Race between Clinton and Obama surfaces radically different views of politics, citizens’ roles

It is often noted that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton draw on their experiences as activists and organizers descending from the work of the late Saul Alinsky, an iconoclastic community organizer from Chicago. Clinton wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley College on Saul Alinsky. The Chicago group that employed Obama as a community organizer, the Gamaliel Foundation, is one of several citizen organizing networks descended from Alinsky’s work.

But Alinsky’s final years and the period immediately after his death marked a substantial division in the Alinsky tradition. Citizen action divided into two broad approaches, mobilizing and organizing. This distinction plays itself out in the race for the Democratic nomination for president.

By the end of his life, Saul Alinsky, fed up with the hyperbolic rhetoric of ‘60s activists and soured by personal tragedy, dismissed the importance of America’s rich democratic traditions and the complexities of local cultures and mores that had been central to his first book, Reveille for Radicals, published in 1946. Alinsky argued instead that America’s “haves? were well-organized and leaving most Americans behind. He called for new techniques to create alliances on bread and butter issues of “have nots? and “have-some-want-mores? against the “haves.?

Young activists looking for pragmatic ways to reach middle America and move beyond rhetorical posturing responded enthusiastically. They created several mobilizing techniques in the mid-1970s based on Alinsky’s new views. These included door to door canvassing, then direct mail fundraising, and more recently Internet mobilizations. All are based on a formula: find a target or enemy to demonize, stir up emotion with inflammatory language, and create a script that defines the issue in terms of good versus evil. Hillary Clinton’s activist relationships have always been closely associated with this mobilizing approach, as Carl Bernstein shows in his book, A Woman in Charge; The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Dana Fisher describes in Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America the way mobilizing approaches now shape many of the largest environmental, progressive, and public interest groups. Mobilizing also has also strongly influenced Democratic party election campaigns. Mobilizing approaches can be highly effective in activating large numbers of people across big areas around a simple message – just the formula that the Clinton campaign has used to win the larger Democratic states.

In contrast, the Gamaliel Foundation, like other broad-based organizing networks (as they call themselves), took a very different approach after Alinsky’s death. Gamaliel began to emphasize organizing in contrast to mobilizing. What they call organizing involves an intense focus on developing public skills and talents of participants. Members of broad-based organizations are taught to understand human complexity -- the stories and motivations of others of different income, religious, cultural or partisan backgrounds. They become skilled at creating public relationships across such differences for the sake of effective public action. They learn to think in long-term and strategic ways. They pay close attention to local cultures and mores and networks. The overall goal of these organizers is not simply to win victories but also to foster what Doran Schrantz, director of the Twin Cities ISAIAH group, calls “people’s public growth.?

The organizing approach now informs Obama’s call for “a different kind of politics.? At the heart of his message is a call for people to become agents of their own lives and shapers of the world. He declares on his campaign web site, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to make change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours." On the ground, the campaign embodies organizing approaches with far more attention to local cultures, social networks, and the building of public relationships than has been characteristic of recent Democratic party contests.

Obama has not addressed the tension between the implications of civic agency and the immensity of the changes that would be needed for agency to become a widespread experience for most citizens. In recent decades customer service has become the dominant motif in government and elections alike: people are far more prone to ask “What can I get?? than “How can I help solve public problems?? Feelings of powerlessness are widespread after decades in which civic institutions like unions, political parties, congregations and schools have been increasingly shaped by experts who provide services to needy clients and demanding customers.

The 2008 race for the Democratic nomination has surfaced a choice between two views of politics and the role of citizens that are radically different. We have seen in CDC partnerships such as the Neighborhood Learning Community and Public Achievement that organizing approaches have potentially immense appeal and power. But they take time and hard work to take root and flourish.

It will take far more than a campaign to generate real citizen agency, but campaigns turn out to be an important place to introduce the idea. The election outcome may depend on whether the next six months can become an introductory education for the whole society on the work and learning that civic agency might entail.

Harry C. Boyte is author of several books on organizing, including The Citizen Solution, forthcoming from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. With Peter Vale he co-wrote an editorial, "Obama presents decisive choice not only to U.S.," published in South Africa's Business Day newspaper on March 25.


I thank you for your historical insights on the matter, and, although from my own life's path find myself surrounded mostly by "campaigners", I like Obama's ideas. I've worked mostly on the national level, and presently run
All Things Reform at Please review it at your leisure-- it is one of the only citizen political activism blogs for federal government reform. I also am now interested in the November 5 coalition, again part of the several "organizing" activism sites I stumbled upon the other day.

The one thing that has surfaced in the campaigns is how little difference exists in the substance of their platforms, but how much different the public perceives them.

Our poll of over 500,000 voters has Obama +20% ahead.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs