Saturday, March 08, 2008

The People's Ball

Not many lefties in Britain know about the ideas and work of Saul Alinsky, the man who founded the modern community organising movement in America. But his ideas influenced both Hillary Clinton (who wrote a college thesis about his ideas) and Barack Obama (who worked as a community organiser in Chicago). Here's an article by someone who worked with Alinsky for a decade about how the next President could change the way politics is done in America:

"The crowning hour of a presidential inauguration comes in the evening after the parade up Pennsylvania Avenue, when the city is hit by limousine gridlock. As the sun goes down, the millionaires and billionaires with their lackeys and the lobbyists fill the streets on their way to the dozen or more inauguration night balls that the President comes, and by so doing affirms his bond to the enduring power of moneyed special interests.

Alinsky would advise Obama to skip the balls. That in and of itself would be a new-page statement, but Alinsky would add that such a symbolic act will not mean much unless it is not backed up. He would suggest inviting all the people who worked on the campaign to Washington. Students and others who can't afford such a trip would merit some kind of stipend or scholarship, something the campaign organization with its astonishing fundraising abilities ought to be able to handle.

The arrival of these thousands of non-professional politicians would hit Washington much as the arrival of the western farm people's arrival at Andrew Jackson's inaugural did in 1828. Their raucous presence ended the Federalist-aristocratic era and announced a new time of popular democracy.

Beside taking up every spare bed in Washington, Jackson's horny-handed sons of toil went overboard on the corn liquor and carried on with an egregious lack of couth. Alinsky would anticipate the problems posed by bringing 100,000 into town with nothing planned for them to do.

There should be people's parties as opposed to the lobbyist balls, but there should be more--organizational meetings, seminars on important issues, opportunities to visit the city's marvelous museums and so forth. The inauguration could be turned into an opportunity to convert Obama's campaign organization into a permanent, democratically self-governing, political-social organizational entity of a new and unique character. It would be outside the Democratic Party so that the breadth and enthusiasm brought to the Obama effort by independents and Republicans would not be lost.

Alinsky would point out that for such an organization to endure and perfect itself, it would have to have a rich ongoing life at the local level involving local projects in education, health, environment or whatever the membership determined. Thus it would be profoundly different from the usual political party organizations which essentially go to sleep between elections.

This organization would afford a new kind of communication system for politics and government. It would free the White House from dependence on polls and focus groups and keep it informed on the mind of the nation, as ideas and news could make its way back and forth from top to bottom and bottom to top. Such an organization would provide millions of people around the country as well as Washington office holders with an information system outside of commercial media.

Such an organization, Alinsky would say, would be indispensable to the success of an Obama Administration intent on instituting changes that the K Street money interests will delay, obfuscate and block. This organization, with a stable grassroots presence in most of the nation's Congressional districts, will be able to show members of both houses of Congress how much it will be to their advantage to vote with the Administration rather than with the lobbyists.

Finally, Alinsky would explain that such an organization holds out the prospect of solving the problem of expensive, centralized federal programs that sound good but disappoint, exasperate and scandalize. The existence of local democratic organizations holds the promise of getting around bureaucratic, one size-fits-all government entities trying to operate 1,000 miles away from the people they are supposed to help. Such an organization could tailor large national programs to fit needs and desires at the state and local level.

To succeed, this organization cannot have its agenda handed down from Washington, even an Obama Washington. What it does and how it does it must depend on people at the precinct, county, state and national levels making those decisions democratically themselves.

It's a huge amount of work but the Obama campaign has cracked open and released the energy of idealism. It has coupled it with the use of the Internet in diabolically clever ways, which have shown that building organizational networks is possible and practical. Alinsky, never a man to lapse into dogmatic formulae, would seize on these new opportunities to build a twenty-first-century popular democracy as startlingly fresh as the one that emerged in Andrew Jackson's time."

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