President Organizer

Click here for a round-up of post-primary chatter.  I want to re-iterate what is buried in a long, late nite post below:

I like Obama’s call to increase the diversity of representation in the existing system.  Change at the top is key, but truly diversifying the ranks starts at the bottom – increase women or minority participation at the local level, and you’ll see change work its way up. 

Now, Obama’s campaign has done an amazing job at the grassroots level – their fundraising, their volunteer organization, their GOTV operation has been tremendous.  For this he is rightfully praised.  But how will this translate into the role of President? 

Organizing, no matter how routinized, depends on a symbolic position outside the system.  Obama knows this and speaks to this when he talks about changing Washington.  But, and I’m embarrassed to quote David Brooks here, “what if the 261,000 lobbyists” don’t get Obama’s message about unity?  Organizing, especially the Alinsky model to which Obama is frequently linked, is about bringing in outsiders to train community members to become leaders so that they can fight for change themselves.  Obama is doing an excellent job with inspiring and instilling skills via his campaign operations.  But this positions Obama as the consummate outsider, training others to take on the system for positive change.  How can we then elect this person to be the consummate insider? 

Strains of participatory democracy are prevalent in Obama’s campaign.  Participatory democracy, it should be noted, has highly positive impacts, mainly related to increasing people’s and groups’ sense of civic engagement and self-efficacy, and in practice at the local level, can lead to decision-making power.  But it is not a practice that layers very easily onto our political bureacracy, and, in its most reviled characterizations (from academic haters, mostly), is disparaged as process over results, or, that the process is the result.

There is a reason organizing is a distinct institution from bureacracy; there is a reason that social movements wax and wane, and that protest and direct action is appropriate in some instances and negotiating and deal-making is appropriate in others.  One thing that has been made dramatically obvious during this primary is that our current electoral system is not a fair and open one, and we’ve got two tremendous Democratic candidates to thank for exposing that with their breathtaking contest and its accompanying voter and citizen participation.  Perhaps one outcome of this campaign season will be a re-tooling our our electoral system, or more modestly, the Democratic Party’s rules.  But I’m skeptical.  Bureacracies are pretty entrenched; hence the staying power.  I hope that if Obama secures the nomination, his inside game is as good as his outside one. 


2 Responses to “President Organizer”

  1. February 20, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Really interesting thought. Thanks!

  2. February 20, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Susie, Thanks! And thanks for the link. I dig your blog.

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