Don’t get me wrong: I know how it looks, as the drunk burglar said to the bar owner. I mean, the Democrats have 22 candidates for office, and the Republicans have a half-functioning man up for re-election. The media focuses on these 22.5 people day and night. Magazines run profiles about them; Twitter snaps pictures of them in public; CNN hosts town halls for them. With that kind of saturation, how could you not think that campaigns were about the candidates?
And indeed, elections seem to center around electing persons—just as pro cycling seems to center on filling skinny men with drugs. But that’s not really the point of the exercise.
Elections are political events. Politics is the art and science of group decision-making. In other words, politics is about the coordinated effort of masses of people. Most of this massing and coordinating happens outside of elections.
An analogy to music might help. People think elections are like concerts. You go to a big arena, listen to the artist, and make a decision about what kind of fan you’re going to be. Do I dare wear their merch in public? Simple, right?
On the other end of the musical-event spectrum, you have neighborhood jam sessions. Jam sessions are group-centered activities. You, with a bunch of other amateur musicians. You learn from each other, you teach each other, you play together. Ideally, you meet new people, people who you wouldn’t dream you had anything in common with. A concert is consumption. A jam session is work. An artist might come to your town once every couple of years. Jam sessions are every week.
Elections are not concerts. Elections are jam sessions. Electing a candidate is the final cause of electoral campaigns, but that’s just the most obvious (and most short-term) result. Read any political biography. You will see a certain pattern recur:
“Bill [Clinton] called Betsey Wright, a powerful political ally whom he had met on the McGovern campaign in Texas, and asked that she assist in the preparation for a political campaign and a return to power.” — The President as Leader, by Michael Eric Siegel
“The guys I met on the Kennedy campaign were all from that mold … I felt like I’d found my long-lost tribe, the only people who thought and acted the way I did. We were called the Corn-Stalkers.” — The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything, by Joe Trippi
And these are powerful people, who have access to all of the resources of the world. If they still lean on what they learned and who they met on the campaign trail, what does it say about the rest of us?
So: seen clearly, elections are primarily vehicles for politically-interested citizens to meet and work together. That’s why campaigns feature so prominently in political biographies, or the biographies of anyone even tangentially related to politics.
Campaign involvement doesn’t just elect politicians—that’s the least of what it does. It raises up the next generation of activists; it radicalizes the fearful; it turns indifferent taxpayers into concerned citizens. If you were a Martian with an interest in Earth politics, and you watched our elections, that’s what you would see: Campaigns are about the public, not the politician. They’re places for the public to become involved in what should be democratic politics. For lack of a better term, campaigns are about weaponizing aspiration. Many of us dislike how are country is run. Some of us want to actively do something about it. Campaigns show us how to do just that.
This is most visible in elections where there isn’t a single charismatic figurehead. To those who doubt my argument, I have two words for you, just two: Twenty. Ten.
Two years into Obama’s term, the Tea Party emerged. The Beltway GOP tried to co-opt it, but it was beyond them. The Republicans tried to swallow the Tea Party; the Tea Party ended up swallowing them. Of course, the Tea Party was astroturfed nonsense, funded by the Kochs. But the “movement,” whatever you want to call it, changed the country. Remember, we’re talking about a sliver of a minority of a minority; at most, only ten percent of the nation.
And they stopped Obama and his mandate, stopped him cold.
They did all of this without a leader. It’s worth remembering that Trump came after the Tea Party, not before it. The first Obama midterms were all about building power … for the other side. The reactionaries of 2010 had to wait six years for their unholy champion to rise. Yet by the time Trump rode down his escalator five years later, the ground had been well-fertilized, to put it mildly.
Where was the Obama cohort during this time? Why was there an empty space, ready for the Tea Party to strike? There are a dozen reasons. But for our purposes, the most important cause is this: Obama’s army was decommissioned after the Inauguration.
This explains why Obama’s campaign organization, which could have remained as a potent force for progressive change…was disassembled, basically, in the first year of his Administration. Two years ago, in an article for the New Republic, Micah Sifry detailed the story of “Obama’s lost army.” The subtitle says it all: “He built a grassroots machine of two million supporters eager to fight for change. Then he let it die. This is the untold story of Obama’s biggest mistake—and how it paved the way for Trump.”
