A Conversation With Marshall Ganz
Four years ago Ganz decided he wanted to get involved in the embryonic Obama-for-president movement and, in particular, to apply his public narrative techniques as a bedrock part of the presidential strategy. In 2004 Ganz had done some organizing sessions with Howard Dean’s campaign, which a number of his ex-students had found their way into. When Kerry emerged as the nominee apparent, Ganz was deeply disappointed by the renewed dominance of what he saw as a bland, passionless “consult-ocracy.” But later that year he was electrified upon hearing a radio broadcast of Obama’s “One America” speech to the Democratic Party convention. “I say, ‘Holy shit! This guy gets it!’ That there needs to be a values struggle here. The heart of the matter is the values that actually move us, that constitute who we are. It was like, ‘Ooooh, got it!’ This was a voice that could really make a difference in American politics.”
Two years later, he was liberally quoting from Obama’s convention speech while teaching courses on public narrative and moral leadership. Ganz viewed his classroom as a laboratory. He had recently finished a book, Why David Sometimes Wins, on why Chavez’s farmworker movement was so successful in comparison with other unions, like the Teamsters, that had tried and failed to establish a permanent presence in California’s fields. Yes, Goliath was more powerful than David; and, yes, if they’d chosen to fight using the expected weaponry of sword and shield, Goliath would have creamed his puny opponent. But by thinking outside the box—grabbing a slingshot instead of a sword—David had neutralized the big guy’s advantage. Chavez and his comrades, outfinanced, outmanned, opposed by business owners and law enforcement, viewed with suspicion by other labor leaders, had worked out a grassroots strategy that connected viscerally with impoverished, disenfranchised grape pickers. He had worked out a way to blend stories, to create a narrative binding workers and organizers into one large community.
Identifying your strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses, being willing and able to think outside the box, Ganz told his students, were core ingredients of good organization-building.
When Obama declared his candidacy, Ganz approached his friend and Kennedy School colleague Samantha Power, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, and asked her to broker his entry into the campaign. He felt there was room in the Obama candidacy to articulate a difference between the world as it is and the world as it could one day be, to create a situation in which David emerges the victor.
In April 2007 Ganz met with Obama and David Axelrod at Harvard. Intrigued by Ganz’s ideas, they invited him to campaign headquarters in Chicago the following month. In June, after a series of meetings, Ganz was charged with the task of setting up a Camp Obama network, intensive community organizing–style training camps in which young people would be taught to tell Obama’s story, to spread a message and generate the enthusiasm of a true grassroots movement. Its success was phenomenal, ultimately generating one of the most effective and broad-based presidential campaigns in American history.
While media consultant Axelrod was the numbers brain, the wonk behind the campaign’s caucus-and-primary strategy, Ganz was the brains behind the movement-building. No one, including Obama, understood what made the campaign so effective, so good at connecting with young people in particular, so able to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of old loyalties and coalitions, better than Ganz. He understood how to unlock the “prophetic imagination” of youth; the willingness to take the world from where it is to where you want it to be. “The blending of a grassroots organizing capacity with Obama really worked,” he argues. “But it wasn’t because Obama was telling anybody to do it.”
“The first thing we taught was story,” explains Ganz. “It was tapping into that moral resource and coupling it with strategy and leadership.” Shared values, he told the volunteers, lead to viable relationships and shared commitments. These make it easier to build organizational structure, to generate effective electoral teams, which makes the development of effective strategy possible and makes it more likely that you will attain desired political outcomes.
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These days, two years after Obama’s historic victory, with the country mired in a politics as polarized and ugly as it has ever been, the question keeps coming up, Where’s the energy, the communication methods, the movement passion of the Obama campaign now that he’s president? Where has it all gone? One answer is, It’s at Harvard, at the Kennedy School of Government, in the person of Marshall Ganz. To the follow-up question, What can Obama do to regain the energy of his golden 2007–08 years? a good starting point for an answer would be to bring Ganz and his organizing protégés back into the center of Obamaland.
President Obama, Ganz says ruefully, seems to be “afraid of people getting out of control.” He needed the organizing base in 2008, but he and his inner circle were quick to dismantle it after the election. Yes, Ganz concedes, they kept Organizing for America, with its access to the vast volunteer databases, alive; but they made a conscious decision to neuter it, so as to placate legislators who were worried about the independent power base it could give Obama. Following a meeting of key members of the transition team, they placed it under the control of the Democratic National Committee. It became, if you like, something of a house pet. Yes, President Obama proposed, and continues to propose, many good policies; but, the community organizing guru concludes, the fire, the passion and the moral clarity were left out of his postelection rhetoric.
Returning to his kitchen table after a brief quest amid the clutter for his eyedrops, Ganz surveys what’s left of candidate Obama’s promise to deliver a cleaner, more uplifting style of politics. After winning in November 2008, Obama and his inner circle wanted to control the terms of the debate rather than be pushed from below by a chaotic, empowered, activist community. They wanted to shift Obama’s leadership style, Ganz believes, from the transformational aura of his candidacy to something different; they wanted him to be a transactional leader, a maker of deals, a compromiser in chief.
“He’s not a bad man,” Ganz says of the president. “His policy intent is not bad. But you don’t have the opportunity to change history every day. The Obama campaign excited the whole world. It created an opportunity to build capacity and do real movement-building.”
In losing sight of that historic opening, and in tamping down the activist energies the campaign had unleashed, President Obama’s inner circle lost a chance to change the country he leads. And then, intellectual polymath that he is, Ganz quotes the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides. “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”
“Understanding the sources of strategic capacity can help to explain why the powerful do not always stay powerful,” Ganz wrote in his book on the farmworkers’ movement. “And thus why David sometimes wins. But remaining David can be even more challenging than becoming David in the first place.”
Homepage image courtesy of Union Education