candidates and community organizing

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at
Sat Feb 9 10:01:33 CST 2008

[ed:  thanks to David for continuing the discussion.]

From: "David Koppisch" <DavidK at RHD.ORG>

The Democratic Primary does raise, for me, very important questions 
about institution-based organizing vs. movements centered around a 
charismatic individual. Clinton's edge so far clearly has much to do 
with the fact that she is connected to, has been part of, "institutions" 
(e.g. the Democratic party and unions historically aligned with the 
party, etc.) - hence her polling strength with older people and working 
class people. Obama's support comes largely from the unaffiliated (more 
educated, higher income and those registered as "independents". If 
Clinton prevails it will be due largely to the fact that organized 
power-institutions usually prevail over movements centered around a 
charismatic leader. Not always, of course. In fact, in the recent 
mayoral race here in Philadelphia, a candidate won with the support of 
the unaffiliated and trounced the organized party and union structures.  
So, it happens, but this is rare. In my organizing work I often get 
frustrated with movement types and unaffiliated liberals who distrust 
the existing organized institutions (understandably so) yet 
underestimate their importance in building and maintainining power and 
seem uninterested or unable to build alternative power structures. They 
believe naively that a charismatic leader or candidate (with strong 
"netroots" support) who is "right" should be able to sweep away the 
organized power of long-standing institutions or political structures. I 
fear that if Obama fails, such unaffiliated liberals will be scratching 
their heads again and not learn the lesson: social change will not 
happen without the long-term work of organizing powerful sustainable 
democratic institutions. I fear that young voters -- not experienced in 
the long-term work of building organizations that inevitably involves 
losses along the way -- will get turned off again because their 
candidate didn't win in their first try. I predict folks will all go 
back to their corners and sulk for another 4 years and then repeat the 
same exercise in frustration. I hope I am wrong. I hope, that whatever 
the outcome (and I am one of those strange people who'd be happy with 
either Democratic candidate) that those of us who call themselves 
liberals or leftists or as committed to social change will engage in a 
conversation about, then in the actual work of, building organized power 
for the long haul, as opposed to sitting around waiting for a savior.

Discussion list for COMM-ORG wrote:
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> From: "Peter Dreier" <dreier at>
> In California,  Hillary Clinton's lead over Barack Obama is narrowing. 
> The Los Angeles Times today even says the primary is now dead even.  The 
> same is true in other states where Clinton was leading, but where now 
> the race is very close. Although some of Obama's momentum no doubt comes 
> from voters watching the debates and from high-profile endorsements 
> (like Ted Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, and, yesterday, 
> Maria Shriver), it is also due, in large measure, to Obama's grassroots 
> campaign, which has recruited  organizers from community groups, enviro 
> groups, unions, and other activist organizations. They, in turn, have 
> enlisted tens of thousands of volunteers and trained them in the skills 
> of community organizing. Kelly Candaele and I examine this phenomenon in 
> our article, "The Year of the Organizer," in The American Prospect: 
> Obama was a community organizer in Chicago for three years.  Hillary 
> Clinton wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley in 1969 on the legendary 
> organizer, Saul Alinsky, even interviewing him several times.  John 
> Edwards spend much of the past two years working with ACORN and labor 
> unions to promote campaigns to raise state minimum wages and adopt local 
> living wage laws. The mainstream media still doesn't understand how to 
> report on grassroots community organizing, and the growing effectiveness 
> and sophistication of the nation's community organizing groups.  
> Hopefully, this election year will raise the visibility of community 
> organizing and even inspire more young people to think about organizing 
> as a career.  Just think what it would mean to have a former community 
> organizer in the White House. As we write in our American Prospect 
> article: "Obama knows that he will have to find balance between working 
> inside the Beltway and encouraging Americans to organize and mobilize to 
> battle powerful corporate interests and congressional in-fighting. But 
> if Obama wants to be a champion of change, he'll need to redefine the 
> role of president as organizer-in-chief."
> Peter
> _____________________________________
> Peter Dreier
> Dr. E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics
> Chair, Urban & Environmental Policy Program
> Occidental College
> 1600 Campus Road
> Los Angeles, CA 90041
> Phone: (323) 259-2913
> FAX: (323) 259-2734
> "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great 
> moral crises maintain their neutrality" - Dante
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