What We Lost After We Won in 2008
An anti-war activist explains what the Democratic
establishment fails to understand.
By Marilyn Katz
In These Times
December 2010 issue - web release: Nov. 10, 2010
On a sleepy Sunday in September 2002, I was awakened by a
call from Bettylu Saltzman, a longtime progressive activist
and fundraiser in Chicago, who, disturbed by a dinner
conversation the night before, asked, "What are we going to
do about this war that Bush is going to lead us into in
Iraq?" Awakened also from nearly a decade-long slumber in
which there were no mass demonstrations, we realized that if
we didn't do something, it was more than likely that no one
would. Gleaning names from our phone books, we called
together a small meeting of about 15 people from various
former alliances - Business and Professional People for the
Public Interest (BPI), Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) and the Harold Washington coalition.
It was only a year after the terrorist attacks on Washington
and New York, and the repression in the country was
palpable. John Poindexter, director of the Pentagon's Total
Information Awareness project, was rumored to be compiling a
list of subversives. It was a scary time - and even among
these long-tested activists, there was apprehension: What
would be the repercussions of our acts? One year after 9/11,
would people really speak out? What if no one came?
Drawing on lessons from my activist past, I argued that we
had to take a public stand. The first demonstrations during
the '60s drew only 50 people before there were 1 million;
and the one thing I knew for sure was that if we did not
claim the public space for dissent now, there would no
longer be any space for dissent later. Even if we had to
stand alone, we had to stand.
With a sense of urgency we agreed to call for a
demonstration at the city's Federal Plaza. Each of us turned
to our email lists, our contacts from far and wide. We
reached out to various groups, scraped together the money
for an ad, created posters and fliers. And we called every
public official we knew, inviting them to join us. We didn't
know who would come and stand with us, either on the half-
donated stage or in the massive plaza, but we were ready for
whatever was to come.
Ten days later, on October 2, to our great pleasure and
somewhat to our surprise, nearly 3,000 people joined us at
the plaza. They were young, old, friends and strangers, and
in stark contrast to 1966, 1967 and 1968, the response from
the surrounding crowd was really great. The highest-ranking
public official who showed up was a little-known politician
from the south side of Chicago, a friend of mine and a
better friend of Bettylu's - State Senator Barack Obama. He
made a speech that had heads turning and asking, "Who is
From that first crowd of 3,000, opposition to the war
followed a much quicker trajectory than did opposition to
the war in Vietnam. By March 2003, millions of people across
the United States had taken to the streets to say no to the
war. For a moment we felt powerful.
But despite the fastest-growing anti-war movement in the
nation's history, despite the opposition of more than 121
city councils across the nation, Bush invaded. People were
outraged over and over again, yet by 2005, the protest
movement had stopped growing; the demonstrations were
getting smaller and smaller. There were several contributing
First, the generation of young people that had populated
those demonstrations was different from the one in the '60s.
They were not threatened by a draft; rather they were
burdened by college loans and job insecurity; and they
lacked any real counterculture. There was none of the
playful space that my friends and I had growing up in, none
of the feeling that if you didn't get a job this year, you
would just get a job next year.
Second, unlike the Vietnam years, there was no palpable
response to our protests from the federal government. The
movement got little serious attention from the news media
and partly as a result (or perhaps learning from the '60s)
George W. Bush refused to take us seriously.
On top of that there was a complete lack of leadership from
the Democratic Party. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), at that
point the party's standard-bearer, had supported the
resolution that enabled Bush to go forward with the war. And
so Republicans were able to frame the issue as one of
"supporting the troops," while the Democratic leadership
failed to frame the issue at all.
As a consequence, people became discouraged and drifted away
from the demonstrations, convinced they had no chance of
making an impact.
Hope on the horizon
In 2007, as Barack Obama's campaign for president began to
take shape, people - young people in particular - felt that
since they weren't going to influence power, they might as
well take power. Activists, many of whom had become
disengaged from the protest movement, now shifted their
focus onto the election to the presidency of someone they
believed reflected their own politics, someone they thought
would end the war and would be a force for peace.
To correctly understand the 2008 election, it is important
to recognize that rather than creating a movement, the Obama
campaign created a structure to which the anti-war movement
- youth in particular but also others - could attach. Obama,
as he would be the first to admit, did not organize the
movement; the movement organized to attach itself to the
structure of his campaign. This is a vital distinction that
nobody quite gets, whether they are media pundits, political
consultants and polling gurus, or staffers in the White
House and at the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The months leading up to the election were heady times, as
not only anti-war activists but activists in every realm -
environment, community development, women's issues and more
- attached themselves to the structure of the campaign,
invigorating the same old Democratic base with new
constituencies, who for the most part didn't really give
"electoral politics" a thought. After the election, perhaps
from never really understanding the process nor
understanding the empowering and progressive impact of
collective action, the Obama administration and the DNC let
that grassroots structure wither. The White House was
prohibited from using any of the campaign support lists for
political purposes, and the DNC used the lists almost
exclusively for fundraising purposes, too often targeting
those who gave dollars rather than time.
Ultimately, the DNC and White House political operatives
missed the point: that when people are acting together they
feel empowered. By failing to maintain group activities and
infrastructure, the Democrats left people feeling atomized,
disempowered and ultimately paralyzed.
Consequently, when the president needed grassroots support
he had no way to hook into, educate or activate any of the
non-Democratic Party activists or issue groups, except for
those that lived in Washington.
Yes, the DNC has lists of people who donate to Democrats,
who are Democratic activists - it always had such lists.
What was unique about the Obama campaign was that people who
were not self-identified Democratic activists found a
momentary home with the Obama campaign.
