Audiences understand when he mentions his years as an Illinois state legislator, or his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate. But a community organizer? What’s that?
Perhaps the simplest way to describe community organizing is to say it is the practice of identifying a specific aggrieved population, say unemployed steelworkers, or itinerant fruit-pickers, or residents of a particularly bad neighborhood, and agitating them until they become so upset about their condition that they take collective action to put pressure on local, state, or federal officials to fix the problem, often by giving the affected group money. Organizers like to call that “direct action.”
Community organizing is most identified with the left-wing Chicago activist Saul Alinsky (1909-72), who pretty much defined the profession. In his classic book, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote that a successful organizer should be “an abrasive agent to rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; to fan latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expressions.” Once such hostilities were “whipped up to a fighting pitch,” Alinsky continued, the organizer steered his group toward confrontation, in the form of picketing, demonstrating, and general hell-raising. At first, the organizer tackled small stuff, like demanding the repair of streetlights in a city park; later, when the group gained confidence, the organizer could take on bigger targets. But at all times, the organizer’s goal was not to lead his people anywhere, but to encourage them to take action on their own behalf.
But if you ask Obama’s fellow organizers what his most significant accomplishments were, they point to two ventures: the expansion of a city summer-job program for South Side teenagers and the removal of asbestos from one of the area’s oldest housing projects. Those, they say, were his biggest victories.
As he looked back, he believed that, on one hand, he had trained some good people; Loretta Augustine-Herron, for example, told me he inspired her to go to college, which led her to a satisfying career. But on the other hand, Obama seemed to realize that it was very, very hard to get anything done. “He didn’t see organizing making any significant changes in things,” Jerry Kellman recalled.
But Obama’s time in Chicago also revealed the conventionality of his approach to the underlying problems of the South Side. Is the area crippled by a culture of dysfunction? Demand summer jobs. Push for an after-school program. Convince the city to spend more on this or that. It was the same old stuff; Obama could think outside the box on ways to organize people, but not on what he was organizing them for.
No doubt Obama would agree that that is a bad thing, but when a real attempt to break through that culture of dysfunction — the landmark 1996 welfare-reform bill, now widely accepted as one of the most successful domestic-policy initiatives in a generation — came up, Obama vowed to use all the resources at his disposal to undo it.
Obama applied his considerable organizational skills to perpetuating the old, failed way of doing things.
Has any of that brought about the change Obama spoke of back in 1985? Not in any large sense. But if Obama doesn’t have much to show for his years as an organizer, it’s fair to say that many of the people he touched revere him deeply.
When he left for law school, Obama wondered what he had accomplished as an organizer. He certainly had some achievements, but he did not — perhaps could not — concede that there might be something wrong with his approach to Chicago’s problems. Instead of questioning his own premises, he concluded that he simply needed more power to get the job done. So he made plans to run for political office. And in each successive office, he has concluded that he did not have enough power to get the job done, so now he is running for the most powerful office in the land.
And what if he gets it? He’ll be the biggest, strongest organizer in the world. He’ll dazzle the country with his message of hope and possibility. But we shouldn’t expect much to actually get done.
Reminds me alot of “The Think Method” from The Music Man. Persuaded by Harold Hill’s charms, the children of the town thought the music, and imagined themselves playing the trumpet, trombones, and other instruments. They were convinced they were musicians. That is, until the Wells Fargo Wagon arrived and the instruments and uniforms were delivered. The think method had not been enough. The kids couldn’t play a note, and the parents had lost their money.
Only, that’s where the story ends with Barack Obama. The children don’t magically start playing at the end. That is a story I would rather not have visited upon our country.
And, yes, I realize this analogy has been used on both sides. I just thought it was more applicable in this context since Obama’s products seem so similar to what the Harold Hills character was selling.
Hope and Change(tm) are not policies we can hang our hat on or count on to protect our national interests. Think it through, folks. While McCain wasn’t my first choice either, it’s better than the alternative at this point.
Ain’t politics grand? Now, if we could get guns and cap&trade off the table, I would be considerably less jumpy.