Unless you are an activist yourself, your personal contact with the world of citizen politics probably occurs when your doorbell rings. A canvasser, usually a young person with a clipboard and leaflets, tries to engage you in a discussion of a contemporary problem, perhaps toxic waste dumps, pesticides in the food chain, or rising utility rates. If you sign a petition or contribute a few dollars, you'll receive more material. Engage in a longer conversation and you may be recruited for active membership.
You're also likely to encounter citizen organizing by mail or telephone. There, too, you're asked for a financial contribution to help stop wars, prevent nuclear holocaust, slow ozone depletion, or protect abortion rights, free speech, gene pools, or animals. Occasionally, you may see rallies or demonstrations sponsored by these groups on television, but you will probably remain unaware of who or what is behind "Citizens for..." or "Citizens against...".
Citizen organizing, by neighborhood and by issue, is now entering its fourth decade and becoming a well-established feature of the American political landscape. Some activists and theorists see it as a big departure from conventional politics. They credit citizen organizations with reviving grassroots democracy, empowering previously marginalized groups, introducing issues to the public agenda excluded by more powerful interests, transforming passive citizens into active ones, inspiring a new populist revolt, restoring a progressive political coalition, and addressing social problems government has failed to solve.
Citizen organizations have undoubtedly increased participation, particularly at the local level. Yet any close observer of citizen organizations discerns a paradox. Their growth has occurred at a time when, by most measures, civic and political participation has deteriorated. Voting turnout rates have declined steadily even as these organizations have grown. Partisan affiliation has dwindled, as money has become the most important form of participation. Citizens consume political information mostly through one-way channels. The general public distrusts political institutions in general and politicians in particular. And while serving as a new medium of public activism, citizen organizations face some important constraints on their political role, in part because of requirements for successful fund-raising and for retaining tax-exempt status. As a result of both the larger political context and the limitation of community organizing itself, this movement has not done as much to empower the poor, revive democratic citizenship, or create new political majorities as its adherents have hoped. How to understand and remedy those limitations is the subject of a continuing debate.
Though there is no precise definition of a citizen organization, even a narrow conception would disclose phenomenal growth in the last two decades. An estimated two million such groups operate in the United States, engaging perhaps 15 million people. Organizations range from community-based groups trying to keep crack cocaine out of their neighborhoods to national networks such as Citizen Action and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which each operate in more than 20 states.
Neighborhood-based groups can claim a lineage that extends back to nineteenth-century ethnic, immigrant, and neighborhood associations. At least three more recent historical antecedents are evident. Numerous organizations grew out of the consumer, environmental, civil rights, welfare rights, antiwar, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Among them are such well-known national groups as the National Organization for Women (NOW), Common Cause, Friends of the Earth, or the Nader-inspired Public Interest Research Groups. Other groups, such as Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO), in Los Angeles, or Oakland Citizens Organization (OCO) in Oakland, have their roots in earlier organizing efforts exemplified by Saul Alinsky's work in the 1930s and 1940s in Chicago. Some of these groups are affiliated with Alinsky's training school, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Still other community-based organizations, often helping to deliver local social services, can trace their origins to the Community Action Programs of the War on Poverty.
Though ideologically varied, most community and citizen organizing can be loosely described as liberal or "social-change oriented." The groups have diverse and even contradictory goals, from promoting a more egalitarian politics to creating voluntarist alternatives to government. Some organizers who originally worked only with the poor have concluded that structural sources of poverty are not eradicable through local organizing. As a result, they have moved away from purely local antipoverty organizing and targeted more middle-class and national constituencies, even as their ideology and rhetoric continue to celebrate local democratic participation.
Many writers on community organization seem torn between their faith in the virtue of "the people" and their acknowledgement of the barriers that prevent citizen activism from adding up to the broad social transformation they seek. For example, Harry Boyte, in his several books, locates citizen politics in the Tocquevillian tradition of voluntary association-yet also as a populist challenge to corporate and bureaucratic power. Boyte's tone and emphasis have gradually shifted. His Backyard Revolution (1980) emphasized the anti-corporate aspect, while his latest book, Commonwealth (1989), stresses the inherent value of creating local democratic "spaces" in which democratic principles can operate. These spaces can include the neighborhood, workplace, schools, or local political organizations. Boyte still insists, however, that restructuring from the bottom-up carries a system-transforming punch.
