Past, Present and Future of the Third Media Revolution

The Obama Moment

Chapter 5 - Full text version

The Coming Transformation of America to Solve the 21st Century Challenges of the World

Author: Peter Leyden
Date: 1/16/09
Draft No: 3.2
Word count: About 10,000 words

“America, this is our moment.” Barack Obama used this phrase again and again throughout his successful campaign for President. He frequently talked about America facing an historic moment, and entering a very different historic period. Yet what is it that makes this period we live in potentially so historic? A strong argument can be made that America is about to begin a rare period of rapid political innovation, one that will spur a transformation of the American economy and society to fit the new realities of our globalized 21st century world. Obama is not the cause of this, yet he has played a large role in helping to catalyze it. In this sense, it could be called “The Obama Moment.” However this period is far greater than Obama; it is far greater than any single individual. It involves all of us, not just all Americans, but ultimately people across the world.

America has entered these explosive periods of political innovation only a handful of times in its history. We saw it, for example, around the Civic War with Abraham Lincoln as the catalyst. We saw it at the beginning of the 20th century, with Republican Teddy Roosevelt helping start it and Democrat Woodrow Wilson taking it to its fruition. Then there was the more familiar period in the 1930s and 1940s led by Franklin Roosevelt, FDR. These periods are usually prompted by huge structural changes to our economy and society, such as the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, or the appearance of unprecedented challenges that the old policies are completely unable to deal with – like the Great Depression.

On the solution side, these periods are almost always marked by three crucial elements that combine to help solve the crisis: They usually have new technologies and new media as core tools that can make things happen like never before. (Think broadcast radio for Franklin Roosevelt to connect to average Americans in the 1930s.) These periods also bring huge numbers of new people into the political process, often through immigration or generational change, and often using the new media. (Think the waves of immigrants coming through Ellis Island in the early 20th century.) And these periods are accompanied by an explosion of new ideas about how to reinvent society across a wide spectrum of fields. These elements combine and, historically, have created a period of roughly 15-20 years of widespread experimentation and innovation in policy and government, which helps catalyze a transformation in the larger social and economic spheres.

05-04obamaThese periods are often called “progressive” as opposed to “conservative” eras because the spirit of the times is geared to change, new approaches, and the future, in sum, “progress,” rather than by looking to the past, reviving traditional approaches, and “conserving” the old ways. That is not to say that these eras are aligned with Democrats, the current home of today’s progressives. Both Republicans and Democrats have long progressive traditions, so to speak. Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, was the progressive aligning America’s ideals and institutions by ridding the country of slavery. In fact, the classic Progressive Era of the early 20th century involved both parties.
America is entering one of these historic progressive periods right now.  All the pieces are in place for Obama to catalyze a long run of widespread political and governmental innovation that has the potential to remake America and, in time, even the world. We face a fundamental restructuring of our world on par with any of the previous progressive outbursts. We are just starting the great global reframe of all systems in response to the globalization of the economy and, increasingly, the globalization of almost everything. As if that weren’t enough, America faces an array of 21st century challenges just as daunting as those Americans have faced in previous eras. Just take climate change – the most complex problem that humans have ever faced. That is just one of a dozen or so perplexing challenges ranging from global pandemics and decentralized terrorism (we still remain hugely vulnerable to suitcase nukes and other weapons of mass destruction) to providing healthcare for all in a time of genetics and biotech, to dealing with the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers in a time of life extension, to revamping an educational system still modeled on 19th century methods. Yes, these problems are daunting, but there’s the solution side to the challenges as well.

The same three key elements that have come together in previous eras to help solve the previous sets of challenges are also coming together today – and then some. The country is going though the biggest technology and media transformation in its history. The full blossoming of computer technologies and telecommunications infrastructure gives us capabilities that simply blow away the means of the past. We tend to underestimate the power that’s literally at our fingertips. Imagine if someone had told FDR about a machine on his desk that, in response to a question or query, would respond instantaneously with all related information in the world. He would have called it magic. We call it Google, and every 5-year-old in the country knows how to use it.

The United States is also going through one of the biggest population transformations in its history. The levels of immigration in recent decades have been almost the same as those in the heyday of Ellis Island early in the 20th century. America is now on track to have “so-called minorities” become the majority by 2050. On top of that, we are now beginning to see the impact of the arrival of the biggest generation in American history, the Millennial Generation – those now in their 20s and teens who have greater numbers than the Baby Boomers (the parents of many Millennials). The new perspectives, new capabilities, new talents and new ideas that these newcomers bring will be critical in refashioning the old system.

Finally, the third critical element is emerging right on track – the explosion of new ideas on how to take on these unprecedented challenges. It’s not that no one knows how to deal with climate change. There are a profusion of fantastic ideas coming from many quarters of American society and the private sector. The problem now is figuring out the right solutions and moving them into politics and government in order to scale them up. This brings us back to Obama.

Obama holds the potential to initiate this historic moment, to usher in the next progressive era. He and his team understand the power of the new tools – the new technologies, the new media, the Internet. Those new tools were instrumental in beating Hillary Clinton and eventually John McCain. Obama would not have been able to beat Clinton and get the nomination had he not had the new tools of the new politics. She had all the traditional advantages, and he, like other outside reform candidates before him, could not have overcome those advantages without the tools that gave him an even more powerful strategic advantage. In fact, what Obama did was create a paradigm shift in politics.

