bring attention to the organization.”

Enthusiasm bubbles up in her voice as she speaks. “I think it’s important to have more beautiful and wonderful things in life, and I think he believes that—” Then she laughs at her own zeal: “It’s almost weird and Moonie-like.”

R.E.M. FANS For Barack Obama

A Group For R.E.M. Fans to Congregate to Support Barack Obama (19 members)

With the aid of R.E.M. fans around the world, I would hope that this site can become a focal point for encouraging an appreciation for Barack Obama as well as supporting efforts in trying to get him elected. Along with my current website (Remring.com), I hope to find like-minded fans that would be interested in hosting events, raising money or just being supportive for Barack Obama.

–my.barackobama.com

Gabriela Baca, 22, went to work on the Obama staff fresh after her graduation from Georgetown. A Valley High graduate, she returned to Vegas this fall and has stayed in the network now even after her paid position has ended. She’s also set to host a house party in mid-December.

“As a young high-schooler, I was hoping someone would get to the heart of what I cared about, and that became Barack Obama,” she says. “It made sense. A lot of my generation is really realizing the potential they have, and it takes something larger than themselves to get that started.

“It has to do with who he is: his background, transferring schools, his struggles with identity—a lot of young voters can relate to it. They know a little about that.”

Even though she’s had an interest in politics since 9/11, she sees the Obama movement as something enormous to the younger generations: “It’s remarkable to see,” she says. While working for the campaign she mobilized a group of students at Rancho High, who, she said, turned out weekly for Obama meetings even though the majority weren’t old enough to vote. They were there for two reasons. “No. 1, ‘I want to make a difference,’” she says, “and No. 2, they’d share a personal story: ‘I want to go to college, and I want a president who talks about giving me opportunity to fulfill my dreams.’.”

Now that he’s elected, they’re still interested in politics. “Well, what’s next?” says Baca. “That’s the question now. How can we keep this going? “

“I’m going to do what I can to keep my network strong. I’ll talk about his policies and his picks [for cabinet] and wait for the campaign [to advise what to do next].”

South Park Fans for Obama (260 members)

Some people display South Park characters in their Obama profiles instead of photos of themselves, so join South Park Fans for Obama if you love Barack Obama and if you enjoy the South Park spin on your world. South Park is an American animated television comedy series about four third/fourth-grade school boys who live in the small, backward mountain town of South Park, Colorado. ... The show is well known for its handling of current events and its pop-culture parody.

–my.barackobama.com

I have a savvy, smart, previously politically disinterested friend who suddenly hung a framed Obama picture in her living room, unironically. It shocks me a little. It makes me think. A lot of people have invested a lot of emotional capital in this—not just time and sweat, which may be easier to give up than the comfort of believing in nothing.

So I ask Baca whether instilling earnest hope into so many formerly cynical people would, while improving the whole world, ruin irony. Whether it would end the reign of sarcasm and drastically alter pop culture’s perma-snark. Whether our bitter breed of politics and humor is doomed. After all, irony—the cynical recognition of the distance between what we’re told is the truth and what we see is the truth—has been a political and cultural survival tool for a long time.

Baca smartly walks right over that question, responding with a larger message of hope and earnestness.

“I think now we’re very focused on the issues. He’s been the greatest agent for change. As he said in his acceptance speech, this is just the beginning. ... I’m confident that we’ve laid down a good ground game.”

But I’m not the only one wondering along these lines. Recently, the New York Times gave a rash of crap to Joan Didion for suggesting as much. Writer Andy Newman retorted in the November 23 Times:

Pity poor irony. Declared dead after 9/11, it staged a strong rally beneath a “Mission Accomplished” banner, only to find itself in mortal danger once again.

Its ill health was noted by, among others, no less an ironist than Joan Didion, the nation’s poet laureate of disillusion. The week after the election, in a talk at the New York Public Library, Ms. Didion lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama had become an “irony-free zone,” a vast Kool-Aid tank where “naïveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in” and where “innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.”

...But are ironic sensibilities like Ms. Didion’s—the detachment of mind, the appreciation of the folly of taking things at face value—really disappearing? ...

... The Onion... seems to be having trouble finding its bearings, too. Even a gentle, somewhat toothless Nov. 11 article, “International Con Man Barack Obama Leaves U.S. With $85 Million in Campaign Fund-Raising,” drew criticism on discussion boards for feeding into stereotypes about blacks, said The Onion’s editor, Joe Randazzo.

“After eight years of the Bush administration, where irony was almost a measure of desperation—maybe now that people have seen something happen they never thought possible, their sarcasm processors have kind of gone into shock,” he said.

So I ask Baca the other side of the irony question, which is, to me, “What if he fails?”

Will the hopes of this devoted group, which has achieved a miraculous salvation from not caring, be doubly crushed? Will their good intentions turn super-sour? Will we spiral into the worst case of despair ever?

“No,” she says. “I think it [the network] will operate independently of him and who he is. We managed to get people more attuned to the issues …”

Then she refers to the latest Obama verbiage, delivered in his interview with Barbara Walters, in which he seemed calm and capable and perfectly realistic.

“He said it himself,” Baca says. “He won’t be able to create miracles.”

Humorists and Satirists for Obama in Spite of Obama (41 members)

A group for artists and writers of wit, pith and cynicism who really, really like Barack Obama despite the fact that he’s a terrible source of comedic material.

–my.barackobama.com

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