How the Cool Kids Killed Obama’s Grassroots Movement
New Media was dead, but a corpse called “Digital” rose to take its place. It was bloodless, technocratic, and made of big data.
Eight years ago, I was trapped inside the Obama Presidential Transition office in Washington, D.C., watching the life and soul drain out of the thing we had birthed and nurtured in Chicago for almost two years.
In that moment—and still, almost a decade later—those of us who originally built Barack Obama’s grassroots machine were confounded: How did it fall apart so suddenly and decisively after Election Day 2008? Civicist editor Micah Sifry’s recent cover story in the March issue of The New Republic unraveled a good part of the mystery by documenting how traditional political operatives in the campaign’s leadership breezily batted down a plan authored by Silicon Valley supporters called “Movement 2.0” to keep the grassroots engaged.
But there’s another piece to the story that I’ve never shared until now, which is how the old school D.C. politicos who ran the campaign disempowered the movement-minded innovators at the heart of Obama’s grassroots rise.
Back then, we called ourselves the New Media team—and valued our artists, filmmakers, writers and online community builders as highly as our Google-trained data analysts. Our team culture was disciplined and yet explosively creative. Densely packed into our cubicles, we finished each other’s sentences, and fed off the energy of our supporters as they built a movement that was going to bring change to Washington.
We had a ton of space to experiment and see what resonated with people, back when YouTube was a novelty and Twitter barely existed. The serious, political professional side of the campaign – the finance department that went after big donors, the communications department that went after mainstream media, the TV ad guys – thought we were a joke, a bunch of “virgins.” They didn’t meddle with us because they didn’t think we were doing anything important.
We called them—the khaki-slacked, beer pong-playing, D.C. ladder-climbing professionals in the campaign—the “cool kids.” They jockeyed for influence, for hard pins that granted access to the candidate, and for good seats on the campaign plane.
Meanwhile, our New Media video team was primarily concerned with documenting an emerging movement of people who wanted real change. We drove across the country, spending hours and sometimes days interviewing people about their lives. We often stayed in “supporter housing” instead of hotels—talking late into the night with our hosts in kitchens from Oregon to Mississippi to New Hampshire.
That kind of intimacy and immersion—as well as the physical distance we covered—allowed us to identify common themes and ideas that were bubbling up across different age groups, ethnicities, and lifestyles.
When people blame themselves for believing that Obama was going to be a much more transformational president, I want to say, it’s not you! You weren’t imagining it! The campaign was telling you that your voices mattered more than those of corporate interests and wealthy donors.
But did we—the campaign virgins—really believe our own propaganda? Were we really that naïve? Walking through downtown Chicago towards Grant Park on Election Night, our New Media email guys passed by people selling “Yes We Did” t-shirts. One of the email guys said, “No we didn’t. The movement is about telling people that now the work begins. That’s what it has to be about.”
Those guy—instead of wrangling for White House jobs that would lead to lucrative corporate jobs—stayed back at campaign headquarters after everyone had left. They wanted to keep going, and build OFA (Obama for America, which turned into Organizing for America) into a movement that remained bottom up, outside of Washington.
“We were walking on clouds. We have this huge movement ready to do anything to get the change we want,” says email team member Shant Mesrobian.
Soon after, the cool kids intervened, stashed OFA inside the DNC, and killed any real movement led by real people outside of Washington—even as Mesrobian was writing Obama’s introduction to OFA.
“It was clear almost immediately that OFA was being set up for failure, that its massive potential was going to be squandered. At first, I considered it an act of outright murder,” sayid Elijah Zarlin, another member of the New Media email team. “And certainly, grassroots mobilization did not appear to be valued in the early Obama White House as a power model for governing. But now I realize the failure of OFA’s second act was as much a case of ignorance as anything else.”
“If OFA became its own independent force, it could have been different,” Mesrobian says. “Unfortunately, the White House abandoned that. ‘Thanks for putting us in office, now stay out because we’re geniuses.’ They closed the doors and lit up the cigars.”
We had defeated Hillary Clinton, and then John McCain. We had done impossible things, and we believed we could do another: We could change the culture of Washington!
We were very wrong.
I flew to DC immediately after the election, and huddled with a handful of New Media people in a windowless Presidential Transition office, still eager to put in 15 hour days and do whatever it took to make hope and change happen. We were told not to work so much.
As head of content for the Transition website that would turn into Whitehouse.gov, I wanted to create a sort of virtual town square that invited filmmakers and photojournalists to authentically document what life was really like in 2009, right after the economic crash.