Hillary Clinton was a master of the old paradigm of politics that has been the rule of thumb since JFK and the arrival of early broadcast television. For fundraising, you needed wealthy donors and special interest big money. For organization, you needed the party establishment from the federal through the state levels. And for media, you needed to master television. Clinton did all three as well as any Democrat ever has – and she lost. She lost because Obama relied on a new paradigm of politics powered by new technologies. For fundraising, he tapped into many, many middle class people who could use the Internet to donate small amounts that aggregated into huge sums. For organization, he skillfully used new technologies to reach vast numbers of party outsiders, i.e. regular people who could productively get involved in the campaign not as spectators or occasional donors, but by rolling up their sleeves and doing work via a computer or on the ground. And as for media, Obama and his team mastered the new media better than any candidate yet. His videos went viral, his social networks hummed, his text messages really connected with people, particularly young people. Obama still competed with Clinton in the traditional TV media and in the areas of the old paradigm, but what gave him his strategic advantage was the new paradigm where he was master and the others were far behind.

No candidate was further behind in this new paradigm than Republican John McCain. McCain was a creature of the old politics, completely reliant on that old paradigm. McCain himself said that only now is he learning how to go on the internet and get exposed to remedial things. This lack of interest and understanding of technology was reflected in his campaign, which was AWOL in terms of the new political paradigm. The entire Republican Party is about one four-year Presidential cycle behind the Democrats, for various reasons including that they had been winning on the old methods. This was one of the big reasons for the sound defeat of the Republicans and McCain in the 2008 election.

Coming off his victory, Obama could catalyze the key pieces of new technologies, new people, and new ideas to rework the national agenda and government in a fundamental, progressive way. With his ability to inspire, with his outsider movement mentality, with his deep understanding of the technology, his connection to political newcomers, and his talk of transformational change, he can. Yes, he can. We can move beyond the last era of American politics, the conservative era that ran from Ronald Reagan through George Bush. Setting aside partisan posturing, that conservative era, like other conservative eras before it, accomplished much that was important and necessary for the country. But now we can open up a new kind of era, one informed by progressive values of looking out for the largest number of people possible, for finding a way to live more in  balance with the environment, to cooperate more with people outside our borders and to try and build a more just world. This era would be animated by a more inclusive, multicultural, global perspective, and be driven by a more creative, innovative and – dare I say – daring attitude that’s needed right now.

What follows is an explanation and an argument about how these historic moments work, have worked in the past, and could work now. I make some analogies to past eras when previous generations of Americans pulled off this type of transformation. Then I go into more detail about the beginning of our era’s transformation, the political paradigm shift that Obama already has made, with an eye to how a similar paradigm shift might soon come in how we set the national agenda, create policy, and reshape government – all leveraging new tools and technologies. Those governing tools are not necessarily the same ones being used so effectively in politics. The tools needed to transform government and solve the challenges of our age will need to be more collaborative in nature. Not one-to-many, or many-to-one, but many-to-many. Fortunately for us, those many-to-many social technologies are ready for prime time too. The piece ends with an argument about how Americans today, using these new tools and historically unprecedented resources, can systematically solve the great challenges of our time. Yes, we can.

1.2 The Classic Progressive Eras

05-06paperboyzHow does this all work? How has it worked before? Take the classic Progressive Era, the one in the early 20th century that goes by that name in the history textbooks. It’s a textbook case, so to speak. The setup to that era was that America had gone through a fundamental restructuring of its economy, from an agricultural one to an industrial one, and its society, from a rural to an urban one. And the results were not pretty. The raw industrial capitalism of that time had concentrated fantastic wealth in the hands of the few and left the vast majority of average workers living precariously. These workers, including women and children, worked extremely long hours in dangerous work environments, powerless to challenge business owners in order to improve their lot. The new urban centers had become public health hazards with dangerous tenement housing subject to frequent fires, poor sanitation leading to disease and illness, and no social infrastructure to replace the family and community structures of the small towns left far behind. The old politics – the laissez-faire conservative political ideology – only led to more of the same concentration of wealth and power, and the impoverishment of the masses. It was completely inadequate to the task of transforming society anew. However, there were those three forces in motion that pointed the way towards better times.

The technology and media revolution of that period was all about the huge urban newspapers. Breakthroughs in printing technology allowed publishers to produce previously unheard of numbers of newspapers in daily news cycle time. The army of “newsies” (those boys hawking papers in movies depicting those times) were able to reach vast numbers of readers who were concentrated in urban neighborhoods like never before. America had long had newspapers, but they were never a mass medium with significant scale and reach. It didn’t take long for such tools to be used to new ends. This was the period of the rise of the great national newspaper empires of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who had the muscle to take on the titans of industry. It also is the period of the great muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair, the bloggers of their day. These muckrakers exposed the sordid underbelly of raw capitalism (filthy meatpacking plants, overcrowded tenements) to their appalled audiences.

America was also going through a transformation in its population that allowed a reconfiguration in its political coalitions, particularly for those interested in change. Those muckrakers were mostly members of what became known as the Missionary Generation, a huge generation of idealistic young people who were committed to righting the many societal wrongs that they saw. Of course those years around the turn of the 20th century were marked by massive waves of European immigrants flooding the urban centers where they were engaged by everyone from ward bosses to socialist organizers. The other new entrant to politics consisted of half of the population – women. The Progressive Era was marked by the spirited political participation of women, culminating in the 19th constitutional amendment giving women the vote in August 1920.

The women’s right to vote was by no means an isolated accomplishment. The Progressive Era was marked by an explosion of social and political innovation that created many elements of the system we live with today. The famous trust-busting of the Robber Barons set up laws preventing monopolies. The progressive income tax did not exist until a constitutional amendment in 1913. The federal Food and Drug Administration, created in response to the horrors of the meat packing industry, still monitors our food today. Child labor ended, workplace safety and limits to working hours were set, and workers began to get the right to organize in unions. There was also a wave of reform related to the institutions of democracy, particularly in highly progressive states like California. Citizens were given the right to recall elected officials and propose their own referendums to go around corrupt legislatures to pass laws. All this happened in a relatively brief time in historical terms. This Progressive Era is considered to have stated with Teddy Roosevelt taking over as president from the assassinated William McKinley in 1901, and is often considered to have petered out in World War I and ended shortly afterward when President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic attempt to create of League of Nations was rejected by an exhausted public in March 1920.

