Anecdotes as Antidotes

Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout describes an encounter that I suspect many political theorists who have gone public with their doubts about the health of American democracy have had of late. Lecturing in Tennessee in 2004, Stout argued that “the current crisis of democracy is grave enough that concerted action on the part of many citizens would be required to overcome it.” During the question-and-answer period following his talk, he was brought up short by a college freshman who said that “he found my diagnosis of democracy’s ills persuasive,” but regarded the treatment Stout prescribed as “unhelpfully vague.”

Stout was compelled to admit that this young man with the “OK, so what do we do about it?” objection had a point, one that subsequent audiences also raised repeatedly. “I had not explained how people currently addicted to fast ‘food’ and ‘reality’ television might actually take back the country from the plutocrats, militarists, and culture warriors now dominating our politics. The truth is that I had only a vague idea.” His interlocutors “were all asking why they should have hope and what a better way of conducting our political affairs might look like in concrete terms.” If he was to answer their question better, he had to offer them examples that might offer some hope of awakening American citizenship from its slumbers, and not from now-distant memories of the civil-rights movement but from “contemporary democratic practice.”

Blessed Are the Organized is the better answer to the Tennessee freshman that Stout wished he had at hand seven years ago, an effort to address more effectively those “who want to know how the spirit of democracy might be actualized concretely under our circumstances, but who either suspect that the endeavor is now hopeless or expect the ills of democracy to be cured by putting a charismatic reformer in the White House.”

The exemplary, concrete example of contemporary democratic practice to which Stout directs our attention is the thirty years of “broad-based organizing” undertaken by the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of affiliated organizations that now stretches from Mississippi to California. Heir to the legacy of famed organizer Saul Alinsky, the founder of the IAF, the Southwest IAF has long been led by Ernesto Cortés Jr., one of the most significant radical democrats at work in American society today and one of the heroes of Stout’s book.

Stout offers a penetrating tour of the organizing efforts of Southwest IAF affiliates, from the devastated neighborhoods of post-Katrina New Orleans, to the shantytown colonias of the Rio Grande valley in Texas, to the crime-ridden neighborhoods of southeast Los Angeles, to a meeting of more affluent democrats in a Marin County synagogue. He gives us a kind of thick ethnographic description of grassroots, face-to-face democracy, seeking in the stories he hears and the events he witnesses to discern the governing principles and practices of a democratic counterculture that has developed largely under the radar of the media spectacles that pass for American public life.

Abraham Lincoln pithily described a democratic republican polity as government of the people, by the people, for the people. The extraordinary task that confronts democrats is figuring out how effectively to embody this regulative idea under modern conditions. Because in a polity of any size, the people cannot rule directly, government by and for all citizens depends on building institutions in which the people’s representatives are accountable to them all. If, as Stout says, “power minus accountability equals domination,” then power plus wide and deep accountability equals legitimate democratic authority.

A principal responsibility of democratic citizens, then, is to hold one another accountable. “Democracy,” Stout observes, “depends for its survival on what citizens do.” Hence, a key to effective democracy is the organization of ordinary citizens in the service of liberty and justice for all. As Alinsky nicely put it, in a democratic society “the people are the motor, the organizations of the people are the gears. The power of the people is transmitted through the gears of their own organizations, and democracy moves forward.” American democracy is stalled because powerful, unaccountable economic and political elites capable of domination are geared up, while those whom they would dominate are largely gearless.

The organizations whose stories Stout tells have hammered out a common strategy for giving American democracy some better gears. IAF organizers begin with existing institutions of civil society—schools, voluntary organizations, unions, and, above all, churches and other religious institutions. Having enlisted support from such groups, they then undertake hundreds of individual meetings over a period of months with members of these institutions (“one-on-ones”) in which they elicit their concerns. These face-to-face encounters are followed by small-group gatherings (“house meetings”) in which individuals who have consulted with organizers gather to formulate common concerns. The other purpose of such house meetings is for organizers to identify and cultivate indigenous leaders who can represent the members of their institution in a local citizens’ organization. Within the citizens’ organization a “core team” is chosen from among these representatives with the authority to formulate proposals and develop strategies on behalf of the organization to address the issues that have bubbled upward from below.

