One of the safer predictions I’ve made in recent years is this (in The American Prospect):
[O]nline activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama’s own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is … making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly “moderate” decisions
But I didn’t expect it to start happening quite so soon.
Ari Melber in The Nation.
A whopping 70,000 questions poured into Change.gov over the past week, in response to the Obama transition team’s call for citizen queries to the President-Elect. After votes from about 100,000 people, the top ranked question asks Obama whether he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of torture and illegal surveillance by the U.S. government. I’ve been working with activist Bob Fertik to organize support for the question, and several progressive bloggers urged readers and Obama supporters to vote for it last week.
See also (via Ari) the NYT
the number one submission on the popular “Open for Questions” portion of the site might seem more than a little impolitic to the current, and soon to be former, occupant of the White House. … Though the Obama team has promised to answer some of the top questions as early as this week, they have not said whether they will respond to Mr. Fertik’s, which has received more than 22,000 votes since the second round of the question-and-answer feature began on Dec. 30.
This goes to the heart of the contradictions that the Obama people successfully managed to straddle during the campaign, but are (I think) going to have increasing difficulty in dealing with going forward. The Obama people combined very tight top-down message control and campaign coordination with a fair degree of openness at the bottom to independent initiatives by volunteers. As long as everyone agreed on the same underlying goal (beating the Republicans), this worked. But as that overwhelming imperative recedes, people are going to start pursuing their own objectives – and the ‘open’ architecture that the Obama people have constructed provides them with plenty of opportunities to do this.
And this is a pretty significant problem for an administration that is likely to be obsessed with discipline and message control. People calling for investigations by an independent prosecutor into torture can’t be dismissed as trolls or cranks. They are articulating a set of values which is likely held by a substantial majority of Democrats and Obama supporters. But it’s politically inconvenient, for a variety of reasons, for the Obama people to acknowledge this, much less to do anything about it. Under normal politics, they might be able to sweep this under the rug – after all Obama and his team are supposed to be the public face of the Democratic party. But the creation of an open architecture, where others can bring inconvenient issues up – and very likely keep on bringing them up – makes it substantially more difficult for them to maintain control of the conversation.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the new architecture of MyBarackObama.com, Change.gov etc are going to enhance the agenda setting power of the president. This will likely happen in some instances, but in others, as here, the volunteer movement going to be more of a bully than a bully pulpit, setting the agenda rather than serving as a glorified force-multiplier for things that the president would like to see happen. Being a cynic, I suspect that the Obama people are going to discount and try to distance themselves from the bits of the architecture that they can’t control, but if I’m right, they may have some difficulty in so doing as these forums take on a life of their own.