The other big explosion of political innovation and progressive reform worth noting is that of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s. This period of roughly 15 years was remarkable for its intensity, creativity and lasting legacy. (Special thanks goes to Simon Rosenberg, my colleague at the New Politics Institute, who helped think through the early ideas about the parallels to FDR’s time and the three transformational pillars then and now.) The context for this era was the appearance of unprecedented challenges like the Great Depression, which the conservative ideology of Herbert Hoover and his administration could not deal with. But there were other perplexing challenges as well. The rise of fascism in Europe and Japan – particularly the rise of Hitler – posed a new kind of security threat. The evolution of totalitarian Communism ultimately posed an even bigger threat with the introduction of world-ending nuclear weapons.

The people of that time also had their version of the three drivers. The new technology and media of that time was broadcast radio. Like the newspapers of the previous era, broadcast radio was a mass medium reaching millions, and arguably was even more powerful because of the visceral nature and emotive power of the spoken word. You could also reach everyone, even the illiterate, who had sizable numbers at that time. The churning nature of the American population allowed FDR and other period progressives to pull together a new majority political coalition built on the increasingly empowered workers (often in unions) and the burgeoning northern urban centers with their ethnic communities settling in, as well as the mainstay Democratic coalition of southerners. That period was also characterized by a huge and idealistic young generation – the GI Generation, often known today as the Greatest Generation who fought World War II and created the post-war boom. This young generation voted for FDR in overwhelming numbers starting in the 1930s. They helped FDR and the Democrats create the huge majorities that drove through truly transformative change.

The accomplishments of that era are myriad and proved to be lasting. In many respects, we still are living into the system they created more than 50 years ago. They pulled America out of the Great Depression by drawing on the new macroeconomic ideas of John Maynard Keynes and using previously taboo government intervention in the economy. They set up the basic social safety net that protected average people from the vagaries of the market and lifted old people out of poverty with social security. They made the world safe for democracy by mobilizing the country to defeat fascism and they crafted a long-term strategy of containment through NATO and the tenuous but ultimately effective tactic of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, they devised an international economic system based on completely new institutions like the United Nations, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. This system stabilized world politics enough to avoid another world war, and stabilized the world economy so well that it led to unprecedented economic growth. At home they established the GI bill and house lending practices that set in motion the burgeoning post-war boom and the rise of the middle class. Not bad for a 15 year run of innovation.

Our era’s challenges are daunting. The bar set by previous generations of Americans is high. But our three drivers of new technology, new people and new ideas are pretty powerful too. We have everything we need to do solve these problems now.

1.3 The Political Paradigm Shift in Technology

The concept of a paradigm shift is a common one in Silicon Valley and other technology circles. A paradigm shift involves a disruptive new technology and a new way of doing business that was previously impossible. Some early adopters try this very different approach, gain strategic advantage over those not using this new capability, and are widely seen as successful. Soon everyone sees this as the way of the future; there is a stampede of widespread adoption of the new paradigm; and the old methods eventually get abandoned. That’s a paradigm shift. And we’re in one of those in politics now.

The three fundamentals of politics – fundraising, organizing, and media – are all experiencing this paradigm shift. Let’s take each of them and give more detail about how that is happening. With fundraising the old paradigm was pretty simple: to raise big money you needed to tap the few who had big money – wealthy donors and special interests. The nebulous “special interests” meant corporations and their lobbying arms, or large organizations like unions that could aggregate large sums through dues. The people who won in politics tended to be those who could raise the most money from those folks – until now.

The 2004 Presidential cycle showed the first sign of the new paradigm with the appearance of Howard Dean, a relatively unknown governor from the tiny state of Vermont who did not have access to the fundraising fat cats. Dean’s campaign, led by maverick campaign manager Joe Trippi, instead used the internet to allow dispersed but enthusiastic activist supporters to pitch in small donations. In the first quarter of 2003, the early part of the primary season, John Kerry’s traditional approach more than doubled the amount that Dean raised. In the second quarter, the two were roughly tied. But in the third and fourth quarters, the small donations began to add up and Dean blew Kerry away, raising a total of $30 million in two quarters compared to less than $10 million for Kerry. Dean eventually lost the nomination fight to Kerry (who in the general election adopted online fundraising to great effect) and at the time many observers pointed to Dean’s loss as proof that the new fundraising method was not a big deal. More shrewd observers, however, understood that winning in politics is not just about fundraising. More importantly, they saw that the new model had proven itself, but was not mature enough to win – yet.

05-02obamatimeIt took Obama’s campaign in the 2008 cycle to definitively prove the value of the new paradigm in fundraising. This time, Obama, the relative newcomer to politics with little access to those deep pockets, used the internet strategy to counter Clinton’s money advantages. For each of the four quarters of 2007 Clinton and Obama were neck-and-neck in fundraising. Then came the early primaries of 2008 and the groundswell of support for Obama. In January he almost tripled her numbers, raising $36 million in a single month compared to her $13.9 million. In February, he topped $55 million, an astounding sum for a primary candidate. In March he more than doubled her numbers, raising more than $40 million. The total numbers for the first quarter of 2008 were: Obama $132 million; Clinton $69 million. His number for that full quarter quadrupled his (and her) number from the fourth quarter of 2007, normally a big fundraising quarter that leads into the primaries.