Further left, political scientist Carl Boggs finds U.S. citizen movements disappointingly conservative. He compares them to an international wave of post-Marxian social protest, which includes feminism, pacifism, and especially the Greens. Where Boyte celebrates local organizing, Boggs argues that the political potential of American populism is limited by its localism and its participation in the political mainstream.
One fairly militant group that has moved beyond localism, while retaining an identification with the poor, is ACORN. In Organizing the Movement, sociologist and former ACORN organizer Gary Delgado writes that while community-based organizations do not "sufficiently address larger social justice concerns," they still "demystify the economic system ... help people get a sense of the way the world works, open a path for them to think about how it could be, and provide them with an opportunity to change at least a small part of it." Yet, like other authors who are movement veterans, Delgado is candid about the practical difficulties of sustaining low-income organizing: the racial and class tensions, the predominance of professional organizers who are white and male, the difficulty of cultivating indigenous leadership, and the fragility of members' organizational loyalty. Constituencies that by any objective indicator are poor can divide over something as basic as an income support policy Poor people who work may not identify with poor people who are dependent. Individual mobility rather than class uplift remains a potent American ideal.
As this literature suggests, egalitarian process-"letting the people decide"-does not always produce egalitarian outcomes. Local participatory democracy can challenge bank redlining-or sponsor a tax revolt. It can attack corporate pollution and disinvestment -- or the busing of schoolchildren. It can politicize a hidden issue -- or depoliticize it by turning it into a therapeutic self-help enterprise. Boyte, whose vision is civic and communitarian, views the oft-repeated fear of "excessive localism" as simply the left's ambivalence about democratic process. But for others concerned mainly with empowerment or economic uplift of the poor, the creation of local, democratic institutions, though laudable, is seldom a sufficient response to the inequities and economic dislocations caused by markets. The sheer scale of economic problems often dwarfs the transformational possibilities of local institutions envisioned by Boyte.
More conservative theorists of community, such as Robert Nisbet, Michael Novak, Robert Woodson, Peter Berger, and Richard John Neuhaus, view local citizen efforts as squarely within the context of traditional American pluralism. These writers see a cluster of community institutions that have deteriorated, including family, neighborhood organizations, churches, and other voluntary associations. Neuhaus and Berger argue, "We are convinced that mediating structures might be the agencies for a new empowerment of people in America's renewed experiment in democratic pluralism."
Andy Mott, vice president of the liberal Center for Community Change, has written that for progressives, community organizations "provide a vehicle for mobilizing people to fight for their rights and become empowered and politicized," while for conservatives, "they provide a practical alternative to government agencies: they build self-reliance and self-help rather than dependence and bureaucracy" In The Vermont Papers, libertarian John McClaughry, formerly of the Reagan White House and now a Vermont legislator, and political scientist Frank Bryan see a residual "civic" and "humanist" culture transcending left versus right, promoting a return of decision-making authority to the community level. The conservative Heritage Foundation proposes a new emphasis in domestic policy, which also uses the language of empowerment.
Despite similar rhetoric, however, left and right divide over the appropriate role of the state. Boyte argues, "Citizens can use government to train, empower, organize, and teach, so that people are employed, day care centers are created, parents involved, communities organized, people encouraged and allowed to solve problems for themselves with the assistance of responsive public agencies." Where conservatives tend to see community groups as substitutes for government, liberals and radicals see them working in symbiosis with government to restore the imbalance of political and hence economic resources.
Invoke the name of Tocqueville, or the language of self-help, and citizen efforts are seen as quintessentially American. Political scientists point to membership in voluntary associations as one of the main stabilizing forces in the American political system. Invoke the name of Saul Alinsky, however, and extend the same principles to poor people trying to change social services or private investment patterns, and the patriotic aura tends to disappear.
No one has yet done for the history of organizing what Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters and Harry Hampton's Eyes on the Prize have done for the civil rights movement. We are aided, however, by Sanford Horwitt's fine recent biography of Saul Alinsky, widely regarded as the father of modern community organizing; Horwitt succeeds in restoring much of the Alinksy lore to its original context.
Horwitt frames the central question of community organizing: Can people acting together at the local level become powerful enough to redress social and economic grievances, or do larger forces doom these efforts to failure? Alinsky devoted himself to finding an answer, and his life embodies most of the key conflicts and issues involved in creating "people's organizations."
