Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The New Alinskyites

One of the undercurrents of this campaign is Sen. Barack Obama's work history as a community organizer. From what's been written about it, he actually accomplished little or nothing. But it is important nonetheless as it the key data point to be able to pigeonhole Sen. Obama, for both ends of the spectrum. The Right can say, "Oh look, he was pinko rabble rouser, the horror!" The Left will give him street cred for the same reason.

But to me the most interesting aspect of the whole thing is how the career of Saul Alinsky fits into all this. Alinsky is considered to be the godfather of community organizing, including DCP and the Gamaliel Foundation where Barack Obama cut his teeth. As much as Obama's period as a community organizer has been a rhetorical flashpoint for the campaign, there's been very little attention to Obama's failure to accomplish anything as one. And in the process, Obama rejected the defining feature of the Alinsky model, the nature of leadership. As John Judis wrote in The New Republic,
"As a result, the job of an organizer is to discover what citizens think is in their self-interest and then help them fight for it. Alinsky also instructed that the organizer himself should not become a public leader, but should operate behind the scenes to encourage "natural" or "native" leaders among the people he is organizing. That is, the goal of an organizer is never to create a movement based on his own charisma. ("We're trying to build an organization with staying power, not a movement based on instant power and charisma," Ernesto Cortes Jr., a prominent Alinsky disciple, explained in 1988.)"

He took a turn into politics instead, an endeavor that by its very nature requires charismatic leaders and smooth-talkers. How very convenient, like so many other things about the young Obama.

But if Obama is not a true disciple of Alinsky then who is? Well, I suspect that we'll find out that it will be Joe the Plumber and the more or less apolitical conservative base. The complement to Alinsky's view of leadership was his view of "consciousness raising." People in general best learn the value of abstract principle in the struggle for their own interests. I suspect this is going to come home to bourgeois America in ways that we haven't seen for at least a couple of decades.

The right to own guns, the right to politically incorrect speech, the right to take exception to the establishment's line on the usual hot-button issues, they are all going to come under tremendous pressure. They will also be defended, but not just by blandly invoking words on a piece of paper, but also by force and through repeated clashes against authority.

It's very possible that American will be entering a period of substantial social unrest no matter what happends. But, in contrast to some others I see more of it if Obama wins than if he loses.

1 comment:

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