Saul Alinsky and Progressive MA Politics

The other day I was re-reading Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and found his observations relevant to Massachusetts progressives, both in terms of criticism and insight.

The upcoming special election for the Senate seat, vacated by John Kerry upon his confirmation as Secretary of State, provides opportunities beyond the result at the polls. Because the election occurs in the midst of a municipal election season, the opportunity exists for the creation of an accountable – and permanently accountable – grassroots culture in Massachusetts politics.
However, beyond the election itself, progressives must take a hard look at their complicity in our current environment.

Over the past 40 years, both elections and government became far removed from the people served by government, particularly those living in working-class communities.
The irony is that in many ways the old patronage politics was better for lower income neighborhoods.

For all their faults and corruption, the old urban political machines were grounded in the communities they served. As a result, a premium was placed upon providing basic human services. The professional bureaucracies that replaced the old machines tend to concern themselves with the interests of the providers over those of the clients, because of common backgrounds in class, education, and culture.

There is also the issue of the partial privatization of human services in Massachusetts, which reinforces internal and institutional elitism over the needs of poor and working-class clients. In the past, chains of connection from the grassroots, through elected officials, to public service agencies operated as a mechanism for accountability.

Even allowing for racism within the old political machines, it could be argued that the equal-opportunity class bigotry within contemporary human service culture constitutes no improvement.
The reason is that human services agencies and the people who staffed them were culturally indistinguishable from the people they served, although better educated. The problem now is not so much ill intent as it is organic disconnect.

The same problem afflicts the progressive activist community. Over-dependence upon academic models leads middle-class activists to project their assumptions upon working class communities. Oftentimes a coalition of activists and community folk shares a common intent, only to collapse because the activists repeatedly trigger cultural minefields. Often willful cultural illiteracy, combined with elitism, results in opportunities lost. In extreme cases, it results in right-wing victories.

As Alinsky noted – and he is worth quoting at length:

If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, then his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed; except if his programs violate the high values of a free and open society.

…Thus an effective organizational experience is as much an educational process for the organizer as it is for the people with whom he is working. They both must learn to respect the dignity of the individual, and they both must learn that in the last analysis this is the basic purpose of organization, for participation is the heartbeat of the democratic way of life.

We learn, when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services. To give people help, while denying them a significant part in the action, contributes nothing to the development of the individual. In the deepest sense it is not giving but taking— taking their dignity. Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.”

An election cycle is an opportunity to address this issue, because reengaging the populist dynamic created by the 2012 Warren campaign is considered a necessity by the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Given the still-existing scars from Scott Brown’s victory in 2010, the Democrats need to engage communities of color and reach out to those white working-class voters that voted Republican in that year’s special election.

As Alinsky warned, working-class whites:

…cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. They will not continue to be relatively passive and slightly challenging. If we fail to communicate with them, if we don’t encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let’s not let it happen by default.

Hence Scott Brown’s 2010 support among labor households, particularly among labor families.

That means addressing the common interests and common needs of the state’s working-class voters across racial lines. Thanks to overreach by the corporate right, the Tea Party Movement is no longer seen by many as a vehicle for the unfocused (but valid) populism that exists among many working- and middle-class whites. They are not, as a whole, left-wing in their politics, but as the Obama and Warren campaigns proved, they are open to supporting those who support their interests.

However, those interests must not be defined from the outside. Per Alinsky:

Another maxim in effective communication is that people have to make their own decisions…

The organizer knows that even if they feel that way consciously, if he starts issuing orders and “explaining,” it would begin to build up a subconscious resentment, a feeling that the organizer is putting them down, is not respecting their dignity as individuals…

Finally, progressive organizations must take a hard look at the immense and counterproductive flaws inherent in their current model, whereby a need is assessed and funded, and a program is established with little input from the ground. In too many cases, the activists that staff these programs are unknown by, and unaccountable to, the communities where they work.

One final quote:

Establishing one’s credentials of competency is only part of the organizer’s first job. He needs other credentials to begin—credentials that enable him to meet the question, “Who asked you to come in here?” with the answer, “You did.” He must be invited by a significant sector of the local population, their churches, street organizations, social clubs, or other groups.

In too many communities, particularly those of color, grassroots organizations aren’t invited. Instead, a need is assessed, grants are proposed, and groups are staffed with no community input.

As part of the process, the “community activists” are too often neither.

More commonly, they share the institutional culture of the upper middle-class white college-educated activists who design, fund, and (by sitting on their boards) control the organizations.

Repairing this will require that the organized progressive community take a good hard look at what does and does not constitute effective community organizing. One cannot have a progressive result with a reactionary organizing culture.
If Massachusetts progressives can remember and adhere to the Tip O’Neill Rule, which stated: “All Politics is Local, and if progressives can avoid cultural projection; and if they can honestly address the class-based elitism (and bohemian racism) within their institutional culture, 2013 could be a banner year in Massachusetts.”

But there’s a lot of work to be done first.

—-Paul Simmons





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