Are We Neglecting the Next Activist Generation?

Sometimes it seems as if Obama's light is so bright that progressives are being blinded. As we pump money into his campaign and sing his praises from office watercoolers to family reunions, we seem to be settling into a smug sort of mono-vision. So long deprived of a truly compelling candidate, progressives can only revel -- perhaps prematurely -- in the idea that they will finally get to be the big winners come November.

But what about the November four years from now? And the one after that? And what about the November when Barack and Michelle's daughter, Sasha, is old enough to run for president?

Michael Connery, a blogger at Future Majority and author of Youth to Power: How Today's Young Voters are Building Tomorrow's Progressive Majority, has his eyes on a much more distant prize than the November election. He dreams not of late-night revelry on Nov. 2 but of a progressive machine -- the kind of machine that conservatives have enjoyed for decades. As the imagined machines’ wheels turn, he envisions progressive job placement, networking opportunities, and training for organizers, journalists, and future politicians. Connery wants to create an army of anti-Coulters and anti-Roves: young people who are not only impassioned but exquisitely trained and working for progressive goals.

You might think that Obama's candidacy would be the ultimate gift for a dreamer like Connery, but instead it is proving to be something of a curse.

It began in May when Obama's campaign started "steering the candidate's wealthy supporters away from independent Democratic groups," according to Politico's Ben Smith. Instead of funding outside groups (like The Bus Federation and Democrats Work), his campaign reassured wealthy Democrats that they would handle training the next generation of youth organizers, dubbed "campaign fellows." Fellowship programs -- three-day training courses in political organizing -- kicked off across the country, and students signed up in droves.

Vicki Pietrus, a University of Wisconsin-Madison senior and an enthusiastic campaign fellow, told her campus newspaper, "It's a brilliant move, I think, on the part of the campaign, to get people to commit to the campaign. ... We've really been putting ourselves out there and I think it's really paid off."

But Connery would like to see an enthusiastic young political-science major like Pietrus committed to progressive politics, not just the Obama campaign. At a recent talk he gave at Demos he explained, "If you ask young people just coming into the political process right now about Dean, you get a blank face from them, but his campaign was the beginning of my political career." It's a great thing that the Obama campaign is attracting young people, but it will be a bad thing if their attraction to Obama isn't adapted into a more generalized passion for the political process.

It was the "[dot]-org boom" in 2004 that kept Connery going. Along with some friends, he started Music for America -- an organization that put on shows with hip bands and then worked civic organizing into the concert experience. He explains, "Young people should not have to choose between going to the latest Arcade Fire show and volunteering to canvass an apartment complex. The two activities can be one and the same, and when they are, that creates a much lower threshold for someone to cross in order to engage in politics."

It was a time when this type of great idea had wings. In a matter of nine months, Connery went from working graveyard shifts at a law firm and writing the occasional freelance article to being a full-time activist and organizer. "Music for America caught the first wave of venture funding that would provide the resources for the new progressive youth movement," he writes. The group was gifted with a budget of over $1 million dollars by Andy and Deborah Rappaport, friends of the Dean campaign.

Connery's exciting experience -- one that has lead him to become one of the most prominent voices in the country on young people and politics -- would be all but impossible in today's political-funding climate. There are plenty of young people with inventive ideas about ways to incorporate peer-to-peer organizing, technology, and culture to bring more young people into the civic fold, but there's no start-up money out there. Organizations already doing this work -- the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, the Roosevelt Institution, Living Liberally -- are drastically underfunded.

What's more, Pietrus and Connery are and were both college-enrolled youth -- the low-hanging fruit for progressive organizers. What about young people who haven't been swept up in the campus craze for everything Obama? Progressives are basically abstaining from the chance to convince those young people to lean left by letting the right do all the non-Obama centric get-out-the-vote work. It's as if funders are equating Obama with the entire progressive platform: no need to convince young people of progressive values as long as they're gaga over Obama.

Connery writes, "Obama can't and shouldn't be allowed to run the youth component of this campaign cycle alone. His campaign needs the help of complimentary, independent youth organizations to reach out to those non-college voters and get them to the polls -- not just to secure his own election but for the election of down-ballot candidates as well."

It's particularly unsettling that Obama wouldn't urge the donor base to support grass-roots community organizing when he himself was shaped by its philosophies and approach. If he's committed to a truly participatory democracy -- citizens acting on behalf of themselves, their families, their communities -- then he should be wholeheartedly supportive of independent organizations.

As history has taught us, non-college enrolled youth aren't likely to spontaneously get involved in civic life and vote unless they are invited to form community organizations that are locally cohesive and culturally appropriate. Further, history has proven that being involved in these kinds of organizations can be the stop-gap that ends a cycle of violence and/or poverty in a young person's life.

So how big is the funding gap for these kinds of groups? Billy Wimsatt, founder of the League of Young Voters, believes that in 2008 progressive youth organizations have received only a fourth of the funding that they enjoyed in 2004. "As far as I'm aware, all the youth voting groups put together haven't secured more than $10 million toward their budgets in 2008," he told Connery.

As demographic shifts and technology continue to change just about everything, it would be wise for the Democratic Party, and especially progressive philanthropists, to buy in to more than just an Obama candidacy. Without their support, the "[dot]-org boom" could fizzle into nothing more than a fleeting whimper.