Zack Exley on “The New Organizers”

Zack Exley, who rejected a proposed plan a meeting to discuss a proposed plan for community-centric organizing offered to the Kerry campaign in 2004, writes at the Huffington Post about the Obama campaign’s success in incorporating the “netroots.”

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….Win or lose, “The New Organizers” have already transformed thousands of communities—and revolutionized the way organizing itself will be understood and practiced for at least the next generation.

Obama’s people are extending the uses of technology documented in Extreme Democracy The Kerry campaign had an opportunity to go there in April 2004, but opted for a completely top-down approach, though a group of volunteers with experience in online commmunity, including Howard Rheingold, Nanci Meng, Tex Coate, Cameron Barrett, Jock Gill, Nancy White, Bob Jacobson, Aldon Hynes, Jerry Michalski and myself offered community organizing plans that could have been implemented with minimal overhead, leveraging technology and volunteers. Jock Gill wrote about this in 2006 at Greater Democracy. Jock posts text from the plan in comments.

Not faulting Zack, who was coming to the Kerry campaign from, an email-based organization brilliant at coordinating activist campaigns, but never effective using social technology to organize the “netroots.” We had been meeting with the Kerry campaign when he came on board and chose not to pursue the netroots approach, working instead with the moveon style of fundraising he knew best, under very real pressure to raise money for the campaign, leaving little time and mindshare for grassroots organizing, the effectiveness of which was iffy in the short term. What we were offering was risky in that it would have taken longer to build effectively, however if we had started then, there would have been a much stronger network of communities committed to the Democratic party, and Obama could arguably have grown his network better and faster. And it’s not that the netroots didn’t organize. Howard Dean continued working his networks to become the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and a very effective netroots emerged through Daily Kos and other progressive hubs.

And the Obama campaign really understood the power of the technology, not just to support fundraising, but to organize effective networks and communities in support of their candidate. I suspect there’s a whole powerful Obama network that you don’t really see because of this focus on building support from the ground up rather than through more visible mass media. It will be very interesting to see the effect of this organizing on the November elections.

Additional note: I’ve been discussing the netroots in a two-week interview with Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox, authors of Netroots Rising, in a public conversation on the WELL.

Author: Jon Lebkowsky

Co-wrangler of Plutopia News Network, cohost Radio Free Plutopia. Podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. Former editor/publisher, FringeWare Review; associate editor at bOING bOING and Factsheet Five; writer at Mondo 2000, 21C, Wired, Whole Earth Review, Austin Chronicle; sub-editor at Millennium Whole Earth Catalog; blogger at Worldchanging. Digital culture maven, podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. On The WELL, Cohost of VC (virtual communities), Media, and Civil War (.ind) conferences.

14 thoughts on “Zack Exley on “The New Organizers””

  1. Jon,

    It’s really unfair and inaccurate to say that I rejected a plan for community centric organizing in 2004. That would be like saying that the busboy on the Titanic rejected your recommendation to turn the ship around. Except that in this case a better analogy would be that the busboy rejected your recommendation to use superpowers that you imagined existed to melt the iceberg ahead.

    First, the proposal your group submitted was pretty vague and included a lot of bad or irrelevant ideas — and as I remember it, most of the people behind it were not willing to jump in to help implement it anyways.

    Second, I did fight hard for a community-centric approach inside the campaign as much as possible. But there were severe limitations on our ability in the Internet department to do anything. It was a huge campaign and we were the kids in the corner usually being utterly ignored.

    Third, despite all the opposition within the campaign we actually did manage to do a lot of cool community organizing and distributed self organizing that most critics have never acknowledged.

    But most of all: It’s really important to understand that a whole lot of things have to come into alignment to make great community organizing happen in any organization. Many netroots thinkers consistently make the mistake of thinking good organizing can just be unleashed by some good online collaboration tools. That was the big flaw with the Dean campaign. Dean campaign organizing on the ground was awful (except in NH — which is where many of the Obama field people cut their teeth with Dean).

