Is political activism being re-invented in the states?
I think so. In Europe, the political parties are still to a large extend emulating the model of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair from the nineties, a highly professionalized and media-driven campaign with a rather limited grass-roots involvement. In the states, the Bush-Cheney victory in ’04, and the succes of Howard Dean in the Democratic primary, alerted the campaign organizations to the fact that mobilization matters. If Tom Edsall is to be believed, the building of a political machine of the kind that this country has not seen for 60 years, and Europe since the 1970s, has been a central fact in the last 20 years of Republican domination. This time around, it looks like everyone will act on that insight.
In Europe, this resurgence of activist mobilization is only starting now. Segolene Royal in France has been experimenting with a collaborative formulation of her presidential platform through interactive media (my French is not good enough to really go explore this stuff, any French-readers out there, give me a brush-up on the Royal-campaign, please). Most other major parties and players on that side of the pond still seem to be caught in a mass-media paradigm of political campaigning.
What does all this mean? Obviously, mass-media campaigning, professionalism and a high degree of centralized control is not going to just evaporate in the face of the resurgence of some mythological ‘grassroots’. But activism matters, because it have an impact on the outcome, because it gives people a way of participating in politics. It is not impossible to imagine that the interests of professionalized politics and citizens politics may, after about half a century apart, actually reconvene.
The dangers for both citizens activists and politicians increasingly relying on them are clear. For activists, you can be suckered by the people you help into office. Gotta keep an eye on ’em! For the campaigns, the questions is when your mobilizing war machine turns into a straight jacket – the kind of organizational basis that gives you a rather impressive run like ‘Reagan – Bush senior – Clinton + Republican majority in Congress – Bush junior’ also gave the GOP Barry Goldwater. The kind of organizational basis that could revitalize the ailing British Labour Party could also give them a new Michael Foot.
But I will risk a prediction: the ’08 presidential election will be characterized by serious, sustained, and creative attempts by both candidates to mobilize activists without encouraging extreme partisanship. And then the Europeans will wake up and try it out too. The ideal activist of the elections of tomorrow is someone who did not know six months ago that they would vote for you or even your party. They can share their conversion to the cause or campaign with others.
For the Danes out there, I wrote a piece on all this with a more precise focus on Denmark that Politiken printed yesterday, Saturday February 10. Can’t link to it, sorry…