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CauseWired Politics: Remembering the Near Past

By Tom Watson on November 4, 2008No Comment

By this time tomorrow, the United States will likely have a new President-elect – and just as likely, he will be the product of the most socially-wired campaign in American history. Maintaining tight message control at the top while freeing up supporters to create their own media, their own campaigns, their own constituencies has paid massive dividends for Illinois Senator Barack Obama. But it wasn’t all that long ago – the cycle before last, perhaps – that politics plunged along pretty much as it had for generations. Here’s a bit of chapter six from CauseWired, which focuses on political organizing and advocacy – sometimes it’s important to realize how near the past really is:

When I was a political reporter in the Bronx a lifetime or so ago, local political organizations ruled the ballot. In those days, there were two basic factions in the near one-party rule of what was then America’s poorest county – the regular organization and the insurgents. One had power, the other wanted it. And both used the same means: armies of volunteers and paid staff, gathering the requisite petitions signatures to gain a place on the election ballot. The organization – called the “regulars” in those days – had the upper hand. Their political clubs were bigger and their volunteers usually included a brigade of public employees who used their time off to work for the very bosses who pretty guaranteed their continued employment – and their chance for advancement. These same political activists also contributed to the party coffers, which allowed the organization to pay for the type of advertising efforts that worked in local campaigns – palm cards, fliers, loud-speaker cars, newspaper ads, and the occasional radio spot.

In New York, each borough had its regular organization – in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn they were Democrats; in Staten Island, Republicans. They often got together for the big citywide races, designating candidates after bruising primary campaigns that took real money to buy television advertising. The insurgents, meanwhile, operated around the edges – running their own political clubs and, if they were very well organized, electing some councilmembers, state legislators and judges of their own. They used the same system of club organization, street signature and campaigning operations, and patronage. Often, they put themselves into position to cut a deal with the regulars and thereby help make a candidate for boroughwide or citywide office.

Thus, there were two tiers to political access – the party insiders and the outsiders who still knew how to run the machinery well enough. In cities all across the country, in suburban districts, and in rural counties, the de facto system has remained very much the same. The two keys to real political power were patronage and money – forever intertwined. Contributions went through the big, organized groups – jobs and candidacies flowed the other way.

Then came the grand disruption: a change in political organizing still in its infancy, but capable of rewriting how we operate this republic. That disruption uses the CauseWired digital tools to displace the entrenched powers, creating new organizing levers for changing public policy and bringing new candidates to the fore. Sometimes, this involves major political campaigns – but sometimes, it’s just about local issues or putting the pressure on incumbents to change their positions. In all cases, it’s about ordinary people plugging in and linking up to create political change.

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