One of the major themes in the reaction on the Left to the Republican convention - and we have seen this directly from the Obama campaign as well as from left-leaning bloggers - is to scream bloody murder at Mayor Giuliani and Governor Palin for mocking Sen. Obama's experience as a "community organizer," mainly for the three years between his college graduation and his entry into law school, although Obama's subsequent career as a "civil rights lawyer" was largely a continuation of the same work, which really constitutes the entirety of his experience outside elected political office.
Now, when you launch a line of criticism in politics and the other side starts shrieking at you for having done it, one or more of three things is usually true:
1. You have done something genuinely outrageous, or at least something the other side genuinely views as outrageous.
2. You have hit a nerve and the other side is trying to delegitimize your argument rather than respond to it.
3. The other side misunderstands what you are talking about.
The Obama camp's furious response (see the end of this post for full quotes from fundraising emails by Obama's campaign) to the criticism levelled at Obama's time as a community organizer strikes me as a prime example of #2, although there's an element of #3 here as well. I suppose I understand why to some on the Left it feels like #1, but at the end of the day that's an argument that fails the John Edwards test. Sen. Obama has brought this line of criticism on himself, and if his career reminds people a little too forcefully of people the average voter despises, well, maybe that's something the Democrats should have considered before nominating him for President.
I. What The Heck Is A "Community Organizer" Anyway?
The first point to make here is that Obama's defenders (and even some sympathetic voices on the Right) are, deliberately or otherwise, obscuring the meaning of the term "community organizer" by making it sound like this is precisely the same thing as the de Toquevillian/Burkean "little platoons" ideal of private institutions that exist alongside of the State - churches, volunteer associations, private charities.
None of that has anything to do with Obama's work experience, training or philosophy. If you go around in your own community and ask the guy who runs the soup kitchen, the woman who runs the battered women's shelter, the local priests, Protestant ministers and rabbis, the people who run the local Republican and Democratic party offices, the Knights of Columbus, Lion's Club, the Kiwanis, the Salvation Army... odds are that none of them describe their occupation as "community organizer." It's effectively a term of art, which apparently traces itself to a left-wing Chicago activist and theorist named Saul Alinsky, who memorialized his principles in the 1972 book "Rules for Radicals," which as you can guess from the title is not a book of rules for mainstream, bipartisan moderates. I had never heard the term before Obama, but I'd certainly heard of people who describe themselves in similar terms. They almost invariably operate in large cities with what are already large and intrusive governments - think of the PIRGs of the world (Obama was trained by NYPIRG, which, as Megan McArdle has explained from personal experience, is basically a Ponzi scheme). In essence, Naderites, not mainstream Democrats. In Obama's own words: "I used to be a PIRG guy. You guys trained me well."
[H]e began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens. "We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools," he wrote. "But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld--get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired." Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units...
(More here). "Community organizers" like Obama do not organize private charity and spend their own bread; they exist to agitate for the transfer of taxpayer funds and the private property of others through the machinery of the state. They are, in function, identical to lobbyists, differing only in the special interests for which they lobby and the method and amount of their compensation.
Now, the First Amendment protects our right to petition the government for redress of grievances; lobbying for the interests of laborers, tenants, the homeless, etc. is not bad in and of itself any more than is lobbying for the interests of large corporations, small businesses, farmers, trade associations, or ideological interest groups. Everybody deserves a voice. (Leaving aside for now Obama's bashing of lobbyists, of which I assume we will hear far less after he picked a running mate whose son is a Washington lobbyist).
But of course, if a lobbyist for big corporations is unsuccessful in bettering the lot of his client, he'll get fired. "Community organizers," being self-appointed, are not accountable to their clients; they can't be fired by the community or in any way judged on what they accomplish. As Judis notes, even Obama himself once was willing to admit that his days as a community organizer had accomplished nothing of any substance, his community no better off than it was before. A Mayor would have been fired for that, but there was nobody who could fire Obama.