    At Kerry, we had a totally dysfunctional field program — for many reasons. The Internet team certainly had NO power to do anything about that. Even the national field leaders, who had a lot of strengths and were all about community organizing, didn’t have the political power to implement good community organizing throughout that huge and chaotic organizing.

    At Obama, because of all kinds of interesting twists of history, the stars were all in alignment to make it work. If you are thinking that Obama organizing is a success because of MyBO groups & blogs, you couldn’t be farther off. Those have been a little helpful here and there, but there is so much more involved:

    – Massive, good, relentless training for thousands of staff and tens of thousands of volunteer leaders

    – The coming-into-its-own of the VAN and other tools (even Google spreadsheets!) that allow for collaboration among volunteers *with* accountability to the campaign

    – The acceptance by field organizers of volunteers who “come from the Internet” (was a whole different story in 2004).

    – Budgets to support organizing.

    – Commitment to a community-centric, and teams-based model by ALL field leaders from the very top all way down.

    And a lot more.

    I’d really appreciate it if you would be more understanding and try to be more accurate in your assessment of what happened at Kerry (and Dean). Having a clear understanding of this history is a really important thing for the whole progressive movement.


  2. Sorry to add another comment — But also: what’s happening at Obama is not the decentralized and purely bottom-up stuff that you guys were pushing to us. It is highly structured, and many aspects of it are extremely top down. Other aspects are extremely local and bottom-up and peer-to-peer. That is exactly the kind of heterogeneous and non-dogmatic approach that I was pushing as an advisor to the Dean campaign. Unfortunately, a lot of dogmatic pure-bottom-up advisors won the day. And it’s what I did argue for (and what most of the field leaders were pushing for too) at Kerry — but like I said in my previous comment we were totally powerless there.

  3. Zack, I think you’re confusing the plan that Cam Barrett was working on with the plan I was associated with, which as far as I know you never saw (until possibly later, when Jock posted part of it online). We were set to meet with you and discuss it, and you canceled the meeting. I took the cancellation as a rejection – not of our proposal, because we had not presented it, but of the potential to use community effectively for the campaign.

    (Cam’s plan was very good, so I don’t know why you felt it was “vague,” but it’s the only plan you had seen when you chose not to follow up with us after our initial conversations with Sanford.)

    I take your word for it that you tried “cool community stuff” at some point, though I never saw it, but I never quite understood why you couldn’t at least give us the courtesy of hearing and considering our thoughts. I suppose I understand now, having read your comments. Sounds like you think we were idealistic propeller-heads.

    As to your remark about “superpowers that we imagined existed,” that’s bogus and insulting. Everyone in the group was a seasoned professional, many with far more years of experience than you could claim, and we were quite realistic. We didn’t expect community development to turn the campaign around, there wasn’t enough time – but it would help, and longer term, it would lay the groundwork for future community development.

    As to your remark “a whole lot of things have to come into alignment to make great community organizing happen in any organization. Many netroots thinkers consistently make the mistake of thinking good organizing can just be unleashed by some good online collaboration tools,” please spare me the lecture. We weren’t deluded about that notion. What we were preparing to do would have contributed an expanded framework for grassroots organizing, but we never saw it as a panacea. We were well aware of the shortcomings of the Dean campaign – there were many conversations about its flaws (some of which are included in Extreme Democracy).

    As to your other comment, it’s true that we were proposing something that would work, in part, from the bottom up, but it wasn’t going to be completely decentralized. We were very aware of the need for integration with the campaign according to its goals. You would have known that after fifteen minutes of conversation. We were community people but, again, we were mature, experienced, and had a pretty good grasp of political reality. Which is to say that we had our heads on straight. It’s unfortunate that you evidently chose to assume that we didn’t.

  4. I think Zack’s comment about superpowers refers to his influence, or lack thereof within the campaign.
    It seems you still think that Zack had the stroke within the Kerry organization to implement community organizing in some manner.

    From Zack’s statements and my conversations with Peter Dauo and others involved in the Kerry operations, the internet team had barely enough influence to execute the tasks they were assigned and little if any latitude to undertake new initiatives.

