Last month I dropped by the Dean campaign's 10th anniversary party in Burlington, Vermont. I had directed a documentary about the campaign in 2004, and wanted to see where all the story arcs had landed. How did the kids who dropped everything to work for little or no pay in the service of "people-powered politics" feel about their legacy?
In the words of one: It was a technological triumph. And an ideological failure.
This NYT article captures the banality of it all. 2012 Obama tech and ad team guys pitching "the Obama campaign's secret, technologically advanced formulas for reaching voters" to the Caesars casino chain.
It was not lost on the Obama strategists that the “change” they were talking about was not the kind “you can believe in” but rather the kind you can put in a slot machine.
When I joined the Obama campaign in 2008, the other members of the new media content team and I used to joke that we were Team Soul, and were offended if the tech guys reduced an emotional interview with a supporter who had breast cancer and lacked health insurance to a "data point."
But there was an understanding that kept the whole 2008 new media department together -- that fused data and meaning -- and that was the idea that if millions of people gave small donations, then the eventual president would have to answer to regular people instead of big corporate special interests.
That was the innovation of the Dean campaign that made people drop everything and move across the country to volunteer. Howard Dean posting a video of himself eating a ham sandwich -- and raising more money in small dollar amounts from regular people than Dick Cheney raised at a big money fundraising dinner -- was not a triumph of code, microtargeting and algorithms. It was a triumph of hope -- that maybe people can take their power back, and maybe the Internet is a tool that will help them change the rules of the game.
But, nope. Powerful people and corporations figured out how to use the tool and up their game -- with the help of the would-be revolutionaries who had businesses to run between election cycles. Here's the NYT again:
The Obama political movement had tended to hold itself apart from the corporate world, its members galvanized by what they saw as an opportunity to change the country. But after Election Day in November, huge political success met financial opportunity. The people in their 20s and 30s from the Obama tech team had seen others just like them get incredibly rich on innovations (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that were as transformational as anything they could hope to achieve in government. Now they started to think about what innovations they could bring to the market.
So, from "let's use the Internet to change the world!" to "the world is **cked and unchangeable, might as well make money before it all falls apart" in one campaign cycle. It's hard to remember how fast it changed:
The young staff members of the McGovern campaign left that particularly demoralizing endeavor to re-engage with their causes and their party; the Web-pioneering Deaniacs went on to feed the ranks of MoveOn and the 2008 Obama campaign.
So when Dean told the reunion-goers that he was proud of this generation of techie millennials, and what they were doing to change politics, it felt so last decade.
There's a new generation rising that uses technology, but doesn't believe the tool itself is its salvation. That generation was in the streets during Occupy getting arrested, and then followed up by starting magazines that explore what an entirely different world would look like. They're active players in the age of revolution, a global movement from Egypt to Brazil to Turkey to Greece that will change our world more profoundly than any new time-saving, taxi-ordering, food delivery app being pitched to VCs in Silicon Valley right now.
I love how the author of this Salon article has to almost apologize for using the 2008 Obama campaign as an example of this revolutionary trend that "channeled the profound public mistrust of financial and political elites," considering all the late nights we stayed up talking about how our work would be a "thunderclap on the establishment" and deeply, earnestly believed we were changing the rules of the game.
In the isolated and peculiar context of America, I’d throw in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. As painful and ironic as this may sound today, many people understood that at the time as a revolution aimed at breaking up the bipartisan stalemate of Washington politics.
Of course we didn't change the rules, or break up the bipartisan stalemate. That's gonna take a little more creativity, it turns out, and less digital mastermind brainpower being siphoned into getting Americans addicted to gambling.
When the campaign ended, Obama’s team of tech experts did not exactly knock down the door of the White House personnel office looking to put their newfound tools into the service of the new presidential agenda. They were heading East and West — to Silicon Valley, Wall Street and, in the case of A.M.G., Las Vegas — in search of venture capital and clients...
“When you go where the money is and you go where people get reached, you have a transformational effect. Money creates change.”
Nope, wrong, just stop.