Sacred Cow or Bull?

In the '40s and '50s , Saul Alinsky took a new kind of grass-roots politics to the white working-class residents of Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. His goal was to empower people by making them realize that working together, they could influence government. Alinsky's organizing philosophy -- as expressed in his books Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971) -- became the conventional wisdom for organizers of all stripes. But in the 50 years since Alinsky's principles became gospel, the left has seen its political influence steadily erode. And that raises an intriguing question: Have Alinsky's theories of political organizing led progressives to a dead end?In September, members of the National Organizers Alliance (NOA) gathered at their annual conference in Estes Park, Colo. The 380 organizers, representing a constellation of cultures and causes, attended workshops with titles like "The Knack of Organization Management" and "Theater Techniques for Activists." They listened to an intergenerational dialogue between Victor Reuther, who organized Detroit auto workers in the '30s, and his granddaughter Valerie Reuther, who organizes Seattle lesbians in the '90s. And they did something the left has long left undone. They examined the tenets of political organizing, and asked: "Are these really sacred cows or just a lot of bull?"The conference used a series of role-playing exercises called the "Social Justice Dialogues," developed by the NOA and the Applied Research Center, in Oakland, Calif. Conference-goers split into small groups to examine in-depth one "Sacred Cow of Organizing." One person presented a scripted case for the principle's importance, and then the group debated whether the organizing tenet should remain sacred. Drawing on Alinsky's theories, the NOA chose democracy, simplicity, quantity, winning, pragmatism, diversity and harmony as the seven sacred cows of organizing. The Sacred Cow of Democracy was one of the most hotly debated. This is the idea that organizers are facilitators, not leaders.According to this principle, organizers should help people to empower themselves, instead of dictating from the top down. As the cow quipped in its scripted role, "Organizers don't take a side, always let the people decide." In support of organizational democracy, participants mentioned that groups that do not develop democratically often become alienated from their members. For example, the National Toxics Campaign Fund self-destructed in 1993 when members revolted against an autocratic leadership that punished dissent. But others at the conference replied that, by the nature of their work, organizers exert power and influence over a group's activities and that it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. With that power, they argued, comes the responsibility to challenge and develop the group's political consciousness.The Sacred Cow of Simplicity is the idea that when organizing around an issue, you should have a straightforward message that people can understand and remember. Organizers should avoid political theory, complicated analysis and too many details. In the role-playing scenario, the cow is given a scripted motto: "Keep it simple, stupid." Conference-goers noted that it may be most efficient in the short run to blanket a community with a simple, understandable message. But simple messages usually do nothing to educate a community about these issues, which can't be turned into a slogan or 60-second rap as you go door-to-door. Likewise, the Sacred Cow of Quantity puts a premium on efficiency, arguing that one must strive to win the support of a majority in order to be successful.The goal of this sacred cow is the development of a mass mobilization or mass movement. These days, with few wins in sight and a mass movement still around the bend, this tenet can be easy to dismiss. As one conference-goer put it, "By getting focused on numbers, you sometimes end up with lowest-common-denominator politics." Another aptly observed, "The right has moved a lot of things without necessarily having a majority." The Sacred Cow of Winning, one of Alinsky's favorites, still commands a wide following. This tenet holds that it is only worthwhile to organize around issues that can be won, and won quickly. Winning, after all, makes people feel empowered and can invigorate an organization. But what is won must be worth winning. Concentrating only on winning propositions encourages groups to hew to the middle of the road and not pursue systemic change. And focusing on winning can narrow strategic options. Sometimes it makes sense to organize around an issue or run a candidate even if you will lose.In Chicago, for example, the New Party has run candidates for city council knowing they will be beaten, but believing that the campaign in itself will lay the groundwork for future victories. The Sacred Cow of Winning is a close cousin of the Sacred Cow of Pragmatism. Pragmatists tap into popular values and common sense and ignore underlying issues of ideology. The script for this cow reads, "A fraction of action beats paralysis of analysis." A pragmatic approach does have a few things going for it. As one participant said, "By being non-ideological, you start with where people are at." Another added, "You get people to learn by doing rather than getting them to engage in a whole bunch of analysis."But the cow of pragmatism sometimes doubles as the movement's pale horse. A lot has been left undone or unsaid in the name of pragmatism. Sometimes, pragmatism becomes a reason to accept a second-rate solution, rather than fight for what is truly right. Consider the debate that has roiled the campaign finance community in the past two years. In the name of pragmatism, many reformers refused to embrace public financing of elections since such a solution, while admittedly ideal, was considered too radical. Only now that voters in Maine proved them wrong have many of the pragmatists come around. "Pragmatism is tactical, not strategic," noted one participant.The Sacred Cow of Diversity maintains that racism is best addressed by groups and organizations with a diverse leadership and ranks. The cow's scripted jingle goes: "Diversity is the key to the new majority." While the benefits of diversity are self-evident, some NOA organizers -- most of them members of minority groups -- were critical. One noted that efforts to foster diversity "often ignore social class." Another commented that a group sometimes needs "to consolidate its own power before trying to assimilate into other types of formations." A third argued that "stressing diversity can foster identity politics." Examining the issue of diversity was hard for some conference participants."Whenever you deal with issues of diversity and identity politics, people are uncomfortable," said Djar Horn, who organizes parking attendants in Washington, D.C., for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. "You are treading a line. Nobody wants to offend someone on questions of race, ethnicity or hierarchies of oppression."Closely related to diversity, the Sacred Cow of Harmony represents the widely held belief that identity politics only amplifies differences between people."The argument goes, that if only we all developed a good cohesive economic analysis, we would realize progressive gains, and the reason that hasn't happened is because identity politics has intervened and atomized us," says Kim Fellner, executive director of the NOA. But reconciling the demands of social and economic issues in a multicultural society is not always easy.In 1993, in Brooklyn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) became embroiled in an internal debate over the inclusion in Brooklyn schools of a curriculum that addressed gay and lesbian concerns. And the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), which five years ago was one the left's most vibrant national campus organizations, was ripped apart a couple of years ago over how to diversify the group's board and staff. The biggest problem with the Alinsky model may not be the specific tenets of the sacred cows, but the single-issue politics they tend to produce. The seven cows represent an organizing model that is largely disconnected from institutions of representative government.In the United States, single-issue organizing has all but replaced party politics as the vehicle through which people on the left express their social needs and political desires. The right has not made this mistake. The right's success at building an electoral majority is not lost on Sheila O'Farrell, who organizes nursing home workers in Florida for the Service Employees International Union's "Unite for Dignity Campaign." An organizer for 12 years, she was trained in the Alinsky tradition. She is now re-examining his methods."I got my wake-up call in 1994," says O'Farrell. "I was working with Environmental Community Action in Georgia, organizing only around issues that people were concerned about, the hot issues. Members of our organization were buying into the conservative social agenda -- on affirmative action or on gay and lesbian issues -- and we left it alone because those weren't our issues."Then the Republicans swept into Congress, as members of O'Farrell's Georgia group voted for Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. Now, she thinks her organizing strategies were partly to blame: "In the work we had done, we had missed presenting the big picture. Further, I think we taught some people on the far-right how to organize using an Alinsky-type model. To a large degree, Alinsky's nostrums work in terms of mobilizing people. But it depends on where you are going. Mobilized crowds have ended up in some dark alleys."


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