Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a war hero turned political leader, has traveled a familiar journey in pursuit of the White House. But his Democratic counterpart, in vaulting from the precincts and wards of American cities into a prominent national role, represents the first appearance in a presidential race of a relatively new political type: the community organizer. Barack Obama’s ascendance is a testament to community activists’ success in amassing political power since the mid-1960s, when the War on Poverty fueled their rise and changed the electoral calculus in many U.S. cities.
Community organizing’s roots stretch back to the 1930s and Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation and author of Rules for Radicals. But it wasn’t until President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious plan to end poverty through massive federal spending that the Alinsky model—grassroots organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood—really took off. Starting in the mid-1960s, the federal government directed billions of dollars to neighborhood groups, convinced that they knew better than Washington what their communities needed. The federal funds, eventually supplemented by state and local tax dollars, helped create a universe of government-funded community groups running everything from job-training programs to voter-registration drives—far beyond anything Alinsky could have imagined. Some 3,000 local social-services groups were soon receiving government funding in New York City alone. Many were new, but the money also helped turn traditional charities that had operated on private donations into government contractors.
Those who led these social-services groups became advocates, unsurprisingly, for government-funded solutions to social problems. To defend and expand their turf, organizers began heading into the political arena, wielding the power they had accumulated in neighborhoods to build a base of supporters. In New York, operators of huge social-services groups like Pedro Espada in the Bronx and Albert Vann in Brooklyn won election to state and federal posts after heading up large, powerful nonprofits. By the late 1980s, nearly 20 percent of New York City Council members were products of the government-funded nonprofit sector, and they were among the most strident advocates for higher taxes and more government spending. In other cities, too, from Chicago to Cleveland to Los Angeles, the road to electoral success increasingly ran through the government-funded social-services sector. Spending directed to these groups boomed through both Republican and Democratic administrations. “The non-profit service sector has never been richer, more powerful,”former welfare recipient Theresa Funiciello wrote in her 1993 book Tyranny of Kindness. “Except to the poor, poverty is a mega-business.”
Obama began his organizing life in the mid-1980s in a community group whose progress mirrored that of the rest of the industry: the Developing Communities Project, formed on Chicago’s South Side as a “faith-based grassroots organization organizing and advocating for social change.” Though founded with resources from a coalition of churches, over time the DCP evolved, like many left-leaning religious organizations, into a government contractor essentially subsisting on tax money—with nearly 80 percent of its revenues deriving from public contracts and grants.
As a young college graduate immersed in the world of tax-bankrolled activism, Obama adopted the big-government ethos that prevailed among neighborhood organizers who viewed attempts to reform poverty programs as attacks on the poor. Speaking to an alternative weekly on the eve of his 1995 run for state senate, Obama said—in language that his wife, Michelle, would echo years later—that “these are mean, cruel times, exemplified by a ‘lock ’em up, take no prisoners’ mentality that dominates the Republican-led Congress.” He derided the “old individualistic bootstrap myth” of American achievement that conservatives were touting. Self-help strategies “have become thinly veiled excuses for cutting back on social programs, which are anathema to a conservative agenda,” he wrote in a chapter that he contributed to a 1990 book, After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. (He also depicted leftist community organizing as a harder task than similar efforts by the Christian Right, telling a reporter in 1995 that “it’s always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness and false nostalgia.”)
To maintain that society was fundamentally unjust, Obama had to deny the significance of the black advancement that surrounded him in Chicago. Looking out over the world of local politics in a city that until recently had been governed by a black mayor and had a number of prominent blacks in power, Obama saw only efforts to undermine African-American progress. In 1990, he admitted “black achievement in prominent city positions” but added that it had only “put us in the awkward position of administering underfunded systems neither equipped nor eager to address the needs of the urban poor.” Still, Obama opted to head into politics himself, justifying the move as a third way between the limitations of local organizing and the narrow careerism that, he claimed, characterized local black pols. He, by contrast, would become the politician as community organizer.
Yet he wasn’t above using the hardball tactics of Chicago politics to jump-start his career. In his first race, he employed knowledge of the electoral system that he had gained from heading up a voter-registration drive to challenge, on technical grounds, the nominating petitions of his Democratic primary opponents. His effort eventually forced all of them off the ballot, including the incumbent Alice Palmer, who had tabbed Obama as her successor until she decided to run again. Observing the irony of someone who once ran an effort designed to expand ballot access now pushing rivals off the ballot, one of Obama’s opponents asked: “Why say you’re for a new tomorrow, then do old-style Chicago politics to remove legitimate candidates?”
Obama’s legislative achievements as a state senator were not extensive, but his supporters count among his biggest victories his work to expand subsidized health care in Illinois with social-justice groups like United Power for Action and Justice, an offshoot of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Later, when he announced his run for president, Obama visited some of these groups and reminded them of their long struggles together. Meeting last November with the leaders of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn)—the nationwide network of left-wing community groups that taps government money for a host of causes—Obama declared: “I’ve been fighting alongside Acorn on issues you care about my entire career,” including representing Acorn in a court case in Illinois. Acorn members apparently reciprocated by working hard to turn out voters for Obama’s Illinois campaigns, according to a 2003 piece in the magazine Social Policy by a Chicago-area Acorn organizer. After the candidate’s November appearance, Acorn’s affiliated political action committee endorsed Obama for president.
Obama’s nomination will be celebrated as a first for African-Americans. But the racial symbolism may obscure the importance of his presidential run to the tens of thousands of government-funded community groups that stand to benefit from an Obama agenda that’s right out of the 1960s. His presidential platform touts programs that would refuel the nonprofit sector, ranging from a commitment to boost money for federal relics like the ineffective and wasteful Community Development Block Grant program (see “America’s Worst Urban Program,” Spring 2005) to a plan for providing “a full network of services, including early childhood education, youth violence prevention efforts and after-school activities . . . from birth to college” to a series of “Promise Neighborhoods.”
Obama’s genius as a candidate, meanwhile, has not been lost on the community of activists from which he emerged. As a publication of the National Housing Institute, a social-justice group, has observed: “Barack Obama carries lessons he learned as a community organizer to the political arena. Both organizers and politicians would be wise to study them closely.”