    Also bear in mind the time pressures of campaigns at that level. The task lists are frequently 20+ hours long each day. At a certain point in mid-summer, just getting from one day to the next by doing the bare minimum is a herculean task.

    IMO by the time Zack came on board Kerry-world it was too late to implement any of your ideas even if he had had the influence to get them implemented.

  5. Nate, thanks for bringing more clarity to the discussion. I totally get it. I’d always felt frustrated that the project was dropped suddenly when Zack appeared… Zack, I do understand that you couldn’t have done much more than listen.

  6. OK – sorry, I over reacted a bit there. I’m just sick of taking the blame for personally killing democracy itself in 2004.

    There was so much chaos back then. And yes, we all were working crazy crazy hours. I guess my memory of the plan was based on stuff I read on the group’s listserv back then and also phone conversations I had with a few people from the group (including you?).

    Where is the report now? Post it and let’s have a discussion about it.

  7. PS: also, I’m not confusing it with Cam’s report. I remember your group. I had & have enormous respect for the folks in the group.

  8. Jock Gill had posted it at

    I’m reposting it below. Note that it wasn’t complete. My recollection is that we wer going to flesh it out in collaboration with the campaign.

    Draft Outline Kerry Online Community Plan April 9, 1:33pm

    Online Community Plan
    Draft Outline for Kerry Online Community Plan.doc
    Draft Outline for Kerry Online Community Plan April 9, 2004, 13:10 PDT

    Amanda’s Consolidated Objectives

    I. Political goals for Kerry online community
    A. Grow Online Base
    1. Identify communications network and contacts
    This process will be hierarchical in the network sense. Our highest priority is in finding social hubs, i.e. people or organizations which link to many other people or organizations. This can be structured (e.g. following party hierarchy to the precinct level) or unstructured (e.g. finding and cultivating influentials via random networking). Primary paths:

    Geographical (State, city, county)
    Political (Region, district, precinct)
    Online social networks/progressive networks (including selected networks within social network sites, e.g. Kerry, Dean et al networks within Orkut, Friendster, Tribe et al.)
    Other paths?

    2. Who are the influentials (online political citizens)? (They will be social hubs).
    See “Online Political Citizens are not isolated cyber-geeks, as the media has portrayed them. On the contrary, OPCs are nearly seven times more likely than average citizens to serve as opinion leaders among their friends, relatives and colleagues. OPCs are disproportionately “Influentials,” the Americans who “tell their neighbors what to buy, which politicians to support, and where to vacation,” according to Ed Keller and Jon Berry, authors of the book, The Influentials.1 Normally, 10% of Americans qualify as Influentials. Our study found that 69% of Online Political Citizens are Influentials.”

    3. Energize/motivate organizers and influentials
    a) Educate, support, motivate, and energize
    (1) Content
    (a) Provide training resources — convert from “want to win” to “how to win”
    Three kinds of messages:

    Step by step guide: how to get out the vote.
    Concise statements on key issues, “never at a loss for words.”
    Educate about Dem party history, tradition, structure, values.
    (b) Vision for 21st Century Dem Party

    Relate Kerry campaign to this vision
    Create talking points and background info

    (2) Delivery
    We can use the Internet as the method of delivery to key supporters, but we must also encourage them to replicate in other media for local distribution.
    (a) Core documents published as html, pdf, and plain text
    (b) Talking points and core info recorded and distributed as mp3 audio (transferable to cd and tape for repeat listenings)
    b) Feedback loop — there has to be a legitimate way for campaign to let organizers know how the campaign is reacting to their work – an open channel (chat, forums)
    periodic notes from the candidate (weblog with comments) interactions online with campaign principals, about what is working (teleconferences, possibly augmented by chat and wiki)
    Leverage peer-level communication (David Weinberger’s point about the value of having the volunteers communicate with each other and using this communication to sustain momentum and keep core messages alive.)

    c) Provide examples of good organizing skills and organizers – (am) Define and model best practices for communication.
    d) Provide means for organizers to find one another (am)
    E.g. social networking and ‘getlocal’ tools.

