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March 14, 2008

two traditions of organizing in the '08 elections

As Harry Boyte argues on the generally lively and interesting By the People blog, Senators Clinton and Obama embody rival traditions that derive from the Chicago community organizer Saul Alinksy. Clinton wrote her undergraduate thesis on Alinksy, and Obama cut his teeth working for a Chicago organization in Alinsky's orbit, the Gamaliel Foundation. That is a remarkable point of connection between the two leading Democratic candidates.

But Alinksy's legacy is profoundly contested. One stream, which Harry labels "mobilization," developed techniques to derive money, votes, and protesters from poor and middle class communities for the purpose of reform legislation. The mobilizers' techniques included tools such as door-to-door canvassing and mass mailings, and a rhetorical style that emphasized victimization and outrage.

The other stream, which Harry calls "organizing," developed equally refined and sophisticated methods for helping people to talk together and form their own opinions and agendas. The organizers' techniques included (for example) one-on-one interviews, house parties, and meetings that shifted from one venue to another through the community. The rhetorical style emphasized assets, power and dignity, and unity.

Clinton and many of her supporters at the grassroots and netroots have been deeply shaped by mobilization. (I know and recognize this culture from working in "public interest" groups in Washington on issues like campaign finance and media reform.) Obama has equally been shaped by organizing.

Harry argues that Obama has not figured out--because no one has--how to translate the organizing approach to the huge scale and compressed timetable of national politics. Nor has he developed a strategy for overcoming profound cultural barriers:

Obama has not addressed the tension between the implications of civic agency and the immensity of the changes that would be needed for agency to become a widespread experience for most citizens. In recent decades customer service has become the dominant motif in government and elections alike: people are far more prone to ask “What can I get?” than “How can I help solve public problems?” Feelings of powerlessness are widespread after decades in which civic institutions like unions, political parties, congregations and schools have been increasingly shaped by experts who provide services to needy clients and demanding customers.

If I were Obama, I would probably try to win Pennsylvania--although I am not certain he needs to win there to take the nomination--by acting like a mobilizer. I would say: "Senator Clinton and I have similar goals for health care reform, but her approach will be defeated by powerful special interests, just as it was in 1993. Our campaign has enlisted millions of active supporters at the grassroots level. We will ask them to go door-to-door in their diverse communities, speaking language appropriate to where they live, making the case to their neighbors and friends for health care reform. They will inoculate us against the inevitable Harry and Louise ads of the 2009."

This is a mobilizing approach, because it doesn't take the time to develop long-term relationships, open a broad discussion of means and ends, or develop skills and agency. But it's hard to see how you can use organizing rather than mobilizing if you're running for president or facing your first Hundred Days in the White House. If I were Obama, I'd settle for mobilizing right now, but retain an ethical vision of organizing to use in other ways at other times.

March 14, 2008 3:11 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


Thanks for sharing Boyte's analysis of this difference between the candidates. It instinctually feels right based on the campaigning style. I'm glad to understand better how the ACORN (mobilization) style is distinct from the IAF (organizing) style.Krauthammer's op-ed today suggests the lack of policy differences leaves the campaign into a battle of identity politics. Let's hope not.

March 15, 2008 4:21 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Scott D

From Harry Boyte:

Many thanks, Peter, for highlighting our blog (By the People), and my thoughts on the hidden conflict between organizing and mobilizing traditions in civic activist networks.

I agree with you that while a full "organizing" approach doesn't fit the imperatives of a presidential campaign, there are many ways to articulate dimensions of an organizing message. Organizing is, at bottom, about civic education and civic development -- "public growth" -- in a deep and multidimensional way. At bottom it teaches a different understanding of politics that consists of a set of disciplines. For instance, one example is to treat, without prejudgment, diverse people's stories and experiences from radically different histories and contexts. This is just what Obama did in his speech on race -- a remarkable example of the political leader as a civic educator.

There ware also other ways to convey an organizing approach in campaign messages. For instance, campaigns could convey the kinds of stories that Doyle Stevick describes as important in classroom civics classes, stories of ordinary people (not simply celebrities) addressing public challenges with intelligence and creativity. The Obama campaign has hinted at this with Obama's own accounts of community organizing, but these have not yet been developed.

March 20, 2008 10:50 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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