Sunday, May 25, 2008

ROGER COHEN: The Obama Connection


It’s the networks, stupid.

More than any other factor, it has been Barack Obama’s grasp of the central place of Internet-driven social networking that has propelled his campaign for the Democratic nomination into a seemingly unassailable lead over Hillary Clinton. Her campaign has been so 20th-century. His has been of the century we’re in.

That’s not surprising. Obama spent only 10 years of his adult life in the split world of the cold war, double that in a post-Berlin Wall world of growing interconnectedness. MAC — mutually assured connectivity — has replaced the MAD — mutually assured destruction — of cold-war days.

For Clinton, born in 1947, that ratio is different. Her mental paradigm is division. When her husband last ran for president in 1996, the Internet was marginal. The thinking and people from that campaign have proved unable to fast-forward a dozen years. They’ve been left like deer blinded by the Webcam lights of the Obama juggernaut.

This cultural failure has been devastating for Clinton. As Joshua Green chronicles in an important piece in The Atlantic, Obama has used social networking and his user-friendly Web site to develop the money machine, and the youthful engagement, that has swept him forward.

Green notes, “Obama’s claim of 1,276,000 donors is so large that Clinton doesn’t bother to compete.” He gives some other Obama campaign numbers: 750,000 active volunteers and 8,000 affinity groups. In February, a month in which he raised $55 million ($45 million over the Internet), 94 percent of donations were of $200 or less, a number dwarfing small contributions to Clinton and John McCain.

Obama has been a classic Internet-start up, a movement spreading with viral intensity and propelled by some of Silicon Valley’s most creative minds. As with any online phenomenon, he has jumped national borders, stirring as much buzz in Berlin as he does back home.

He could not have achieved this without a sense of history, a conviction that the nature of the post-post-9/11 world — the one beyond war without end — is going to be determined by sociability and connectivity. In the globalized world of MySpace, LinkedIn and the rest, sociability is a force as strong as sovereignty.

I’ve searched in vain for a sense of this pivotal historical moment in Clinton. Her threat to “totally obliterate” Iran, her stomach-turning reference to the June 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy as a reason to stay in the race, her Bosnian fabrications, all reflect a view of history as something that’s there for political ends rather than as a source of inspiration or reflection.

It’s history as “Me, me, me.” That tends to be blinding.

Her most crippling blindness has been to networks, national and global, the threads that bind and have changed society. As David Singh Grewal writes in his excellent new book, “Network Power,” a core tension in the world is that: “Everything is being globalized except politics.”

Grewal continues: “We live in a world in which our relations of sociability — our commerce, culture, ideas, manners — are increasingly shared, coordinated by newly global conversations in these domains, but in which our politics remains inescapably national, centered in the nation states that are the only loci of sovereign decision making.”

The Bush administration has accentuated global awareness of this disjuncture. Connected people around the world were appalled by Bush policies — from the trashing of habeas corpus to renditions — but felt powerless to influence them.

The overwhelming global interest in the current U.S. election is tied in part to a spreading belief that America’s leader may be as important to French lives, for example, as the incumbent in the Élysée Palace.

Obama’s people get that. Connectivity means going it alone is a fool’s errand: that’s a basic lesson of Iraq. If Obama has promised to appoint a chief technology officer, to open up government via the Web, and to make dialogue rather than war a centerpiece of policy, it’s because he knows he must speak to a 21st-century world.

Grewal writes: “Politics is the only effective countervailing power that we have with which to refashion the structures that emerge through sociability.” Accumulated personal choices expressed through networks fashion sociability. Short of global governance, only sovereignty can channel that will.

In concrete terms, you won’t make globalization more equable in its distribution of income without politics. But first you must see sociability for what it is: a form of 21st-century personal sovereignty that rivals national sovereignty.

Clinton never saw this. McCain, whose Internet fund-raising has been negligible, also shows little grasp of MAC.

Of course, connection is no panacea, or guarantee against violent threats: Al Qaeda uses the Web effectively. But without understanding connectivity, you can no more beat terrorism than win an election.

It’s the networks, stupid, and the generations that go with them.

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