Alinsky viewed much of the trade unionism of the 1930s as conservative because it organized those who already had jobs. He shifted his focus in the late 1930s to communities of the unemployed and low-skilled. What made him controversial wasn't so much this shift from workplace to community but his views on power and his advocacy of particular organizing tactics. Ahnsky believed the poor were not just poor in resources, such as money, jobs, or social services. Rather, they lacked the power to affect the distribution of these resources. Liberals, he argued, believed that justice could be brought about through the use of reason or logical persuasion. Radicals, by implication himself, understood that only power made interests give way and that the tactics needed to dislodge power were often offensive to those who exercised it. Redressing grievances and creating power required the involvement of the poor themselves. No one, and especially not the social workers from the settlement houses, was entitled to speak for the poor.
While the prevalent "progressive" belief in the 1930s was that poor communities were socially disorganized, Alinsky discovered numerous organizations in even the poorest of neighborhoods, such as Chicago's Back-of-the-Yards. His method was slowly and patiently to knit together union locals, churches, service clubs, and other local institutions. The critical step toward building effective community power was developing the psychological power of individuals through the discovery of common interests that could be turned into strategic political action. What the poor lacked in resources, they made up for in numbers. Whether an organizing goal was a traffic light or a neighborhood health clinic, a victory strengthened the sense of both individual and group potency and the importance of organization. These concepts, now loosely referred to as "empowerment strategies," have had immense influence on contemporary thought about community organizing. Lately, however, the concept of empowerment has become extracted from its original context. In many groups, it has come to mean psychological fulfillment rather than political clout.
Alinsky's vision of a national umbrella organization that would reinforce and connect local efforts was never achieved, in part because his approach was unacceptable to mainstream funding concerns. He did succeed in raising church-based money (described by one admirer as "Sherman's march through the churches"), but even sympathetic funders were able to influence the location of some projects. Horwitt is one of the first writers to chronicle the complex relationship between organizers and financial backers.
Alinsky's conclusions after some forty years of organizing are less well known than are tales of his famous direct action tactics. Not long before he died, Alinsky concluded that poor people, or poor people and minorities together, do not constitute a majority capable of translating their concerns into significant change. In 1971 he wrote that organizing in the decade ahead would center on America's white middle class because of its power. Only belatedly, he said, are we beginning to understand "that even if all the low-income parts of our population were organized -- all the blacks, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian poor whites -- if through some genius of organization, they were all united in a coalition, it would not be powerful enough to get significant, basic, needed changes." Horwitt also documents that although it is gospel among organizers that Alinsky was opposed to electoral politics, it is not true.
The reconstruction of organizing experiences during the 1960s is a more difficult task. Our sources are largely scattered in memoirs and biographies of activists or accounts of organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In the mid-sixties many SDS leaders moved from campuses to cities such as Chicago, Newark, Cleveland, and Hoboken to build "community unions" sponsored by the Education and Research Project (ERAP) of SDS. Community unions joining blacks and whites were supposed to raise issues of economic injustice and overcome racism with class alliance. ERAP projects were animated by notions of participatory democracy that were profoundly hostile to organization, hierarchy, and even leadership. A SNCC adviser to ERAP declared that the role of an organizer was "by his simple presence [to be a] mystical medium for the spontaneous expression of the people." By the late 1960s, however, most ERAP projects were judged failures by their own organizers, who were disappointed that they had largely degenerated into "stop-sign organizing." Although mobilizing community residents produced modest victories over the local traffic department, these victories had little or no impact on the larger structural issues of poverty. Like some of Alinsky's community efforts that didn't survive white flight to the suburbs, community unions foundered on the shoals of racial tension. Urban riots during the summer of 1967 effectively ended many of the projects.
The entry of government into this arena, through the OEO's Community Action Program, created new resources -- and new confusion. Alinsky warned that the principle of poor people's participation was being perverted through patronage and money; untrained personnel were getting their "snouts into the trough." Similarly, ERAP organizers saw CAP agencies as "coopting" poor people. At the same time, city officials were viewing them as a serious threat and moved to eviscerate their independence. Federal sponsorship of organizing in the 1960s, however, did stimulate considerable activism in urban areas --thousands of people gained experience in the political process for the first time -- and trained thousands of new community organizers, especially among blacks and Hispanics.