The only way Obama was able to raise that much money that fast was by using the new technologies. With the new campaign finance rules, there is simply no way to raise that amount of money through the traditional means of meeting with or calling on rich donors or representatives of special interests and getting them to donate the legal limit of $2300. You needed a quick way to reach many more people and get them to donate $50 or $100. You needed scalable technologies.

One of the great features of computer technology is its ability to scale. Once the technological infrastructure is in place (a well-designed system to handle online giving), and the new method fully adopted by the organization), there are almost no limits to the number of people who can get involved. (This adoption by the organization is often key to the success. The managers have to really believe in the new approach and support it. Simply putting the technology in place is not sufficient; the whole organization must incorporate the new process into how they work.)

This scaling ability can quickly get into huge numbers. A Presidential candidate who works rich donors giving the maximum $2300 might get 100,000 of them and end up with $230 million. But a candidate like Obama, who had 1.5 million donors in the primary season, needs each of them to only contribute $200 to reach a total of $300 million – which trounces the aggregated fat cats. (In fact, by the end of the primaries, Obama raised $389 million compared to Clinton’s $235 million.) But a candidate like Obama might attract 5 million contributors for a general election, and if each of them only contributes $100 (many obviously would put in much more), the total is $500 million, or half a billion dollars. (In fact, the new fundraising paradigm did trounce McCain in the general election – Obama raised a record $639 million compared to $360 million for McCain. Nearly half of the money Obama raised came from donations of $200 or less.)

And there is no reason why the contributors need to stop at 5 million – what if 30 million Americans pitched in $100 for a future campaign? That would be $3 billion, roughly the total of all money spent on political television advertising expected to be spent by all candidates for both parties for all political offices in the country this cycle. That’s a paradigm shift in fundraising.

The paradigm shift in organizing is similarly powered by new technologies, particularly social networking technologies. Politics has always been about social networking, albeit in a low-tech way. The whole idea of electoral politics is to get your supporters to get their friends and families energized and to the polls. In the old days that was facilitated by the ward heel mobilizing the neighborhood, or the union boss making sure all union members got their extended families to vote. The Obama campaign has done a terrific job melding good-old-fashioned shoe-leather organizing techniques with the new online organizing tools.

It’s not that all organizing is done one way or the other – the two approaches blend together creating an end result greater than the sum of its parts. So, for example, organizers on the ground are able to use online tools to get the best practices from organizers in other states or headquarters. This allowed the Obama organization to quickly move into new states in the primary season and catalyze productively functioning local organizations that scale. They scale because not everyone working for them was hired paid staff – far from it. They were able to absorb outsider volunteers quickly by plugging them into the tech template rather than having to reinvent every local operation from scratch.

The even more radical move is to place the tools on the campaign website and essentially tell your supporters to “go nuts.” In so many words, that’s what the campaign website did. It allowed regular people to download campaign material and walk through neighborhoods, organize a house party to proselytize about the campaign, use their mobile phone to make campaign telephone calls, or build their own fundraising circle. You can join myriad local groups of like-minded supporters, or blog your own ideas about why Obama should win. They also actually encouraged you to draw in your extended social network by easily connecting to all the social media websites from Facebook to Digg. In essence it’s using new social media techniques to extend the reach of the formal campaign far greater than before – if not outsource it all-together to people at large. This approach opens the door to the possibility of a national presidential campaign that might have far more than the 500 people or so traditionally on payroll – to as many as a couple million people or more actually involved in the day-to-day work.

The astounding turnout numbers this season attest to the effectiveness of these new tools and methods. The turnout for the Democratic Presidential primary more than doubled from 16.2 million in 2004 to nearly 36 million in 2008. Democrats were just as charged up for the 2004 election as in 2008. Most other variables were basically the same over that time. What changed was the sophistication and widespread application of the new tools that energized voters and helped get them to vote. The numbers are particularly striking for the demographic group most entangled with the new tools – the young Millennial Generation. Those Democrats aged 29 and under – all Millennials this cycle – increased their turnout by four-fold between 2004 and 2008 (from around 1.6 million in 2004 to 6.5 million in 2008). California went from 340,000 to 680,000; Ohio had10 times the turnout from 34,000 in 2004 to 348,000 in 2008. Young people overwhelmingly favored Democrats over Republicans in the 2008 primaries. Again, in California, the Republicans attracted roughly one third as many young people (244,000). Even in Ohio (a much more Republican state) Republicans only brought out one-third what the Democrats did. Some might say young people always vote Democrat or are more liberal. Not true: the generation before the Millennials, Generation X, were young conservatives hugely attracted to Ronald Reagan. The best explanation for the discrepancy between Democrat and Republican turnout among young people, and between the Democrats’ differing performances both years, is the use of the new organizing and social networking tools. That shift to the new paradigm again made the difference.

The final paradigm shift is in the use of media. For the last 40 years or so, politics has been all about television, specifically broadcast television. The vast majority of money spent in major political campaigns goes to 30-second TV ads. In 2006, out of the $2.6 billion spent on all political advertising in all races of both parties, a full $2.4 billion of it went to TV. That amount has gone up, not down, in recent years. In 2004, a Presidential year, the total of all political ad spending was only $1.7 billion.