Remember 2008? In Chicago everyone you knew was spending
their weekends going door to door in nearby Wisconsin or
Indiana. That's not what happened this year, because the
Democrats made four critical mistakes during the run-up to
First, they left people alone in their isolation. People who
feel connected to a center of activity and to each other
feel empowered and hopeful. People left to suffer the
vicissitudes of life alone feel scared.
Second, they relied on 2008 vote counts to organize and
predict outcomes for today. Their strategy has been to
simply "round up those who voted in 2008" - misunderstanding
that the margin of victory did not come from "regular
Democrats" but from those "independents who saw a reflection
of and hope for themselves in Obama."
Voting is an action that comes from a motivation. It is
stirred by something that you want. If you leave people
disorganized and not inspired by an agenda or issues, or not
understanding of what the strategy is, they are not going to
Third, they mistook technology for the thing itself. TV is a
tool. The Internet is a tool - and most effective when it
allows people to take an action in response to it. The best
method to do that is providing people with a response that
requires collective action. The most interesting thing about
Obama's use of the Internet - and the campaign didn't
recognize this - is not just that it allowed them to raise a
ton of money. Rather, through its connectivity it allowed
people to accelerate the process of organizing groups on the
ground. So the impact was translated from the Internet to
the ground. And that's been totally absent in the past two
years. Voting is a function of people's activity and
enthusiasm. It doesn't exist in the middle of nowhere. It
doesn't float in the sky.
The Obama administration's fourth critical mistake was its
bad political positioning - putting Obama in the role of
mediator rather than champion. Right after the Democrats
lost the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by the late Ted
Kennedy, I was at a dinner in New York with about 25 policy
people, mayors, chiefs of police and experts from the
Kennedy School at Harvard. I asked: "How many of you can
name five things in the healthcare platform?" One person
could name three and he was a doctor from Chicago who was
also a social activist.
The point is that even among the most concerned, ardent,
thoughtful activists, there was no clear understanding of a
message from Obama. I believe that came not out of
incompetence, though it might have appeared so, but out of
the decision to take one part of Obama's political persona
during the campaign, i.e. The Great Mediator, and make that
the cutting edge of his presidency rather than advancing a
During the 2008 campaign people weren't organizing to elect
a mediator. They were organizing to elect a leader - someone
whom they trusted, someone whose answers to the immediate
situation came from a wellspring of principles applied to
current realities and issues. The choice of the mediator as
Obama's persona was a big mistake.
And because nobody in the country can tell you what's in the
healthcare package, people are having a hard time fighting
for what they don't know.
Toward a better future
Two years after an election that saw record voter turnout
and engaged huge numbers of people who showed up at the
polls for the first time, a sense of anomie and
disconnection has replaced the euphoria of November 2008.
I see two critical actions that would reverse the situation.
First, there needs to be a recalibration of the presidency
and message from the White House. People need to know what
Obama thinks, why he does what he does, and how they can
help. This is not possible by using only "mediated sources"
(i.e. the major media). He/they need to speak directly to
people about what the administration is doing, why they are
doing what they do, and how all of us can be of use. The
administration - in each department of government, as well
as through the DNC - needs to motivate as well as activate
Second, the road to change runs not through any street in
Washington but through the streets of our communities. There
needs to be a re-organization on the ground by people. We
must understand that Obama can't do it for us; like all
leaders, the president needs a sea in which to swim. We must
build the national grassroots vehicle that Obama for America
and Organizing for America could have been. This
organization must be broad enough in scope to develop and
promote a progressive agenda, and it should allow all types
of involvement - whether online or in person, occasional or
The core of the new organization could be a web of activists
in every state - not just blue states and not only
Democratic Party members - enfolding the thousands of
Americans engaged each day on issues of neighborhood, health
and climate - the stuff that life is made of.
Crucially, the organization's members would not only
articulate a progressive agenda and interact with
congressional leaders on the ground but also be broad and
creative enough in their thinking to involve the ordinary,
everyday people who found both meaning and community in
2008. I believe these people yearn for this today, if for no
reason other than to once again feel the sense of "Yes we
can!" that only comes from the transformative power of
In 2008 the American people elected a great leader who had
an agenda that was not necessarily theirs or mine, but it
was a progressive agenda, one that would frame the debate
for the next four years. In the campaign they felt the power
of collective action - a sense that they could be a part of
and make history. It is that sense - both of agenda and of
the power of collective action, not of dependency on a great
man but on the interdependency of man and movement - that
has foundered. If the movement and the man are to prevail,
that collective purpose must be found again.
[Marilyn Katz is the founder and president of Chicago-based
MK Communications. An anti-war and civil rights organizer
during the Vietnam War, she served with Lee Weiner (one of
the Chicago 7) as co-head of security during the August 1968
protests at the Democratic National Convention.
Katz has founded and led many groups, from the Chicago
Women's Union, Reproductive Rights National Network, Chicago
Women Organized for Reproductive Choice in the 1960s and
1970s to the Chicagoans Against War in Iraq in 2002 which
organized the October 2, 2002 rally at which President
Barack Obama made his now-famous anti-war speech.
While Katz' early professional life was spent as a
filmmaker, after serving as media and press consultant for
Harold Washington's unexpected 1983 mayoral win, she founded
MK Communications, a full-service media, community and
government relations company which represents numerous
government, community, nonprofit and philanthropic entities
throughout the nation. A fellow of Leadership Greater
Chicago, Katz serves on numerous boards, including local
community and corporate boards, Human Rights Watch Chicago
and the national board of J Street.
Marilyn Katz is available for media interviews: call (312)
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