You could almost hear the world’s collective sigh of relief. This year’s U.S. presidential election was a global event in every sense. Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, represents to so many a living bridge—between continents and cultures. Perhaps the job that qualified him most for the presidency was not senator or lawyer, but the one most vilified by his opponents: community organizer, on the South Side of Chicago. As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin mocked: “This world of threats and dangers is not just a community, and it doesn’t just need an organizer.”
But perhaps that’s just what it needs. Obama achieved his decisive electoral victory through mass community organizing, on the ground and online, and an unheard-of amount of money. It was an indisputably historic victory: the first African-American elected to the highest office in the United States. Yet community organizing is inherently at crosscurrents with the massive infusion of campaign cash, despite the number of small donations that the Obama campaign received.
Sen. Obama rejected public campaign financing (sealing that policy’s fate) and was flooded with cash, much of it from corporate donors. Those powerful, moneyed interests will want a return on their investment.
A century and a half earlier, another renowned African-American orator, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and leading abolitionist, spoke these words that have become an essential precept of community organizing: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. ... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
There are two key camps that feel invested in the Obama presidency: the millions who each gave a little, and the few who gave millions. The big-money interests have means to gain access. They know how to get meetings in the White House, and they know what lobbyists to hire. But the millions who donated, who volunteered, who were inspired to vote for the first time actually have more power, when organized.
Before heading over to Grant Park in Chicago, Sen. Obama sent a note (texted and e-mailed) to millions of supporters. It read, in part: “We just made history. And I don’t want you to forget how we did it. ... We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.” But it isn’t enough for people now to sit back and wait for instructions from on high. It was 40 years ago in that very same place, Grant Park, that thousands of anti-war protesters gathered during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, demanding an end to the Vietnam War. Many from that generation now celebrate the election of an African-American president as a victory for the civil rights movement that first inspired them to action decades ago. And they celebrate the man who, early on, opposed the Iraq war, the pivotal position that won him the nomination, that ultimately led to his presidential victory.
Another son of Chicago, who died just days before the election, was oral historian and legendary broadcaster Studs Terkel. I visited him last year in their shared city. “The American public itself has no memory of the past,” he told me. “We forgot what happened yesterday ... why are we there in Iraq? And they say, when you attack our policy, you’re attacking the boys. On the contrary ... we want them back home with their families, doing their work and not a war that we know is built upon an obscene lie. ... It’s this lack of history that’s been denied us.”
The Obama campaign benefited from the participation of millions. They and millions more see that the current direction of the country is not sustainable. From the global economic meltdown to war, we have to find a new way. This is a rare moment when party lines are breaking down. Yet if Obama buckles to the corporate lobbyists, how will his passionate supporters pressure him? They have built a historic campaign operation—but they don’t control it. People need strong, independent grass-roots organizations to effect genuine, long-term change. This is how movements are built. As Obama heads to the White House, his campaign organization needs to be returned to the people who built it, to continue the community organizing that made history.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.