However, the new media numbers are starting to add up. For example, the cumulative views on Obama’s YouTube videos through November 2008 was about 113 million (compared to McCain’s 25.7 million). And the average number of views for Obama’s top 10 videos was 2.6 million views. Some might say that those numbers are small compared to the eyeballs touched by TV ads. That is, however, comparing apples to oranges. The average length of Obama’s top 10 videos was 14.7 minutes long, not 30 seconds. In fact, Obama’s speech on race ran 37 minutes long and has been viewed 5.4 million times (as of November 2008). Among the fantastic features of web video is that you can run as long as you or the audience wants. Another distinguishing feature is that the viewers of web video are not passive viewers, but active. They want to watch the video. They clicked on the link to specifically see it. This engaged viewer is much more likely to want to do something after they see the video. A smart campaign will have a big button right there on the screen to push to contribute money or get more involved in the campaign, or pass this video along to all your friends and family so that the whole engagement process can begin again. This is a paradigm away from broadcast television’s 30-second ad, which all viewers almost universally hate, will do anything to avoid, and rarely (or barely) pay attention to. Even if they pay attention, they can hardly learn anything useful in 30 seconds, and they have no way to do anything with what they learned. How do they give money? Well, they might call a telephone operator to find the headquarters or find a computer and search the web to find the right website and webpage to pitch in. Or, they could go to the refrigerator and get another beer.

05-07yeswecanThe paradigm shift between web video and television is even more stark than that. For starters, much of the web video supporting a candidate can be, and often is, produced for free. The plunging cost of video cameras and video editing software allows supporters to produce compelling, high-quality video on their own. In fact, it’s generally recognized that the most memorable and effective “ads” of the 2008 primary season were not produced by the campaigns but by their supporters – starting in early 2007 with the famous remake of the Apple Computer 1984 ad with Hillary Clinton as Big Brother, to the Black-eyed Peas’’s tribute to Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech. Neither of these, or Obama Girl’s videos or many others, cost the Obama campaign a dime. The paradigm shift in distribution is even more dramatic. Web video is distributed for free and can be simultaneously viewed at the local, national and global levels. No need to spend money—like with television—to make a local buy or a more expensive national buy, let alone a global buy, which is effectively impossible because the costs are so prohibitive. A good web video can go a long way, and, as a bonus, never has to go away. It can live forever, for free. That is a paradigm shift. That shift has only begun, so it still has a long way to go. Obama, and others, will use television for quite a while yet. But the attractiveness and ultimate superiority of web video will increasingly make it the media of choice for politics in the long run. And those who leverage it early will gain a strategic advantage over those who do not. That’s what Obama is doing now as he builds his new majority coalition.

1.4 The New Progressive Political Coalition

Widespread political innovation and transformative change does not come easily. About the only way it can be done in national politics is either through unusual bipartisan agreement or the overwhelming majority of one party. It’s usually done with the overwhelming majority. If you take the classic case of FDR and the New Deal, the House of Representatives was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats before the 1932 election. After that watershed election, the Democrats had a nearly 100 seat margin, with 313 out of the 420 seats. They then maintained big margins (albeit not as big as that) until after the war in the late 1940s. (They eventually regained big margins with the election of JFK in the 1960s and kept them all the way until Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in 1994.) These big margins are needed to sustain the difficult process of driving through systemic change. That was true then, and it’s true now. You need a majority coalition that will hold when the going gets tough. So at a historic juncture, we need to look at what large and growing constituencies could be used to capture and maintain power. Today there are two massive ones, and they both are unmistakably trending toward progressive Democrats.

The first is the Millennial Generation, those born from 1978, when the birthrate in America finally began to climb again, to 1996 (the endpoint for this generation is not generally agreed on, but the New Politics Institute, which I used to direct, marked the endpoint 18 years after the beginning, the same span as the Baby Boom from 1945 to 1964.) The Millennials now span from 29 years old all the way down to 11 years old, which makes them completely synonymous with the youth vote (18-29) for the 2008 election cycle. By 2015 all Millennials will be able to vote (ages 19-37) and they will be the biggest generation in American history, bigger than even the famed Baby Boomers, who will be fading off the national stage (ages 51-69). The Millennials will be 83 million strong, compared to an estimated 74 million Boomers.

The Millennials are an unusual generation compared to the rest of the generations in America today. They are technologically savvy, very comfortable with the new tools and the new media we have discussed – which makes them easy to integrate into a new politics built on those tools.  Every generation has a distinct personality shaped by the events and experiences during their coming of age. The Millennials tend to be a can-do, group-oriented generation that is optimistic about the future. Unlike the more cynical and disengaged Generation X before them, the Millennials are civic-minded, with high rates of volunteerism and voting. (Many of the insights on Millennials come from two excellent recent books: Generation We, by Eric Greenberg with Karl Weber, and Millennial Makeover, by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, as well as reports from the New Politics Institute.) Many of the beliefs and values of the Millennials are progressive: They are tolerant of differences in race, gender, and sexual preference (partly because they are the most racially diverse generation in American history, with about 40 percent minorities.) They appear more concerned than other generations about social inequalities, and they are more open to using government to rectify the balance. They are extremely concerned about the environment, with 58 percent in a recent survey saying they would choose to protect the environment even if it harmed the economy (compared to just 32% who favored economic growth). And they are very global minded, for example with 20 percent of those in college participating in a study abroad program. Consequently, they are more likely to favor multilateral diplomacy (57%) over military strength (37%) to ensure security.

The numbers also show that this generation is trending Democrat. It’s not just reflected in the election numbers of 2008, and young people’s infatuation with Obama. In 2004, John Kerry would have won in a landslide (375 electoral votes compared to 163 for Bush) if only young people under age 30 (mostly, but not all, Millennials) could vote. And in the 2006 Congressional elections, young people voted for Democrats over Republicans with a 22 percent margin (60 percent Democrat and 38 percent Republican), an almost unheard of generational break. This trend continued in the general election with Millennials voting for Obama by a nearly 2 to 1 margin: 66% to 32%. The general rule of thumb in politics is that if a generation votes for one party three elections in a row, they tend to vote that way for the rest of their lives. If so, the Democrats have one of their political engines for the 21st century.

