View: Power of connections —Saleem H Ali
Being connected in the context of Obama’s campaign did not mean having a privileged family background with relatives in authority, as was the case with President Bush or President Zardari. Rather, Obama’s ‘connections’ emerged from a much more diffuse set of social networks
Political scientists will be analysing, for years to come, how Barack Obama was able to win the 2008 US presidential election with such alacrity. Starting as a freshman senator in 2004, he campaigned against all odds and prejudice based on race, religion, inexperience and personal confessions. He won convincingly even in some of the more conservative states like Virginia and Indiana. Even more alarming was his ability to humble the well-resourced and well-connected campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
Perhaps the secret to his success was that despite his advantage of not being well-connected to the old loci of influence, as we often perceive in the subcontinent, he had some other advantages in his favour. Being connected in the context of Obama’s campaign did not mean having a privileged family background with relatives in authority, as was the case with President Bush or President Zardari. Rather, the ‘connections’ that Obama leveraged for power emerged from a much more diffuse set of social networks. His fundraising efforts were driven by the internet in small spurts of donations (95 percent were under $200 each), that amassed for him the largest campaign budget in US history.
However, the power of social networks in harnessing such influence can be realised only if there are enough people for mobilisation, and the communication technology to facilitate such interactions. Clearly, Obama was blessed with a phenomenal workforce of volunteers who believed in his message to establish these networks in the first place.
Yet networks also have an intrinsic momentum of their own, once they are established, to drawn people in. This is partly owing to human propensities for conformity and partly the result of inherent interdependence that multiple connections necessitate. Each intersection of threads that gives strength to a network is dependent on subsequent connections of threads. It is often easier to heave knots and interfaces between threads if there is some common tensile strength and other properties of threads, hence the tendency to build networks with some common dominant properties.
This insight into human societal connections is revealed in a recent book by David Singh Grewal, titled Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalisation (Yale University Press, 2008). The narrative presents the potential of networks in wielding power, but also exposes the darker side of such power as it inexorably moves to a collectively self-inflicted conformity that can constrain choice.
Grewal is particularly concerned about globalisation in this context since he belives that “everything is being globalised except politics”. He is referring to our tendency to move towards common norms on language, dress and other harmonising influences of globalisation.
Coming from a multiethnic family with roots in America and India, he is perhaps personally influenced by this constant challenge between positive conformity and cultural dilution. Obama’s election brought forth not only the positive side of network power in the sense of galvanising social change through individual connections between campaigners, but also raised some of the more imponderable aspects of network power:
Were white voters “coerced” by a perception of political correctness to vote for Obama, even if they didn’t agree with his policies, because they didn’t want to be perceived as racists in a globalised world? Can such a subversion of genuine “choice” still be a positive development in the grander scheme of race relations?
Grewal gives examples of the historical dominance of the gold standard and the growing dominance of English as a language to make his point. He also considers other areas where network power has encountered difficulties such as the failure of global trade talks in 2008. He does not have much sympathy for the collapse of the Doha Round of trade talks because the network power generated by this kind of system would have required a “suppression of democratic politics at a national level”.
However, Grewal is perhaps too sanguine about the triumph of national politics, given various other challenges that confront us on a planetary scale. Environmental governance necessitates making connections across intrinsic ecological networks that are endowed by nature and often influenced negatively by anarchic human behaviour. This is where making as many connections between individuals and societies in a systems-oriented approach to politics is so consequential.
Could an Obama presidency consider global environmental governance as a conduit for leveraging positive network power? Can he overcome institutional inertia and move the United States to ratify major international environmental agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity? If so, that may well be the most unifying and enduring global legacy of an Obama presidency and the ultimate accolade to the positive power of networks.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and on the adjunct faculty of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. www.saleemali.net