The Virtuous Cycle of Participation

It is a phrase that finds itself being uttered by Senator Hillary Clinton in debates and speeches so much that her audience concurrently recites it: "Join us in this campaign. Go to" And it is significant because it shows at least an acknowledgement of what has been going on in the way politics is oriented.

There are the top-down campaigns, which, as Simon has said, are characterized by the 30-second ad, the stop on the tarmac, and the 200 volunteers at headquarters; and then there are the bottom-up campaigns, characterized by new tools that allow organizations to be decentralized in key ways to maximize its reach.

Each is enabled and defined - to various degrees - by what Simon has described as the virtuous cycle of participation.

Tim Dickinson's fantastic piece in Rolling Stone, "The Machinery of Hope", details what this cycle looks like through the lense of the Obama campaign. Essentially, people sign up to get involved and find themselves empowered to take leadership roles by using new tools available to them on-line. Then they bring in more people. That leads to more money. What you see in the end is a larger, stronger organization, particularly at the ground level. As Simon says in the piece:

"That's the magic of what they've done," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN. "They've married the incredibly powerful online community they built with real on-the-ground field operations. We've never seen anything like this before in American political history."

It's true. All we have to build on is the Dean legacy, which proved to be quite an innovative force in and of itself in 2004. Before I get ahead of myself let me be clear: any candidate of any party can take this approach. In fact, as Joe Trippi said at a recent NDN event, the Dean campaign found its inspiration from John McCain's race in 2000. Furthermore, what about Ron Paul!

Yet look at where we are. Thus far in the 2008 presidential campaign especially, you see organizations being built, funded and strengthened by this cycle of participation. Average citizens are brought into the process in ways we've never seen before. Yet the Democrats are the ones benefiting the most. They have consistently seen record turnout, with single candidates gaining more support in certain states than the GOP candidates combined. You also see a shift in party ID. Then there's the money. This is too simple. Barack Obama: $55 million. Hillary Clinton: $35 million. John McCain: $12 million? And that’s from February alone.

So it is clear that the Democrats on the whole are much better aligned with this politics. Some candidates have some catching up to do, though. Jose Antonio Vargas touched on this in his piece from the Washington Post, quoting Simon saying:

"The Clinton campaign missed the zeitgeist of the moment," Rosenberg says, "and they underestimated the possible reach of Obama's support, and they're paying for it."

While he focused more on the Democratic candidates instead of politics as a whole, David Brooks could be right in saying that we are at a defining moment. Applying the cycle of participation as an indictor of who heads into that moment the strongest, I'd say the advantage goes to the Democrats. And they aren’t stopping while ahead. Remember: “Go to”...