The other political engine could well be Hispanics. Hispanics are on track to become almost 30 percent of the entire American population by 2050. The change in immigration patterns in the 1980s and 1990s (the vast majority of it legal and consciously brought on by immigration policy) already has changed the face of America. The southwestern border states from California to Texas now have more than one third Hispanic populations. Quite a few others (Florida, New York, Illinois, Nevada, Colorado) now also have 12 to 24 percent Hispanic populations. Even heartland states, like Nebraska and Georgia, have 5 to 11 percent Hispanic populations.

With their increasing numbers, Hispanics are making an increasing impact on politics – particularly in the last couple years. For many years, former Texas Governor George W. Bush made inroads with Hispanics, moving as many as 40 percent of them to his candidacy in the 2004 presidential election. But then, in 2005, conservative activists and right wing radio hosts started their campaign against illegal and even legal immigrants. In a populist fury, the Republican-controlled House proposed draconian legislation that would have criminalized many immigrants and thrown them out of the country. By the spring of 2006 the Hispanic community got energized and held mass rallies across the country. By the fall, Hispanics voted for Democratic Congressional candidates by a 39 percent margin (67 percent to 29 percent). Those margins increased in the 2008 presidential primaries. Primary exit polls showed Hispanics identifying as Democrats by a 3 to 1 margin. In the election, 67% of Hispanics (who made up 9% of the electorate – a large increase from the 6 percent share they represented in 2002) gave their support to Obama – compared to only 31% for McCain. Individual states, particularly the big Hispanic states, showed even larger differences in the primary voting. About 1.2 million Hispanics in California voted Democrat in the primary – only 317,000 voted Republican. Close to 1 million Hispanics in Texas voted in the Democratic primary; only 130,000 of them voted in the Republican one. Lopsided Hispanic support for Democrats could make a demonstrable difference soon, but this will pale in comparison to the increase in the coming years. Hispanics are poised to become another reliable engine to drive change in the coming decades.

National political candidates and movements can’t win with just two constituencies, even if those constituencies are massive and growing. National politics requires pulling together a huge collation of at least 51 percent of this nation’s 300-plus million people, and substantially more to drive through transformative change. However, the two parties and two ideologies have basically stalemated themselves in recent years by maintaining their respective coalitions, and traded the presidency with relatively thin winning margins. It doesn’t take much to disrupt that stasis, by energizing growing new constituencies or reconfiguring the coalition. The Hispanics and Millennials can potentially do that for Democrats and the progressive ideology. For 2004, the Millennial (18-29) share of the electorate was 17 percent and growing, and the Hispanic share was about 6.5%. (There is some double counting as an estimated 25% of registered Hispanics are under the age of 30.)These two progressive assets are far more valuable than any potential growth constituency on the other side.

1.5 The Coming Paradigm Shift in the Ideas Business

Politics is not just about winning; it’s about doing something positive for your country or community after winning. It’s about the ideas for governing as much as the people in your winning coalition, or the tools and media used to win. This realm of ideas, the third pillar of transformational politics in our era, is currently the least developed. To be perfectly honest, no one in politics today, not Obama or McCain, not the Democrats or the Republicans, not progressives or conservatives, really knows what to do about the new set of challenges posed by our rapidly globalizing world and emerging 21st century. To be sure, some players are further ahead in their thinking than others, and I would argue that Obama and the Democrats (pulling on progressive ideas) are ahead of their counterparts in that game. But even they do not have a clear agenda or a fully developed set of policies about how to transition our country and the world into a new era. Nor should they. Only now are we – those outside politics included – starting to comprehend the complexity and the scope of the challenges we face.

The challenges are myriad, but just take a top ten:
•    The Globalization of the Economy, where an unemployed factory worker in Ohio can pick up a phone and be whisked to a call center in India to ask about his dog food that comes from a city in China. You can’t solve the repercussions of that development by simply raising the minimum wage.
•    Climate Change, the most complex problem that humans have ever faced. To make just one obvious point, this will take cooperation among all nations on a scale never contemplated before.
•    Clean Energy shift, which involves overhauling, or effectively abandoning, the current oil and auto industries, which tab up to a $1.25 trillion industry ($250 billion for the automotive industry and $1 trillion for the oil industry). Even hitting Al Gore’s recent goal of getting America’s electric grid completely powered by renewable energy in 10 years will be audacious. And that goal doesn’t even include automobiles.
•    Global Terrorism, a daunting problem not just for America, but nearly every country in the world. When terrorists can build $15 bombs that cause hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars worth of damage, we must rethink security policy. Like climate change, this new security threat requires not just the action of one nation but the cooperation of many.
•    Universal Health Care.  There are some good proposals on the table, but they do not seem to engage the impending issues related to new breakthroughs in genetics and biotech that hold great potential as well as risks.
•    Education Overhaul. The critiques are familiar but no one has yet to figure out the 21st century formula for best preparing young people for the new global economy and 21st century world – let alone ensuring no one falls behind.
•    Baby Boom Aging. Much hand-wringing has been done in anticipation of the Boomer bulge in retirees. There are sensible solutions about shoring up social security, but less thinking about how to leverage this valuable human resource to more productive ends.
•    Global Pandemics. Another bird flu panic comes and goes, and the world dodges another bullet. Our interconnected global society is increasingly vulnerable to pandemics, and the ultimate solutions might need to be vigorous development in impoverished places.
•    Mass Migration. Another byproduct of lack of development is historically high rates of migration around the world. This can cause problems but also provide solutions for the aging populations in the developed West.
•    Sustainable Living. This is a catch-all category that might eventually include reorganizing cities and redeveloping housing stock to lower the human impact on the planet. It might also involve figuring out tech breakthroughs to solve some other impending crises like the growing scarcity of water.

