Harry C. Boyte: The peculiar attack on community organizing

October 31, 2008
Not long ago Republicans celebrated this tradition. Now they’ve made it an epithet. Given the interest in it, this move may backfire.
By HARRY C. BOYTE


The Republicans meeting in St. Paul heaped scorn on "community organizers" with snappy sound bites. But attacking community organizing for partisan advantage could prove a mistake.

Sarah Palin followed Rudy Giuliani in belittling Barack Obama's community-organizing background. Calling herself "just your average hockey mom" who became mayor and then governor, she mocked Obama's experiences. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

The problem for Republicans is that community organizing is at the heart of the democratic tradition. Not long ago, they knew this.

In 1980, Republicans ran as the champions of community organizing against "big government" and liberal professionals. Drawing on the Mediating Structures Project of the American Enterprise Institution, which called for attention to foundations of civic life in an impersonal world, the Republican platform lauded neighborhoods as "arenas for civic action and creative self help," places that sustained values of family life, cooperation and self-reliance. Ronald Reagan called for "a renaissance of the American community" as "the heart and soul of rebuilding America."

Reagan drew on old traditions. In the organizing perspective, republican institutions and democratic society were not created only by wise founding fathers with inspired ideas, as important as these were. The nation was also built by those whom one Revolutionary leader called "the people without the frosting," engaged, unheralded citizens who had become well-practiced at running their own affairs and building communities, even while under colonial rule. When the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the new democracy in the 1830s, he was struck by the importance of the arts of association. "In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge," he wrote in his famous "Democracy in America."

Community organizers are those who teach the arts of combining -- how to work together across differences of religion, ethnicity and partisan background to build schools and roads, parks and libraries, cultural institutions and small businesses. Through the 19th century, as Americans created a commonwealth of goods, they became a commonwealth of citizens. Thus, chapters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, formed in 1874 out of the women's crusade against "demon rum," laid groundwork for community organizing in the 20th century as well as for a new and bolder assertion of women's citizenship. By 1889, the WCTU activities in Chicago alone included two nurseries, Sunday schools, an industrial school, a mission that sheltered 4,000 destitute women, a free medical dispensary that treated more than 1,600 patients a year, a low-cost restaurant and a lodging house for men that had provided temporary shelter for more than 50,000. Through work on issues, such organizing efforts also empowered and educated. "Perhaps the most significant outcome of this movement was the knowledge of their own power gained by the conservative women of the Churches," wrote Frances Willard in her history, "The Work and Workers of the Women's Christian Temperance Union."

The principles of modern community organizing were embodied in a 1978 document, "Organizing for Family and Congregation," that would have influenced Barack Obama in the 1980s. It argued that sustaining civic values required civic power. Such power could only be generated by organizing. It called for coupling of work on bread-and-butter issues like housing, jobs and school reform with a "values war" against forces such as hyperindividualism, consumerism and instant gratification in the toxic mass culture that were undermining families and communities. This message had wide appeal across the partisan divide. Since then, innovative cities have put community organizing at the center of problem solving.

The delegates in St. Paul last week trashed all this history. "Community organizer" was simply a handy epithet used to demonize opponents, part of the stock in trade of the new Republican Party refashioned by the disciples of Karl Rove. But in forgetting their own history, as well as the nation's civic tradition, Republican attacks could have unanticipated consequences.

Last fall, the congressionally mandated, nonpartisan National Conference on Citizenship released its annual American Civic Health Index, a composite of various measures of civic life from voting to volunteering. For years, these have shown steady decline. But last fall, the index found three countertrends. An invisible "civic core," 36 million strong, work in a sustained way across partisan and other differences to solve problems and build communities -- America's invisible community organizers. Millions more say they would like to engage in such ways if they had skills and opportunities. Of special note, young adults in the "Millennial Generation," born after 1975, are eager for civic engagement. Reacting to these findings, Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier called the civic core the potential "sleeper" group of the 2008 election, this year's soccer moms or NASCAR dads.

Republican attacks, trying to dismiss organizing, might lead to its great awakening.

Harry C. Boyte is a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute and author, most recently, of "The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference."
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