In her fiery Republican convention speech this summer, Gov. Sarah Palin attacked Sen. Barack Obama by belittling his experience as a community organizer. She compared working as a small-town mayor to working as a community organizer, before cleverly adding that mayors have "actual responsibilities," drawing a chorus of yips and hollers in approval.
So why do conservatives laud small-town mayors while dismissing community organizers? Well, small-town mayors do stuff that people understand. As Obama said in a Fox News interview, the mayors "actually have to fill potholes and trim trees and make sure the garbage is taken away."
Community organizers, in contrast, ummbuild relationshipsand bring neighbors togetherandah yes, empower people. But what do these things mean? To many conservatives, this job description seems like touchy-feely liberal jargon that sounds great on paper but produces few results in the real world.
Another reason conservatives praise small-town mayors and put down organizers is that the mayor's role, that of chief executive, gels better with a more conservative world view. Executives keep law and order and the trains running on time.
A mayor's job revolves around stability; it's about putting a responsible, grounded face on a town and faithfully reinforcing its values. Community organizing, in contrast, is considered the opposite of stability because the job is often inaccurately associated with activist movements of the 1960s.
Conservatives then tend to see organizing as nothing more than what happens when a rabble-rousing mob of disgruntled people demand resource redistribution. Through this lens, organizing seems unsafe to those who value order, disrespectful to authority and often ineffectual in how extreme it is.
But in reality, community organizing, especially its modern iterations, is clearly more sophisticated than rabble-rousing activism. Rather than existing in a zero-sum vacuum where gains for the poor mean losses for the wealthy, organizing initiatives create social capital within communities in need of resident leadership. Obama, for example, trained neighbors to become the leaders of their community organization during campaigns to address water contamination and asbestos-laden housing projects.
Because community organizing is centrally about building internal leadership capacity in this way within underserved communities, the job bears little relation to activists' arguably ineffective efforts to build awareness, whether through peaceful demonstration or Machiavellian intimidation and violence.
And upon deeper examination, community organizing actually taps into some of the more touchy-feely tenets of conservatism, including emphasis on the positive role religion can play in public life, the need for individual responsibility and general optimism for the future.
First, conservatives should love community organizing because organizers recognize that religion serves a powerful force that provides an impetus for people to better their communities actively.
The brand of organizing Obama practiced, for instance, is built almost entirely around mobilizing communities of faith and recognizes the inherent advantages of working with people who are members of tight-knit church communities and similar institutions. One could say organizing is the epitome of the faith-based initiative.
Conservatives should also love community organizing because the field acknowledges the essential role of personal responsibility and individual empowerment in the pursuit of community reform. Instead of waiting for government handouts, organizers encourage residents to take action and responsibility for their communities. And ecause organizing increases communities' internal leadership capacities, the results of such efforts are neighborhoods inhabited by dutiful citizens who proactively tackle problems and learn to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, while at the same time working to ensure their communities receive equitable treatment from the government and private sector.
Lastly, conservatives should love community organizing because it approaches community revitalization with an optimism that channels the sense that, in America, anything is possible with a little elbow grease. During her convention speech, Michelle Obama reminisced about her husband telling residents about the "world as it is" and the "world as it should be," and that organizing is about merging those two worlds. Organizing is rooted in this kind of optimism which is congruent with the oft-conservative sentiment that America is an exceptional country filled with innovative, can-do people.
So conservatives, don't write off community organizing just yet. You might find that organizers are working to mold communities with many of the same virtues as small-town America-healthy neighborhoods that are self-sufficient, bound together by religion, and that have a folksy, Main Street sense of community.