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.”