The additional and related problem with Obama's brand of "organizing" (which he continued in law practice representing clients like the far-left group ACORN, see here and here), and why it ought to concern voters, is what it stands for ideologically: advocacy of the unvarnished Great Society liberalism that has been proven a failure and rejected repeatedly by the voters for the last 30 years, at times backed by Marxist or quasi-Marxist theories about 'institutional power dynamics' in lieu of a decent respect for free markets and individual enterprise. This sort of organized beggary is not, and has never been, a path out of poverty for any significant number of people. It's entirely proper to bring up that background, even if, as was done by Mayor Giuliani and Governor (and former Mayor) Palin, the chief point is to drive home the underlying reason why organizers never face real consequences for living politically in the 1970s - because Obama never had what a Mayor would have: constituents able to say "get real."
II. The Dog Whistlers
The half-sympathetic claim from some liberals is that by evoking images of troublemakers like Sharpton, whose National Action Network convention Obama addressed in 2007, the GOP is blowing a racial "dog whistle,"i.e., using terms that will make voters think in racial terms. It is, as I have noted, probably true that for a significant number of Americans who are familiar with the operation of dysfunctional cities with a lot of "community leaders" and "community organizers," the association that comes to mind is a negative one, and one that may well remind them of some particularly odious left-wing activist who is, like Sharpton, black. That's unfortunate, regardless of the boy-who-cries-wolf nature of the charges of racism made by Obama and his supporters throughout this campaign; it would be better if racial lines of thinking simply never came up in elections.
But I would make four points here.
First, as I said before, apply the John Edwards test here and you'll see that complaints about the negative connotation of Obama's prior occupation are being deployed here as a sword to bat down legitimate arguments rather than simply a shield against unfair ones. Both parties frequently use terms with negative associations, whether tying John Edwards to "trial lawyers" or Mike Dukakis to the ACLU, or Dick Cheney or Mitt Romney to fat-cat CEOs. Obama's got baggage like everyone else, and it's unrealistic to expect Republicans to unilaterally refuse to press those vulnerabilities just because some voters may take it the wrong way.
Second, the Democrats devoted a large chunk of time at their own convention to playing up Obama's time as a community organizer to a nationally televised audience. Given how little there is to work with on his resume, maybe this is understandable. But really, if they believed then that "community organizer" was a racial dog whistle, they should have thought twice before blowing it at the top of their lungs for the better part of a week.
Third, of course, Obama largely brought scrutiny of this phase of his career on himself by demeaningly making out Sarah Palin as if all she had ever done was be Mayor of Wasilla. This was done, you may recall, not by Obama's surrogates but by the candidate himself. He should have expected some push-back on his own early career and how it compares unfavorably with her experience as Mayor.
And fourth, well, Barack Obama is not responsible for the fact that PIRG/ACORN-style "community organizers" strike a lot of Americans as not all that different from what Al Sharpton does, and he's not responsible either for the racial makeup of many big-city political machines in 21st century America (recognizing that the unappealing features of such machines are not actually race-specific but long predate the time when African-Americans were permitted to have any role in government or politics whatsoever). But it is true that Obama has spent virtually his entire career around urban political machines and left-wing community organizers, and has really never done anything to improve the image or break the power of either in communities that desperately need a fresh start from corrupt machine politics and Great Society policies. If that lack of moral courage on Obama's part means he starts to accumulate the negative baggage, racial and otherwise, of decades of failed urban policy and left-wing ideology, that is once again a built-in feature of the candidate and not one that Republicans somehow invented. And if you recall the primaries, well, it's not as if we didn't warn you against this guy.
One of the more enduring features of the political Left, at least as far back as the days of "Make Love, Not War," is the effort to generate political slogans in the form of bumper stickers, often ones that condense the largest possible number of factual errors and logical fallacies into the fewest number of words. In the annals of ludicrous bumper stickers, however, few are quite as idiotic as the one currently being retailed in numerous quarters on the Left, from Kos to Donna Brazile to Open Left to really a who's who of lefty bloggers:
Jesus was a Community Organizer, and Pontius Pilate was a Governor.
This is mind-bending in its stupidity on any number of levels. For the pure cruel sport of it, let us actually take this bumper sticker seriously enough to count the ways:
1. Every time Obama is compared to John McCain's running mate instead of to McCain himself, that's a win for the GOP. Every. Single. Time. It just emphasizes that he should be running, at most, for Vice President.
