Now What? The long-term work of bending the arc


I’ve now worked as a grassroots volunteer and organizer on a number of campaigns since Obama 2008 (my first). After they end, there’s the glow and satisfaction of the win (or depression and coming to terms with the loss). The grassroots team that worked doggedly for months and months recognizes that what we did was important and good, regardless of outcome, and there’s a resolve to keep the momentum going.

What DOESN’T happen: the campaigns themselves do not reach out and help provide structure for ongoing engagement. (Apart from occasional appeals of money and calls to support legislation). Field organizers who provided recruitment support, software and events are no longer there. The binary outcome of “WIN”/”LOSE” on a specific date disappears.

More often than not, without the urgency and infrastructure, the ‘team’ falls away. Then, when another important election comes around, organizers and campaigns spend a lot of valuable time trying to “re-find” the people who were so active and important the last time around… reinventing the wheel.

The consequences aren’t only electoral. In between elections comes the hard part-–actually governing. “Politics” and ideas become actual legislation-–or not. An organized grassroots -–so important and influential in campaigns-– can also be a powerful force in affecting legislation.

I believe that many of the disappointments progressives felt after Obama 2008 were as much our responsibility as the President’s: he told us to “make him” do what we elected him for. OFA was a great idea and effort. But Organizing for America was always a campaign and Democratic Party offshoot, limiting what they’d be willing to go after. Katrina vanden Hoovel articulated this in 2010:

There were costs associated with channeling progressive energy through the administration. Obama aides, led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, argued fiercely against going after the Democrats-–-Blue Dogs and New Dems-–-who were impeding reform, and the White House chose not to mobilize its base to pressure them. Groups were often blindsided by backroom deals like the one with the drug companies that sustained the ban on negotiating lower drug prices.
[update: David Bernstein addresses the disappointments of the first term, in this week's Phoenix]

I do not want to simply criticize the candidates/electeds or lament lost opportunities over the last few cycles, but rather be realistic and forward thinking.

It may be impossible, philosophically and practically, for a governing elected to maintain a true grassroots base organized for action. Re-election and institutional power is an endemic part of any campaign or Party infrastructure.  Our leaders need a force to their left, to act as counter-weight to the opposing forces of big corporations and their influence, the center-right mainstream media/punditry, and the temptation to succumb to the path of less resistance (which is rarely the best course). That doesn’tcome from an organization that is focused on re-election or maintaining support.

It is 2012 now. We know of the pitfalls and limits of post-election organizing, and this time, we should be ready:

…to help — or to push — President Obama to have a successful second term

But we don’t need tweaks; we need deep structural change. It’s up to the organized people who defeated organized money at the polls in this election to make that happen. [from The Nation]

While no one is expecting you/us to stay as engaged and work as hard as we do during important elections, it also makes no sense to let a great effort and team disappear in between those important elections. We care about the policies and issues-–that’s why we invested so much time and work in our candidates, not just because we thought Pres. Obama is a great guy. We support him (and Elizabeth Warren and everyone else) by working, between elections, to turn their ideas into policies. (Not to mention that there WILL be important elections again, very soon!).


Grassroots power is not turned on and off and back on again with a switch, at a moment’s notice. To truly build an effective movement, one that mobilizes true change, it takes long-term organizing, work, relationship-building, and collaboration with others who share our common goals.

  • What if getting better government and policies meant not just an every couple-of-years high-intensity short-term election push?
  • What if we worked on a slower burn, sustained and over time?

We have power; let’s focus it and put it to use!


Harmony Wu
progressive organizer
from Needham, MA


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