the failure of organizing

colist at colist at
Tue Nov 16 20:50:13 CST 2004

[ed: Francis and Peter continue the discussion.]

From: "Francis Tobin" <fxtobin at>

thanks Randy et al. for thoughtful comments on a horrific day in US
history. my preliminary two cents:

1) about the election and outcome
2) about Randy's critique of community organizing

1) the election

* Election post-mortems, especially within a few weeks when there is the
most punditry, are unreliable. Frankly, we just don;t know enough about
what happened that day to evaluate. We don't know how many votes were
stolen. We don't know what the people polled meant by "moral values" (code
or cover for what?). We don't know that the anti-gay measures boosted Bush
voter turn-out (some analysts argue they were irrelevant). We don't know
how many Bush voters really thought he would protect social security, or
Kerry voters understood/believed Kerry's commitment NOT to bring the troops
home from Iraq.

* Elections may be important tools for democracy and social change (I would
argue only occasionally), but contrary to myth and some posts here,
elections are not about individual choices. That's a statistical
absurdity. Not only does one person's choice in the voting booth mean
nothing, even a hundred thousand individual decisions are irrelevant (see
Ohio, where we don;t care what 175,000 individuals did, even in a close
race). Elections, also, are always pretty close; a politician is
considered safe when only 45% of the people oppose him/her. Elections are
mass activity, and even the most intensive door-to-door or personal
outreach (CO's specialty) touches a small percentage of the potential
voters. the election campaign is about creating a climate, like marketing,
driven by themes, images (which drives people like us crazy, because we
want it to be about substantive issues). Trying to get someone to buy a
certain car because it has become associated with "freedom" or a beer that
will get you laid is the messaging. It works even when the target knows
the ads don't really tell you anythign about the product. the election
campaigns want to associate their product, er, candidate, with an
emotional/mental hot spot, so millions of individuals make individual
choices based on embedded overlaying concepts (this relates to CO, below).
The Republicans and corporate honchos got rich and poweful, thanks in part
to working class consumers, by using this marketing approach, and they know
how to turn it to politics, supply-side politics.

2) community organizing

We all believe community organizing is an important approach to social
change. I would agree with those among us that have lamented that CO has
added up to less than the sum of its parts. I'm inclined to connect this
impression to Randy's critique, that most of the CO today tends to shy away
from "controversial" issues, and would further suggest that both the
pragmatism and the dominant model are part of the problem. Pragmatism
argues that we don't embed our issues and campaigns in broader concepts and
values, that it's "too radical" to incorporate a critique of "free trade"
into local economic development debates or suggest that invading Iraq is a
community issue or insist that when we say equal rights for all, we damn
well include lesbians & gays. The CO conventional wisdom eschews these as
divisive or not immediately winnable or somehow too complicated for our
consituents. So we stay narrow, to avoid divisions and wedge issues in
what we see as our ranks.

Well, guess what: Every social change issue is a wedge issue. Gay
rights. anti-gentrification. living wage. crime. affirmative action.
What's the difference between a "wedge issue" and "pushing the envelope"?
How we approach it. If CO is about social change, and the proces is
intended to move people to new understandings of the world, isn't it
important to articulate the values and principles, the vision and the ideas
that guide our path? Aren't organizers motivated by big ideas? by vision?
do we not believe that our members/leaders are as well?

The "failure" of CO, IMHO, is the tendency to lose the forest for the
trees. Perhaps I'm naive and hopelesly optimistic, but maybe if we did a
better job of connecting "crime hotspots" and lack of jobs to broader
critiques of our social and economic systems, more people would have seen
through Bush's blather and laughed at him (many already did).

Then there is "supply side" politics. Some research has described how
right wing foundations strategically promoted ideological activism to
create a climate friendly to their agendas (often wrapped in the flag,
religion, freedom, etc.). They turned "liberal" into a dirty word,
ridiculed opponents, trumpeted simple, broad concepts that were then
selectively attached to reactionary policies, redefined "democracy" as
"markets" and turned most of our political notions on their heads
(republicans stand up for the little guy). These right wing foundations
create best sellers (and thefore hype and legitimacy), keep crazy people on
the TV talk shows with their underwriting (so much for their commitment to
"free markets"). Could Murdoch's Fox news have been a rating success
without the decades of right wing ground work and financial support from
his fellow travelers? I doubt it.

We also have "supply side" organizing, in which liberal funders decide
which models and approaches continue, and are then defined as what the
people want or what works. If nobody funds CO groups that try to connect
the dots between the local and the global, take political risks on the
wedge issues and to at least raise questions about the
conceptual/philosophical framework of our economic/social structures,
obviously that work will not take place on a large scale. If we
reward/fund a narrow focus on immediate, pragmatic politics, that's what
we'll continue to get.

Yes, people are motivatd by self-interests, but we are also larger than


From: "Peter Dreier" <dreier at>

Friends and Colleagues:

Dissent magazine has posted my article, "Why Bush Won. What To Do Next,"
on its website: You can find it on the magazine's home
page, then click on the link to my article. It is an examination of the
election, with some evidence of silver linings and some strategic next
steps. I'd appreciate your comments and criticisms.

Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier
E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics
Director, Urban & Environmental Policy Program
Occidental College
1600 Campus Road
Los Angeles, CA 90041
Phone: (323) 259-2913
FAX: (323) 259-2734

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