In September 2009, I wrote an article arguing that ACORN’s potential demise would create a void for community organizing. Eighteen months later, the situation is worse. ACORN, long the chief recruiter of new organizers, is gone. Public employee unions face challenges to their collective bargaining rights, and lack the resources to bolster community organizing. Campus PIRG chapters are being defunded by a coalition of school administrators and conservative student politicians, including last fall at the University of Wisconsin only a short distance from the ongoing protests in Madison. Organizing for America is offering summer positions for organizers, but this is about building a field operation for President Obama’s re-election campaign, not community organizing. Community organizing played such a pivotal role in building the groundswell for a progressive agenda and election victories in 2008 that a conservative backlash was foreseeable; the problem is that liberal foundations and other donors have not helped community organizing groups’ fight back.
It is hard to believe that it was only two years ago when our first “community organizer” President took office, raising the profile of those who organize on the ground for progressive change. Instead of Obama’s election proving the type of launching point that conservative groups experienced after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, community organizing opportunities are less available today than in past decades.
The Conservative Strategy
Conservative interests brought down ACORN through manipulated videos whose central premise – that the group was encouraging child prostitution – was false. The same trick was tried against Planned Parenthood recently, and failed, as the group as far more mainstream and influential defenders than did ACORN.
It’s not longer any secret that the attack on public employees is designed to weaken a constituency that mobilizes for progressive issues and candidates. But even if collective bargaining is saved, conservative interests have forced unions to spend considerable resources of a defensive struggle.
The attack on the campus PIRGS involves a single theme: the claim that too many of the groups beneficiaries are not students at the school. As ridiculous as it sounds to penalize the PIRGS for addressing issues that helps students beyond the campus, the group’s broader reach is used by conservative students to justify de-funding.
Since campus PIRG’s typically win campus-wide plebiscites on funding, student government’s and administrators prevent such elections, which are a better gauge of student support. This allows a relatively few and unrepresentative group of students to vote on PIRG funding requests, leading to recent defunding decisions at two longtime campus strongholds, WISPIRG and OSPIRG.
Since the Heritage Foundation adopted the strategy of “defunding the left” as part of Ronald Reagan’s original presidential transition team, conservatives have used their power to weaken those fulltime organizers for their adversaries. Unfortunately, Democrats only seldom use their power to weaken their political opponents, which is why abstinence education ($250 million allocated to such in the Obama health care bill) and other right-wing funding streams continue through Obama’s presidency.
Have progressives prioritized the Internet over grassroots organizing? That would be a mistake. While email lists and Facebook are helpful mobilizing tools, there is no substitute for personal contacts; that’s why conservatives target organizing groups – rather than progressive bloggers or websites – for elimination.
The lack of organizing resources helps explain why Wall Street got away with creating a fiscal nightmare, why voter turnout among young people plunged in 2010, and why the nation’s policies are much more conservative than respondents’ opinions in public polls. Most progressives in the United States are not assembled in large groups or federations, which makes organizing imperative.
I hear from a lot of people who believe that Facebook “made” the Egyptian revolution, and that social media and the Internet can be great instruments for change. Yet without grassroots organizing, the base for creating real change does not emerge.
Let’s hope the foundation world and private donors begin to understand this.