There were no “gotcha” questions for the Democratic candidates at the Heartland Forum in Des Moines on Saturday. No Russertian dredging up of past quotes or Blitzerite insistence that the candidates choose between “security” and “human rights.” In fact, while there were questions to the five candidates who participated, some pointed and specific, they made up less of the day than statements of principle and firsthand testimonials from community leaders from across the country. Nearly 5,000 people (including 3,000 Iowans) braved a storm in the Midwest to pack an auditorium in downtown Des Moines and listen. Family farmers spoke of their community being invaded by the stench and pollution of industrial hog farms. Immigrants spoke of round-ups and police paying visits to kindergartens to yank children out of class. Longtime urban homeowners talked about the foreclosures and bankruptcies piling up in their neighborhoods. “Some things aren’t right and other things ain’t right,” said Barbara Anderson of the adjusted rate mortgages that had ensnared her Cleveland neighbors. “Predatory lending ain’t right.”
The five candidates who participated–Edwards, Kucinich, Dodd, Obama and Cllinton via telephone–had just two minutes to answer each question. (After being cut off during a response Dodd flashed a momentary look of frustration before saying, “I’ve got more time here than I get in those debates.”) It was an inversion of the way we normally think of campaign events, as opportunities for people to listen to the candidates. The Heartland Forum was first and foremost an opportunity for the candidates to listen to the people.
Getting a politician into a room and forcing him or her to listen is an organizing tactic that dates back to Saul Alinsky, the irascible, visionary University of Chicago criminologist who more or less invented community organizing half a century ago. Most of the people in the audience and on the crowded stage were members, leaders or affiliated with the kinds of local community-based organizations that are descendants of Alinsky’s own Industrial Areas Foundation, but Alinsky himself was probably rolling over in his grave. That’s because the very nature of the event deviated from his Alinsky-ite methodology in two pretty radical ways. First, community organizing has always had little interest in electoral politics, believing that the person holding elected office matters far less than how you pressure him or her. And second, the Heartland Forum was, more than anything, an attempt to articulate an overarching worldview–dare it be said, an ideology–rooted in the bedrock principle of the common good. “This forum is about more than just politics,” said Barb Kolbach of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, “more than about the next election. It’s all about our community values. We share responsibility for each other, and we’re stronger as a nation when we realize that we’re in it together.” Alinsky didn’t have much patience for that kind of talk, preferring instead narrowly tailored demands and power-building based on self-interest over any grand ideological vision.
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, which co-sponsored the forum along with Common Cause and a number of Iowa progressive groups, is well aware that this represents a new direction. “There has been, within the organizing field, a revolution,” he told me a few days before the event. Rather than having “people at the bottom speaking from their narrow self-interest,” the event and the Campaign for Community Values that it was kicking off, provide a chance for people to “reach out and say where we think the country should go.”
Sometimes the melding of approaches, the local community-based and the grand ideological vision, felt awkward. As candidates was called forth, they each were met with the same slightly kabuki-like recitation of the core values by forum moderators, and there were so many people on stage it was easy to lose focus. But during its best moments, the forum offered a glimpse of an alternate vision of how politics might work. As a rule the debates hosted by CNN and MSNBC home in on internal divisions within the Democratic caucus, and questioners attempt to pin candidates by forcing them to choose between constituency A and constituency B. Do you support merit pay for teachers? Answer yes and you piss off the teachers’ unions; answer no and you might anger parents.
Rather than a vision of politics as a tribal battle between different interest groups, the Heartland Forum offered one grounded in solidarity across different narrowly constructed identity groups: white, black, Latino, rural, urban, secular and religious. So it was Inez Killingsworth, an African-American woman from inner-city Cleveland, asking John Edwards about the havoc that corporate agriculture has wreaked on Iowan family farms. After Mayte Rodriguez told her story of coming to the United States as a child and now being denied financial aid despite having graduated in the top ten of her class, she was followed by Larry Genter, a white Iowa farmer who explained the context of Rodriguez’s journey north. “Her story is about common people coming into this country looking to better their lives,” said Genter. “In truth, it is government policies that drive people from their homes and countries. I have talked to family farmers in Mexico. They told me that since NAFTA, cheap corn flooded their markets, drove down their price…. I believe that American farmers and Mexican farmers and farmers all over the world have common goals and common concerns. For the sake of our national soul, we’ve got to quit treating immigrants like common criminals.” (The only booing of the entire day came a few moments later, when Hillary Clinton hemmed and hawed when asked if she would prioritize getting immigration reform passed in her first 100 days.)
There was, actually, one “gotcha” question designed to put the candidates on the hook. At the end of each session with the candidate, moderator Kathy Hughes asked if, yes or no, the candidate would agree to meet with a delegation. This part was pure Alinsky, who always tried to force an elected official to commit to the next meeting before ending the current one. “The last time we had a Democratic administration we got NAFTA and welfare reform,” says Bhargava. “That was our reward. Looking ahead to a new Democratic administration, we want to put together an infrastructure from the left to push hard so that working people and people of color don’t get totally shafted.”
Every single candidate agreed to the meeting, most saying that they wouldn’t have to wait a 100 days. “I’ll go better than that,” said Dennis Kucinich. “You can sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. It’s your government, you can come on in.”