The Permanent Campaign

The Obama administration’s outside arm, Organizing for America, is now adding the Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination to its roster of issues that it is calling on the American people to lobby for. We the people are being called on to help the administration pass its health care and Supreme Court battles.  These are good fights; I’m all for them.  But once again I’m disappointed in the model. As I posted back in January, organizing and mobilizing are two different things.  To mobilize the public is to get the public active in supporting a given proposal. To organize the public is to help the public for so that it can decide and articulate public will and create civic capacity for change.

As it stands, Organizing for America is trying to use the campaign model that worked so well to elect Barack Obama to work again to lobby for issues.  But this isn’t going to work.  In an electoral campaign people are being asked to do something, to focus on specific action for a specific day.  Albeit limited, this is public action. Now people are being asked to hold house meetings to talk about Obama’s health care policy, to learn about it, tell stories about what that policy would mean for them, get excited about it, and maybe write their members of Congress.

They are not being asked to deliberate.  They are not being asked to think through the issue and come up with their own ideas about what kind of health care policy would work.  They are not being asked to think outside the box that is being handed to them.  (Single payer, anyone?)

Okay, this may be better than nothing.  It is nice that government is paying attention to the people.  But I worry that this lack of imagination and playing it safe will be counterproductive and give the impression that all citizens can or need do is latch on to the policies that their favorite leaders have proposed when in fact it is important that people  work through and think through issues themselves, ideally in the company of others.  House meetings would be a great place to start.  But the agenda should not be how to get policy x to win; it should be to start from scratch and think through a variety of alternatives, including, for example, single payer or any other that seems at all promising.

There’s little like this to do on a Supreme Court nomination.  That issue is a straight up issue of lobbying.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  (And I’m proud I was part of an important campaign twenty years ago to block the nomination of one especially conservative Supreme Court nominee.) A house meeting on Supreme Court issues could have a very general agenda of thinking through the role of the courts, of how representative judges should be, about the hold of past precedent versus new thinking.

Public discussion, deliberation, and organizing is good for generating public will, and if that will happens to coincide with proposed public policy, then it can be an important engine for creating civic capacity for change.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Noelle,
    I agree with you that the conflation of organizing and mobilizing is counterproductive. Having elites decide ex ante what the decision is that the public should reach in their deliberations and endorse ex post seems disingenuous to the deliberative process, as well. Also, didn’t former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan warn against the perpetual campaign? Isn’t that what got us into the mess in Iraq? Even though the ends Obama has chosen are more commendable than Bush’s (i.e., universal health care and confirming an Hispanic woman to be a Supreme Court Justice versus global security through unilateralism and governance without transparency), the means–as Dewey reminds us in “Democratic Ends Need Democratic Means for their Realization” (1939)–should nevertheless be democratic. Though we tend to associate electoral campaigns with democracy, elites propagandizing the public, whether during or in between presidential elections, surely is not.

  2. The administration has a tough job: they’re trying to steer a bureaucracy. They -can’t- spend six months on deliberative forums, risking radicalization and polarization of both right and left, only to conclude for economic or strategic reasons (Senate votes against a filibuster, for instance) that their original plan is the only one that will work.

    If anything, that’s the model that sunk the Clinton campaign for universal health care.

    So if that’s true then we need to walk back some of the rhetoric around the kinds of change that a president, even a black president with community organizing experience, can achieve from the top. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: President Obama can’t organize us, because that’s a contradiction in terms. We’ve got to organize ourselves.

    1. What sunk the Clinton healthcare campaign was something else altogether: meeting behind closed doors and then unveiling a policy on people who had no opportunity to weigh in or work through the choices. It was take it or leave it, giving the right an opportunity to exploit people’s concerns. The Clinton campaign is now a model of what not to do.

      I’m not arguing for the opposite, at least not for the administration to try to orchestrate a long series of deliberative forums. I agree with Josh that the administration can’t organize the public. That’s why I’m really uncomfortable with the President’s “Organizing for America” arm. People see right through that. They know they are being mobilized — or at least there’s an attempt to do so — not organized.

      I wish the administration would just call it what it is: an attempt to create a permanent campaign for not just Obama but the Obama agenda (an agenda I largely support).

      But notice that this process treats citizens as public interest lobbyinsts, a nice job, but much narrower than the office of citizen, an office that is about making choices about what should be and developing public will and civic capacity for change.

  3. You’re right about Clinton’s health care efforts: I think what I meant was that there was an unguided public deliberation going on while the closed-door negotiations on the task force occurred. Instead of entering office with a plan, Clinton actually tried to figure it out while in office. This rarely works: the pace of the Executive Branch leaves little time for serious thought.

    As a result, the Clinton plan ended up competing with alternative plans from within the Democratic Party and a whole set of Republican talking points that were formed in the absence of a public proposal and had little to do with the actual plan.

    I’m sure you know Jim Bohman’s work. I think his recent call for more deliberative forums with open-ended goals, in which issue recognition and selection up for grabs rather than pre-assigned, captures the difference between top-down and bottom-up organization. As you say, the office of citizen requires broader attention than the office of president.

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