Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Obama as organizer...


When I'm not blathering on this blog, I help people organize themselves to agitate and and sometimes win struggles for community empowerment. From that perspective, I want to do another post about David Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. (A more book review-ish post is here.) The book is full of interesting material that says something about what his community organizing background may have contributed to our enigmatic President's trajectory.

For starters, if Obama learned what his mentor-in-organizing told Remnick, he knows more than most politicians understand about how ordinary people relate to politics. Richard Daley's Chicago is an old-fashioned machine town, perhaps the last of these. Civic spoils and power flow through those who have a deal with the machine. Meanwhile many people struggle to get by and life is often hard.

In such a grim and ironclad political culture, [Jerry] Kellman discovered, ordinary people go about their lives with little sense of community, cohesion or possibility. They do not express their self-interest because they automatically relinquish any hope of fulfilling it.

Alinsky-style community organizing, whose home turf is Chicago, teaches that powerlessness can only be broken by helping people understand, feel, and then demand their self-interest. But a young Black man in a white-funded organization undoubtedly also learned through community experience that there were forces of race and identity at play alongside mobilization for material self-interest. He never quite fit as a classic Alinsky organizer. He was well placed to imagine a more complex interplay of animating motivations for political action. People noticed.

"What I saw in Barack was caution, lots of caution," Kellman said. " ...he worried: am I being too confrontational? He didn't want to betray a relationship. That's why he wasn't Alinsky-like.

"There is a machismo which makes organizers afraid to admit that they are moved by ideals rather than self-interest. But most of what we do in life is, of course, a combination of both. Barack understood this ...What he did embrace completely was the need for power to get anything done and the operating definition of power in a democracy as organized people and organized money. He thought he could fold organizing into politics and saw himself as an organizer-politician. He still does, as far as I can tell."

The young organizer never took on organizing orthodoxy's frequent disdain for "electoral politics."

Obama may have spanned more worlds than most organizers, but he certainly also retained one of community organizing's central characteristics, one seldom mentioned by commentators: its methodology is not participatory or particularly democratic.

Organizing has a top down structure and methodology that outsiders may not understand. The organizer, almost invariably an outsider, "cuts the issue" -- defines how people might see their self-interest in their circumstances and might win an improvement. This is far easier within the organizing group if the issue doesn't actually inflame submerged passions or disturb internal entrenched interests -- organizers learn to prefer "small, winnable fights" to grand messy struggles.

My friend and former boss Gary Delgado wrote a succinct analysis how this plays out in organizing in an article called "The Last Stop Sign." Delgado made the point that as a consequence of the choices organizers instinctively made to fight for small wins, for "stop signs,"

...the world of traditional community organizing is almost completely separate from the parallel world of progressive activism.

Delgado's observation points to why Obama never seems quite in tune with the progressive activists who form such a large fraction of his base. A mix of machismo, detachment and caution are hallmarks of organizers from Alinsky-type groups. Political passions, the norm among people with far more confidence in their own entitlement than the folks he worked with in Chicago, are simply foreign to old time organizing.

On the other hand, organizers have to know how to get things done -- and the President's unusually hands-on approach to the nuts and bolts of campaigning comes through in the Remnick book. For example, there's this:

One of the things that Obama had learned since the congressional campaign was to sit down and make a long string of fund-raising calls. And when he went on fund-raising missions to the living rooms of wealthy supporters, he refused to stop at giving his usual stump speech and taking questions. Many candidates let their hosts or surrogates make the appeal for funds, but Obama would often say, "I like to do my own dirty work," and put the arm on supporters himself.

What I wouldn't have given for a little more of that spirit in most candidates I've worked for!

H/t NewsOne for "Obama as organizer" photo.

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