Hoping Against Hope? A Response to Limbaugh & Teachout
By Al Giordano
"I hope he fails... I know what his politics are. I know what his plans are, as he has stated them. I don't want them to succeed... What is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. ... Somebody's gotta say it..."
- Rush Limbaugh, January 2009
"I think (Organizing for America) will fail in its mission to directly engage Obama supporters in supporting Obama's executive actions. And I think this is a very good thing... I support Obama wholeheartedly, and have been thrilled every day of his Presidency. But I support self-government even more, and a successful organization sharing uncritical media with 13 million citizens sounds spooky to me. I'm glad it's going to fail."
- Zephyr Teachout, January 2009
Great timing on that faux pas, Zephyr.
Zephyr Teachout obviously isn't Rush Limbaugh, she's a bit of an icon and sacred cow from the 2004 Dean campaign, and yet there she is, with that rather unfortunate phrasing slipping from her keypad at the very moment that Rush Limbaugh has become so deservedly targeted for saying it aloud.
To be fair, Teachout's "I'm glad that it's going to fail" isn't a reference to the entirety of Obama's presidency, but it is an attempted slap at the Obama-launched Organizing for America project.
(There's also a fledgling Facebook page for the project - I see already many of the best grassroots organizers across the country among its first members - and Teachout has just unwittingly inspired me to join it, too. Thanks, Zeph!)
I hope that Teachout will handle it like a grown-up when she is likely to be proved wrong in her claim of fact that, "it's going to fail." After all, she wouldn't be the first "expert" or Netroots celebrity to have lost some credibility because she underestimated and misunderstood the Obama movement and the people that make up its rank-and-file. I'll explain why in a moment, but first...
Teachout and Limbaugh deserve parallel credit for at least admitting in public that they are "hoping against hope." After all, others - be it Limbaugh's GOP allies or some who share Teachout's tendencies on the technocratic left - mask their "hope for failure" behind less up-front (but equally transparent to many of us) efforts to derail and detour the Obama presidency from accomplishing its goals (the latter group arguing, basically, that they want him to accomplish those goals but it must be done their way, not his way.)
All that said, Teachout's position is as morally and strategically bankrupt as Limbaugh's. And it's based on a reductive reasoning that is absurd: She assumes that because the first step being taken by Organizing for America is to organize upcoming house parties to spark grassroots support for the Stimulus Bill, that therefore the only thing that Organizing for America will be doing over the coming years is having house parties. Yeah, right.
And in a way, Teachout's stance is less defensible than Limbaugh's, and not just because we ought to be able to expect better from her. The radio host's hoping-against-hope tirade, at least, better serves his parochial goals - boosting his radio ratings and making more money for himself - than Teachout's serves her stated goals, which can be discerned from this final paragraph of her blog post:
"I would encourage OFA to throw all of its support and resources at local democratic parties and officials--to decentralize the data, and let local groups experiment. I believe Obama has largely done his job, by getting elected and by electrifying the country and showing people that they can have power; but for them to exercise it meaningfully, instead of simply acting as shills for Presidential policy, they will need to exercise it through our representative offices: Congress, and the state houses."
In Teachout's view, "local democratic parties and officials" ought to be the filter for the future organizing of the Obama movement, rather than Organizing for America. Who's she frickin' kiddin'? Herself? She clearly doesn't "get" that the Obama movement was an insurgency in the Democratic party, against many of the practices and turf-warriors of those local parties and officials.
Hers would be a very romantic notion if, and only if, the Democratic Party on the state and local level had already undergone the kind of transformation that the 2008 elections (and the 2005 Howard Dean DNC chairmanship victory) brought to the DNC. But the truth is that most state and local Democratic parties are still stuck in the stone ages of the Clinton-Bush years, at the stage that the DNC was in under Terry McAuliffe's leadership: with few exceptions, they are smelly bastions of hackery, self-interest and corporate interest layered upon special interest, and are not yet plausible vehicles for struggle from the bottom up. Rather, they are the loci of power struggles between warring factions of ugly bureaucratic tendencies, most of whom are mainly interested in gaining control of various levels of government and in using that control to exercise power over others.
In other words, handing over data (voter lists and information, donor lists, etcetera, built by so many volunteer data-entry folks and field organizers last year) to "local democratic parties and officials" as Teachout advocates - which will be done but to a more carefully limited and targeted extent for the 2010 elections anyway - would not decentralize the data in the spirit of Jeffersonian democracy. To the contrary, in many regions it would be like handing the enemy your ammunition! Her proposal would merely divide up the movement's real estate into lots - a grand condominium plan for the party hacks and aspiring political bosses - where it would surely atrophy and die.
Those hacks and bosses would then hoard the information for use toward their own personal and factional advantage, because that's what they've always done with every little scrap of info or power. And the rank-and-file volunteers and organizers from the Obama 2008 campaign would end up outcast (and correspondingly demoralized) much more so than if information and resources flow through Organizing for America, which at least is about them, and not about the old guard in local Democratic Party organizations.
"It will fail because Obama--suiting a President--is not oppositional, conflict-driven, and not likely to pick out particular targets to be won over--all things that are likely to engage people."
Had she phrased that, instead, to urge that, "Organizing for America should be oppositional, conflict driven, and pick out particular targets to be won over - all things that are likely to engage people," that would have been helpful advice. But she doesn't do that - she admits - because she wants the project to fail.
