Sunday, May 22, 2011

Barack Obama's Community Organizing

I wrote some long time ago about how Barack Obama's approach to governing appears to be based on a community-organizing strategy. But that post seems to have traveled beyond the reach of my google-fu. So I'll write something like it again, because I think it's starting to work.

Democracy depends on an informed and participatory electorate. The United States has receded from this ideal significantly in recent years, enough that numerous aspects of its governance are suffering. Congress is dysfunctional, one of the two political parties is delusional, and public discussion of these matters is abysmal.

Community organizing is about developing broad and informed participation. So it's worth a try in improving how the United States practices governance.

One of the things that voters have long found offputting is the fighting and name-calling in Washington. This is a big element of Congress's dysfunctionality and both an in-group pastime and play to extremists. It gives the talking heads and press something to talk and write about without advancing the country's interests. It leads to decreased participation by voters and, probably, the election of people who are more likely to be part of the problem, in a downward spiral.

This was only one of the problems Obama was faced with when he took office. How to end the squabbling without becoming part of it?

A great deal of advice came to him from the left that he needed to be more assertive, call out the liars, and tell them to take a walk, that he had a Democratic Congress. This would have, of course, continued the problem. If the problem is that people are fighting, you don't solve it by joining in the fight.

There are many ways to tell people that they're wrong without saying it directly or screaming at them. There are many ways to show others that people are wrong. Any skillful politician is likely to have mastered most of them, and Obama is a skillful politician. Holding power opens up possibilities in this area. One of the most important lessons of power is that you don't have to trumpet it to use it. In fact, its most effective uses are those in which it is never explicit.

There's a subsidiary strategy of taking the high ground. In an environment in which people are fighting with each other, the high ground usually requires a calm and quiet voice. The danger is that such an approach can run over into condescension and sanctimony, so there is a line to walk. Obama has found this line by allowing his opponents far more in his initial negotiating stance than they have any right to expect. His allies complain that he is giving away the store, but this has long-term effects: if he is being more than reasonable, and his opponents, say, move the goal posts or take an unyielding stand, they will eventually be seen for what they are. The alternative would be a trivialization of his position through steps that could be seen as negatively as those of his opponents.

All that would go into a smart strategy of community organizing. What I'm talking about is a discrediting of the opposition by allowing them to discredit themselves, but, in addition, quieting down the noise so that more reasonable people have time and quiet to begin thinking out reasonable positions of their own.

So the birthers raved on about long-form birth certificates, trips to Kenya, a dislike of colonialism (that's bad?), and assorted dogwhistles to racist elements, descending into self-parody. And then Obama brings out his birth certificate. The support among the hard core fell by half, almost instantly. It probably helped that Donald Trump provided much of the self-parody even before he opened his mouth, with his fluffy hairdo.

More generally, rightwing commentary lapsed into self-parody in Glenn Beck, whom even Roger Ailes recognized had gone over the top. Gold, apocalypse, and whiteboards of all the bad guys of history connected to...Barack Obama! With, of course, the more-than-occasional tear for his (sob) country. Lately aided and abetted by the prophecy, apparently for profit, that the Rapture would arrive (or depart) on May 21. Far too many words written about that, but most were, fortunately, accompanied by laughter.

John Quiggin cites a number of articles that seem to eschew the convention of "he said, she said," which the media have been roundly criticized for in the case where what "he said" is clearly a lie or insane. That tendency has corrupted the community's ability to carry on a discussion that results in rational policy by allowing lies and insanity to carry the same weight as responsible discussion. It was up to us, the citizenry, to root out this problem and shame those exacerbating it. An instant solution from the bully pulpit would have taken this opportunity to seize power from us and, in any case, was unlikely to have worked. Censorship, anyone?

But, once again, quietly and firmly, President Obama did take note of one aspect of the problem.
In June 2009, Obama gave an interview to CNBC’s John Harwood and lashed out. “I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration,” he said. “That’s a pretty big megaphone. You’d be hard-pressed, if you watched the entire day, to find a positive story about me on that front.” [link]
Obama used some of the same tactics this week with his speech last Thursday on the Middle East and North Africa. Calm, moderate, factual. The reaction was all over the map, with people still expecting that he would echo their agendas and dogwhistles. The biggest reaction was on his citing the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations, and the biggest objector was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel, reported to have insisted, before the speech was given, that this part be deleted. After the speech, he "expected" the President to take it back. Pretty cheeky, as was his response at their joint press conference.

So Obama responded, with patient repetition of what he actually said in his speech to AIPAC today. It's people like those in AIPAC who need to be working out the US's relationship to Israel and urging Israel to do the right thing. Obama and Netanyahu get the headlines, but the community needs to determine its future. At least one commentator thinks it worked. We'll see, but it does look like some of the community organizing tactics are working.

No comments: