Friday, September 5, 2008

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING: A POLITICAL PITBULL?

Community organizing as a profession got chortles and guffaws at the GOP convention the other night, despite the fact that, in fundamental respects, it represents the sort of grassroots self-help efforts that Republicans have long claimed they support. It's a reminder of the hypocrisy of big-government Republicanism that bottom-up efforts to accomplish social change, which are often threatening to established political power, are the subject of such derision. So much for nostrums about reform and empowering the people.

It may be, however, that community organizing comes back like a lipstick-glossed pitbull to bite John McCain and Sarah Palin. While the Republicans have been prattling about change while essentially proferring up the same, tired policies (just listen to the few specific policy recommendations in McSame's speech last night: cut taxes, reduce the size of government, enact school choice), the energetic supporters of Barack Obama have been burning through their shoe-leather. Yesterday afternoon, as I sweated through the heat of Center City Philadelphia's late summer, I passed several young people who were working up even more of a sweat registering new voters. Such efforts matter in our swing state.

McCain and Palin have a good chance of getting elected this November, given my reading of the polls, the persistence of subtle and less-than-subtle race baiting by the GOP, and the media's gentle treatment of McCain (whose party disingenuously continues to claim it is the victim of left-wing media bias).

But these recent figures on voter registration give me hope:

Colorado: 13,352 Republicans, 66,516 Democrats, 23,437 Independents

Florida: 77,196 Republican, 209,422 Democrat, 26,100 Independents

Iowa: 7,515 Republicans, 69,301 Democrats, -62,922 Independents

Nevada: 1,230 Republicans, 51,457 Democrats, 7,550 Independents

North Carolina: 20,363 Republicans, 171,955 Democrats, 123,605 Unaffiliated

and, of course,
Pennsylvania: 289 Republicans, 98,137 Democrats, 15,907 Independents (no aff.& other)

A lot can happen between now and November, including a mobilization of the right-wing, evangelical base in the GOP, which has finally awakened. But after a grim week of watching the Republican convention, I'm feeling a little better.

6 comments:

David said...

Whatever one thinks of what community organizers do, it is one of those titles in which the meaning is completely vacant in the words. At the core, you can't organize a community. It is not in the nature of the second word, that work can be effectively done to create something that wasn't there before.
It sounds like a classic Ivy (or near Ivy) C.V. padding kind of title.
Obama was on much firmer ground when he was describing the work he was doing rather than the title he had. He'd be better off saying that tried to help steelworkers who had been laid off or that he was a civil rights lawyer.

Those folks in center city were not community organizing, they were registering people to vote (political activists would be the best description for them).

The other problem with community organizer phrase is that by definition almost it implies an exogenous position to the community. People w/in a community are simply carrying out their lives - organically part of the whole, whereas the community organizers are not an organic part of the whole.

G.D. said...

That 289 figure for Republican registrations in PA can't be right. I don't believe it.

kathy a. said...

as i understand it, these figures include people departing from a party as well as those joining up. [so, some entries are in the negatives.] you can go to the source page to get more info about how the numbers were gotten.

leaving lipstick out of the discussion, something that is so impressive about community efforts is that they do grow from the concerns of community members, which are not being addressed. they are bottom-up. and so many important and positive social changes have happened that way. slavery wasn't abolished because the big slave-holders suddenly saw the light. women didn't get the vote by sitting around and saying "you do what's best, dear." worker protections were not gained because the fat cats decided they were the right thing to do; indeed, holding on to safety standards, fair pay, fair treatment, and what health care is available is an ongoing struggle in many if not most employment arenas. the civil rights movement wasn't won by acclamation, but one small step at a time; and there is good reason to believe its work is not done yet.

Tom S said...

David: Thanks for your note, though as a longtime admirer of Saul Alinsky, I think its possible to organize a community by providing community leaders the resources and training to help them organize themselves. That said, I think you're absolutely right that Obama should be specific rather than general. That Obama worked with laid off steelworkers is experience. McCain has probably only spoken to some at rallies and Palin is married to a union worker, but is a member of a party long hostile to them.

Kathy: you are so right. Change does not happen by acclamation, it happens by building networks, taking over institutions, and putting pressure on the political system.

AD: On the stats: these are net, not gross, registration figures: or put differently they reflect the net increase or decrease in the number of registered voters by party.

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