The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) founded in 1967, drew heavily on civil rights, SDS, and antipoverty activists. George Wiley, NWRO's leader and former director of the Syracuse chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), mobilized the latent power of poor people to disrupt the system through sit-ins at welfare offices and other protest tactics, often demanding benefits that recipients were not receiving even though they were legally entitled to them. This "break the bank" strategy was intended to generate pressure from the bottom up to restructure national welfare programs. For the movement's theoreticians, Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, these tactics were a kind of poor people's analogue to labor's capacity to strike. Yet, shortly before his accidental death in 1973, Wiley had reached conclusions similar to Alinsky. Recognizing that welfare rights could amount only to "a minority strategy," Wiley wrote, "Only a broad-based movement aimed at the economic interests of a majority of Americans will ever succeed in bringing about the changes we desire."
The National Welfare Rights Organization, like many other organizations of the 1960s, no longer exists. But these experiences have influenced successor groups, albeit in different ways. Local affiliates of Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation have remained primarily focused on local community organizing, continuing to rely where possible on institutional bases such as churches and labor unions. Each of their 23 community projects operates a little bit differently One project of long duration, COPS of San Antonio, Texas, seems to substantiate the claims of organizing advocates. Its strengths include financial independence, an emphasis on citizenship education and democratic process, the sustained creation of indigenous leadership (mostly Mexican-American), a concomitant lack of reliance on organizing staff, and the steady development of clout in San Antonio politics, whose governing structure was previously dominated by Anglos. Yet COPS' secret seems to be a common ethnic identity and a willingness --uncharacteristic of most community organizations -- to plunge into local electoral politics.
ACORN, founded in Arkansas to focus on welfare issues, has expanded into 27 states. Its base has been enlarged to include a wider range of working and lower middle-class constituents, such as farmers, low-skilled laborers, and residents of poor neighborhoods. ACORN has retained an emphasis on both economic issues and direct action tactics, such as squatting campaigns in abandoned houses to dramatize the need for affordable housing policies, as well as lobbying.
Citizen Action has become a federation of 20 or so state-wide organizations, such as Illinois Public Action Council (IPAC), Ohio Public Interest Campaign (OPIC), or Virginia Action. Like IAF, it has its own training institute, the Midwest Academy. State organizations vary widely but generally operate as coalitions of labor, environmental, civil rights, women's, and senior citizens' groups. Some, like Massachusetts Fair Share (now Massachusetts Citizen Action), organize their members through neighborhood chapters. They all rely heavily on door-to-door fund-raising, known as canvassing. (Canvassers are essentially contract employees who are paid for their door-to-door work, and generally have to meet pre-set quotas).
Founding Citizen Action leaders Heather Booth and Steve Max, both veterans of sixties organizing, have tried to coalesce constituencies that are often at loggerheads (such as labor and environmentalists) and to develop issues aimed at gaining majority support, such as toxic hazards or utility rates. They have chosen environmental issues that organized labor can support, such as disclosure of toxic workplace substances. In the early 1980s, Citizen Action leaders reconsidered their position on electoral participation. Since then, state affiliates have had former members elected to city councils and state legislatures and have tied issue campaigns much closer to election cycles.
These groups -- IAF, ACORN, and Citizen Action -- remain committed to the idea of empowerment of low-income people and economic redistribution. Lately, however, much organizing activity has been shifting to nationwide, single-issue, and often middle-class constituencies around such issues as abortion rights, environmentalism, peace, or the rights of and claims of seniors, women, blacks, native Americans, and the disabled. Yet, for multiple reasons, this broadening does not add up to a coherent electoral alliance, or a viable successor to the New Deal coalition. For one thing, most organizers involved with poor people remain skeptical of electoral politics for fear of cooptation and manipulation by politicians. Mike Miller, head of the San Francisco Organizing Project, an IAF affiliate, cautions that even powerful organizations need to be "wary of becoming the tail on a candidate's kite." To encourage political participation, without adequate organizational power, Miller argues, is "the stuff of cruel illusion." Likewise, ACORN's founding director Wade Rathke has warned that in coalitions of poor and middle-class people, the latter will tend to dominate the former.
