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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. Ive got to be honest, I feel like Ive lost touch with what the identity of America is right now. I really do.I doubt theres a more profound insight into the nature of the political challenge Republicans and conservatives face in the wake of yesterdays election than Ms. Dohertys: I feel like Ive 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 theres 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 didnt really know how to do it. I didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 interestsdespite their divisions by race, class, creed, geography, national origin, legal status, sexual orientation or political philosophy.Over the past 40 years, thats 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.

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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Fergus Cullen: "The Republican electoral strategy can't depend on getting 120 percent of middle-aged white men."

Bill Maher talks about the "bubble" within which many republicans live. In the "bubble" science doesn't count, 2+2 may not equal 4, voter I.D.s are to combat voter fraud, deficit spending only contributes to the debt when engaged in by democrats, there is such a thing as "illigitimate rape", tax cuts produce more revenue and on and on. Change will require the republicans to step out side the bubble.

I was thrilled (not quite the same as a thrill up my leg that Chris Matthews experienced) when I heard President Obama reminisce about his days as a community organizer to his campaign workers in Chicago. He seems to have fond memories of his relationship with the Catholic Church at that time. bad some of our bishops, clergy and laity have been so rotten mean. I could go on and rant about how involve with the Republican Party our US. Church leadership is and how influential the KofC money under the leadership of their Supreme Knight has been in undermining our president, but I would rather indulge in my happy thoughts and not erase have the smile on my face be erased.

When it wasn't calling Obama a Muslim, the extreme right has been doing its best to paint Obama as a godless secular. Here's an interesting article from CNN Religion about the President's maturing faith. A big irony here is that the preachers he consults with most are evangelicals :-)

Over at First Things Peter Leithart in "The Right after Reaganism" sees the election as the end of Reaganism and tells the Republcans they must face the fact that they must give up some of Reagan's principles == because they were wrong.

Luke, there can't be a great deal wrong with a party that won almost half the votes.Elections are for averting civil wars. All the important stuff happens in between.

Quite right, David S., Republicans are on the verge of a New Enduring Majority (NEM). Got the wind at their backs. Can't miss. Mustn't change a thing. Onward and upward! Wave of the future!"Honest, officer, I thought they had legalized it."

Thanks, all, for your comments. If you haven't already, I recommend reading the article Ann Olivier linked to above (11/9, 11:14 pm). @David Smith (11/10, 12:00 am) You may be right! On the other hand, the failure to win the presidency, the loss of seats in the Senate when Democrats had 23 seats to defend (v. 10 for Republicans), and the loss of a few seats as well as the overall popular vote in the House, all when unemployment has been around or above 8% for nearly four years is hardly a vote of confidence in the Republican party.I agree with your notion that (to put it in somewhat different terms) war is what happens when politics fails. That said, elections---and the acceptance of the results by the losers---are, I would suggest, important in and of themselves...if only for the reaffirmation that we are not about to go to war against each other.Part of the intra-party discussion for Republicans will be around your thesis that "there cant be a great deal wrong with a party that won almost half the votes". The question is, is it a "rising" or a "setting" sun? In other words, does winning 48% of the popular vote this year signify that the Republican Party is gaining in strength, numbers and power? Or does it signify that the party is looking ahead to a future in which it continues to slowly weaken as a political force?

I think we're undergoing major changes. New Orleans voted 80 percent for Obama. It's something like 63 percent black, but still that's a lot of "conservative" white folks votes. There were 7 Louisiana parishes (counties) that went for Obama, including Shreveport in the upper northern part of the state. It's in oil country and extremely conservative -- or used to be. True, Texas didn't move to the left, but lots of other Southern states did. (Texas never was exactly a Southern state to start with.) Yes, there are Latinos in the other states, but not like Florida and Texas or the Western states. And even in Florida a chunk of the Cuban Republicans went for Obama. As Nate says, watch for the trends. If the Dems. have any sense they'll start pressing hard now for a Democratic House in 2014.

At first I resented that you let "them' in on the secret of one-on-ones. But I relaxed when I thought how can 'they' never can have a one on one in a limo to the Hamptons or Scarsdale/Greenwich. Bishops might want to visit more coffee shops for one-on-ones and get rid of the designated driver too.But I still can't get over why places like West Virginia would go 66% for Romney .. what ever happened to the so called class warfare there? A coal mine owner there fired a few hundred miners because Obama won. Are there limos in West Virginia?

Thanks for explaining this background information regarding Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer in Chicago, Luke Hill. This is fascinating information.

"Thats 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 thats because Democrats needed it more."Another term for "relational culture" is social capital. I agree that the communities served by orgs that receive CCHD grants are in greater need of social capital, and of course not only for political reasons, although fair and effective political representation was, and still is, a need for those communities.When the Republicans were riding high for three decades starting in 1980, conservative activists' ability to create and then leverage social capital surely was one of the practical reasons for it. Luke, your thesis that Democats may have closed the "political social capital gap" is very interesting and deserving of a deeper dive.

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