Conventional wisdom has it that Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) style face-to-face organizing is outdated and outmoded – a kind of political blast from the past. The primary technologies invented by Saul Alinsky are now seen by many as quaint outcroppings of a now bygone era. Today’s Alinskyites, according to this view, are building political ghost towns in desert wastelands far from the wellsprings of real power. Short on scale, short on national reach, short on grand plans. This is the critique delivered by a raft of politicians (including President Obama himself), academics, union leaders and political consultants.
New modes of web based communication - faster, easier to scale, simpler to launch and subject to manipulation by a handful of super techies and their backers – are touted as a superior use of time, talent and money if change is the objective and utilitarian metrics the obsession. Grand scale initiatives appealing to mega donors driven by the promise of big, fast change dwarf the slow, patient work of face-to-face organizing.
Modern political campaigns including the spectacular flare up of the first Obama campaign exemplify the high dollar, high tech approach to messaging, vote gathering and measured impact. The fact that David Plouffe and company pursued the systemic integration of low tech “house meetings” to augment both the air and ground games of the first Obama campaign reflects the extent to which the imperial vision of candidate promotion digested face to face Alinskyite modalities for its own ends. The house meetings served an important purpose of offering the appearance of attention and consultation to a voting population hungry for the touchstone of real engagement. They also blipped upwards the high tech communications database and added bodies to the walks and talks of the ground game.
More sales event than real conversation the Plouffe/Obama approach betrayed the core value of the house meeting. The campaign ended up compromising and trivializing the house meeting methodology even while succeeding at advancing an instrumental outcome – the election of Barack Obama. From the point of view of political instrumentality these events were a grand success. From the point of view of deepened democratic practice they were short term, shallow, deceptive and ultimately disheartening for legions of participants.
Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
Frank Pierson retired after forty years of work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a professional organizer. He began his career in 1971 in Chicago, moved to Queens, New York City and migrated west to work in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. He resides with his wife, Mary Ellen Kazda, in Oracle, Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org