2. Every State has a Governor. Most Americans have a general idea of what they do, and will not be persuaded by a bumper sticker to associate them with Pontius Pilate. I am not overly fond of my Governor, David Paterson, but I do not associate him with Pilate.
3. Pilate is best known to history as the man who decided that a crucial life and death decision was above his pay grade to make. Not really the image Obama wants to conjure up.
4. The hubris never stops - as my older brother put it, "just what the Obama campaign needs: more comparisons to Jesus." Most Americans have a pretty good idea what Jesus was about and are not easily persuaded to adjust that idea to make Him more like Barack Obama.
5. In point of fact, very little in the life of Jesus involved invoking state power to do anything - indeed, Our Lord was rather insistent that His Kingdom was not of this world, and tended to say things like "render unto God what is God's and unto Ceasar what is Caesar's." That's not to say that the teachings of Jesus are irrelevant to public policy and politics - volumes have been written on that subject - but simply that Jesus Himself was not at all in Obama's line of work, as anyone vaguely familiar with Christianity would know.
6. Pilate was not a Governor at all in the American sense; he was a colonial administrator. He wasn't elected by or accountable to the Jews the way Gov. Palin was elected by, and remains accountable to, the people of Alaska, among whom she more popular than any other Governor in the natoon.
To sum up: a slogan that is snotty, strategically and tactically self-defeating, illogical, and rests on mischaracterizations of Christian Scripture, basic civics, and the career of their own Presidential nominee....well played, indeed.
PS - Here are the Obama campaign fundraising emails I referenced, which at least have the virtue of pressing the one consistent theme of the Obama campaign: "give us money."
Why would the Republicans spend a whole night of their convention
attacking ordinary people?
With the nation watching, the Republicans mocked, dismissed, and
actually laughed out loud at Americans who engage in community service
Our convention was different. We gave the stage to everyday Americans
who hunger for change and stepped up to make phone calls, knock on
doors, and raise money in small amounts in their communities.
You may have missed it, but we also showed the country a video with
the faces and voices of those organizers, volunteers, and donors from
every corner of the country.
Watch the video and make a donation of $5 or more now to show that in
this election, ordinary people will make their voices heard:
What you didn't hear from the Republicans at their convention is a
single new idea about how to make the healthcare system work, get our
economy moving for the middle class, or improve education.
Just attacks -- on me, and on you.
But what the McCain attack squad doesn't understand is that people
like you -- who devote part of their busy lives to organizing and
building their communities -- have the power to change this country.
With your help, that's exactly what we're going to do.
From: David Plouffe
Subject: What you just saw
Dear ____ --
I wasn't planning on sending you something tonight. But if you saw
what I saw from the Republican convention, you know that it demands a
I saw John McCain's attack squad of negative, cynical politicians.
They lied about Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and they attacked you for
being a part of this campaign.
But worst of all -- and this deserves to be noted -- they insulted the
very idea that ordinary people have a role to play in our political
You know that despite what John McCain and his attack squad say,
everyday people have the power to build something extraordinary when
we come together. Make a donation of $5 or more right now to remind
Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin specifically mocked Barack's
experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago more
than two decades ago, where he worked with people who had lost jobs
and been left behind when the local steel plants closed.
Let's clarify something for them right now.
Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch
politicians and their failed policies.
And it's no surprise that, after eight years of George Bush, millions
of people have found that by coming together in their local
communities they can change the course of history. That promise is
what our campaign has been about from the beginning.
Throughout our history, ordinary people have made good on America's
promise by organizing for change from the bottom up. Community
organizing is the foundation of the civil rights movement, the women's
suffrage movement, labor rights, and the 40-hour workweek. And it's
happening today in church basements and community centers and living
rooms across America.
Meanwhile, we still haven't gotten a single idea during the entire
Republican convention about the economy and how to lift a middle class
so harmed by the Bush-McCain policies.
It's now clear that John McCain's campaign has decided that desperate
lies and personal attacks -- on Barack Obama and on you -- are the
only way they can earn a third term for the Bush policies that McCain
has supported more than 90 percent of the time.
But you can send a crystal clear message.
Enough is enough. Make your voice heard loud and clear by making a $5
donation right now:
Thank you for joining more than 2 million ordinary Americans who
refuse to be silenced.