Some Good News for Organizers

It is easy to believe that racial division and a never-ending conservative era will relegate the collective work of community organizers to the margins. After all, isn’t it true that progress toward racial equality has slowed since the 1970s and schools, neighborhoods and businesses remain segregated? Books such as Tragic Failure, American Apartheid, Two Nations and Faded Dream have pointed to the persistence of racism in America.

 

Isn’t it true that from 1968 to 1992, the right held the presidency for 20 years? Didn’t the Democrats lose control of both houses of Congress, and hasn’t Clinton remained in power only by abandoning a progressive agenda? Progressive organizers and liberals should be pessimistic. What is important about the books in this review, however, is their collective challenge to the conventional pessimistic wisdom about race and politics.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne mounts considerable evidence that we are not in a conservative era. He argues that our age, like the turn of the 19th century, is one of capitalist dislocations setting the stage for a new progressivism. Dionne, Alan Wolfe, and Ben Barber join other writers worth reading like Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert Bellah, Cornell West, Harry Boyte, Michael Sandel, and Ernesto Cortés, Jr., who argue for utilizing government wherever possible to strengthen the family and other local institutions that communities establish for themselves. They envision a new populist progressivism growing out of the revitalization of these institutions that make up our civil society.

Orlando Patterson (The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis) and Alan Wolfe (One Nation, After All) persuasively argue that, while racism remains, most whites have not resisted demands for racial justice but have accepted tremendous progress in race relations.

For community organizers committed to making more than a dent on our most pressing problems of persistent poverty, growing inequality, the concentration of corporate power, and a sense of moral decline, these books provide strong reasons for a hopeful future.

A Conservative Era?

Rather than viewing our times as a conservative era, Dionne sees it more like the late 1800s and early 1900s. Dionne sees a hopeful parallel between today and the turn of the 19th century. At the beginning of the last century, GOP president William McKinley advocated Reagan and Gingrich like policies – low taxes, survival of the fittest, the sacrifice of the poor in order to strengthen the individualistic “elite.” On the other side were the “progressives” who took office after McKinley. Their credo consisted of “involving the careful but active use of the government to temper markets and enhance individual opportunity.”

Like the local organizing efforts of today, the progressives and populists spoke for the hurt and the injustices the new order was inflicting on small farmers and small towns, the people losing out in the triumph of modern capitalism. It is worth remembering that those successful struggles, like those led by the populists and union activists, established the basic course of American government for an entire century. Though their candidate William Jennings Bryan lost presidential elections, he and his followers set the country on the road to the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the 60s.

Then as today, Dionne argues, the battle lines will be drawn between advocates of the unfettered market and proponents of government as a tool of good. Dionne believes the progressives can win as the excesses of unfettered capitalism generate a reaction in favor of national progressive reform.

Anxious Middle

Dionne looks at our recent elections not as shifts to the right, but as a series of swings driven by globalization of the economy, with its victims, the anxious voters, looking for a party to address their moral concerns and economic problems. We face, Dionne writes, “social change with moral crisis, enormous economic opportunity with economic dislocation and distress…” The cost of globalization and automation, he cogently explains, includes enriching the few while endangering the living standards of the majority.

Like Wolfe and acute political analysts John C. Judis ( a senior editor for The New Republic), Kevin Phillips (The Politics of Rich and Poor and Boiling Point), and Michael Lind (The Next American Nation), Dionne focuses on the swing voters of the 1990s – the “Anxious Middle” with whom the future of politics rests. Dionne says that those in the anxious middle are less in revolt against big government than in a revolt against “bad government – government that has proven ineffectual in grappling with the political, economic and moral crises that have shaken our country.” The anxious middle, even those drawn to right wing politics, is ready to join a progressive movement because they fear for their living standards. They mistrust both big government and unfettered capitalism. Middle class fears won’t go away.

