China and its Discontents

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The Hope Still Lives and the Dream Shall Never Die

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Below is a speech I gave at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center election party this morning.

Four years ago in the summer of ’08, I was an organizing fellow on the Obama for America campaign in the Manchester, NH field office (organizing fellow being a glorified name for an intern). I wouldn’t even turn 18 until that October, and it was my first campaign. It was an exciting time for a young person to be involved in politics. The most poignant time came that June, when I staffed the first joint campaign event between then candidate Obama and then gracious loser Hillary Clinton, in aptly named Unity, NH. Unity is one of those bucolic and placid rural little towns everyone thinks of when they think of presidential campaigning and New Hampshire. It has about 500 people, and about 3000 showed up for the event. Of course it was all grand political theater, if the name didn’t tip you off. A giant 50 foot American flag framed the two erstwhile competitors as they walked in for the benefit of the tv cameras. David Axelrod was standing on a grassy hill 20 yards away wearing shades, talking on his cell phone and surveying the situation. U2 was blasting on the sound system. Obama and Clinton were wearing the biggest grins of their careers, as if a grueling primary campaign had not just ended.

In that moment, I understood why people persist in working in such a blighted field as politics. The energy of the crowd and the magnetism of the speakers fed into each other in a kind of feedback loop. It was all a bit much for a very young 17-year old who, by the way, had not even started college yet.

About an hour after the event, after Obama and Clinton had left and a sudden rain had driven away the crowds, we were left to clean up. I remember walking up onto the stage, sitting on what seemed like a sacred stool, and looking out over the podium at an impossibly still scene, the same place an hour earlier that was full of such raw emotion. It felt good.

Four years later, the US and the world feel like a very different place. There’s a sense that America is searching for something that it lost, a common purpose, perhaps. Some of us feel that we’ve been collectively scarred and made impotent by the hollowing out of the American economy, ineffectual institutions, and debasing of a sense of community from a different age. But I have a feeling that America has experienced these kinds of problems before, and gotten through them. In fact, we even have a name for this continuous process of lament followed by renewal in American history: the jeremiad, named after the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. After every period of excess, we’ve always returned to the moral center, relying on traditional American values to move forward.

Some people might critique the campaign process as overly emotional. They want to rationally and logically vote for every candidate. But in a very important way, the campaign, as irrational as it is, is necessary. In the parlance of the Obama ’08 campaign, it gets us fired up, ready to go. This sort of emotional appeal represents a form of idealism that lifts us up out of the morass, and gets us working on the substantive stuff. At least in my own life, the naïveté has hopefully diminished somewhat but the optimism has never retreated. And in the words of Ted Kennedy, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Written by Will

November 6th, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Scarcity and Political Campaigns

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Chris Anderson’s recent article in Wired on the benefits of abundance versus scarcity got me thinking. Can treating processing power as abundant, and thus opening up creativity, innovation, and success, be something that I can apply to political campaigns? The prime question is: what should be considered the abundant factor in campaigns? Voters?

Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity

Campaigns often treat voters as rather expensive entities. Millions are spent on direct mail, prime-time advertisements, and even telemarketing tools. In low turnout primaries, some candidates end up spending upwards of a $100 on each actual voter. One need only look at the last candidate I put energy into, Terry McAuliffe, who spent $90 per voter for the June primary. With all that money spent, how did his opponent Creigh Deeds turn the tide? What if (to the campaigns at least) every vote “didn’t” count?

The most surprising implication in this statement is that campaigns don’t need to work for every vote. This should have already been bored into me. Countless times, I’ve been told to drop a long phone conversation, or to not answer every obscure policy wonk, or not spend an inordinate amount of my time at any one door. Quantity rather than depth is bred into every campaign worker’s mentality because voter’s won’t remember more than two minutes of a conversation anyway.

This philosophy is not, however, worked into the macro level. Although you as an individual will not talk to that voter again, the campaign certainly will; through mass media and thousands of other volunteers, scarce voters will be hawkishly guarded. In the McAuliffe campaign, telemarketing calls were the communication mode du jour. This technique, meant to amplify the abilities of volunteers, instead magnified the problem. The more voters heard about Terry over the phone, the less sure they were about their support. Towards the end, we dropped telling people about Terry at all, focusing solely on Deeds. People don’t remember much about your particular conversation, but they do remember how you and everyone’s uncle called their house ten times.

Terry’s campaign had two key parts backwards. They treated voters as scarce and public patience and goodwill as abundant. This passage from Anderson’s article on cell phone companies and voicemail storage mirrors this:

They managed the scarcity they could measure (storage) but neglected to manage a much more critical scarcity (customer goodwill). No wonder phone companies are second only to cable TV companies in “most hated” rankings.

They also gave the most attention to what should have gotten the least attention. At the individual level, it pays to spend more personal time with a voter (as explained later). At the macro level, it doesn’t pay to push more contacts (i.e., spend more of the campaign’s time) with every voter.

Imagine a hypothetical campaign in which more voter contact was not always the end goal. What, instead of micro-targeting, would seed the campaign’s message across a wide swath of abundant voters? The voter’s themselves! A campaign that relied on an abundance of voters to spread its message becomes a movement, which is why campaigns rarely qualify.

In a scarce-voter world-view, the priority of campaigns is control – dictate the message, work directly through mass media, and don’t deviate. In an abundant-voter world-view, supporters would carry their personalized and human voice of support organically to exponentially growing numbers of people. In abundant-voter campaigns, there is a degree of trust and empowerment transferred between the campaign and the average supporter. Rank and file volunteers are encouraged to voice their support in as many diverse ways as possible because ultimately, personal relationships carry aboard more supporters than going off-message loses voters. Abundant-voter campaigns use phone tools to ensure name recognition and minimal tracking numbers, but ultimately put the most faith in long-lasting, in-depth, personal contact with campaign workers and volunteers. This starts with canvassing, but is fully realized in one-on-one meetings, house parties, and non-campaign socialization (which can all still be tracked quite effectively for accountability purposes). I only need to remember one piece of advice to re-affirm this idea: ‘They’ll come in for Barack, but they stay because of you.’ Finally, abundant-voter campaigns use television, mass-media, and stump speeches to engage voters in the same way campaign workers do in person: by treating voters, on a policy level, as intellectually-equal to the most senior campaign strategists.

It’s hard to change the prevailing philosophy solely in favor of statistics and ever-increasing numbers of voter contacts. This view is cemented in the minds of campaign strategists. Obama’s campaign took the abundant-voter philosophy. Many columnists would argue that since Obama’s campaign did not catapult an issue lasting Obama, it does not count as a movement. I disagree. A generational shift in organizational thinking is coming, and not just in campaigns. A new group of Americans, and many more born after them, who are inspired to organize government, business, and non-profits with the abundant-philosophy of the Obama campaign will radically transform society. I only hope that the administration lives up to the promise of its campaign.

Written by Will

July 13th, 2009 at 7:44 am