In addition to these philosophical beliefs, many veteran activists have bitter memories of the role that party and government played during the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists of the 1960s faced not only hostile local power holders, but a Congress dominated by white Southern Democrats who exercised disproportionate power through the seniority system. The event that long remained a symbol of the treachery of entrenched power was the refusal of party delegates, including liberals with a good civil rights records, to seat the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
For very different reasons, the founders of consumer and public interest groups, such as Common Cause and the Nader network, also argued that partisan disinterestedness was the key to their legitimacy: "The strength of the public interest constituency depends on not maneuvering for its own electoral power. Its credibility results from battling for issues and for change without any hidden [partisan] agendas," writes former Common Cause president David Cohen in Citizen Participation.
In a curious convergence, the "good government" strain of middle-class organizing combines with the class analysis of radical lower-income community organizing to form a pervasive antipathy toward elections and political parties. So while there has been tremendous growth among citizens' organizations, the mistrust of electoral politics persists. Combined with funding imperatives, notably a reliance on tax-exempt financing, these features greatly limit the political potential of citizen organizing.
Organizing and Funding
Citizen organizing cannot be understood without assessing the effects of fund-raising on both the strategies of individual groups and the potency of their cumulative effort. Ever since Alinsky, citizen organizations have had to raise serious money to hire professional organizers. In the United States, of course, money is far easier to raise if donations are tax-deductible. But to receive tax-exempt funds, organizations must meet educational and charitable objectives established by the Internal Revenue Service. Thus, organizations formed for the purpose of tackling politically-charged social or economic objectives apply for the tax-exempt status known as "501(C)(3)," often as their first organizational act. In return, they have to promise not to engage in any partisan politics and, with some exceptions, not to engage in any lobbying.
Organizations must worry constantly about violating their tax-exempt status and thereby putting themselves and their funders in jeopardy. Since most reform efforts are aimed directly at political change, to pledge nonpartisanship at the start is tantamount to tying at least one arm, if not two, behind one's back.
Some organizations have opted for another IRS status, 501(c)(4), which permits greater latitude in lobbying, including communication on issues and candidates with the organization's membership base. Nonetheless, these organizations must maintain, at least in rhetoric, a fuzzy line between nonpartisan and partisan activities. The larger and more sophisticated groups frequently establish parallel organizations to receive different kinds of monies and carry on different kinds of activity. But since the leaders often are on boards of both, they must behave in ways that allow their nonpartisan stance to remain credible.
One alternative to raising tax-free money is soliciting membership dues or small-donor support though such methods as door-to-door canvassing or telephone banks. Direct mail appeals may solve the problem of financial dependency on tax-exempt foundations, but they may bring other imperatives to the organization. Lists must target the right segment of prospective donors, and the appeal generally needs to be as sharply ideological and urgent as possible. Like a thirty-second TV spot, successful direct mail tends to rely on attention-getting "hot-button" issues. Though the canvass allows for more personal contact with the citizens, organizations face constant pressure to develop issues that will yield good fund-raising results at the door.
A major consequence of the necessity to compete for an always scarce dollar is that a "market niche" mentality has come to dominate many organizations and funders alike. To succeed in raising money, the leaders of each organization are forced to argue that their constituency, geographical domain, issue, or approach to the issue warrants support because it differs from all other competing groups.
For any issue area, picture a giant matrix, an expanded frame of tic-tac-toe. In each frame, cross the issue with a constituency or an approach and fill in the blank. For instance, in the health arena, organizations may combine gender and geography, as does the National Women's Health Network, whose letterhead heralds the organization as "the only national public-interest organization devoted solely to women and health." Combine gender, race, and geography, and fill in the Black Women's Health Network, based in Atlanta. Space doesn't permit the completion of the grid, but it can be constructed for any issue or constituency. This depiction of the landscape is not to disparage any organization's special identity; it is to say that issue and constituency organizing, as distinct from community organizing, has resulted in a systemic gridlock. This is only compounded when so many diverse reform objectives must be squeezed through a non-partisan, tax-exempt framework.
This need to define a niche to survive financially means that the world of citizen organizations has come to mirror the dominant tendency in America's political culture of fragmentation and specialization. Modern techniques of funding (direct mail, telephone solicitation, some canvasses) have an effect on the electorate similar to television by substituting a largely one-way communication with citizens for two-way communication. One-way communication leaves individuals and organizations free from the task of reconciling competing or clashing interests. Demands in one policy sphere do not have to be weighed against others, nor is there a need to take into account the fiscal implications of policy choices.