So we’ve got problems. Luckily we have solutions too – and lots of them – coming from all over America. They are being developed in universities and grad school labs, in Silicon Valley start-ups, in the minds of social entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations, in the blogosphere and on the web, in America and all over the world. There is, however, a disconnect between the proliferation of big ideas and transformative solutions outside of Washington, and the dearth of them within Washington. We keep seeing the same solutions being proposed in Washington (off-shore drilling? price controls?), or when new ideas are proposed, they make little headway.

We need a paradigm shift in the ideas business in Washington. Obama has talked much about the need to change Washington. He and his team made use of new technological and organizational methods in politics in order to win elections and gain power. But the ideas business of Washington and the world of think tanks and policy development are still very much trapped in the old paradigm of the 20th century. It’s similar to the old paradigm of electoral politics. The financial equation, for example, is identical: the current ideas business is almost entirely financed by wealthy people or special interests, like big business corporations and big labor. This can, and often does, lead to compromised policy proposals. For example, the huge telecoms and cable companies will financially support think tanks and projects that – surprise, surprise – support their “special interests” in telecommunications policy. If they spread their money around enough, then there will be few outfits that propose policies challenging the telecom industry.

The organizational model for the current DC idea business is to rely on relatively few numbers of elite political insiders who cycle back and forth between serving in administrations and becoming fellows, advisors or lobbyists. The good side is that they have a deep understanding of government and the ways of Washington. The bad side is the same – they often are too immersed in the ways of Washington and not familiar enough with what is going on outside those boundaries. The technology and media that the current DC think tanks use are the same as those used throughout most of the 20th century. They work on white papers and come together in physical meetings and events. They do use the web, but it’s Web 1.0. They “broadcast” their papers out to everyone with no dialogue or collaboration.

The new paradigm, applied to the ideas business, would produce a shift similar to the one we have seen underway in politics. For financing: diversify the funding sources, ultimately heading towards wide support from low-dollar donors, who have no special interest to promote. At the very least, do not take corporate and special interest money, like Obama’s policy for campaign contributions. As for organization: use technology to scale up a much larger network of people who can make valuable policy contributions. These people do not have to be physically within Washington, or even be permanently dedicated to their tasks like full-time fellows. They could be experts in the private or non-profit sectors who have “cognitive surplus,” excess intellectual capacity or brainpower that could be applied outside their day jobs and normal line of work to issues directed at the common good. And the new paradigm applied to the ideas business would involve new media and many more new technologies. At the very least, it would shift from Web 1.0 broadcast technologies to more collaborative Web 2.0 approaches. Here the technological paradigm shift applied to ideas might go beyond that applied to electoral politics. The paradigm shift in electoral politics used “one-to-many” technologies, like web videos from Obama and his core team to vast numbers of supporters. It also went “many-to-one,” as all these people were able to independently do things to support Obama. But to truly figure out the new challenges of our era and devise comprehensive solutions for them, “many-to-many” tools and technologies will need to be used. Luckily, the tools are now ready to go.

One of the features of networked computer technologies in general is the ability to parallel process. There was a time when increasing the processing power of a computer meant just that: increasing the internal processing power of that one computer. This approach worked for a long time as we built more and more powerful single computers, until we eventually entered the realm of what are called supercomputers. In the early nineties, someone figured out that you could surpass the power of the most powerful supercomputer by taking a totally different approach. You could connect up many, many regular personal computers through lightning-fast telecommunications on a “grid.” Just break down the problem into smaller sub-problems, let the smaller computers figure out a piece of the puzzle, and then reassemble the results to solve the initial overall problem. Given the processing speeds and modern telecommunications, all this could be done in a flash – quicker than the one central computer churning through the problem by itself.

Such an approach of distributed problem-solving could also be applied to our 21st century challenges – with the help of existing collaborative technologies. Each of the 10 challenges we previously described needs its own network of new thinking. Then, each major area, like the shift to clean energy, has sub-areas that need sub-networks for special focus. How could we rapidly scale solar energy? How about wind? Each has an entire eco-system of nuanced understanding. What kind of next generation electric grid do we need? What about improving storage? And that’s just energy for homes and buildings. What about a sub-group on transportation? Or is that a whole major category itself with half a dozen sub-categories there? Each major problem (and its spectrum of smaller sub-problems) is just too complex for a single individual – or even a small group of elites at a conventional think tank – to solve. If America wants to simultaneously solve anywhere close to the multiple challenges sketched above, we are going to need to have distributed problem-solving mechanisms that can manage high levels of complexity. The next wave of collaborative tools, such as wikis and groupware, can do that in ways that the old analog methods can’t match.

A second characteristic of technology is its ability to scale. Apply that to the ideas space and new possibilities open up. In the old analog think tank world, a large policy organization might have 100 fulltime fellows, and most have many fewer, more like half a dozen or so. A technologically enhanced virtual think tank would be able to leverage hundreds and even thousands of experts and other valuable people. Once you designed and built the technological infrastructure and made the mental shift to a new kind of distributed, collaborative policy-making process, adding new people becomes relatively easy. Theoretically, there’s no reason you could not tap into 10,000 contributors or more.

Why is this important? Barack Obama’s brain is not going to be able to figure out climate change, let alone the dozen other challenges at that scale. Obama’s brain trust of his cabinet and top administration officials are not going to do it either. The 100 or so fellows at the Brookings Institute or their colleagues at a handful of other think tanks are not up to the task either. The only way to redesign American society on the historic scale that Obama himself talks about is to get huge numbers of Americans involved. Which brings up the final relevant tech characteristic.

