Wrong About the Right
The Role of Organizing
Some progressives consider grassroots organizing a remnant of an old style of politics no longer relevant to our media- and money-saturated times. Others think of it as an actual obstacle to the efficient, hierarchical infrastructure they idealize. But conservatives have nurtured their grassroots constituencies in civic institutions, evangelical churches and gun clubs. Organizing is central to any effective strategy for revitalizing the progressive movement.
Organizing, not to be confused with mobilizing, is ultimately what changes people's minds. Whereas mobilizing is about moving people to take certain actions (voting, lobbying policy-makers, coming out to an event or calling your Congress member on an issue pre-selected by someone else), organizing is about developing the skills, confidence and practice among ordinary people to speak out in their own voice.
What ultimately forces change is human beings seeing fellow human beings act from a place of deep conviction. That moment of recognition can occur only when people who are living with an injustice bring their experience to the public square. Of course, solidarity efforts are crucial to social change. It's hard to imagine the farmworkers, or the civil rights workers in the South, succeeding if they had failed to rouse broader sympathy throughout the country. But they were able to do this only because they spoke with an authenticity that transcended walls of race and class prejudice. No policy paper or slick message will ever replace the power of organizing.
Major changes in the social order require a leap of "nonconsent" by the governed. That might be millions of people refusing the draft, or thousands boycotting buses in Montgomery, or hundreds "dying in" to protest delays in AIDS research. While the tidal wave of conservative successes at the federal level is obvious, the less-obvious victories progressives have had in recent years are largely attributable to organizing: major new investments in affordable housing through housing trust funds, new money for transit, living- and minimum-wage laws, expansions in health coverage at the state level, more income supports for low-wage workers, education access, driver's licenses for immigrants and limits on natural resource extraction.
Organizing is, as George W. Bush might say, "hard work"--never more so than in current circumstances. Memories of successful collective struggle are fading fast among a new generation not raised with the 1960s as a backdrop. Market culture has penetrated all spheres of life, and it has reinforced deeply individualistic strains in American society. Also, pervasive economic insecurity, increasing work demands and a shredded safety net have heightened the personal costs involved.
Organizing has always had an uneasy place not only in the broader culture but also in progressive circles. It has frequently been sidelined by expert-driven advocacy or by charismatic figures who lead short-lived protest movements, and today it is at risk of being displaced by a focus on think tanks and communications strategies. Perhaps more alarming, however, is the relative decline of organizing as a strategy relative to mobilization. The work of many 527 organizations prominent in the Bush and Kerry campaigns of 2004 (America Coming Together and the Media Fund, for example) seemed to be about parachuting into communities and soliciting votes, with little thought about what would be left behind.
For all the difficulties, progressives are engaging in some exciting experimentation with new methods of base-building appropriate to our times. Organized labor is in the throes of a debate about how to rebuild membership. There has been an explosion in community-based "worker centers" and in immigrant community organizations. And in a few states, groups are beginning to work together across issue and constituency lines to develop common long-term strategies. This success is very fragile and tentative, however, and it is still the case that organizing tends not to get the respect, attention or resources it needs from the larger progressive community.
A problem closely related to the neglect of organizing is the failure of many progressive organizations to recruit and encourage leadership from young people, especially young people of color. Young people have political, social and economic perspectives that differ from those of older (usually Baby Boomer) activists, who were shaped by the events of the 1960s and '70s. Younger activists, organizers and intellectuals will enrich the movement and take it in new directions, if given the freedom and the power to do so.