The Democratic ground game in the 2008 election is unlike anything we’ve seen since 1948 – or, given the role of the internet, maybe ever. A week before the election, the focus is now exclusively on traditional Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activities. But the larger, longer-lasting impact is that organizing skills and attitudes are now back on the American scene, with the potential to transform more than just one election and to build a broader working-class movement for social and economic justice.
Though Barack Obama’s approach to political organizing deserves the lion’s share of kudos for the scale of the effort in 2008, labor and community organizing has been building capacity for more than a decade – schooling people in the organizer’s craft, developing rank-and-file leaders, and spreading experience of the power of organized collective action.
The labor movement “turned the page” in 1996 when the New Voice leadership of the AFL-CIO made a major rhetorical and financial shift to developing a new generation of union organizers who are cross-trained in organizing labor-community coalitions as part of organizing new members. Unions increased their efforts (and budgets) to organize new members, with disappointing results thus far, but they also staked out a political program independent of the Democratic Party even as they organized more effectively within the party to advance their issues. Unions have spent a lot of money on a variety of new approaches to political organizing, but the main drift has been away from endorsing and funding candidates to year-round political education and activism on legislative issues that affect union members and their neighbors.
This year the labor movement concentrated on member-to-member political education with an emphasis on one-on-one contacts at work, at home, and on the phone. And as exemplified by a late summer speech by AFL-CIO Vice-president Rich Trumpka, they are directly addressing racial ignorance, fear and outright racism among their own members. This is now supplemented by a new organization, Working America, that has enlisted nearly 3 million nonunion workers to become politically active in both electoral and movement activities. Begun in 2004, Working America is now active in fourteen states, from Colorado to Virginia. The group’s activist blogs provide a taste of what they’re doing.
Community organizations are focused on electoral politics as never before, but not simply for its own sake. As exemplified by the best-known national network of such groups, ACORN, registering and turning out voters are just part of a larger process of organizing and mobilizing for local campaigns on living wages, affordable housing, environmental justice, and a wide variety of local issues. What’s new here is the breakdown of the traditional wall between political and “nonpartisan” community organizing.
Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is widely (and justifiably) praised for building organizational infrastructure everywhere. This involves funding DNC staff in all 50 states, instituting more rigorous (and more Washington-directed) candidate-selection processes for Congressional and gubernatorial races, and much else. But as Bob Moser has been reporting in The Nation for the past two years, the DNC’s 50-state strategy also means linking community, labor, and faith activists with emerging Democratic politicians and activists who are progressive by the standards of their locality. Though the DNC’s primary purpose may not be to build grassroots organizing capacity, its renewed presence reinforces and encourages the grassroots organizers who are already there.
Finally, Barack Obama has brought a community organizing approach to politics that purports to be building not just to win an election, but also to hold elected representatives accountable as they govern – at all levels, including his.
Camp Obama has trained hundreds of organizers, who have in turn trained thousands of rank-and-file leaders in various localities. Like many of Obama’s field staff, Joy Cushman, head of the Obama Organizing Fellows program, comes to politics from an apprenticeship not in GOTV operations, but in community organizing. According to Cushman, the Obama field effort is focused on finding and developing authentic community leaders not just as volunteers for canvassing and phone-banking, but to lead the effort in their areas and to integrate election organizing with their existing activism. The goal is to nurture a network of leaders who will continue working for progressive political efforts at the local and state as well as the national levels. For more about this, see Zack Exley’s “The New Organizers.”
What happens after next week’s election is anybody’s guess. But today’s working-class organizers do not expect to wait passively and see. Electing sympathetic politicians is part of building a social movement, but not the most important part. Organizing and mobilizing at the grassroots is. And now there are a whole lot more people doing that.