The Lone Ranger Is Political Activism Cool Again?

In the 1960s, an entire generation tried to save the world, with varying degrees of success. Now, says SPIEGEL ONLINE blogger Peter Ross Range, Barack Obama's campaign has tapped into a new wave of political activism.

So my wife gets this e-mail from Barack’s people (and his computers) have noted that she contributed $20 to his campaign. That triggers the algorithm that leads to the next level of involvement -- asking her to become a campaigner herself.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama working the phones on Sunday.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama working the phones on Sunday.

It’s an ingenious system. Not only does it reach beyond the usual party regulars to recruit door-to-door campaigners -- that has been done for decades. Not only does it invite people to local meetings where they can hear candidates and perhaps be persuaded to pass out flyers in their neighborhoods. Now it goes much farther. It uses the Internet to draw supporters into a viral digital network that turns hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens into a campaign's exploding phone bank.

Traditional phone banks have been around for decades. A mainstay of every political campaign has been the room full of a few dozen volunteers spending hours telephoning prospective voters -- names freely available from voter registration lists. Although some voters resent the calls and hang up, many more are thought to be influenced toward a candidate and (just as important) toward going to the polls on Election Day (never a certainty in the US). Sometimes even the candidate himself visits the phone bank and makes a few calls.

Stroke of Genius

Now the Obama campaign is taking this technique to a far higher level. Using its burgeoning e-mail lists, it figures out who might be a likely helper, and in which locations and with which voters. For instance, since we live in Washington D.C., my wife is not asked to call anyone locally because Washington is a certain victory for Obama. Instead, the e-mail asks her to call voters in the nearby swing state of Pennsylvania. A second e-mail, asks her to call, specifically, women voters. It links her, on the Web, to a list of names and phone numbers.

Tonight my wife made her first calls. “They were mostly Hispanic voters,” she surmises, from their names and their accents. “And they were mostly enthusiastic about Obama.” So her message to them was: Don’t forget to vote. (Targeting Hispanic voters has become yet another, little known stroke of genius of the Obama campaign.)

My wife actually made these calls from California, where she is traveling. That’s three hours behind East Coast time. Yet it worked. Mid-afternoon in San Diego was just before dinner time in, for example, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Using her personal cell phone during private down time, she reached all the way across the country to speak to a woman who lives not so far away from us. “She told me she’s worried about her son going to Iraq,” she said.

She also said: “It's addictive. I want to do it some more.”

Turn Out the Vote

Addictive. That's an interesting word for the popular brushfire that has become the Obama phenomenon. I'll admit that I was among the skeptics when Obama’s “movement” first challenged my favorite, Hillary Clinton, for the Democratic nomination. The idealism, the vagueness, the youthful craziness of it all reminded me of Democrats' last failed “movement” election -- the disastrous 1972 campaign of George McGovern, a good man who rode a far-left antiwar horse to political disaster, losing to Richard Nixon, 49 states to one. I feared Obama would not do much better.

I was wrong.

Obama has reinvented movement politics. Part of the reason it works better today than it did in 1972 is the Internet. Both older people and younger people can be reached and energized to do things, like make phone calls from a hotel room in San Diego, California. My fears that young people may not turn out to vote eight days from now are historically very well founded. Now they may well be proved wrong.

But I'm struck by something else about this year’s movement. For the first time since the early 1970s, young people seem deeply engaged in something beyond themselves. Suddenly, changing America has become the cool calling, the place to be, a movement to be part of. It feels like 1968 all over again.

Where's the Party

In short, today's kids remind me of me and my friends from the 60s. Ours was a generation whose devout mission was to save the world, through the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the campaign of both Kennedys, the anti-war movement. We may have failed as much as we succeeded. But saving the world was cool, and that was where the party was.

In recent decades, for young Americans, the party was elsewhere. In the Me Generation, it was all in the self. In the X Generation, it was the Self on Steroids. Finally, it became all about Wall Street. The kids talked about their stock portfolios even before they had them.

Now, for various reasons, the generational focus is the larger polity, the fate of the group. Even before the market crises, Obama had found a vein of youthful idealism just waiting to be tapped. Like most grow-ups, I didn't see it coming. Neither did Hillary. Neither did McCain.

And it's not just the kids who remind me of the 1960s. Today I talked with Richard Williams, a fellow veteran of the old days, a retired school principal in Kentucky. His last involvement in politics was in 1968, when, as a young student, he volunteered for the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. But Kennedy was assassinated before he could arrive in California. Since then, he has not been involved in a single political campaign -- until now. Now he's making calls, just like my wife, to swing states. For him, too, it seems addictive. “I haven't felt this way since I volunteered for Robert Kennedy,” he said. “I haven't given money, I haven't done anything. Now I'm working the lists. I feel like growing my hair long again and wearing an armband.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into all this. Or maybe I'm not.


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