Strong opinions, weakly held

The tension between political campaigning and activism

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the conflict between political campaigning and activism for awhile now, and an incident that’s getting a lot of play today provides the perfect opportunity. In short, a frustrated Organizing for America campaign staffer in New Mexico sent an email bashing Paul Krugman and left wing activists for criticizing the debt deal that President Obama agreed to.

Unsurprisingly, people on the left who are already frustrated with the White House are taking this as a sign that the Obama campaign has adopted the strategy of bashing the left in order to ingratiate itself with voters in the middle. Greg Sargent argues that’s not the case. Here’s what he says:

Some folks on the left are pointing to the campaign’s failure to adequately shoot down this story as a sign that the campaign perhaps sees political gain in riling up the left, as part of some kind of triangulation strategy to win independents. I just don’t believe this is the case. It seems far more likely that they see this kind of story as nothing but a headache, and want it to go away. My bet is they worry — rightly or wrongly — that publicly reassuring liberal critics won’t necessarily gain any good will from them, only risks giving the story more oxygen, and gets them involved in a fruitless public dispute about whether they’re triangulating and “hippie punching.”

What Sargent fails to get at, though, is the fundamental tension between someone like Ray Sandoval, the campaign staffer who sent the email, and left-wing activists like Paul Krugman. I have been doing some volunteering with Organizing for America this summer, and I have a good idea exactly what’s going on.

Ray Sandoval’s job right now is to recruit as many volunteers as possible. They’re calling Obama supporters from 2008 and asking them to volunteer now in order to get ready for 2012. The idea is to build up the ranks of the volunteers as much as possible so that there’s a trained core group in place for 2012 when the campaign really kicks off. The bottom line for a campaign worker is that as disappointed as anyone may be in the President, standing aside and letting a Republican win would be infinitely worse. And, of course, if you’re really a committed campaign worker, cognitive dissonance isn’t really going to allow you to be disappointed in the President anyway. You’re putting in long, mostly thankless hours working for this guy. Reading the latest column on why he’s failing at his job is probably not your idea of a good time.

On the other side are activists, who play the essential role of holding the President accountable for the promises he made in the 2008 campaign. They also have the long-term job of advocating for progressive principles, and ideally moving the political debate in their direction. The main complaint most people on the left have with President Obama is that he seems to be abandoning those principles without really putting up a fight. They see the apologists for the President as weakening the progressive side.

The difference in motivations of everyone involved is enough to explain the conflict. It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next year or so, because this conflict will need to be resolved in some way for President Obama to be reelected.


  1. I’m not sure that your last sentence is true. That is, I think that liberal activists could continue to rail, be disappointed, whatever, and still vote for the man when Election Day comes. I think a good portion of them might even work on his campaign, once the final stretch is reached. There’s just nothing to be gained by being a booster right now — it lets him off the hook for the next year, and any winning of minds (through campaign work) is wasted this far in advance anyway.

  2. I actually think the volunteer work being done right now is really valuable. The goal is to have teams in place and a core group of volunteers trained and ready to ramp up the organization when the campaign is fully under way next year. I think this early work could make a big difference in some states down the line.

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