Friday, September 5, 2008

Community Organizing Code for Angry Left

The Republican convention had a series of strange attacks on Barack Obama's work as a community organizer. Kevin Harris points to an article in the Nation by Peter Drier and John Atlas taking the RNC to task for their attacks on local civic engagement:

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered his own snickering hit job. 'He worked as a community organizer. What? Maybe this is the first problem on the resumé,' mocked Giuliani.

A few minutes later, in her acceptance speech for the GOP vice presidential nomination, Sarah Palin declared, 'I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.'

The Daily Show (god bless em') had a hilarious take on the comments and crystalizes what seems to be an out of sync contradiction between the campaign's own theme of service and the Republican party's professed belief in local community-based problem solving.

What gives? Me thinks this is suppose to be code for "angry left radical activist." It's meant to be another salvo at the Democrats for being a party full of Marxists trying to "stick it to the man." But anyone who has worked with or studied community organizations know that they have become very mainstream. Many of them have been focused on building low income housing and providing job training. "Community organizing" has moved from an emphasis on political activism to one of asset building and community empowerment...things Republicans are supposed to stand for.

According to his Wikipedia's page, this is what Obama did as a community organizer:

After four years in New York City, Obama moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer for three years from June 1985 to May 1988 as director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a church-based community organization originally comprising eight Catholic parishes in Greater Roseland (Roseland, West Pullman, and Riverdale) on Chicago's far South Side.[12][14] During his three years as the DCP's director, its staff grew from 1 to 13 and its annual budget grew from $70,000 to $400,000, with accomplishments including helping set up a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants' rights organization in Altgeld Gardens.[15] Obama also worked as a consultant and instructor for the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organizing institute.[16]

This might work the way the Republicans intend. But if it does, I have developed quite a tin ear for political framing, which is pretty scary for a political scientist. A backlash has started against the community development snaps Micah Sifry identifies a facebook group called We Are All Community Organizers was launched immediately after the speeches. As of 4pm Pacific time on Friday, September 5, the list had 5,359 members. Of course, it's unlikely many of the people on that list were McCain supporters.


Don said...
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Don said...

There’s so many levels on which ridiculing “community organizer” has so little fidelity and coherence for conservatism itself. As you mention, the argument fails from within the Republican paradigm. Faith-based initiatives are built almost entirely around the notion that communities such as church groups can make a vast difference in localities. Particularly from Reagan on forward the calls for the “least government possible” which have become an almost unthinking mantra of contemporary conservatism put their faith instead in the power of grassroots groups to do work that government (in their opinion) shouldn’t. Conservative radio for the past week has been one long diatribe against everything that Giuliani brought up in making that joke. Giuliani’s crude remark was an uncivil jab at the de Tocquevillian promise that America at its best is strong associations at the local level. Bizarre, indeed.

I was also intrigued by how burlesque the taunt was. It was almost as if, for a moment, much of the crowd was reluctant to go along with the joke. Sloganeering in massive crowds tends to make us go rather imitative and sheepish (hey, laugh tracks are on the sitcoms for a reason, even if we’re reluctant to laugh), so I’m not surprised that the crowd eventually went along. Yet Giuliani’s laugh and “what is that” also show how far the joke was from meeting the threshold of an actual punch line, in its wild ambiguity. The only clear part of the message was: You fill in with whatever details you think necessary—we don’t need public argument here. In this way, it was also a complete mockery of public speech and dialectic. It’s ironic that conservatives have been relentless in demanding “details” from Obama, as this is about as abstract as it gets. Giuliani’s joke was the equivalent of throwing out a self-evidencing grade school tautology like “you’re stupid…because you are.” The joke (if we can call it that) may be a synecdoche for why conservatives don’t seem to have a Jon Stewart of their own currently.

Kenneth Burke’s theories of human beings orient themselves to their social environments may make some sense of some of this. He speaks of a “tragic frame,” in which human beings view other people as evil and worthy of “being taken to the end of the line” and cast out of community through scapegoating and other tactics. This may provoke the slide into burlesque that we’re seeing. A “comic frame,” on the other hand, views its enemies as “mistaken, rather than evil,” seeking to widen relations with others, and points out the foibles and faults that we all have, while keeping options open through critical and sympathetic comic play. I’ve been starting to wonder if there’s something inherent in certain parts of contemporary conservative political philosophy that prevents using this latter approach. Perhaps an emphasis on communicative products (believe this!) rather than processes (tolerance, standards for talking, but not what we talk about), or something similar?

For a really hilarious take on Giuliani's "comedy," also see Stephen Colbert's segment from last night--

Grant Berg said...

It was during Palin's acceptance speech at the RNC when I heard this "criticism" for the first time. The tastelessness and illogical grounding of this attack defies sense. Why are we seeing the possible future leaders of the United States, McCain and Palin, branding people who embody the American spirit of change through community development as practicing work that is without merit or responsibility? Apparently these Republicans either think that helping the public in its most vital and undernourished areas is wrong or they actually have never been community organizers and don't know what one is. Perhaps both. It's hard to reason the workings of such a contradictory trail of thought. Obama responded to the ridiculous comments posited by the Republicans on September 4th, saying:

"Why would that kind of work be ridiculous?" Obama said. "Who are they [The Republicans] fighting for? What are they advocating for? They think that the lives of those folks who are struggling each and every day, that working with them to try to improve their lives is somehow not relevant to the presidency? I think maybe that's the problem -- that's part of why they're out of touch and they don't get it 'cause they haven't spent much time working on behalf of those folks."

If thinking that fighting for America's most downtrodden citizens is the first "problem" on Obama's resume, as Giuliani phrased it at the RNC, then how do these individuals see themselves as beneficial to the country? Obama's work as an organizer should be anything but a limit to his credentials: as an article from The Nation ( said, being a community organizer has instilled within Obama a "faith in ordinary citizens, a quest for common ground and a pragmatic inclination toward defining issues in winnable ways." It is outrageous that a profession which cultivates such qualities would be ridiculed and dismissed by people who profess to have such characteristics. This attack on Obama is just another shaky argument thrown by Republicans in their attempt to deface their way to victory. I would regard it as a joke but their firm belief in such senselessness quickly takes all humor out of the situation. I wonder what absurdity they will try to scrounge up for political ammo next.

Jose Marichal said...


Thanks for introducing me to Burke's work. The tragic frame is an interesting way to think of how the two parties relate to the mass public. Maybe it has to do with the fact that liberals believe in the redemptive possibilities of individuals (think about crime policy) while conservatives see individuals in absolute terms (good or evil). Good food for thought :-)

Jose Marichal said...

Nice post, Grant! I heard on a radio show someone make the case that the Republicans were trying to associate "community" with "commune" or "communist." It seems like an "out there" attack, but I thought the whole "Obama is a celebrity" line of attack is "out there" and that seems to be working.