    4. Attract and convince key constituencies/demographics

    Other minorities
    Other parties (greens? Libertarians?)
    voters in key swing states (ie. Southwest)
    a) Determine progressive/Dem influentials in these communities.
    b) Get their input on messaging.
    c) Use messaging tools/practices discussed above.
    5. Nurture online base of supporters by providing good guidance/communicating campaigns’ needs to supporters

    Embed collective online initiatives in political context so that they are meaningful to people (ie. If Bush announces x, ask people to respond)
    Give people online resources (posters, fliers, etc.) that are sensitive to context and timing

    B. Raise money
    1. Encourage ingenuity — “bake sale” idea for example

    C. Attract and convince key constituencies
    1. Women
    2. Latinos
    3. Include representation from multiple, diverse constituencies in
    vetting out this plan

    4. Who else?

    D. Get out the vote

    E. Match local volunteers with precinct organizations

    1. Precinct Power!

    Precinct Power — No Vacancies!
    Massachusetts politician Tip O’Neill famously said “All politics is local”. MA used to be a bastion of the GOP. In two election cycles Tip turned it Democratic by working a precinct strategy very hard. It works!

    Here is a quick series of web clicks, about 4, to show you the nature of the problem and the opportunity. It is huge.
    1] Go to DNC home page
    2] scroll down until you see the map of the USA and the Get Local option — select your state.
    3] You are now on the home page of your state DNC organization. Scroll down until you find the “The Local Democratic Sites” and click on the drop down menu.
    How many sites are there? One for every Town? City? Ward? Precinct?
    4] Pick the site for your town, or one near you, and check it out for “Social Network” features and benefits?
    In general, these local sites are both scarce and have no way to find each other, much less communicate and and cooperate. IE there is almost no possibility for local lateral conversation. What other things could we bring to the table if we wanted to partner with these existing network nodes?

    The role of the precinct level grassroots has shrunk as campaigns have become ever more dominated by advertising in broadcast media. The incentive for restoring the precinct grassroots is fundraising at $50K per hour — what Dean campaign and proved.

    As Bob Fertig of Democrats.Com writes, need to ask all of these groups
    – DNC
    – Kerry
    – Dean
    – Trippi
    – Clark
    – Edwards
    plus the progressive allies
    – Moveon
    – TrueMajority
    – Working Assets
    – NARAL
    – LCV
    – The Nation
    – TomPaine
    – MotherJones
    – ACT
    – American Grassroots
    to steer all of their members into active membership in local democratic committees. Everyone engaged in online activism would learn a lot by simply attending their monthly local ward or precinct meetings. We, the planners of the online effort, should think of this as much needed market research and “customer relationship development” before we recommend solutions.

    What is the reality on the ground at the precinct level? How can we join and work with the existing precinct organizations? How do we promote “anticipation, cooperation and innovation” and avoid conflict between the offline regulars and the online newbie enthusiasts? It helps to walk the talk.

    “Precinct Power” must have a larger vision than simply electing Kerry. It must have a vision of revitalizing the Democratic party and giving it the power and resources to win local, state and national elections for decades to come. President Kerry with a Senate majority can do a lot more than a President Kerry with no majorities on the Hill.

    And of course we very much need to have the 5 senate seats at risk in the south hold and win!

    A goal: Every seat on every precinct & ward committee in the USA filled by September 1, 2004. No Vacancies!

    F. Enlist and revive grassroots energy of Dean campaign

    – “Deaniacs for Kerry” – Begin by allowing Deaniacs to identify themselves as such, in order to lower their psychological barrier to identifying with anyone else

    Create a discussion space for Deaniacs for Kerry. Include welcoming, enthusiastic, Kerriacs

    Aggregate the suitable Deniac blogs

    G. Bring some order and alignment to the hundreds of grassroots groups, provide tools and guidance, funnel their ideas to the campaign

    H. Long-term local alliance-building — on to the Congressional and other elections after November; making sure we are not just capturing and serving grassroots support of Kerry, but all those who want to build strength of Democratic Party (five southern senate seats at risk, etc.)

    I. Generate support and enthusiasm by turning on the blogging community

    The blogosphere consists of hundreds of thousands of micro-communities. By energizing bloggers, those communities can be educated and invigorated to achieve the campaign’s aims.

