Reorganizing the Republican Party, One Conversation at a Time
Personally, I blame CCHD.
Okay, that’s an overstatement. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is not solely—or even primarily—responsible for the fact Pres. Obama won re-election, or that the Republican party is only just now waking up (it is to be hoped) to the fact that it doesn’t know how to talk to people from different backgrounds. But CCHD has, in its own small way, played an important role.
First, some disclosures and disclaimers:
1 – In the past I worked for organizations that received CCHD grants; those grants helped pay my salary for a number of years.
2 – As a consequence, I can testify that CCHD is about the most rigorously nonpartisan funder of change and community organizing imaginable. CCHD’s strict adherence to its funding guidelines and restrictions on partisan activity—let alone its even-stricter restrictions on any activity that comes close to disagreeing with Church teaching—are legendary within community organizing circles.
3 – I say “small way” because in a nation of 310 million people, any organization that has as its sole source of funding a once-a-year second collection in the churches of one denomination is necessarily going to have a limited impact.
4 – Finally, I pray that my conservative brother and sister Catholics will not take anything here as “evidence” of CCHD’s nefarious and subversive leftist corrupting influence on the Church and American society. I make that prayer because, in fact, there’s no such evidence in what you’re about to read. (Also, the views expressed are my own, not Commonweal’s. Don’t blame these guys for what I write.)
With that necessary work out of the way, we proceed.
One of the more notable aftershocks of Tuesday’s election is the degree to which Republicans and conservatives were surprised by the results. Gov. Romney was “shellshocked” and apparently had been so confident of victory that he hadn’t even written a concession speech. Karl Rove, a veteran of many political campaigns and a strategist who spent years working to broaden the Republican party’s base, had an election-night meltdown on Fox News. Donald Trump tweeted calls for “revolution”. (Doesn’t he know what can happen to people like Donald Trump during a revolution?)
Conservative commentator Byron York wrote a terrific column capturing this sentiment from Republicans gathered for the Romney-Ryan election-night party:
“I am shocked, I am blown away,” said Joe Sweeney, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I thought I had a pretty good pulse on this stuff. I thought there was a trend that was going on underground.”
“We were so convinced that the people of this country had more common sense than that,” said Nan Strauch, of Hilton Head, South Carolina. “It was just a very big surprise. We felt so confident.”
“It makes me wonder who my fellow citizens are,” said Marianne Doherty of Boston. “I’ve got to be honest, I feel like I’ve lost touch with what the identity of America is right now. I really do.”
I doubt there’s a more profound insight into the nature of the political challenge Republicans and conservatives face in the wake of yesterday’s election than Ms. Doherty’s: “I feel like I’ve lost touch with what the identity of America is right now.”
The good news for Ms. Doherty—and for Republicans and conservatives across the country—is there’s a proven way to get back in touch with “the identity of America”: a political, even a spiritual discipline that CCHD has seeded across every diocese in the U. S. over the past few decades: one-to-ones.
“One-to-ones” are short (30-40 minutes), intentional conversations between people who are interested in being public leaders, and who are willing to take the time to get to know more about (and to be better known by) other leaders in their community. They are a foundational practice in hundreds of community organizations in poor, working-class and middle-class communities all across the country. And virtually all of those organizations have received funding at some point in their history from CCHD.
To illustrate the power of “one-to-ones”, here’s a newly re-elected President Barack Obama thanking his campaign staff on Wednesday and speaking about his CCHD experience:
“I try to picture myself when I was your age, and I first moved to Chicago at the age of 25 and I had this vague inkling about making a difference. I didn’t really know how to do it. I didn’t have a structure….
I came to Chicago knowing that somehow I wanted to make sure that my life attached itself to helping kids get a great education, or helping people living in poverty to get decent jobs and be able to work and have dignity. To make sure that people didn’t have to go to the emergency room to get health care.
And I ended up being a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. A group of churches were willing to hire me. I didn’t know at all what I was doing. And the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities there.
Because it taught me the hopes and aspirations and the grit and the resilience of ordinary people. And it taught me the fact that under the surface differences we all have common hopes and we all have common dreams. And it taught me something about how I handled disappointment and what it meant to work hard on a common endeavor. And I grew up; I became a man during that process.”
In the mid-1980s, an affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation used a CCHD grant to hire Barack Obama. Obama’s supervisors put him to work doing hundreds of “one-to-ones” a year with leaders in the community organization he worked for, with potential allies, with elected officials, with business leaders, with anyone who might help build the power of the organization he worked for and who might help advance its values and interests. They gave him a structure—practical as well as intellectual—within which he could develop and exercise his talents and his desire to do good. “One-to-ones” were a foundation stone of that structure.
Multiply a young Barack Obama by hundreds of young, energetic, idealistic organizers a year. Take the 20-200 key leaders in the organization he worked for and multiply them by all the organizations affiliated with Gamaliel, IAF, PICO, DART, IVP and other similar networks and federations. Then add in all the other community organizing efforts in recent decades that owe their existence to a commitment to bringing people together around common values and interests…despite their divisions by race, class, creed, geography, national origin, legal status, sexual orientation or political philosophy.
Over the past 40 years, that’s untold tens of millions of hours invested in the slow, patient, deliberate building of relationships, understanding and connection with and among community leaders and organizers. One essential product of those conversations is that people walk away with a better understanding of “the other” (and of themselves) in the context of this political commonwealth we call the United States of America. With that better understanding, they’re able to act more powerfully and effectively on their values and in their interests when they enter the public arena.
In electoral politics, most of that work has redounded to the benefit of the Democratic Party—as was visible to anyone who noticed the stark demographic differences between the crowds gathered in Boston and Chicago respectively, to be with their party’s standard-bearer after the polls closed. That’s true, not because CCHD and the organizations it funds are biased, leftist, Democratic Party fronts, or any of the other charges thrown at CCHD by its opponents over the years. That’s true because the Democratic Party, consciously or not, has taken greater advantage in recent years of the relational culture CCHD-funded organizations have cultivated. Perhaps that’s because Democrats needed it more.
40 years ago, the Democratic Party had just torn itself apart—over civil rights, over equal rights, over the Vietnam War—and suffered a humiliating defeat in the presidential election as a consequence. Black and white, male and female, young and old, civilian and veteran—those who had been Democrats confronted the stark and bleak reality that they didn’t really know each other anymore. Or, if they did know each other, they didn’t like what they knew. Or, what used to be acceptable (politics is man’s work) no longer was (women not only wanted a seat at the table, they wanted half the seats).
It’s taken 40 years for Democrats to rebuild themselves as a political party that can unite a crowd as diverse as the one that filled the McCormick Center to cheer Pres. Obama’s victory speech, or pull together a campaign staff as diverse as the one Obama spoke to the next day. (And if there’s a biblical resonance to that 40 years, then that too is partly because of the work—by nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, imams and preachers, clergy and laity—CCHD has supported and helped make possible during those decades.)
The good news for Republicans and conservatives is that “one-to-ones” know no political ideology. They are what some community organizers call “tools for public life”. Just as a hammer works effectively regardless of the politics of the carpenter wielding it, “one-to-ones” are equally effective tools whether used by liberals, moderates or conservatives—as evidenced by the numerous conservatives playing leadership roles in CCHD-supported community organizations today.
Republicans may have a lot of work to do to broaden the base—and the leadership–of their party. The good news (or at least, part of the good news) is that it’s work that can be done. For proof of that fact, all Republicans have to do when Congress reconvenes is look across the aisle.