Sunday, November 27, 2011

Deconstructing the myth that OFA = the DLC

I've seen too many on the left pretend that Obama for America (formerly Organizing for America - or OFA) is merely an extension of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). That kind of comparison shows a serious lack of awareness about either organization.

To deconstruct that myth, let's start by taking a look at the DLC. I've found no better analysis on it than the one written in 2001 by Robert Dryfuss.

Here's how he describes the founding of the DLC.

With few resources, and taking heavy flak from the big guns of the Democratic left, the DLC proclaimed its intention, Mighty Mouse–style, to rescue the Democratic Party from the influence of 1960s-era activists and the AFL-CIO, to ease its identification with hot-button social issues, and, perhaps most centrally, to reinvent the party as one pledged to fiscal restraint, less government, and a probusiness, pro–free market outlook.

But with an agenda like that - the days of "few resources" didn't last long.

The DLC and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), have blossomed into a $7-million-a-year operation. The New Democrat Network (NDN), which provides funds to dozens of certified co-thinkers in federal, state, and local races, raised nearly $6 million last year.

But here's a critical distinction:

Though the DLC offers a nominal $50 membership to anyone interested, its mass base is minuscule. "There's a New Democrat audience of about 5,000 to 10,000 people who get our stuff on a regular basis," says Matthew Frankel, the DLC's spokesman. And with a nonexistent grass-roots presence, the DLC is generally unknown except to practitioners of "inside baseball" politics. Yet the affiliation of scores of members of Congress has enabled the DLC to establish alliances with Fortune 500 corporate supporters, particularly along the so-called K Street corridor of Washington-based lobbyists and in high-tech enclaves such as California's Silicon Valley.

In other words, it was the classic "top-down" kind of organization built mainly to attract political donations from the corporate world.

Writing about the same time, Senator Paul Wellstone penned what sounds a lot like a direct challenge to this kind of approach. While the DLC cast its political message as being one about catering to the "center" of American politics, Wellstone redefined what the term means.

The American people do want us to govern from the center, in a sense. But it is not the center the pundits and politicians in Washington talk about. Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives. They yearn for a politics that speaks to and includes them--affordable childcare, a good education for their children, health and retirement security, good jobs that will support their families, respect for the environment and human rights, clean elections and clean campaigns.

And then he gets to the heart of the issue.

Progressive politics is successful when it is not top-down and elitist and when it respects the capacity of ordinary citizens...

As important as new ideas are, another think tank or policy institute not connected to local grassroots organizing will not suffice...I am all for representing the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But progressive politics must draw its energy and ideas from local citizen-activists. Too often we have failed to make that critical connection...

This is more a democratic than a Democratic challenge, though I hope there is a strong connection between the two...But building such a grassroots-based effort to advocate effectively for the progressive agenda, and to put more progressives in office at every level and across the country, is a goal worth fighting for.

And that, my friends, is exactly what OFA has done and is all about...Respect. Empower. Include.

All of that was on display during the 2008 primaries and general election. I'm not sure enough people paid attention though. The one's that did and wrote about it were people like Sean Quinn, Zach Exley and Al Giordano. Those folks knew that something different was happening. Here's how Exley put it.

Inside the Obama campaign, almost without anyone noticing, an insurgent generation of organizers has built the Progressive movement a brand new and potentially durable people's organization, in a dozen states, rooted at the neighborhood level.

The "New Organizers" have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so "top-down" and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or "bottom-up" organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.

In other words, OFA - which included 5 million volunteers in 2008 and is well on its way to that again in 2012 - is an organization that melded the bottom-up kind of organizing with structural supports from the top to make it effective...just the kind of thing Wellstone was talking about and the opposite of the DLC.

A companion goal and result of this kind or organizing is a change in the way the Obama campaign is financed...with a heavy reliance on small donors (again, the opposite of the DLC).

“We always knew we needed to build a broad-based support network, and we try not to rely too much on one thing,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in an interview. “Our experience is that people who give become volunteers, and people who volunteer become donors. We want to build a relationship with them.”

When folks on the left compare the two organizations, they do what so many activists tend to do - focus on the issues alone and ignore the importance of the process. But when it comes to democracy (and especially the progressive brand), the process of "bottom-up" is what its all about. From that starting point, the issues come from the people.

Yes WE Can!


  1. Okay, it's news to me that anyone attempted to compare the DLC to OFA. Weird. Thanks for the education. I didn't know anything about the DLC; just thought it was a hold-over from the Clinton machine that mostly represented the neo-liberals like Bill Clinton: all deregulation/free market all the time.

  2. Tien - what I've heard most often is a suggestion that Obama is just a "DLC Democrat." I think folks mean it the same way they talk about him being a corporate lackey.

    There is some history there with the Democratic Party that we ought to all be aware of. And we should also be knowledgeable about how much Obama has broken with that past.

  3. Great post, I am tired of the poutragers and their denigration of OFA cuz they won't go
    over the cliff with their half-assed b.s issues


  4. Having worked for a candidate running against Bill Clinton in the primaries in 1992 and dealing with the DLC then, and after seeing what they did through the 1990s all the way up to 2008 when President Obama essentially neutered them, I have long felt that the DLC was created by MegaMoney as a Trojan Horse to destroy the DemocratIC Party from within. Ultimate "divide and conquer" tactic.

    Over several years time, Ron Brown, Terry MacAuliffe and so on closed up DemocratIC Party offices across the country, and instead pushed their horrible "swing state" strategy, no matter how many years it was a proven loser. All the while pushing many policies that were to the right of Ronnie Raygun. Based upon their actions, it seems so obvious to me what the DLC was created for, and it certainly wasn't for passing Liberal legislation.

    President Obama had a fairly public row with the DLC leading up to his Presidential campaign, where the DLC was putting his name on their membership roster, and he publicly asked them to remove it. Joe Biden has never been a member either.

    I couldn't agree more with this analysis and thanks for highlighting it. It's important to educate people about this to make sure it doesn't happen again. -bonkers

  5. bonkers - Thanks for that enlightening comment. You confirm what I've always believed about the DLC.


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