    1. Give bloggers something to talk about. The Kerry blog is the obvious place to start.
    a. It could be edgier
    b. Invite some well-known people as guest bloggers so they can say things one step further from the campaign itself. E.g., Martin Sheen, Garrison Keillor, Howard Dean (?), etc.
    c. The more responses to other blogs, the better.
    2. Cultivate bloggers
    a. Treat some high-visibility bloggers like the press – invite some to travel with the candidate, etc.

    J. What else?

    II. Key objectives in pursuit of those goals

    A. Plan and launch a Kerry community of communities website that provides a focus for the many groups with a compelling statement of purpose, directory of resources, and well thought-out design — supports local self-organization, but gives them means for national dialogue and collaboration. (Other than what exists on the kerry site already? They have pages built that could be made to serve this purpose better. Much of it is already available via the Action Center HQ, or could be if it was designed and executed better. – JC 4/20)

    B. Support self-organization with toolsets and guidelines for local groups
    1. Develop “Precinct Power” materials and training for
    self-organizing individuals and/or groups to download from online space.
    a. Contents of kit to be decided but could include:
    1. Wiring your precinct
    a. Ideas for content of page to link to DNC site
    b. Virtual Fundraising
    c. Signing up volunteers online
    d. Local forums — message boards, Yahoo Groups

    C. Set up an FEC-clean way to help community volunteers to support campaign staff

    D. Prove to campaign staff that online community efforts pay off,
    enlist their enthusiastic support

    E. Prove to online grassroots organizers and volunteers that the
    campaign respects, listens, and knows how to make the best use of their efforts

    F. Go to local precinct and ward meetings — need to understand and know who is working on the ground, market research, thus establish trusting relationship between online and offline groups.

    III. Technical infrastructure

    A. Portal (like Deanspace, a general frame with unified daily
    messages and index to all groups, that each group can put their own community in.

    B. Individual blogs

    C. Group blogs (Scoop?)

    D. Message board for a couple hundred organizers? (Venice is open source message board software, for example)

    E. Voice services such as Vonage — we don’t provide technical
    access, but we provide how-to info

    F. IM — we don’t provide technical access, but we provide how-to info

    G. Texting– we don’t provide technical access, but we provide how-to info (this one deserves some thought in regard to GOTV tactics)

    H. Provide easy instructions on using off-the-shelf software: how to arrange a quick ad-hoc meeting via IM and inexpensive, secure, conference calls, for example. Actively outreach to communities to offer them what we can provide to support their effort.

    I. Events calendars

    J. Online/offline coordination – Names and contact info for online supporters should be a subset of the campaign’s master lists of supporter information so that messages, newsletters, pleas for help and support, volunteer opportunities, get out the vote efforts, etc. are centrally known so that the campaign has a sense of the most effective way to contact that person or otherwise use their information. This also avoids duplication. (Does the campaign have a privacy policy?) – JC 4/20

    IV. Social/management infrastructure

    A. Define role of community manager to oversee:
    1. Staffing
    2. Design structure and expectations for corps of online volunteer
    facilitators/leaders for forums and sections of site
    3. Online volunteer coordination
    4. Training
    5. Management of communications up and down chain from grassroots to
    campaign and back
    6. Development of guidelines for standards of behavior and
    interaction that support goals, comfort levels, and purposes of

    B. Can a representative structure bring ideas up from hundreds of individual groups and channel guidance on political objectives to grassroots? An open community for community organizers that is small enough to be manageable?

    C. Guidelines for what groups can do — first inquiring, then
    reflecting what they tell us they want to do?

    D. Training for online facilitators?

    F. Develop community philosophy

    G. What else?

    6. Timetable:

    A. Complete draft plan by April 22, circulate to larger group for
    comment in last week of April.

    B. Publish and begin to implement plan as early as possible in May.

    C. Retune in June.

    D. Hitting on all cylinders by July.

    7. What else?

  9. Well I have to admit that I’m more baffled now by your lead than I was when I first read it. (“Zack Exley, who rejected a proposed plan for community-centric organizing offered to the Kerry campaign in 2004, writes at the Huffington Post about the Obama campaign’s success in incorporating the netroots.”)

