In Obama Win, a Triumph of Community Organizing
President Obama’s big win last Tuesday was a victory for the middle class, a rejection of trickle-down economics, and a statement from a new generation of Americans that they are a force to be reckoned with
But most of all, it was a vindication for the much-maligned community organizer.
Remember all those folks on the right who mocked the organizers who work patiently and tirelessly in communities across the country? The way they tried to tar President Obama for passing up lucrative opportunities to instead take a job as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago? Recall, if you can bear it, Sarah Palindeclaring that a small-town mayor is “sorta like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities”?
It turns out, community organizers got the last laugh.
In the last days of the election, I argued that the pundits were making far too much of the so-called “enthusiasm gap.” They were missing the determination of voters, and the work on the ground that was flying below the radar. When Tuesday rolled around, the proof was in the vote count: The 2008 coalition, wrongly regarded as a mere flash in the pan, had held. And it was community organizers like these who made it happen:
- Ben Jealous and the NAACP registered and turned out more than a million new African-American voters on election day. In Ohio, the black vote went from 11 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012. In swing state after swing state, the percentage of black voters in the electorate either increased or held steady, even as the number of voters overall increased. It was a testament to the power of deep community organizing in the black community.
- Hoodie Vote, Vote Mob, the Dream Defenders and scores of other organizations by and for young people organized campuses and neighborhoods across the country. Before the election, I said that if young people failed to turn out, the president was “toast.” But turn out they did—in fact, the percentage of the electorate under 30 actually went up from 18% in 2008 to 19% in 2012!
- The Obama campaign invested in the ground game as no campaign had before. In contrast, Karl Rovesunk hundreds of millions of rich folks’ money into attack ads that had basically no effect and emerged as one of the cycle’s biggest losers. On Wednesday, veteran political journalist John Avlon at CNN said he would scoff at “field” organizing no longer.
There are some important lessons to be gleaned from this.
President Obama relied on his base—and now his base is relying on him. We won’t sit back. But we’re counting on him to represent our values and speak up for the folks who got him re-elected. The president should refuse any budget deals that preserve massive tax breaks for the rich. He should also save programs that middle class and poor folks rely on from the budget axe.
We also need to remember that progressives don’t hold a monopoly on community organizing. The right-wing support centers FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity invested millions in talented young evangelists who built deep networks and helped elevate the Tea Party into a movement that made Washington pay more attention to the long-term debt problem than the immediate jobs crisis.
Finally, we progressives haven’t always embraced the power of community and collaboration in our own organizations. Too often, we’re boring and bossy. We demand another signature on a petition, or that folks fall in line behind what Congress will vote for instead of the big change and big ideas that inspired us to get involved in the first place. We can’t put down deep roots in a community to get folks to the polls, and then turn around and try to get things done in Washington with the same old insider-y game.
Instead, let's fire some lobbyists and hire some organizers. Let's build communities, not just lists. Let's empower and connect our members, instead of just activating them. Then let's listen to them. It won't just make our movement more powerful. It will be a constant reminder that no cuts and fair taxes is nothing more than a good start. There is also a housing crisis to end, roads and bridges to repair, and new sustainable industries to unlock. A generation with too much debt and too few opportunities needs to be put back to work, and an economy with too much Wall Street and too little Main Street needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.
In short, the lesson of the 2012 election was this: Don’t mess with community organizers. And don’t forget that organizing isn’t just for elections.
Van Jones wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Van is a long-time activist, former White House adviser, and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream.