Bethany Gardiner-Smith is a Legislative and Political Adviser to Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords
“See you must never pick a Buckeye, but if you can find one that’s fallen from the tree... oh geez, well then you’ve got yourself good luck for life”. August in Columbus Ohio, close to 40°C and my first introductions to the nut after which most things in this town are named.
Columbus, home of the ‘Buckeyes’ and Ohio State University is Capital of the most important State in the electoral fortunes of any US presidential hopeful. It’s no secret why Obama launched his campaign here last year. No candidate has become President without the support of Ohioans since the 1960s.
Many pages have been written about the importance of the mid-western State seen by many to hold in microcosm the myriad of priorities and values that motivate Americans. A State where wealthy University cities sprawl into sparse farming communities; where towns like Toledo, which once thrived at the centre of the auto-manufacturing golden age of post-war America, are now on life-support thanks only to decisive intervention by the Obama administration. This is a State which glorifies a conker and where community and humility are the animating values.
I was there to volunteer with ‘Organising for Obama’ – the field network of the campaign. It’s first week back at Ohio State University and students are swarming the streets around Campus. Bobbing in amongst them are Obama volunteers, armed with clipboards and buckeye buttons aiming to register as many of their fellow students as possible to vote before the State deadline.
In 2008 Obama swept to victory on the back of a grassroots movement fuelled by its skilled volunteers and low-dollar donations, and this year they are hoping to repeat their success. Paid organisers are deposited in towns and cities in battleground States across the US with the task of growing such a network as fast and as far-reaching as possible. But their strategy is based on that distinctly American spirit de Tocqueville identified as ‘Town Hall’ politics, that when it comes to public discourse a neighbour is more persuasive than a stranger.
The focus is on building a sophisticated network of local activists and volunteers who know their community and the issues that will best move them to vote. National ‘Get Out The Vote’ phonebanks have been scrapped in favour of student ‘dorm storms’ and neighbourhood walks.
The theory is somewhat counterintuitive in politics: share power as wide as possible; give volunteers responsibilities not tasks; aim to increase their burdens not minimise them. But it works by building the commitment and skills of its volunteers and so creating a sense of ownership over the direction of the campaign. This is what Obama meant in his speech last night in North Carolina to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) when he said “you are the change”.
Perhaps most striking of all is that most of the volunteers here are not Party members; in fact many do not even describe themselves as Democrats. They are here because they like the President and they have been inspired by the sense of being part of something growing and people-led, without feeling like being tied into a formal party structure.
It is a theme that at the macro-level has emerged as the narrative of the DNC. From Mayor Castro talking about his family’s reliance on food stamps as a kid, to Michelle Obama describing her husband as having lived the American dream. The message is clear: we know what it’s like, they – the Republicans – don’t.
It is a powerful concept. People might not trust ‘politicians’ as a class, but they will trust someone they believe shares the same frustrations and aspirations as themselves. And we will trust ourselves, which is why a process driven by its volunteers, which unlocks the sense of active citizenship Obama referred to so many times last night is so potent.
In an age of increasing disengagement in traditional party politics, the Democrats community organising is refreshingly energized. As the movement of the many not the few here, there is much from this that Labour can learn.