Ten years ago today, I had been awake and working for two days straight.
Barack Obama was hours away from announcing his campaign for president, and as head of his digital effort, I was working with a handful of people trying to make good on his promise to run a different kind of campaign right from launch.
As we scrambled to prepare what we hoped would be a big grassroots campaign, the man himself was standing in the freezing cold at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, telling the crowd what he wanted to do as president, but also what kind of campaign he wanted to run. He said it “must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams… This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.”
That promise of putting people at the center of things had been what got me involved. When I sat with Senator Obama in January 2007, just before taking that campaign job, I asked him a question that seemed to strike him as odd. I wondered: what did he hope the lasting impact of the campaign would be if he lost in the primary?
He paused for moment, and then said that when he and Michelle had talked about it, their overriding goal, failing all else, was to run the kind of campaign that left the political process better off than how they found it.
And so hours before he spoke in Springfield, in the middle of the night, we’d launched an unprecedented set of campaign tools to bring that promise to life on BarackObama.com. More than one thousand local grassroots groups in that were founded that first day alone. (The digital record will forever show that “Omaha / Council Bluffs Metro area Obama Supporters” were on it right away.) There would go on to be more than 40,000 grassroots groups before the end of that 2008 campaign.
It’s ten years later and I’m still working for Barack Obama, most recently on the digital efforts behind his foundation, Obama.org, and that same basic intention has always been at the center of the work. When I’ve overseen his digital campaigns — in 2008, 2012, and the rest of the time between and since at Blue State Digital — our animating purpose has always been to raise the civic bar.
Of course, it’s not just about participation for its own sake. Build the bigger movement, and you can get more votes, which (in most cases) means you win. And for progressives, the things we’ve achieved as a movement over the last decade — the training of organizers across the country, the leaps in data and digital infrastructure — give us a massive leg up for the next phase of the fight.
But these are just components that can be leveraged on behalf of a fundamental idea, a core strategy, or the orientation of an organization.
Right now, as the Trump reality sets in, we’re seeing scores of new organizations emerge and existing institutions infused with new energy. Whether it will amount to lasting impact depends on how they orient themselves around that fresh grassroots energy.
The highest-profile open question is the Democratic National Committee, which will choose a new chair later this month. Too often we, as Democratic activists, fail to be sufficiently vigilant about that essential organizational orientation. And without a presidential candidate and campaign to create the tone, it’s falls to each of us as party members and activists to demand and shape what kind of party we ought to be.
So let me say my bit about it. I’ll turn 36 later this year — I was born in 1981, which according to the advertisers makes me among the very oldest of millennials. For most of my lifetime, the Republican Party’s strategy has been to coolly assemble a winning coalition of people who reliably vote. That’s not to knock it — it’s a totally sensible approach to winning power, even if the blend of bankers and homophobes and militarists can be awkward at times.
But over that same period, the Democratic Party has always been, to me, about representing a wide range of folks, even those who historically don’t get out to vote: a political party betting its success and survival on the idea that there ought to be someone making smart governing decisions to ensure a fair playing field for everybody.
Of course, that hasn’t always worked out, electorally. But my experience in Democratic politics and campaigns over 15 years, through wins and losses, has convinced me that our organizations are at their best when we’re looking to organize beyond those who already have a so-called “seat at the table” to the people who we can activate for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.
So as I think about the promise of that moment ten years ago today in Springfield (and on the internet everywhere else in America), and about the millions of volunteers who took a fresh crack at active citizenship and organizing in the months that followed, I hope our next Democratic Party chair — and our next presidential nominee — relentlessly pursues that kind of expansive, grassroots organizing spirit.
As we stand, we’ve got all the components of a winning party and a winning movement. But they only work when our purpose is true — and when everyone involved understands that there’s no other way for us to win.
Joe Rospars is the founder and chief executive of Blue State Digital and served as Barack Obama’s principal digital strategist in 2008 and 2012.