    Because we never actually discussed this actual proposal. And this “proposal” is not actually a serious proposal but a stream of consciousness outline that is a mix of good ideas, bad ideas, neutral ideas, impossible-to-implement ideas and ideas that we actually did implement.

    I’ll stop complaining about this now, but I just don’t think it’s fair to take out your (all of our!) disappointment with the Kerry campaign on me.

  10. Friends,

    After many conversations with my friend Dick Bell of the Kerry Campaign, I have to concur that there was insufficient understanding/support/confidence at the top of the Kerry organization that would have been required to have empowered a real community/precinct network linked, in part, by network technologies. That organization, evidence suggests, understood the internet as a primarily a cash register: Ka-Ching. The same appears to be true of the 2008 Clinton campaign as well.

    If you reflect that we are just 16 years out, not even one generation, from the first presidential campaign to have even one internet staffer, we have come a long way in a short time. It is ironic that that campaign was a Clinton campaign.

    This thread brings to mind several questions:

    1. How can this community engage with Michael McDonald’s “Resilient Networks” project?

    2. How will this community help the country to adopt a new world view that replaces the the “Cold War World View”, so firmly rooted in the shriveled and impoverished view of humanity at the root of “Game Theory”? [See Adam Curtis’ 3 part BCC series “The Trap”.]

    3. How will this community help us expose, and move beyond, the dangers of “American Exceptionalism” and “The Mission”? Can we restore the primacy of the Constitution to the Army’s oath?

    4. How do we re-balance consumerism with: A] critical thinking; B] American history and civics; C] all citizens as also producers and distributors? Other factors?

    5. What is this community’s view of “The Power of our Peer-to-Peer Future”? See my essay on this at:

    I have other questions, but these 5 are probably just as good a place to start as any.

    Jon, thanks for getting this thread started. Zack, I look forward to meeting you some day.



  11. Zack, good point: I changed the lead to say that you rejected a meeting about the plan, not the plan itself.

    You say this was “not actually a serious proposal but a stream of consciousness outline that is a mix of good ideas, bad ideas, neutral ideas, impossible-to-implement ideas and ideas that we actually did implement.” In fact it wasn’t a complete plan, but an initial proposal to start the conversation. We never submitted it because it was still in development. We had been promised a conversation (by Sanford, then Amanda) to hash it out.

    So you’ve taken a shot here, and I expect that you’ll follow up and explain in more detail…

    What are the good ideas? The bad ideas? The neutral ideas? What was impossible-to-implement? Which ideas did you actually implement? Of the ideas that were “bad” or “impossible to implement,” can you explain why?

    So yeah, I agree that you and I should both stop complaining… and let’s do something productive here – let’s think about what was and wasn’t good about that plan. The Obama campaign may be very effective, but there are many other local, state, and national campaigns that could use guidance.

    Jock, I think we had all heard before what you mention in your first paragraph above, and Zack has perhaps been unfairly blamed for the campaign’s unwillingness to adopt network thinking and community priorities. As I said, and Nate reinforced, it was probably too late for those to work effectively for the Kerry campaign. Hopefully the Obama guys are taking some of the ideas we’ve been discussing since the ’90s and implemented them well enough to produce a success. If so, we’ll hopefully have a playbook showing what works, and how to combine top-down and bottom-up approaches to maximize the pros of both, and minimize the cons.

    Your questions are good ones, reminding me of the good work we were doing at Greater Democracy. Do you have a best link for the resilient networks project?

  12. I have not been nearly as involved in netroots this time around (yes, hear my guilty tone!) but something strikes me here about conditions of readiness for blending horizontal and verticle strategies.

    Could we describe these conditions? Are they similar at the local level as national?

    And Zack, I don’t blame ya. ;-) My sense was it was a timing/readiness thing.

    The challenge in any movement is to be able to have the ability to respond to both the plan and offers. That is a big ask, I realize.

    Waving from Tel Aviv


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