I was told, “We don’t want to tell stories about people with problems. We want to tell stories about the heroes inside the White House solving those problems.”
I wanted to fulfill Obama’s campaign transparency promises by filming Transition meetings. That was a non-starter.
We were used to running at 100 miles per hour, and now we were running straight into a cold, hard wall. We did all that was left to do. We put on David Bowie.
“Oh, you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane?” we sang, as every attempt at keeping the hundreds of thousands of people who were emailing us, asking how they could stay engaged, was shut down.
Max Harper, a talented filmmaker, had taken to drawing Successory motivational posters in crayon and taping them to the walls. One said, “How Do We Get To Yes?” with cute little cartoon hands in a huddle.
We were going insane.
I was crying on my way to work and on my way home every day. Others were losing their sense of humor and irony, and the sort of generous spirit that made us a cohesive team during the campaign. We knew we had to leave D.C., or get absorbed by the great khaki beer pong blob and become just another careerist cool kid.
It was already happening. On Inauguration Day, many of us uncertainly descended into the purgatorial purple tunnel of doom. The activists and organizers begged our colleagues on the Inauguration Committee to rescue us and all the good people trapped in the underpass. The terse response from our comrades-turned-D.C. bureaucrats: “Don’t panic, stay calm.” There was no rescue. Heckuva job, guys. My colleague and I bailed on the tunnel and found a café with a TV in it.
“New Media got decimated. The DNA of the campaign didn’t get translated. They killed the bloodline,” says Mesrobian.
Zarlin, who was a writer as well as an environmental activist, thought about joining the Department of Energy, but decided to go back to California instead.
“On the 2008 campaign, there was a lot of animosity towards the New Media department, the wacky newcomers who, on the strength of Obama’s message of inclusion, employed mass-mobilization tools in a way that challenged traditional models of communication and finance,” says Zarlin. “Looking at the Obama White House inner circle, it felt like there was a sense of ‘OK, time for the grown ups to be back in charge and do things the grown up Washington way.’”
But the last eight years, and the Democratic primary especially, have revealed the political and campaign establishment’s profound blind spot for why people engage at a large scale, and why that matters. So whether or not there was an active hostility among the top brass toward mass grassroots mobilization, there certainly was a significant failure to recognize how important it was, how central to Obama’s ability to fulfill the promise of Obama.
Five years later, Zarlin was arrested outside Obama’s State Department for protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline.
“I certainly never thought that I would have to come back to be arrested in order to send him the message that he needs to make good on the commitments he made … on climate change,” he said at the time.
I ended up going to the White House Office of Health Care Reform to build a grassroots movement to pass legislation, but was sidelined while the Tea Party filled the void. (An operative on the Tea Party Express later told me that he learned how to mobilize supporters by studying the New Media approach on the Obama campaign). After getting lost inside the corridors of HHS trying to get the requisite twelve signatures it took to quit the job, a sort of Kafkaesque nightmare, I finally escaped the khaki beer pong culture blob.
So New Media was dead, but a corpse called “Digital” rose to take its place. It was bloodless, technocratic, and made of big data. It rolled its eyes at narrative, on the ground feedback, and human political instinct. In place of late nights talking to dairy farmers in their kitchens, there were algorithms. It was a sure-fire, can’t-lose, totally smart approach to crushing the competition.
Digital was cool. Digital was making a lot of people a lot of money. From the New York Times in 2013:
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.
Instead of using technology to empower people over corporations, the Obama 2012 and Clinton 2016 campaigns were using technology to merge with corporations. While Google billionaire Eric Schmidt was building a secret Hillary death star machine, corporations like Uber, Amazon, and McDonalds were gobbling up former Obama advisers. And even Obama himself was preparing for his “digital-first” post-presidency, inviting venture capitalists and tech millionaires to the White House to brainstorm a billion dollar presidential library “loaded with modern technologies.”
The cool kids in the Clinton/Obama inner circles were stunned. How were they going to make money? What was the next career move?
While the rest of us scramble to innovate creative new approaches to rescue our fragile democracy, those guys want to stick with the strategies that have personally served them so well. Their fresh ideas? Stay the course at the DNC and resuscitate the corpse of OFA.
It’s too late. We were all once part of something that was alive and real. We poured our soul into it, and it was taken from us and killed before it had a chance.
But now we know better. We have an incredible opportunity to bypass the Democratic party hacks and take back our country from the right-wing lunatics who yearn for apocalypse. As Obama used to say, “Change doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.” Lesson learned.