The Outsider Elite

Interesting article about the “grassroots” nature of Obama’s Organizing for America:

[Organizing for America] also holds online strategy sessions, offering supporters the chance to “join the discussion,” “interact,” and “ask questions.” But amid the rhetoric of “yes we can”, the “we” in control of O.F.A., according to reports, is a very small, select group. A mid-level source who left O.F.A. told Janine that decisions come squarely from the top down, while the organization tries to maintain the illusion of participation.


We would add that O.F.A. seems to us more new than old. While it’s not the first political movement to capitalize on the internet (Howard Dean being the stand-out early adopter), it seems to be the first time a sitting leader has utilized a direct email communication line with the people he leads.

O.F.A. also tries to cement its support with a feeling of false intimacy – made possible through those internet, email and social networking technologies. Melber has this telling comment from one supporter: “Seriously, I feel that OFA’s main objective is to facilitate and maintain pseudopersonal relationships with supporters in order to exploit them….I think it’s called relationship marketing.

This Astroturf criticism is also common among Tea Party opponents, who dismiss Tea Party activists as pawns ginned up by corporate elites.  In both situations, the assumption is that the participants in a political movement are generally representative of The People, while a small group at the top employs strategies to harness their energies.  But in reality, the activists themselves are, largely, elites, and the battle between the establishment and grassroots is really a battle between elite insiders and elite outsiders.

Political activism – whether online of offline – is heavily correlated with income; according to a Pew survey from 2008, 45% of individuals with incomes greater than $100,000 participated in two or more offline political activities (and 35% participated online) over the last 12 months, while those numbers fall for every lower income group, finishing with 18% (8% online) for individuals earning less than $20,000 annually.  The proportions are almost identical – online political activism has not changed the economic demographics of the activists.  Beyond income, online activists are almost 80% white, younger than the general public*, and overwhelmingly college educated.  Not exactly a microcosm of America.

The Outsider Elite

But we feel better about it.  Whether it’s Howard Dean’s “You have the Power!” Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can,” Ron Paul’s small-dollar Revolution, or even the Tea Party, we want to associate anti-establishment political movements with pure – or at least purer – democracy.

Consider Joe Sestak’s victory speech in May:

This election is about you.  It’s about you and everyone in this great commonwealth who stood up and wanted their voices heard.  This is what democracy looks like.  A win for the people!

Which is all well and good – I would’ve reluctantly voted for Sestak in the primary myself – but let’s be honest: the victory was a victory for activists over the establishment, not “the people” over the establishment.

So let’s imagine that the OFA volunteers really were running the show, and weren’t just pawns that were kept in the loop in an attempt by “the shadow elite” to keep them mobilized.  In that circumstance, policy might be taken out of the hands of a small and centralized inner circle, but it would be transferred to a slightly larger and less centralized homogeneous network of relatively wealthy, white, college graduates.  I’m not sure that counts as progress.

*The summary of the poll refers to online political activists as “disproportionately weighted to the young,” but the numbers they use don’t particularly suggest a much younger demographic.  Here’s a link to the 2000 Census data if you want to look at this specific argument more closely.

[NOTE: I’m heading off for vacation for the next 10 days and will have – at best – only occasional internet access.  Look forward to catching up when I return.]

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3 thoughts on “The Outsider Elite

  1. Yeah, my dad’s about 62, college-educated, and making less than $30,ooo/ year. He’s not politically active for the same reason I’d imagine people in the working lower class bracket generally aren’t- he doesn’t have the free time. Also, he’s pretty convinced that neither side will do anything for people like him, a problem that seems to hurt the Democrats more in his case.

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  2. Regarding the youth or otherwise of online activism–the online activists in the table above may or may not be younger than general population, but they’re definitely younger, on average, than off-year election voters. Even in 2006, which was a good year for young voting, people 50-64 should well outnumber the 18-29s, and the fact that they don’t in the online group is a significant departure.

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