Bringing Democracy Back to Life

In Blessed Are the Organized, Princeton University's Jeffrey Stout argues that democracy is imperiled: "The imbalance of power between ordinary citizens and the new ruling class has ... reached crisis proportions." He means crisis in the medical sense—the moment when the patient will either get better or die.

Stout's prescription? "[M]any more institutions and communities [must] commit themselves to getting democratically organized." We need to do a lot more old-fashioned, face-to-face organizing. More broadly, we need to engage the basic practices of democratic citizenship -- voting, but also listening to one another as we describe our struggles and our deepest concerns; peacefully assembling; and petitioning for redress of grievances.

Stout offers portraits of effective grassroots organizing in places as diverse as post-Katrina New Orleans and Marin County, California. Stout finds a marvelous example of the democratic practice of assembly among Katrina survivors gathered in the Houston Astrodome. The scene there was "surreal." The PA system was dominated by celebrities such as T.D. Jakes, with his apolitical message about God's provision. Organizers realized that they needed to get microphones into someone else's hands. Eventually, a less famous pastor took a microphone and preached a different kind of sermon: "I believe God expects us to do our part of the work too ... So if you've been a leader in New Orleans ... come forward and have a conversation ... about what's happening, and about doing something." In that moment, the PA system was transformed into a means of genuinely public address. Here, Stout argues, "we see ... a motley collection of displaced citizens reconstructing the rudiments of a democratic culture on the fly."

Although his focus is on the "grassroots," Stout does not make the error, all too common in well-meaning leftish academic volumes, of minimizing the importance of leadership. He notes that effective organizers cultivate leaders. Although he quotes Ernesto Cortes as saying "The trouble with charismatic leaders is that they die" (an ironic observation coming from Cortes, who certainly qualifies as a charismatic leader), and cautions that political movements ought not become overly dependent on such leaders, Stout argues that "There is a role for charismatic orators to play in reviving democratic culture." Charismatic leaders ought not tell people what to think; rather it is their task to speak "on behalf of people who have done the hard work of face-to-face organizing."

Near the end of the book, Stout turns his attention to Barack Obama. Stout recalls a conversation Franklin Roosevelt had with labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph. FDR told Randolph "to go out and make him do what was necessary to bring racial segregation to an end." During the 2008 campaign, Stout says, Obama "reportedly" told the story of FDR and Randolph’s conversation to a group of donors.

Obama's seizing of FDR’s words gets to the heart of Blessed are the Organized. If Obama has broken our hearts, those of us who worked hard for his election and then failed to keep up the organizing once he was in office must in part blame ourselves. Obama could be forced to do more if only we -- we the citizens -- would pressure him into doing it. Alas, "on the principal questions facing his presidency," argues Stout, "Obama has no one to whom he can say, 'Make me do it,' and expect that enough organized pressure will be brought to bear on the base of his spine to permit him to resist the demands of organized corporate power."

That bracing observation raises the question of what prevents many of us from devoting more time and energy to the hard and time-consuming task of organizing. Are we simply too tired, after long days spent in the service of corporations? Is the problem that, because of the requirements of modern economic life, we move so frequently -- and thus lack the sense of investment in our communities that organizing both requires and fosters? One wishes Stout had devoted more space to an adequately sober assessment of the barriers to organizing. Regardless, Blessed Are the Organized should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of democracy in the United States, and anyone who cares about the making of politics.

Lauren F. Winner is assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath.

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"Bringing Democracy Back to Life"
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