The purpose of this mode of organization is to create “the sort of power base that the citizens’ organization can then use to hold governmental and corporate officeholders accountable.” The organization then convenes, on its own turf, an “accountability session” in which office holders, candidates, and corporate managers are invited and (if they come) asked to listen to the concerns of the organization’s members and simply indicate whether or not they will support the proposals that its leaders have put together. The citizens’ organizations do not endorse particular candidates or entangle themselves with political parties, but their membership is made aware of their friends and enemies. The votes and other resources of those represented by the citizens’ organization are then mobilized accordingly.

The “broad-based organizing” of these citizens’ organizations distinguishes itself from “movement” organizing, which tends to focus on a singular set of goals and folds up shop when those aims are won or lost. And it is different from “community organizing” in that it seeks to draw members from across the divides separating local communities into large networks—organizations of organizations. At its most visionary, broad-based organizing aims at building wider and wider networks capable of holding not only local but national, even international, elites accountable. These citizens’ organizations are in it for the long haul, and they imagine democratic politics eventually taking shape as a set of concentric circles in which individual citizens are linked by ever widening ties of accountability to representatives who must earn and re-earn the legitimate authority these citizens confer.

The bulk of Stout’s book is devoted to a full, often moving, account of these organizing practices at work—not only successfully but unsuccessfully. To abstract from the full particulars of these stories as I have necessarily and regretfully had to do here for summary purposes is to strip them of the flesh and blood that lends them their power. As Stout says, “when despair is the disease one hopes to remedy, anecdotes can be antidotes.” Incisive as his theoretical abstractions from these stories are, Stout’s greater gift to democrats may lie in bringing to light the struggles, and especially the victories, of the largely obscure men and women who populate his narrative. His readers, like the residents of the south Texas colonias, will long remember Carmen Anaya.

The difficulties that confront the democratizing project that Cortés and his colleagues have undertaken are daunting. Constraints on elite domination seem to weaken daily. It is hard for democrats not to lose heart in the face of events such as the recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which opened the door to unrestricted corporate spending in elections. Wall Street bankers created a deep economic crisis and appalling unemployment, but it is not they but unionized public employees who are held accountable for bankrupt state governments and relieved of their modest power by politicians beholden to wealthy donors who bankroll their election campaigns. Meanwhile, the language of grassroots democracy has been rhetorically appropriated by figures like President Barack Obama whose policies have done little to foster its concrete development and much to deter it. “Barack Obama,” Stout sharply remarks, “is the spirit of the fog.”

IAF organizers also confront challenges of their own making. They pursue a strategy that rests on the face-to-face institutions of a civil society that is eroding, supplanted by the thin bonds of virtual social networking. Theirs is not an approach likely to be fruitful with proto-cyborgs fixated on the screens of their iPhones. When their organizing enjoys success, they have to be constantly on guard against the development of oligarchies of domination within their own institutions (“All grass, no roots,” as Stout keenly puts it). And they have yet to prove that their networks can be “scaled up” to meet the challenge of rendering elites accountable beyond the local or regional level.

Stout is alert to all these difficulties. As he says, “if ordinary citizens are going to compensate for the emergence of new classes of masters, these things will be accomplished in the teeth of what will often appear to be insurmountable opposition.” His conclusions are modest:

All that can be said on the basis of available evidence is that there are promising signs of democratic life all around us.... Whether such developments can be extended further without either losing power or being corrupted by oligarchy remains to be seen.

Blessed Are the Organized is then a work of hope, not optimism. “Hope,” as Stout says,

is not the same thing as thinking that what one ardently desires is likely to happen. It is the virtue one needs when grim facts might tempt one to give up on promoting or protecting important goods.

One can only wish for this heartening book a large, wide, and diverse audience. Few will welcome it more than those democrats who, as Stout once did, find themselves stammering for some answers in the face of the skepticism and despair over democracy’s future that grip our faded republic.


Related: The Contested Sacred, an excerpt from Blessed Are the Organized.

Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: 

Robert Westbrook teaches modern American history at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth.

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