Power and Persuasion

John Maki has a really good article in the Windy Citizen regarding Obama’s past work as a community organizer and how it can uniquely qualify him to be President. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing

Here is a typical community-organizing scenario. Let’s say you are a community organizer who has cultivated and trained a strong base of support and identified a particular problem to attack. You then target a public official who can get you something you want. Let’s call him Official X. He chairs an appropriations committee that is deciding whether to fund a program your base supports. You and your base request a meeting with him. Official X agrees and asks that you come to his office. Before you go, you coach a core group of your base, the people you call ‘your leaders,’ on what to say and how to behave at the meeting.

After painstakingly rehearsing everyone’s roles, so that no part of the meeting is left to chance, you are ready to do the real thing. You take your leaders to the meeting, and you have one of them present your base’s demands. Your leader explains to Official X what you want him to do, and why it is in his self-interest to do so. Whatever arguments your leader uses to make their case, he also makes sure that Official X understands that he will pay a price for not helping. If Official X stands in your way, your base is going to try to find a way to hurt him, whether it’s by attacking him through the press, or turning out people to vote against him. If this tactic makes Official X angry, you could care less. You do not want people in power to like you. As a community organizer, you want them to respect and fear you.

But you also make sure that Official X knows so long as he helps you out, you will help him out too. After all, as a community organizer, your job is not to change the system; it is to master and use the system’s rules to your advantage.

If you think these tactics resemble standard forms of political intimidation, you are right.

Many of us have bad memories of the twits who wanted to be community organizers because they wanted to ‘bring people together’ and ‘help’ them.  When they failed out of organizing they show up in political science or sociology grad school being bad at being a scientist as much as they were bad at organizing.

Good organizers understand, as John points out, it’s about raw political power and being such a pain in the ass that others with power want you to go away enough to give you what you want is the way to be effective.  Of course, good organizers don’t go away either and just keep moving goalposts as they slowly achieve objectives.

The Presidency is the ultimate community organizer in many ways.  Neustadt talks about the Presidency being mostly about the power to persuade.  That’s exactly what a community organizer does.  An organizer doesn’t have any formal power, but instead stitches together coalitions based on shifting interests and allegiances, exactly as a President does.  Go check out John’s piece, I think it’s one of the more thoughtful pieces on Obama and his style we’ve seen.  Admittedly, the national press has set a low bar, but several local writers have done better and John is amongst them.

8 thoughts on “Power and Persuasion

  1. John sent me the article, too. I agree, it’s definitely one of the more thoughtful pieces on Obama as a community organizer. And you are dead right about organizing not being a huggy, touchy-feely endeavor. In fact, it can get downright ugly at times. Those who are afraid of facing that should instead become kindergarden teachers.

    The best organizers know that it’s all about building powerful coalitions to shift the balance of power and equipping people with the tools they need to take control of their situations. What this article doesn’t touch on is the responsibility put upon the organized to take control of their situation, band together for power, and demand change. Ultimately, the best organizers can walk away from their organizing targets having been out-organized and not needed anymore.

    It will be our responsibility to organize massive movements for policy changes to provide Barack with a mandate to act. As a former organizer, he will expect nothing less. Without it, he will be unable to enact the bold changes we so desperately need. Just like any other community that so desperately needs change, ultimately it is our responsibility to rise to the occasion.

    As an organizer, I am curious about Barack’s successes as an organizer. Wouldn’t it be something if Barack took the time to write a book entirely about his experiences organizing? I’d snap it up in a second.

  2. Very interesting. I thought community organizing had something to do with feeling people’s pain and ladling out free soup. This helps to explain some of the ruthless tactics his campaign has employed (most recently his preemptive racist charge against McCain). Winning is paramount and he could care less about changing anything. The “change” mantra is just fluff to appease his base. I actually kind of admire him now. By the way, I think Jerome Corsi’s new book “The Obama Nation,” which goes on sale tomorrow, details some of Obama’s community organizing activities.

  3. I am puzzled by one thing in these posts. If community organizers are so ruthless in their pursuit of power, why are choosing to work at these relatively low-paid and overworked positions. I have seen these sorts of people in communities where I have lived. Every one of them had a true dedication that kept them at it. And until Barack, it has not been a path that an ambitious future pol would have opted for. I am puzzled by the cynicism.

  4. Ann, you are right that community organizing was a not a path to power before Obama–nor will it, I suspect, be a path to power after him

    My point in the piece, which I think Archpundit echoes, is that a lot of people assume that community organizing is some kind of pie in the sky, touchy feely sort of thing. In many ways, it’s the opposite. It’s very pragmatic. It’s about getting stuff done, and working with whomever you have to to make it happen. That’s why I said community organizing has more in common with Chicago politics than with working in a soup kitchen. Community organizing ain’t charity work. Community organizing is about power—how to get it and how to use it effectively to get what your base wants.

    The community organizers wouldn’t call this cynical–they would say that is how the world works.

  5. My question is what happens to the grant money? Who gets it and how effective is the organizer in delivering the results? Or is it used for more “agitating”?

  6. It’s not ruthlessness. It’s effectiveness. There’s an aversion to talking about power amongst many liberals because they view it as a dirty word. Using power in a democratic fashion is nothing to be ashamed of and it inhibits our discussion to avoid discussing it.

    Rob–I’m not sure what you are talking about. Can you be more specific?

  7. It’s the Chicago Machine at its finest! Organize the community, meet powerful people, get powerful, run for office, etc.

  8. I have a better understanding of a “community organizer” now than before the article. It makes me even more concerned about BHO’s possibiities in reaching the Presidency. For you see, his entire campaign has been a farce. It’s all about him and where he can go. Nothing to do with the position or the consequences of actions or policies.
    I would guess that Stalin, Lenin, Chairman Mao, Hitler, etc. were all successful community organizers. Also, Al Sharpton and Reverend Jackson. The cause has never been the end game, just the carrot.

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