Activist Lens for Obama-Clinton Differences

Peter Levine offers an analysis which counters Krauthammer’s op-ed today that argues, “with no substantive policy differences left, the Obama-Clinton campaign has been reduced to personality and identity,” and therefore has been reduced to simply “who’s more oppressed.”

two traditions of organizing in the ’08 elections

As Harry Boyte argues on the generally lively and interesting By the People blog, Senators Clinton and Obama embody rival traditions that derive from the Chicago community organizer Saul Alinksy. Clinton wrote her undergraduate thesis on Alinksy, and Obama cut his teeth working for a Chicago organization in Alinsky’s orbit, the Gamaliel Foundation. That is a remarkable point of connection between the two leading Democratic candidates.

But Alinksy’s legacy is profoundly contested. One stream, which Harry labels “mobilization,” developed techniques to derive money, votes, and protesters from poor and middle class communities for the purpose of reform legislation. The mobilizers’ techniques included tools such as door-to-door canvassing and mass mailings, and a rhetorical style that emphasized victimization and outrage.

The other stream, which Harry calls “organizing,” developed equally refined and sophisticated methods for helping people to talk together and form their own opinions and agendas. The organizers’ techniques included (for example) one-on-one interviews, house parties, and meetings that shifted from one venue to another through the community. The rhetorical style emphasized assets, power and dignity, and unity.

Levine adds, “[I]t’s hard to see how you can use organizing rather than mobilizing if you’re running for president or facing your first Hundred Days in the White House. If I were Obama, I’d settle for mobilizing right now, but retain an ethical vision of organizing to use in other ways at other times.”

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