As I see it, there are three obvious things that Organizing for America can do and probably will:
1. Continue the Community Organizer Renaissance by training even more grassroots volunteers and organizers much as Camp Obama and the campaign "Fellows" project did.
2. Place a trained paid organizer in each of 435 Congressional Districts as a fulcrum for all the yet-to-be-determined organizing projects, including disaster response in the wake of future events like Hurricane Katrina.
3. Build the grassroots lobbying pressure arm of the movement for when tough legislative priorities need grassroots support. (I've noted before that I think Immigration Reform will offer a kind of "perfect storm" for this activity, because it was the xenophobe campaign - led by Rush Limbaugh and other right wing radio hosts and bloggers - that in 2007 flooded the US Capitol switchboard and scared 20 senators off prior commitments to vote for the bill. Thus, what better issue on which to break the back of the reactionary right?)
I don't think those goals are unworthy, nor unattainable. If Teachout does, that's her problem, not yours or mine. She can sit it out enviously from the sidelines - gritting her teeth and cursing as that damn Obama and those drat-double-drat community organizers do it again - along with anybody else that doesn't want to participate. I, for one, would rather not have such Eeyores and Chicken Littles around to be the constant buzzkills they seem to wish to be. More work can always get done without them. And reading, today, the aversion of that tendency to joining makes me eager to sign up as an individual in part because maybe it means they won't be there.
But you know who will participate? The salt-of-the-earth grassroots organizers and volunteers, black, white, yellow and brown: the ones that knock on doors and make phone calls and organize locally. The bases of the Obama movement are so very different than most bloggers and "activists" because they're either already formed organizers or everyday people who for the first time became involved in their country's politics in the past two years and went out and perspired to get it done. They're a more diverse, multi-racial and multi-generational collection than anything Teachout or the other complainers have ever themselves organized. And yes, I mean "ever."
Would it be more ideal if those grassroots bases began organizing themselves, independent of the Obama organization? Well, of course it would. And some of that is going to happen (including through the Field Hands). But the truth is that the US Left has grown so accustomed to mistaking "activism" for "organizing" that in many places there is no critical mass of folks that know how to do it, and that yet feel the self-confidence to do it. (For example, does Jim Dean's "Democracy for America" do much real organizing? - doors, phones, and such on the local level? - or does it merely practice activism? It's never even attempted what Organizing for America is gearing up to do.) The reality is that if the Obama organization doesn't continue stoking it, the organizing will disappear altogether in most parts of the land.
If Zephyr Teachout or anybody else thinks it can be done or that they can do it better, I double dare them: Prove me wrong, stop bitching, and go out and do it. If you build the better mousetrap, they will come.
Those that didn't knock on doors and do real organizing in 2008 will probably never "get" it. But there are so many that did, and they (you, we) are the future of American politics.
Perhaps it is a little unfair to lay out Teachout's quote next to Limbaugh's - but not for the reason some might think. If anything, it's unfair to that slob, Limbaugh.
Limbaugh - unlike Teachout - has a more reality-based grasp of what is happening right now in the US: the total destruction of the power bases that he and his kind built over recent decades.
And Limbaugh - unlike Teachout - understands that... It's the Organizing, Stupid!
Here's Limbaugh, last Monday, January 26, in response to President Obama's calling him out:
"This is a political play and a lot of people I think are misunderstanding this. ‘He's frightened of Limbaugh.' I don't think he's afraid of anybody. He's the president of the United States. This is a political play to marginalize me so that Republicans are afraid to associate with my ideas or any of us. He wants conservatism, mainstream conservatism to be thought of the way you and I think of communism. He wants it thought of as the most foreign, the most offensive, the most extreme manner of belief possible. There are no elected Republicans who are espousing conservatism today, so he's gotta find somebody who is. I happen to be the most prominent voice, but there are many others, so he focuses on me. This is a Saul Alinsky radical rule number 13: Pick the target, me, isolate it, polarize it. It's almost like Colin Powell. We'll kill it, we'll isolate it, we'll cut its head off. That's what's happening here. This is a purposeful effort to get rid of conservatism as a mainstream way of thinking forever in this country, make no mistake about it."
Later on Monday, in response to a caller, Limbaugh elaborated:
"I don't think that's what this is about all. Remember, now, Barack Obama comes from the Saul Alinsky Rules for Radicals school. The Obama way is to get rid of opposition. Not a fair playing field, you clear it. You get rid of your opponents as quickly and as rapidly as you can. What he's trying to do, as I said in the last hour, is marginalize me to the point that Republicans are afraid to mention my name, that they wouldn't dare do this primarily because he wants conservatism to be thought of the same way you and I think of communism. He wants conservatism to be thought of as the most extreme kooky, wacky thing, and that anybody who publicly espouses it is insane or what have you. There is a method here, and it's not a mistake. The guy did this on purpose. The Drive-Bys are running around talking about whether this was wise to focus on me and build me up and so forth. Believe me, he's gotta compliant GOP already. The GOP, they're all out there saying, ‘Well, we hope he succeeds.'"
Game on. If you don't like Organizing for America, just get out of the way and try to avoid getting rolled over - along with Limbaugh and company - once it starts to move.