Those in the anxious middle are looking for an activist agenda that helps them navigate their way through the new economic dislocations. But how to get them to join a pro-government movement? The anxious middle might join such a progressive movement, but only if that movement can make the case for government activism by addressing the conservative and populist critique of contemporary liberalism, with its roots within the elitist Progressive tradition.

Progressive Elitism

Populists and conservatives criticized liberals for their skepticism  of ordinary people’s  capacity through local institutions to improve themselves and society. To restore middle America’s faith in an activist government will require a kind of government intervention  based on the philosophy of John Dewey and others who see democracy as a way of life and government as an instrument that enhances the individual’s capacity for self governing.

This contempt of local institutions and their backward unsophisticated values led many 20th century progressives to put their faith in centralization and to call for a greater role in government by “experts.” It often led to overturning the tradition of “subsidiarity” which holds that problems should be solved as close to home as possible. Critics like Christopher Lasch in Haven in a Heartless World accurately described these progressive reformers as “the guardians of public health and morality” who “insisted that the family could not provide for its own needs without expert intervention.” Lasch documents how progressives used state bureaucrats to replace the family and community as local problem solvers.

This elitist path of the best and brightest liberals is one of lost faith in ordinary people to make intelligent decisions. It is a loss of faith that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

Civil Society

What’s the alternative? Ironically, the only way to restore Americans’ faith in government activism rests in overturning the progressive and liberal ideology that prefers new government bureaucracies to all other approaches to solving social problems. A government not just for the people but by the people will require the rebuilding of the civil society.

Dionne, like Wolfe, Cortés, Elshstain, and Barber point to institutions we call the civil society as the first place to solve problems of social concern. Particularly in our inner cities, we need to strengthen the voluntary institutions that communities establish for themselves. Ben Barber, in Jihad vs. McWorld defines the civil society as the “private” institutions that most Americans trust to solve problems. It is the civic space that “occupies the middle ground between government and the private sector…It is not where we vote and it is not where we buy and sell; it is where we talk with neighbors about a crossing guard, plan a benefit for our community school, discuss how our church and synagogue can shelter the homeless, or organize a summer softball league for our children…Civil society is thus public without being coercive, voluntary without being privatized.”

The civil society model goes beyond the debate of casting big government and the market as the only alternatives to improving civilization. This conventional way of debating the alternatives leaves out the most important institutions in people’s lives – family, church, neighborhood groups, unions and a variety of other voluntary institutions ranging from sports clubs and youth groups to privately organized child-care and, in Dionne’s words, “the loose fellowships created at taverns like Cheers of television fame.” As Dionne and Barber make clear, only by respecting and strengthening these mechanisms of private charity and communal responsibility, instead of looking for a new government bureau to solve our problems, can we strengthen legitimate government intervention.

Capitalism, as Alan Wolfe, a sociology professor at Boston University in his book Whose Keeper? reminds us, has been successful only because “it lived its first 100 years off the pre-capitalist morality it inherited from traditional religion and social structure.”

These left leaning writers also take on the right regarding what they correctly believe are real moral concerns and in the process have successfully begun to take away from the right their explanation of our perception of moral crisis. It’s not the 60s counterculture or Benjamin Spock’s permissiveness that is at the root of our moral crisis. Rather it’s built on, in Dionne’s words, “…market values that steadily cut away the bond of solidarity, morality and trust. If profit is all that matters, filmmakers or music producers will not think twice about filling the market place with products that foster amoral or dysfunction values among the young. If all personal ties between employer and employee are deemed to be ‘irrational’…when compared to the competitive needs of the marketplace employers need not think at all about how work schedules might affect the ability of employees to rear their children or how cutbacks in medical coverage might affect their employees’ lives.”

