Making the impossible possible

Recently, Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, became a source of inspiration for many Americans. In his Last Lecture, given soon after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Pausch spoke about what it takes to achieve your lifelong dreams. It takes, he said, believing that the barriers we face are only there to prove how much we want those dreams.

For as long as I’ve been alive, the common wisdom has purported certain barriers to be insurmountable.

  • that America would not elect an African American president
  • that the specter of socialism will always truncate consideration of shared solutions to shared challenges
  • that an honest politician is either an oxymoron or a dupe

Several days on the other side of Election 2008, these barriers have been crossed. What I thought was impossible is now very real. In place of the common wisdom, I am trying on some brand new beliefs:

  • With an African American president, we might, just might, be able to have that much-needed conversation about race in America.
  • We can engage in creative problem-solving about the shared challenges we face – from covering the uninsured to creating a top-notch public education system for all – with all options on the table.
  • We can tell the truth, practice the Golden Rule, love our enemies, and (sometimes) win

If Randy Pausch is right and the barriers are there to show how much we want our dreams, then America has proved itself to want certain things much more than I thought. But, more deeply, if this election teaches me anything, it is that with God, all things are possible.

I don’t believe God favored a particular candidate on Tuesday. But I do believe that God enabled us to cross some debilitating barriers so that we could more fully pursue God’s compassion and justice in this time. And for that, I am grateful and full of hope.

– Rachel Hope Anderson

Cavorting with terriers

There’s been much speculation about what kind of puppy the Obamas might buy for the girls. Some have suggested a pit bull (named “Maverick,” of course). But we would commend the suggestion of Saturday Night Live’s “Crazy McCain Rally Lady,” who opined that “Obama cavorts with terriers.” We prefer Cairn Terriers ourselves:

Obama coddling Terriers

(Terrier courtesy of tanakawho, cc2007)

Extended primary WAS a boon to the Democrats

Back in February I made this claim while most Obama supporters were chewing their fingernails over the showdown with Hillary Clinton. Results from the field are backing me up: a 50 state+ primary benefited both Obama and the Democrats tremendously, pushing up the Dems’ voter rolls and helping Obama build a veteran ground team that McCain just isn’t matching:

An observation we’ve heard repeated in Obama offices across America, Crandall emphasized how beneficial the contested primary had been for building the foundation for record turnout. “We had real hints of it in the primary,” Crandall said. The first-time voters the campaign energized for the May 6 vote foreshadowed what North Carolina is seeing today. Crandall remembers thinking “these are NOT your typical primary voters.”

I’ve spoken to enough Hillary supporters in NH who felt, in fact, that the contest didn’t run long enough (many wanted a floor battle). Ending this contest any sooner would have been a disaster.

In any event, what Obama has now is the envy of any political operation anywhere: thousands of battle-hardened organizers spread throughout the 50 states. This is not just a benefit to Obama on Nov 4 — it benefits all of American democracy. It may even yet become a thorn in Obama’s side: a people who have stood up do not easily sit back down again. And that’s how democracy should be.

A network analysis of the Obama 08 campaign

A fresh pair of articles is shining light back on to the Obama ground operations, which — presuming victory on November 4 — will be remembered as one of the deepest and most robust political startups in modern history. Zack Exley’s in-depth piece on “The New Organizers” in the Huffington Post goes into (excruciating) detail on Obama’s Ohio general election team, while the Washington Post finally brings some MSM coverage to Obama camp’s innovations. Common to both pieces is the role of Marshall Ganz, probably the leading theorist and practitioner of grassroots organizing in America, and the striking absence of any similar efforts by the Republicans and the McCain campaign.

Both articles describe the Obama campaign’s team structure, which marries tight grassroots networks to a more traditional campaign hierarchy. My colleague Aaron Shaw has been ruminating over the topologies of these networks take and, taking off from his thinking, I suggest that the campaign in its ideal type looks a bit like this:

The Obama campaign network

The superstructure of the campaign is traditional, top-down command-and-control (with information flowing upwards, of course). At the roots the campaign — as is typical for most volunteer efforts — comprises ad hoc mesh networks. It’s in inserting strong, tightly-knit teams that the campaign has made the greatest innovation. Each team, as a whole, functions like a paid staffer, with similar responsibilities and accountability. Exley quotes a paid field organizer, “This program allows [volunteer] Glenna’s team, with just two or three weeks of [database] training… to know how to pull lists and put canvass packets together. So all that type of work that eats up so much time for organizers can be handled at the local level—at her place.”

Neighborhood teams thereby function as force multipliers for paid staff. And they work because, with extra investment into training and fusing teams together, they allow busy people with school or full-time jobs to play as big of a role as they’re capable of taking on, rather than being stuck with one-size-fits-all phonebanking just because the campaign lacks the infrastructure to recognize their unique talents.

In my diagram above, I drew a circle around the team to indicate that they can function as the equivalent of a paid staffer. What’s I didn’t quite illustrate is the fact that, as local residents, the teams also have a deeper and wider network than a paid staff parachuting in. Outsiders are more prone to be captured by local elites who may or may not have the campaign’s best interests in mind. Furthermore, the total number of solid connections that paid staffer can make locally is probably much lower than the total number of contacts that the local team, in total, already has. It’s easy to see how — with enough time and money to invest in their recruitment, training, and support — strong teams become the natural junction between a national, top-down hierarchy and a local, dispersed field of volunteers.