I have something in common with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. We had all been engaged in community organizing.
The college-age Hillary Clinton wrote her senior thesis on a community organizer named Saul Alinsky, a brilliant grass roots strategist, the author of a small d democratic manifesto called Reveille for Radicals. The thesis was later defensively removed from circulation when right-wing attackers tried to use it as part of full-court press Clinton bashing. She writes admiringly of Alinsky but criticizes his approach as anachronistic, affirming the need to work in the system, not outside of it. No surprise. (Ironically, her academic advisor was a professor named Alan Schechter, a namesake, not a relative.)
Alinsky, more of a populist than a leftist, engineered a model for militant collective action and empowerment in the form of The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago's blue-collar neighborhoods. He trained local leaders and built an organization that confronted the political machine and won concessions for working class people in the form of better schools, jobs and housing.
One of his dedicated disciples was Fred Ross, who applied his techniques in California, and is credited with recruiting a then unknown Mexican American activist named Cesar Chavez who later built the Farm Workers union with Fred's help. Chavez, in turn came up with the slogan "SÃƒÂ Se Puede" (Yes We Can) which has been appropriated and turned into a national call for political change by the Barack Obama Campaign.
Obama, too, learned life-changing political lesson on the same mean streets of Chicago where Alinksy plied his trade decades earlier. He spoke of himself as a community organizer in his magnetic and impassioned ML King-style speech/sermon on Super Tuesday.
Many moons ago, the New Republic wrote of his days as a community organizer when he was in his 20's: "With his old classmates from Columbia, he had talked frequently about political change. Now, he was moving to Chicago to put that talk into action. His 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, recounts his idealistic effusions: "Change won't come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots. That's what I'll do. I'll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change."
I could relate to that sentiment because in the mid-sixties I went from civil rights organizing in Harlem (in the days when "The Movement" was proudly interracial) to enlist in a community organizing school directed by Fred Ross with Saul Alinksy himself as our visiting guru. We took courses with them, but mostly learned by applying his techniques in the neighborhoods and housing projects of Syracuse New York. The program was funded by the War On Poverty until it became "controversial," a hot potato.
I was there along with two colleagues from the Northern Student Movement, an affiliate of SNCC, the Southern-based Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. We had worked in the Harlem rent strikes. Some of us had gone South to assist in organizing for voting rights in Mississippi. We were younger than Saul and Fred, probably more activists than organizers.
We also opposed the Vietnam War, more of a global concern than a local one. While we believed in neighborhood empowerment, we wanted to build a national movement to fight poverty and the war. I parted ways with Alinksy because I saw him more as a reformer than a radical. I never really won my arguments with him-he was a gruff genius--but I never lost my respect for his strategic approach.
A year later, I moved from the streets to the suites and decided to learn about politics on the inside. Obama would also leave organizing to enter politics. He ran for office; I worked in one for nearly a year-as an Assistant to the Mayor of Detroit under a Ford Foundation backed internship program. I worked in a political campaign when the Mayor, Jerome P. Cavanagh, turned against the Vietnam War and ran for Senate in Michigan. He lost, but like Obama was also battling the Democratic Party which had backed a terrible war.
When he lost that quest, I decided that the compromises of electoral politics were not for me. I turned towards journalism but I never lost a "bottom-up" orientation and an organizing perspective.
Fast forward to the 2008 political campaign. Obama has positioned himself as the inspiring messenger for a "change we can believe in." He has built a grassroots sounding campaign. She, in turn, has sought and won labor support, including the Farm Workers. While he and Hillary Clinton have key differences, they often seem more symbolic than real.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are now largely running on their "electability," not ideology. The Wall Street Journal noted that issues have now "eroded" as central to either campaign, and that the horse race and popularity contest is in command. They seem happy about that. Wall Street Hedge Funders and financiers are helping to bankroll both campaigns. (Edward's big donors have now embraced Obama.) Wall Street is not a target of either, except for funding.
Slogans, buzz words, stump speeches and message points substitute for any effort to educate the American people about what it will really take to make change, Obama says change will be "tough" but doesn't go into why or discuss all the institutional forces and power centers with a stake in the status quo.
If he loses, I fear, many of his new young voters will get disillusioned and drop out of politics in part because they may be naíve or unaware of what the real obstacles to change are. They are mesmerized by charismatic speechifying and political vote counts, not a knowledge of underlying economic realities that any President will confront. Who is in office is not necessarily who is in power!
Ultimately, if Clinton and Obama really want to make change, they need to spell out more what they are for, not just what they are against. They need to organize, not just proselytize. They are not just running against the Republicans, but are up against what best-selling author John Perkins a former "economic hit man," calls the "corporatocracy," the economic power nexus that calls the shots.
For his part, McCain, the likely Republican nominee just says, "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." Obama and Clinton may need some education too. Rightwing constituencies insist candidates echo their issues. Liberals just cheerlead and send checks.
Both parties are running in the middle of a deepening economic crisis that is getting worse and, they (save a fading Ron Paul, along with the media, are acting as if it isn't there.
Saul Landau writes "Excuse me please, members of the media for interjecting realism into the soap opera aura that you all have created around the current primary elections. I have watched endless reports about gossip, (this candidate cried because her feeling were hurt) and that one felt betrayed when the race issue emerged, but only as a way to smear another candidate. Mostly, the candidates said little about reality and nothing that offers even a hint about the real issues of the nation or its empire."
Community organizing is now talked about only in terms of "ground operations" to pull vote on Election Day, and a media campaign to persuade independents. None of the candidates are accountable to a base; none has to be responsive to the desperate needs of America's neighborhoods that are being devastated by economic pain, debt and foreclosures.
There is barely any mention of the economic justice reforms being demanded by today's community organizers like ACORN, Jesse Jackson's RainbowPush Coalition and many local groups. There's been no effort to support the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) that is organizing people to stay in their homes and stabilize their communities while providing affordable mortgages.
Neither Democratic candidate is focusing on the reality of mounting inflation, joblessness, the credit squeeze/debt burden (Student loans and mortgages) and the growing income gap. Are they only reading their own press, and ignoring this financial time bomb? Are they in denial?
When Hillary Clinton speaks of withdrawal from Iraq, she tells us we have to ask the question about what will happen then. Ok, let's start asking what can or will happen if and when either she or Obama are elected. Will they be co-opted or continue to challenge vested interests, not just lobbyists? Will they push for the kinds of deeper economic reforms and regulation that are urgently needed? Will they keep their supporters mobilized?
And where are the popular organization now raising millions for their campaigns on these key issues? Why are they so silent? If you want to help your candidate, help the American people understand the real stakes.
Unfashionable as they may be, Saul Alinsky's words bear remembering, "I tell people, 'The hell with charity. The only thing you will get is what you are strong enough to get.'"