I tweeted on Friday that I was profoundly dismayed with democracy in America. I was called out on this by one of my friends, who accused me of being a latte drinking, Guardian reading liberal and, I suspect his point was, of not respecting the will of the people in Massachusetts. He’s got at least three points right there, but he’s not right about the last one. And it’s an important point to respond to because actually I’m excited by the lessons that the will of the people taught us in Massachusetts. I think they’ve confirmed our exit from the twentieth century.
The Massachusetts result is upsetting for its disproportionate consequences and for the sense of missed opportunities it brings to those who support what Obama wants to do. But it shouldn’t be described as an upset in the sense of being surprising. It’s only surprising if you had an expectation that even though the Democrats ran a worse candidate, working less hard, making worse gaffs they should still have won because, well, Massachusetts is Democrat, it just is.
If we’ve learnt anything from the impact of the internet age on people’s behaviour it’s that loyalty can’t be taken for granted. That’s a good thing. We have more choice because of the internet, are more able to exercise that choice, and are more able to change our minds. This is most evident in our behaviour as consumers (look at what’s happening with newspapers) but is equally true in our considerations of who we want to hang out with, the groups we want to associate with or the causes we want to support. In the last century we mostly made the most meaningful of those decisions, which enable individuals to organise and identify with other individuals, via top-down institutions like religions or political parties. And as a result we became pretty well locked in to those decisions. Not any more. As Clay Shirky says (and I will never get tired of quoting) we have the possibility now of “organising without organisations”.
That’s not to say that Scott Brown’s campaign, or the Republican Party, had nothing to do with their win. (And I should disclose now that I was there for three days before the vote volunteering for the Coakley campaign. Having said that I should also say I was mostly knocking on doors and so have no privileged view of what went on there.) Rather that Coakley’s mistake was to assume that there’s such a thing as a Blue State any more; one that’s made up of voters who will turn out for you whatever.
I was surprised when Hillary was battling Obama in the primaries that she forgot Bill Clinton’s lesson that hope is such a strong electoral message (listen up Cameron). And I was surprised in Massachusetts that the Democrats forgot Obama’s lesson. Didn’t he tell us that there is not one Red America and one Blue America? Didn’t he adopt a 50 state strategy because he believed people could be persuaded to vote for him despite who they had voted for in the past? The Massachusetts loss is not a victory for Karl Rove’s 50% + 1 strategy (mobilise your base and get just that one more vote you need to win), although it promotes some of his other more horrible tactics. It’s a victory for Obama’s belief that the whole of America is to play for.
But what that means is that you have to play. You have to properly engage. You have to argue. You have to convince. And you have to do all of the things that politics is all about in order to do that convincing: fundraising, advertising, handshaking, tramping the streets, finding and motivating volunteers to tramp the streets with you, creating a compelling message, attacking your opponent’s ideas…You can’t rely on voters to mindlessly follow what they’ve always done. In short you’ve got to campaign like you believe what you say is important and that it might change people’s minds. The lesson for the politicians is that the new social structures of the internet age mean Obama was right, you can win in any corner of America, but you have to fight for it.