There are few incentives, short of additional money, for organizations to coalesce with each other or with other constituencies, to work together on issues other than their own, or to develop a broader (common) vision. And, even though many organizers believe the lessons from the past dictate a move away from single issue or constituency politics toward more majoritarian strategies that could be made manifest electorally, they remain frustrated in their attempts to encourage such a development. If what Theodore Lowi once called "interest-group liberalism" blocks the aggregation of majorities, so does interest-group radicalism.
Nowhere does the line between nonpartisan citizen organizing and partisan politics become more complex than in efforts to register and mobilize voters. Voter registration provides a unique window on the relationship between nonpartisan and partisan organizing, though there are no studies that examine the relationship in depth or assess the influence of funding imperatives. Such an examination would reveal the forces that have driven minority and low-income voter registration and other political empowerment efforts largely into nonpartisan organizations.
On the surface, the Democratic Party might be expected to be the major beneficiary of registration efforts among low-income and minority populations. The party, however, has consistently failed to undertake serious voter registration among those constituencies, even though candidates and parties should be better able to mobilize voter turnout than organizations that foreswear partisan association. Voter registration, of course, is not an innocuous civic activity; it has the potential to shake up the status quo. Incumbents are seldom eager to see large numbers of new voters, with uncertain sympathies, added to the election rolls.
Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Kennedy Justice Department, constrained by the administration's ties to Southern officials, enlisted several liberal foundations to conduct voter registration campaigns. This intervention created serious splits within SNCC over whether direct action organizing or voter registration was the appropriate strategy. The first nonpartisan registration organization, the Voter Education Project (VEP), was established in Atlanta in 1963 and was headed by civil rights leader John Lewis, now Congressman from Atlanta, who left SNCC as a result of those debates. It is emblematic of the ideological confusion over the act of voting that it is regarded as both radical and conservative. In the early 1960s, voter registration was regarded by SNCC as an establishment strategy to coopt the movement; it simultaneously was sufficiently threatening to white Southerners that organizers were murdered for the act of registering blacks.
The Voting Rights Act may have created the framework for the enfranchisement of previously excluded minorities, but for the most part neither government agencies nor political parties were in any hurry to translate these rights into voting strength. That activity was pretty much left to civil rights organizations and liberal philanthropists. In the late 1960s minority voter registration activities in San Antonio, Texas and Cleveland, Ohio threatened incumbent office holders, who retaliated with Congressional hearings. Their wrath was directed primarily at private foundations, especially the Ford Foundation, which had made grants to the Southwest Council of La Raza in San Antonio to increase Mexican-American participation, and to CORE in Cleveland to increase black participation. In the case of San Antonio, the threatened incumbent was himself a Mexican American.
Subsequently, the House of Representatives tried to outlaw all nonpartisan organizations from conducting voter registration with tax-exempt money from private foundations. In a 1969 compromise, the tax code was amended to require organizations doing voter registration with private foundation money to obtain a special status called 4945 (f). Organizations must work in five or more states, conduct registration across more than one election period, and not receive more than 25 percent of their money from any one source. This was intended to prevent individual campaigns from establishing tax-exempt fronts. While underrepresented constituencies, such as minorities and poor people, may still be targeted for registration, grants from private foundations may not be earmarked for a particular geographical area, and there can be no coordination with any campaign. It took the IRS nearly a decade to grant this designation to the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP), an organization that grew out of the disputed La Raza-related organizing projects of 1969. Like VEP, SVREP was devoted to empowering Mexican-American voters through both voter registration and educational efforts. The Congressional hearings effectively chilled foundation enthusiasm for funding voter registration, and for a decade there was relatively little money for voter registration activities.
In the early 1980s, the first organization to target low-income constituencies for voter registration, Project Vote, was established with financial backing from organized labor. In an atmosphere of general concern over declining voter turnout and Reagan-era budget cuts, other newly created organizations applied for the special 4945 (f) IRS status, including HumanSERVE and the Midwest Voter Registration and Education Project. Older organizing networks, such as Citizen Action, added voter registration to their existing activities. And various philanthropists and foundations began efforts to increase the amount of funding available for low-income and minority voter registration.
