The Obama Zeitgeist

Six Lessons for the Cultural Sector

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 3 (Fall 2008)

Holly Sidford

Note: this text was updated on this site on January 9, 2009.

No matter your political persuasion, your age or background, place or country of residence, your professional role or disciplinary affiliation, if you work in the nonprofit cultural sector—the presidential campaign that brought Barack Obama to the White House holds lessons for you. The campaign marks a watershed in popular consciousness, and we will all do well to adapt—or evolve—accordingly.

Some things to ponder:

1. People want to be inspired.
Poetry counts. Language and lyricism count. Our most noble national achievements, our triumphs over prejudice and adversity, “the angels of our better natures”—they all really matter. People long for inspiration, particularly in times of significant change and uncertainty. Obama's eloquence about the power of hope and his pitch-perfect invocations of the great milestones in our collective American story have inspired millions of people—in the US, but also in Europe, Africa or Asia—to think bigger, act better, be bolder, and engage with others in new ways. And to believe in the possibility of meaningful change.

Are we in the cultural sector doing all we can to ignite people's imaginations?

2. Link to a higher purpose, and herald the future.
Throughout his campaign, Obama never missed the chance to link his campaign to a larger cause, a great public cause, the cause of a better United States, a more perfect union, even a better world. Far more than other candidates, and with greater authenticity, Obama connected his campaign to the ennobling purpose of refreshing our spirit, elevating our discourse, improving our image at home and abroad, and getting everyone focused on a common horizon: a better future for all people.

How many in the cultural sector authentically tie our work to the higher cause of progressive social change and a better future for people of all kinds? Might we fare better if we did so?

3. The improbable is possible—with the right strategy.
There are lots of reasons why Obama won, but high on the list is that he had the right strategy—a community organizing strategy. Obama himself possesses the classic virtues of the community organizer: imagination; a sense of humor; a vision of a better world; an organized personality; a strong ego and sense of self; a free, open mind; and an ability to create the new out of the old (per Saul Alinsky,1971). And his team applied classic organizing principles in the campaign—starting with strategic mobilization at the neighborhood level to achieve early, assumption-altering wins at the outset of the primaries. Then replicating that locally-based mobilization strategy in every contested state, fueling field workers with clear articulations of the challenge and the stakes, genuine rapport with audiences, effective communication of simple things that people could do to contribute to the cause, and continuous encouragement and appreciation of his supporters.

What would the audiences and funding base of cultural organizations look like if we approached our work with a community organizer's values?

4. Participation is our most important renewable resource.
Close to 3 million contributors, most of them repeat donors. More than 1.2 million donations under $200. This sums it up. The structure of Obama's campaign has made it easy for people to contribute, made every contributor feel a valued stakeholder, and enabled his followers to get more and more deeply involved as the campaign evolved. Technology—developing that electronic social network—was essential to his strategy. But as important were the messages conveyed through the technology. Obama's regular email blasts gave people a daily connection to the campaign and the greater cause of change, made them understand what their contributions of time and money would buy, and conveyed both Obama's long view and his real excitement about victories along the way.

Recent studies (such as Steven Tepper's, Engaging Art) suggest that cultural participation correlates with political (and religious) participation. In the arts, “doing it myself” may be an important precursor to “appreciating the way the professionals do it,” especially for younger people. Is there an opportunity for cultural organizations in this upsurge of new political participation? If creating catalytic participation was one of our primary goals, how would that change the outcomes for both our audiences and our institutions?

5. Entitlements are dead.
In the marketplace of ideas, any whiff of entitlement is a turn-off, especially to young people. The sense of entitlement that Hillary Clinton exuded from the start of the primary race set her up for her fall. John McCain's disdain for the “upstart“ Obama was as palpable as it was unattractive. Technology is the axe that levels all hierarchies and is key to this attitudinal shift. People's increasing ability to receive and distribute information on the web diminishes the entitled class's power over ideas and cultural norms, and explodes the notion that any person or institution is sacrosanct. When people in their twenties can become millionaires (read YouTube, FaceBook, Google, and other fabulously successful Internet businesses) or challenge the nature of public school teaching and nonprofit practice (read Teach for America and Craigslist Foundation), the expectation that “the younger generation” should respectfully apprentice to their experienced, entitled elders becomes ridiculous.

In the twenty-first century, every enterprise—including cultural enterprises—must make its case on the merits of relevance, utility, and responsive service. How many cultural institutions convey a sense of privilege and entitlement that turns people away?

6. Respect and empower the young.
Obama's campaign has given unprecedented power to young people, uniquely melding the skills and experience of more seasoned political strategists with the imagination and wit of much younger people. Obama's major speechwriter, webmasters, and key field organizers are in their twenties! Obama valued and maximized these people's skill sets, which include great fluency with technology and deep understanding of what motivates their cultural cohort. This generation takes technology for granted, and Obama's campaign used the Internet with unprecedented success to get out both the vote and the donations. This generation also takes diversity for granted. Twenty percent of the people under twenty-five in this country are bi-racial. Obama's field staff may be the most diverse in history. These people see themselves—and the future of our country—in Obama.

About how many cultural organizations would these people say the same?

Barack Obama will be the next president of the US. And running a country like the US is a job far greater and more complex that running any kind of political campaign. But the ideas and values embedded in Obama's campaign have influenced and will continue to influence the consciousness of our larger society. He has set new standards for political campaigns, but he's also set new standards for performance for commercial and nonprofit enterprises. The smartest among us will take heed.

Holly Sidford is president, Helicon Collaborative.