Barber, in his analysis of what he describes as the central conflict of our times – consumerist capitalism (McWorld) versus religious and tribal fundamentalism (Jihad) – details the many ways business leads the assault on civil society. McWorld is the ever-expanding service sector of global capitalism, especially the “infotainment telesector” – Disney and Warner Brothers, Nike and Reebok, MTV and Michael Jackson, Kentucky Fried Chicken and of course, McDonald’s. With McWorld relentlessly promoting its “ideology of fun” at the expense of local institutions and customs, Barber asks, who will get business off the backs of civil society? Manipulated by “promotion, spin packaging, and advertising,” citizens lose all interest in public matters, falling prey to “passive consumption” and devoting themselves exclusively to the satisfaction of their multiplying wants.

As Dionne says in a phrase that could be a slogan the for the new progressivism: “A capitalist society depends on non-capitalist values in order to hold together and prosper.” These are values like love, justice, and community.

Our local civic institutions have a value beyond their values. They also provide vehicles for the successful delivery of government services. The progressive challenge through local organizing efforts is to figure out the best way to use government where possible to strengthen the institutions of civil society. Progressive welfare reform, for example, would involve work requirements for welfare recipients in exchange for a decent level of public support and the creation of work in the nonprofit sector where private jobs are lacking. The Community Reinvestment Act has long used government to steer credit into minority communities and strengthen civil society.

Dionne and Barber’s books are weak regarding the issue of race. They have little to say other than the important point that the loss of a larger philosophy like socialism creates a vacuum filled by particularistic movements of “race, gender and culture” or “nationalism, religious fundamentalism and xenophobia.”

Racial Progress

The 60s civil rights movement has not eliminated racism, according to many organizers, and we need to focus on it if we are to uproot it. Critical race scholars argue that dismantling the apparatus of formal segregation failed to purge American society of its endemic racism. Resistance to school and workplace integration and affirmative action prove that America, in the words popularized by Andrew Hacker, remains ”two nations.” Hacker’s book, which was a best seller in the wake of the Los Angeles riot of 1992, is in the tradition of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report. Hacker and critical race scholars believe that ongoing white racism is the main barrier to black progress and that we are divided by race and by implication inhibited in our ability to build strong community groups based on class interests or common ground.

Like the writers who see hope in the civil society, in the past few years, there has emerged a body of work by a group of left and ex-left leaning authors that challenges the black nationalists and race pessimists. This group includes Orlando Patterson (The Ordeal of Integration), Jim Sleeper (Liberal Racism), Tamara Jacoby (Someone Else’s House), Randell Kennedy, and again Alan Wolfe (One Nation, After All). They join William Julius Wilson who about 20 years ago wrote The Declining Significance of Race. While their work differs in focus, methodology and conclusions, they are united when it comes to our nation’s progress on race. They all agree that discrimination exists, the conditions of the poorest black Americans have approached levels of desperation and hopelessness and we need a movement that promotes government action focused on black poverty in our cities. But while racism remains, these writers have produced important evidence that most whites have not resisted demands for racial justice but have accepted tremendous progress in race relations. The black middle class has expanded greatly since World War II and is passing on its status to the next generation. Black participation in elections is often decisive. The median family income of black couples is now only 13 percent below that of white couples. These authors also make an important strategic point: by focusing on racism we foster undue race consciousness by sustaining a sense of grievance among blacks of all classes, encouraging them play a divisive and counterproductive “race card.”

Some writers, like Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom (America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible), ex-liberals, are too combative and simplistic to be of use to community builders. They show almost no concern for high poverty rates among inner-city blacks and the differences in wealth and homeownership and educational opportunities between the white and black middle class. Their book also ignores the importance of affirmative action and the effective strategies that are being carried out in poor black neighborhoods by community builders who rely in part on black pride to combat violence, low academic achievement, and family instability.

