Organizing Democracy

An excerpt from Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, (Princeton University Press, 2010), edited slightly for this purpose.

by Jeffrey Stout

Beginning in the 1920s, Walter Lippmann argued that the main actors in a modern democratic republic are officeholders, political candidates, opinion makers, and other members of powerful elites. Ordinary citizens, he thought, have more limited obligations: to inform themselves about the issues and about the politicians vying for office, to conduct themselves with civility in public debate, to vote in a way that advances their own interests fairly, and to exercise their influence appropriately — for example, by contacting their elected representatives, signing petitions, or writing letters to the editor. Given that most citizens fail to fulfill even these limited civic responsibilities, Lippmann considered it foolish to expect them to do more.

John Dewey declared Lippmann’s faith in elites undemocratic. Without a more extensively organized and active citizenry, Dewey thought, a nominally democratic republic would morph quickly into a form of oligarchy, or dominance of the lucky few over the unlucky many. The Lippmann-Dewey debate of the 1920s was not a merely verbal quarrel, and it remains timely. Lippmann’s point was that grassroots organizing on a broad scale is unlikely to have the good effects democrats like Dewey envisioned for it. Dewey’s point, which the legendary organizer Saul Alinsky wholeheartedly endorsed a decade later, was that grassroots organizing on a broad scale is required to keep elites from exercising their power arbitrarily over ordinary people.
Alinsky’s most successful heirs include Ernesto Cortés Jr., who is best known for an organization he founded in San Antonio in the mid-1970s. It is called Communities Organized for Public Service, or COPS, and Cortés has subsequently built up a network of similar organizations stretching from Mississippi to California and from the Rio Grande Valley to Nebraska. Cortés has proven that by forming groups of the right kind and behaving wisely, as well as justly, citizens are able to amass enough power to counter domination and hold elites accountable.

Where, then, are the citizens who can do what grassroots democracy demands of them? At least some of them are in the Cortés network. If there really are citizens who are doing what grassroots democracy demands of them, we need to ask how that came to pass and whether this way of organizing can be extended.

There are many books on the behavior of lazy or myopic or easily manipulated citizens, and many more books proposing abstract ideals by which the conduct and character of citizens should be judged and found wanting. There are also some books on what good citizenship used to look like in practice, as recently as the civil rights movement. Blessed Are the Organized, in contrast, is about present-day citizens who are behaving as grassroots democracy says they must behave if democracy is to survive.

In business schools future executives learn about something called “best practices.” The phrase has become trite, but the wisdom behind it is that anyone who wants to run a business had better look closely at enterprises that are already being run well. A steady diet of bad examples would be dispiriting, as well as misleading. Some businesses succeed. Good examples promise to inspire and instruct. They show us what successful practice looks like, thereby giving us something to aim for.

Coaches, in any team sport, look to successful organizations for clues about how to win. If we want to start a sports team, we assemble it, and in doing so, we understand the value of a good coach. Ideally this turns out to be someone who has actually played the sport we want to play and has accumulated the relevant sort of practical wisdom along the way. Under his or her mentorship, we play the sport, and, with luck, get better at it as we keep playing. The game, our teammates, and the coach alike become our teachers.

This is not, however, how most of us approach politics. When the safety, well being, and freedom of a community are at stake, citizens who are not professional politicians rarely hire a coach, an “organizer,” to help them. They do without mentors and good examples. They assemble haphazardly, if at all, giving little thought to building a powerful and skillful team. They spend little time reflecting critically on what they are doing. The likely results are defeat, disappointment, retreat, and, eventually, resignation.

Not all citizens behave in this self-defeating way, however. In groups like COPS, thousands of ordinary people gather regularly in living rooms, churches, synagogues, community centers, and schools. They swap stories, identify shared concerns, work through differences, investigate the relevant facts, and select leaders. Over time, with the help of professional organizers, they build powerful organizations. The organizations cultivate leaders, teaching them, among other things, the importance of reflecting critically on what they are doing. When the groups act, they often do so with a well-constructed plan and with considerable effect. Here are a few more examples.

In the southernmost region of Texas a Latino priest brings his parish into a citizens’ organization known as Valley Interfaith. His motivation, he tells me, is fidelity to the church’s teachings on social justice. Why does he think that something good can come of his efforts? It is because Valley Interfaith has already succeeded in transforming hundreds of impoverished shantytowns along the U.S.-Mexico border into habitable neighborhoods. An organizer is helping him figure out how to energize his parish. The heroes of the shantytown struggle enliven his imagination.

The section of Los Angeles formerly known as South Central is riddled with violence and ethnic tension. Yet in a public school there the principal, the teachers, and some of the parents, with the help of organizers, have constructed an island of civility where children can learn. The principal tells me that citizens of good will are in a life-and-death struggle with gangs over the allegiance of the young. He says that whoever does the best job of organizing, wins.
Near San Francisco, sixty delegates from citizens’ organizations in northern California are meeting together for the first time. Among those represented are labor unions and religious institutions. In welcoming the delegates, a rabbi says that the work of a citizen pertains to the preciousness of human beings, to something one ought to hold sacred. The next speaker is a Latina, who represents farm workers in the Napa Valley. Later, a nurse asserts the need to build power. The chief organizer is a nun who tells me that it isn’t enough to care about social change: “You have to know how to bring it about.”

A priest, a principal, a rabbi, a farm worker, a nurse, and a nun: these leaders and many others like them are heard from in Blessed Are the Organized. Empowered citizens are eager to convey what they are doing. They take pride and encouragement from their successes. Their frustrations reveal what they are up against, what anyone who wants to hold elites accountable is up against. These ordinary people are practicing a kind of grassroots democracy and helping each other get the hang of it.

The only things that move easily from the bottom up in the current political-economic system are wealth and deference. Mainstream candidates offer something indeterminate to hope for and an equally indeterminate way of bringing change about. The presidential rhetoric of change puts the idealistic cart before the organizational horse, and then neglects to feed the horse.
When we expect liberty and justice to appear miraculously, like fast food, without more rigorous forms of participation, definition, and sacrifice, we are like farmers who curse the dirt and pray for rain, but “want crops without plowing the ground,” as Frederick Douglass once put it. Yet some people are already plowing. They are putting grassroots democracy into practice and winning some hard-fought victories along the way. Blessed Are the Organized aims to learn from their example.

Jeffrey Stout is a Professor of Religion at Princeton University.  His two most well-known books, for both of which he won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence, are Ethics after Babel (1989) and Democracy and Tradition (2003).

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