For the first time in American history, a major political party devoted a substantial portion of its national convention to attacking grassroots organizing.
Speaking Wednesday at the Republican National Convention, former New York Governor George Pataki sneered, “[Barack Obama] was a community organizer. What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job.”
Then former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered his own snickering hit job. “He worked as a community organizer. What? Maybe this is the first problem on the résumé,” mocked Giuliani.” Then he said, “This is not a personal attack. It’s a statement of fact. Barack Obama has never led anything. Nothing. Nada.”
A few minutes later, in her acceptance speech for the GOP vice presidential nomination, Sarah Palin declared, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”
The party of Ronald Reagan was touting government experience over civic engagement.
At a convention whose theme was “service,” GOP leaders ridiculed organizing, a vital kind of public service that involves leadership, tough decisions, and taking responsibility for the well-being of people often ignored by government.
But the controversy surrounding these snide remarks may have backfired. Within hours, Obama sent an e-mail to his supporters, challenging the Republicans who “mocked, dismissed, and actually laughed out loud at Americans who engage in community service and organizing” and soliciting funds for his campaign. His campaign manager David Plouffe sent another fundraising e-mail, saying, “Let’s clarify something for them right now. Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.”
Palin, Giuliani and Pataki denigrated not only the tens of thousands of community organizers who help everyday citizens to participate in shaping their society and the millions of Americans who volunteer as community activists but also a long American tradition of collective self-help that goes back to the Boston Tea Party.
Visiting the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his Democracy in America, how impressed he was by the outpouring of local voluntary organizations that brought Americans together to solve problems, provide a sense of community and public purpose and tame the hyper-individualism that Tocqueville considered a threat to democracy. In the same speech in which Palin ridiculed Obama’s organizing work, she touted her own experiences as a PTA volunteer and “hockey mom”–the very kinds of activities that Tocqueville praised and that community organizers support.
The Republicans’ nasty attacks on grassroots organizing reflect another longstanding tradition in American politics–the conservative elite’s fear of “the people.” Some of the founding fathers worried that ordinary people–people without property, indentured servants, slaves, women and others–might challenge the economic and political status quo. In The Federalist Papers and other documents, they debated how to restrain the masses from gaining too much influence. To maintain their privilege, the elite denied them the vote, limited their ability to protest, censored their publications, threw them in jail and ridiculed their ideas to expand democracy.