Patterson estimates that about a quarter of all white Americans are hard-core racists. However, racial integration in America, Patterson shows, is becoming in many areas a reality. Patterson cites polls in which whites indicate a willingness to remain in neighborhoods that have become 25 percent black. Patterson correctly asserts that there does not exist a single case in modern history that comes near to the record of America in changing majority attitudes, in guaranteeing legal and political rights, and in expanding socioeconomic opportunities for its disadvantaged minorities. He correctly denounces the strategic error of the current generation of black political leaders like Al Sharpton who instill a conviction in poor, inner-city blacks that no matter what they do in a racist America, they cannot get ahead.

He agrees with the Thernstroms that racial preference over the past generation has done some harm to blacks and to the country. But because of the importance of informal contacts and social networks it needs reform not elimination. Patterson emphasizes what conservatives choose to ignore, namely that who you know is often more important than what you know. Patterson advocates affirmative action as a temporary measure to help African-Americans gain the social contacts they currently lack.

Patterson ignores some important realities, like the persistent wealth gap between blacks and whites. But strategically he is correct when he urges us to downplay race, but not inequality. He wants us to concentrate on the differences between the “haves” and “have nots” – focus on the gap between the average worker and the average CEO that has increased by 340 percent since 1974.

Wolfe, in his book One Nation, After All, also documents the fact that we are not so deeply divided over race (as well as gender and the culture). Wolfe states, “that the middle class, the vast majority of Americans, make up a single nation, despite their many disagreements. Wolfe relied on polling data and interviews of 200 middle-class Americans from every region of the country, including African-Americans in De Kalb County, Ga., conservative Catholics in Medford, Mass., Filipino and Hispanic immigrants outside San Diego, and suburbanites near Tulsa, Oklahoma, regarding race, welfare, immigration, family structure, religion, and other so called “hot button” issues.

Wolfe’s interviewees have sympathy for unwed ghetto mothers, believe in giving people a second chance, and know that the safety net is a moral, not just a practical, necessity. And if they don’t like feeling overwhelmed by immigrants, they have come to value different ethnic and racial traditions – so long as those traditions don’t exclude one’s identity as an American. While there is a lot more to be done to integrate African-Americans as a group into the mainstream of American life, Wolfe finds in the decline of overt racism grounds for hope. “Even if dark thoughts lie behind the nice words, and I am not sure how often they do, white Americans will be forced by their own professed rhetoric to accept and acknowledge the fundamental equality between them and other middle class Americans whose race is different from theirs.”

Hope for Organizers

The best hope – and our organizing must understand this – lies in a movement emerging from the civic revival in our inner city schools, faith institutions, labor unions and community based housing groups. Most of those leading that revival are imbued with deeply held moral convictions and believe in the role of government in helping the needy and the anxious middle class. For a local and national movement to succeed it will have to address voters’ fears of economic dislocation as well as their fears about crime and the decline of the two-parent family.

Progressives will have to be identified with fighting to eliminate corporate welfare, while initiating public campaigns to encourage fathers to care for their kids. This new movement will need campaigns that fight for an increase in the minimum wage, increased funding for jobs, protecting the environment and building housing, while fighting for programs such as “second chance homes” where young welfare mothers would live in supervised settings with their children and young men from broken homes would find strong, caring mentors to guide them into their future. This is the kind of agenda that meets the needs and fulfills the aspirations of the leaders of our civic institutions.

These books provide hope for organizers trying to build organizations with the capacity to hold accountable society’s dominant institutions, restore our faith in government as a partner in expanding liberty and economic justice, and tackle the fundamental problems of poverty and the growing concentration of power in America. As Christopher Lasch wrote, “Hope asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits. It cannot be defeated by adversity.”


Books Discussed:

  • E.J.Dionne, Jr., They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era (New York: Simon and Schuster 1996)
  • Alan Wolfe, Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation (University of California Press, 1989) and One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About: God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left and Each Other (Viking, 1998)
  • Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How the World Is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together – And What This Means for Democracy (Ballantine Books, 1996)
  • Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis (Civitas, distributed by Counterpoint,1998)

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John Atlas is a found of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.

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