In Praise Of Community Organizing

I can certainly understand why, after having had her resume trashed from the very moment that she was thrust onto the national stage, Sarah Palin and other Republicans were interested in exposing Barack Obama as being too inexperienced to be President of the United States. To be sure, his inexperience is quite thin. Obama points to his days as a community organizer as having prepared him for a political career in general and his decision to forgo wealth in favor of community work is lauded–both by Obama and his supporters–as an act of nobility that should augment his attractiveness in the eyes of the electorate. Obama wants us to believe that he is worthy of the Presidency because he engaged in an act of self-abnegation by taking up community organizing and to the extent that he continues to do so, Republicans will naturally continue to point out that his political experience is hardly substantial and that community organizing does not prepare one for the Presidency.

But I am concerned that in the midst of critiquing Obama’s resume, Republicans are needlessly harshing on the very act of community organizing and communicating the notion that such endeavors are worthless and frivolous from front to back. If so, then I either want to get off this particular train of thought before the derailment occurs or hasten to tell the engineer why a course correction is called for.

It is one thing to critique Obama’s resume. It is another thing altogether to beat up on the very act of community organizing. If we do so, we run into . . . um . . . a little bit of a problem:

America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world. My friends, we have work to do. There are the homeless, lost and roaming. There are the children who have nothing, no love, no normalcy. There are those who cannot free themselves of enslavement to whatever addiction–drugs, welfare, the demoralization that rules the slums. There is crime to be conquered, the rough crime of the streets. There are young women to be helped who are about to become mothers of children they can’t care for and might not love. They need our care, our guidance, and our education, though we bless them for choosing life.

The old solution, the old way, was to think that public money alone could end these problems. But we have learned that is not so. And in any case, our funds are low. We have a deficit to bring down. We have more will than wallet; but will is what we need. We will make the hard choices, looking at what we have and perhaps allocating it differently, making our decisions based on honest need and prudent safety. And then we will do the wisest thing of all: We will turn to the only resource we have that in times of need always grows–the goodness and the courage of the American people.

I am speaking of a new engagement in the lives of others, a new activism, hands-on and involved, that gets the job done. We must bring in the generations, harnessing the unused talent of the elderly and the unfocused energy of the young. For not only leadership is passed from generation to generation, but so is stewardship. And the generation born after the Second World War has come of age.

I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.

(Emphasis mine.) This was from the Inaugural Address of President George Bush the Elder on January 20, 1989. Now, if we have suddenly decided that community organizing is something to be looked down upon, I have missed the memo and I want a word with the author of that memo. As the former President pointed out in the passage above, community organizing is a great and valuable way for localities to claim ownership of public policy issues and to solve the problems and meet the challenges associated with those issues at the local level–instead of involving the federal government and increasing the power and the heavy hand of the State.

Isn’t this what we, as small-government libertarians, conservatives and libertarian-conservatives want? Individuals and neighborhoods taking power and responsibility back from Washington? In that case, we had better be careful not to sneer at community organizing.

We had also better not sneer at it because if we want to refurbish and rebuild our campaign infrastructure, we ought to understand that community organizing is and will be part and parcel of that effort. Community organizers will be needed for GOTV efforts, putting the social networking infrastructure into fighting shape and to engage in campaigning–door to door, phone to phone, e-mail address to e-mail address and Facebook page to Facebook page. Our friends on the other side of the partisan divide understand precisely this fact and that is why their campaign infrastructure is so well coordinated and integrated with their social activism online. We not only need to absorb these lessons, we need to understand them. And we need to transcend them in their implementation.

We need community organizers at all levels to help in that regard.

Look, if people want to say that Barack Obama does not have enough experience to be President of the United States, I can entirely and completely get on board with that argument. But I can’t get on board with the feeling–and yes, it does exist–that a community organizer, per se, has nothing of value to add. Snarking at community organizers may make for great speech lines. But it is lousy long term strategy and will only serve to cut out the philosophical and political ground from under us in the future.