Organizing communities, on the left and right

Dear Al,

Has the mainstream left gone insane in response to these town halls on health care reform?

When you have what you see is an illegitimate process set up to provide the appearance of taking people’s views into consideration when in fact the outcome is a foregone conclusion, then of course you try to shut down that process.

I don’t agree with the views or falsehoods or ahistorical analysis (Nazis were socialists, single-payer is socialized medicine, the specter of “death panels,” etc.) put forth with those protesting health care reform — and I wish grassroots movements I’ve been a part of had been bankrolled by huge corporate lobbies and trumpeted by major pundits.

But it’s a legitimate strategy — and it’s not like even most mainstream Democrats haven’t been a part of an angry town hall once or twice when their local library is going to be closed, or someone wants to build a nuclear power plant, or someone’s dumping sludge into the river. Is this giant collective, selective amnesia?

And then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi calls the protests at town halls “un-American.”

Who are these people? Are Democrats really going to position themselves as the party of the anti-populists? Is that even a smart political strategy?

Even more frustrating than the response of politicians have been some grassroots activist groups. In an email to their supporters, Code Pink lamented that conservatives were turning to Saul Alinsky for tactics:

It’s so frustrating watching angry voters at town hall meetings spouting ridiculous accusations like Obama wants to euthanize the elderly and turn this country into Russia. And it’s ironic to see the right contorting leftist tactics. In a memo Rocking the Town Halls, a group called Right Principles urges its members to “Use the Alinsky playbook,” referring to Saul Alinsky, the guru of 1960s grassroots organizing whose work influenced community organizer Barack Obama.

Let’s not be out-organized by violent, right-wing tools of insurance corporations incited by Fox News.

I agree that “we” shouldn’t be out-organized by “violent, right-wing tools of insurance corporations incited by Fox News.” But I actually think it’s kind of exciting that they’re looking to Saul Alinsky for tactics. (Though I don’t really see Alinsky ideas evident in these protests.)

But come on! They’re not “contorting leftist tactics,” they’re using them! Poorly, perhaps; to despicable ends, perhaps. But on balance I’d rather have them looking to Alinsky than William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater. Especially when lefties are regularly wondering about the much more credulous coverage given to these protesters than, say…Code Pink. A world in which politicians were sidelined and people organized their friends and neighbors around issues they cared about sounds like a pretty good one to me.

I think there’s this myth that people on the right don’t do community organizing. I think until it’s been true that most organizations on the right don’t do grassroots organizing, but conservatives have been doing organizing around issues like abortion for a generation now.

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