Success in the Field is Like Building a Church…

Success in the Field is Like Building a Church… December 15, 2008

Well, it’s happened again- no, you didn’t waste another perfectly good hour listening to ‘Car Talk,’ but yet another pundit brought up the Personality Cult of Barack Obama. It’s an easy attack: all these “Obamaites” who thought Obama would bring about a utopia are going to be let down. Obama’s cabinet is just politics as usual. Hillary Clinton can’t be change, her name is Clinton, and we’ve seen this before.


And of course there were jokes like this one from The Onion,, made just days after the campaign ended.


I have been thinking about this, and about my personal passion: working in the field. And the truth is, creating what could be described as a personality cult is essential to creating a good grassroots effort. Furthermore, I know for a fact that there were people who felt the same way about Senator Edwards, and there seemed to be equally strong passions for Senator (and soon to be Secretary) Clinton. I would argue that this is because, in part, all three major presidential campaigns employed what can only be described as spectacular field campaigns.


In order for a good field campaign to work, you need at least the following things: passionate, energetic young field organizers to work long hours, you need passionate volunteers to help those organizers, you need offices in as many places as possible to give those organizers a place to set up, and space for those volunteers to make phone calls, send out mailings, print walk sheets, and a multitude of other campaigning tasks. And most importantly, you need a charismatic leader to create something people can believe in, which will in turn give all of these people a common purpose, thus creating a community.


It seems to me, and on this I turn to other members of the community to agree or disagree, that this is a lot like building a Church. In order to build a church you need a Reverend, Pastor, or Priest to inspire people to join, and to spread the word about her sermons, and get yet more people to join the Church community. Now, I have never tried to start a new church, so for those of you with more experience with that I would love to hear your opinions on this, but they seem similar from where I stand.


Change doesn’t happen with Hope alone; it takes work, and intelligence and debate. And, as pundits are quick to point out, government is a slow process, filled with compromise, and back room deals with members of Congress. But that hasn’t stopped Barack Obama! His transition team is still bringing his grassroots into decision making, from the “What do we do now?” house parties, organized through, that over 10,000 people participated in nationwide, the Healthcare House Parties that Secretary Daschle asked for, or the interactive web site It seems just like a pastor, who has to work and talk with her flock and get feedback as it the Church grows and evolves. Now, it’s certainly true that these disparate groups of people won’t be present in those closed door meetings, but they do two things: 1) create networks of people who have proven that they follow through with action to contact Members of Congress about issues important to the Administration, 2) create local infrastructures that can work with local Democratic organizations to affect change on the local level. After all, as Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.”


I was never fully on board with the Obama campaign, but it is damn true that they had an amazing field campaign, and perhaps that came with a cost: the cult of personality and the disappointment of the far left, but I do believe that Barack Obama will be an amazing president, and I have not been disappointed in a single appointment. In fact, in the case of Secretary of State, pleasantly surprised!


And to be sure the fault of the so-called personality cult lies not on Obama’s shoulders but on David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Steve Hildebrand and others who knew that the grassroots were the way to success, who knew that we, the American people, were ready for something new, ready for something that inspired emotions than fear. They had youth in spades, they had people willing to volunteer in spades, and they had the ability to take that national. They did what they should have, and they did a damn good job at it. In the same way it seems to me the success of a new Church is less on the shoulders of the pastor as it is on the parishioners, who fund the church, and who encourage others to join.


The burden for Obama of course is to keep the flock together, just as it is the job of the pastor. He has hit a few bumps, but I think as 2009 progresses, we will see an Obama Administration not only keeping the flock together, but bring yet more people into the fold.

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