Internet technologies essentially lead to the collapse of space. The history of telecommunications has been one long story of helping people who are far apart become closer. Whether it was a voice from far away arriving in the same room, or documents from far away appearing on your desk the next moment, telecommunications lowers the cost of connecting people and makes distance increasingly irrelevant. As broadband Internet becomes faster, then richer forms of communication, like video, become cheap and increasingly common. This opens up interesting possibilities for the world of Washington DC. People living outside Washington increasingly can play the policy-making and agenda-setting game. The A-Team that helps figure out America’s next agenda does not have to reside within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol. This is a good thing for the country because there are extraordinary people all over the United States, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, from Chicago to Austin, who have important contributions to make. For that matter, there are brilliant people all over the world who could contribute to helping solve America’s problems – most of which are also the world’s problems, just as America’s solutions can also be the world’s solutions. People outside the United States can contribute if only we find a way to plug them in. Now, we can. Yes, we can.

1.6 Our Historic Moment

“We are the ones we have been waiting for.” This is another Obama saying, originally attributed to the Hopi Indians, which deserves attention. We tend to glorify the Americans of past eras who rose to successfully take on their challenges. The thinking goes: if only we had another FDR today, then everything would be alright. However, the historical record shows that, at the start of his new administration’s now famous first 100 days, FDR had no clue what to do. The New Deal was no more than a catchy campaign slogan drawn up in the midst of the race, according to Jonathan Alter’s book The Defining Moment, FDR’s First 100 Days and the Triumph of Hope. In fact, on the eve of his inauguration, FDR shut down the entire US banking system for a one week bank holiday, effectively calling a time out, telling aides to get everyone who knew anything about banking into a room and to not let them out until they came up with a plan. About 100 of them hunkered down for the week and came up with a few ideas, some of which worked, and others that did not. When ideas failed, they went back to the drawing board and came up with different ones, drawing off a wide range of ideological options, from socialist ideas to conservative ones from the defeated Hoover administration. The New Dealers were not ideologues, but eminently practical, in search of anything that worked. The secret to their ultimate success was an overpowering spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, topped with a can-do attitude that in effect said: yes we can.

We’re no different today than Americans were in the 1930s. If anything, we’re much better positioned than they were to accomplish our tasks. You can take almost any metric of assets or resources and compare the two eras, and we come out on top. Take the numbers of college graduates, a basic proxy for valuable people with significant professional training. In 1940 less than 5 percent of all Americans had a four-year college degree, but by 2007 almost 30 percent of all Americans did. The absolute numbers are even more startling, given the growth of the population overall. In 1940, FDR had 5.6 million college graduates to draw off; in 2007, Obama and the like could tap into 86.6 million – not double or triple, but 15 times as many. Or take the size of the resources of the private sector, using the basic metric of Gross Domestic Product or GDP. The GDP of the country in 1940 was a little over a trillion dollars. Today, America’s GDP is 13 trillion, more than 10 times as big as in FDR’s time. Another important metric, federal spending, rose from $127 billion in 1940 to $3 trillion today – a 23-fold increase. Global capital resources are also staggering. Today the pool of cross-border capital flows looking for productive investment is estimated at more than $8 trillion.

And then there are our tools, particularly our computer and telecommunications technologies. Just take personal computers, which have been riding a juggernaut of continuous improvement known in the industry as Moore’s Law, the observation that redesigned integrated circuits get twice as powerful every 18 months. That means that one megahertz (the basic measurement of computer power) cost $5000 in today’s dollars in one of the earliest personal computers, the Apple II, in 1977. Thirty years later, a 2007 Dell PC had a chip with 2 gigahertz, or 2000 megahertz, and cost $1000. The one megahertz that cost $5000 in 1977 costs just 50 cents today. Put another way: personal computers today are 10,000 times more powerful, or 10,000 times cheaper. And the improvements just keep rolling along.

It gets better. Cheap, powerful computers now fit in the palm of your hand in the form of mobile phones, and all computers, mobile and desktop alike, are interconnected through the internet and the global telecommunications grid. More than 1.4 billion people worldwide are on the Internet and 3 billion are connected by phones (800 million of whom have Internet access through their mobile device). The amount of information being traded each day is astonishing. In 1992, just 15 years ago, when most Americans did not even know what the internet was, about 300,000 emails were sent each day. Today 183 billion emails are sent each day. We now have some pretty powerful tools at our disposal to turn to the task at hand.

As many as 50 or 100 or even 500 years from now people will look back on the early 21st century as the historic moment when America led other nations into the new globalized world and stabilized a sustainable system that worked in balance with the planet’s environment for the long-term. They will say that America and the world went through a fundamental shift between eras, from a national era to a global era, from 20th century ways to 21st century ways, from the old to the new worlds. That Americans at that time faced up to a rapidly globalizing economy and the definitive appearance of climate change, they set aside their political polarization and paralysis, and entered a period of explosive political innovation on par with other key moments in the country’s history. Those future generations of Americans will look back with pride and admiration – or not. It all depends on what we do.

Americans today are perfectly capable of making the transition to the global era. We can figure out the new economic system and way of life that stabilizes the climate for the long haul. We can make the massive transition off carbon-based energy to clean renewable ones. We can help create a new world order that ensures basic security and a set of conditions that allows all people to thrive. We have the resources and tools to solve all of the daunting 21st century challenges that seem beyond our capabilities right now. We can rise to the occasion and do what our predecessors at previous critical junctures in history have done. And if we doubt ourselves, we can listen once again to the person who is helping catalyze this historic moment, the Obama Moment: “Yes, we can.”