The feature details the travails of Christopher Edley, one of Obama’s senior campaign advisers. Edley’s goal was to sustain Obama’s ground forces past Election Day:
... Edley found himself newly motivated by a single big political idea … What if Barack Obama could become not only the first black man elected president, but the first president in history to organize an enduring grassroots movement that could last beyond his years in office? By that point in the race, there was every reason to think that Obama could build a lasting grassroots operation. His political machine had already amassed more than 800,000 registered users on My.BarackObama, its innovative social networking platform. “MyBO,” as it was known, gave supporters the ability—unthinkable in a traditional, top-down political campaign—to organize their own local groups, campaign events, and fund-raising efforts. Its potential for large-scale organizing after the election was vast—and completely without precedent in American politics. By Election Day, Obama’s campaign would have 13 million email addresses, three million donors, and two million active members of MyBO, including 70,000 people with their own fund-raising pages. This wasn’t just some passive list of campaign supporters, Edley realized—it was an army of foot soldiers, seasoned at rallying support for Obama’s vision of change.
That was the hope. “As we now know,” the author writes,
that grand vision for a postcampaign movement never came to fruition. Instead of mobilizing his unprecedented grassroots machine to pressure obstructionist lawmakers, support state and local candidates who shared his vision, and counter the Tea Party, Obama mothballed his campaign operation, bottling it up inside the Democratic National Committee. It was the seminal mistake of his presidency—one that set the tone for the next eight years of dashed hopes, and helped pave the way for Donald Trump to harness the pent-up demand for change Obama had unleashed. “We lost this election eight years ago,” concludes Michael Slaby, the campaign’s chief technology officer. “Our party became a national movement focused on general elections, and we lost touch with nonurban, noncoastal communities. There is a straight line between our failure to address the culture and systemic failures of Washington and this election result.”
The parts that remained were attached to Beltway institutions. It’s a tragedy, but an instructive one. When the history of 2008 is written—when all of the post-mortems and recriminations and editorials are rolled up into a great ball—we will see the Obama landslide for what it is. Barack Obama’s win eleven years ago was not about the ascent of one man, but triumph of a coalition, and an army of organizers, volunteers, and activists. Whoever the Democratic president is in the 2040s, I assure you, they will have made their bones in the salad days of 2008.
Finally—and most crucially—elections exist to build public power.
That’s public power. The story of public power goes against the official narrative of how American politics works. In the official story, salvation in politics is a matter of individual power, individual greatness. In the official story, the American people spend most of their time wandering around hapless, in a fog, until a great man or woman comes along to help them out.
If you believe the official story, then any political problem has a simple solution: find the right person. If you can just find the perfect people—the right Rhodes Scholars, the right Harvard grads, the right name—and elect them, why, then the reign of philosophers will commence, and we will eventually evolve into Plato’s Republic. Or whatever the Branson version is of Ancient Athens. But surely we’re old enough to know better.
It’s understandable that we fall in love with our candidates—with an Obama, a Warren, a Sanders. But whatever these men and women are in their private lives, whoever they are in their public lives, they’re means to an end. I adore the Senator from Vermont. But if forced to choose between Bernie and Bernie’s army, I’d choose the second in a heartbeat.
The movement is the point. Not the woman or man. Lincoln’s Coalition remained after his death. The New Deal Coalition outlived Roosevelt. The Tea Party didn’t even have a candidate when they began sending irate faxes to Congress. The Tea Party couldn’t comprehend justice, decency, or basic ethics. But what they did understand was power. The point of a campaign isn’t the candidate; the point of the campaign is the campaign.
It is imperative that we change how we think of elections. I’ve read a fair amount of history. I don’t remember a lot of books that include the sentence, “The revolution began in a Cheesecake Factory parking lot.” Late-capitalist suburban America encourages splintered communities. We are pushed in the direction of solo Netflix binging.
Campaigns push back against this trend. Elections are largely about creating mini-societies. First, within the campaign itself. You work with a team of strangers to achieve a goal. Second, you build a movement out of constituents. You are literally involved in community-building. Or, more accurately, reminding a community that they exist, and that they have political power. Unum? No. E Pluribus.