For a moment in late 1983, it appeared that the Democratic Party was also going to launch a massive voter registration campaign. However, shortly after the party announced plans for such a campaign, Jesse Jackson entered the primaries. Many campaign contributors who might have been tapped for voter registration efforts were supporting former Vice President Walter Mondale and declined to give funds to the party for fear they would end up increasing the Jackson vote. Liberal donors did raise some funds for partisan registration during the general election of 1984. With Jackson even more prominent in the 1988 primaries, the same obstacles appeared.
In the period between 1983 and 1989, there was a substantial increase in citizen groups conducting voter registration. In some instances, experimentation led to closer ties between particular candidates and registering organizations. Citizen Action is an example of both the advantages and constraints of 501(c)(4) organizing. When Citizen Action's leaders decided to add voter registration to their other organizing activities, they attracted the attention of progressive politicians. From a politician's point of view, the advantage of Citizen Action is that its canvassers constitute a ready-made "volunteer" army. Citizen Action affiliates define as members any householder who contributes money or signs a petition. Under the IRS guidelines for "c-4" organizations, communication with members about candidates' stands on issues is permissible. Hence, once the monetary transaction is complete, the canvassers can give political literature to the householder. The Republican National Committee has filed an FEC complaint against Citizen Action and its affiliates, charging them with violating their nonpartisan tax status.
California's Center for Participatory Democracy (CPD) targeted low-income and minority people on a financial scale ($3 million) that was unprecedented for a nonpartisan group. While the center could legitimately claim many successes (it registered over 350,000 voters from target populations, of whom 57 percent turned out to vote), its dependency on the fundraising skills of a single politician, California Senator Alan Cranston, led it into a trap which would destroy its capacity to raise money. One of the Cranston-solicited donations came from Charles Keating, a key figure in the savings and loan scandal. The accusation of tainted money not only decimated CPD's future registration plans but caused the collapse of another organization, the Forum Institute, which had been a wholesaler of voter registration funds.
Once again, private foundations have become gun-shy of voter registration. As tax-exempt groups, the more successful targeted voter registration drives become, the more at risk they become-since "success" is almost always judged by election outcomes which, by definition, are partisan. Even worse, the new nexus of particular candidates and voter registration organizations, such as Cranston and CPD, contribute to the erosion of a political party role. Like television and candidate direct-mail, the new pattern encourages a highly personalized relationship, unmediated by party philosophy or program.
The fragmentation and specialization of issue organizing, and its disconnection from party organization, sets back the potential for a left/liberal electoral coalition. The issue groups cede this partisan territory to incumbents, candidate machines, and political donors. A self-fulfilling prophesy is at work. Citizen groups judge parties to be corrupt and useless; they mobilize activists and voters outside the framework of party, leaving the party all the more captive of candidates, donors, or both. The mutual antipathy of the issue groups and the parties is confirmed, and the gulf widens. The Democratic Party is presumably in business to aggregate electoral majorities. But the existence of the nonpartisan voter registration groups allows party leaders to avoid facing up to difficult coalitional issues and resolving the tension between its donors and voting constituencies.
Movements Without a Majority
Antipathy to party, by both radicals and civic reformers, has a venerable history It was a key tenet of early twentieth-century progressivism. In reaction to urban political machines, progressives introduced such reforms as the city manager form of government and nonpartisan local elections. Critics of progressivism saw this antipolitical stance as limiting its power to achieve basic change. The same problem afflicts contemporary citizen organizing. Political parties are the only mechanisms we have invented in a democracy for coalescing constituencies and issues, mobilizing voters, and creating electoral majorities. E.E. Schattschneider's famous imagery of the American two-party system, as a large auditorium with only two exits, remains apt today: if you want to govern, a majority of people must follow you out one of the two doors.
One cannot argue that political parties in general have become obsolete, since the Republican Party today functions quite effectively. As Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post observes, issue donors on the Democratic side give mainly to "causes" and candidates, but not to party. On the Republican side, there is a far better integration of issue activism and party activism.
If anything, we are likely to hear increased claims for the potential of citizen organizing in the future. Even conservatives such as Congressman Newt Gingrich are laying claim to their brand of citizen empowerment as a "new paradigm" to replace the bureaucratic welfare state. To be sure, community organizations can play a crucial role in fostering participation, strengthening a democratic ethos, and in making government work. But claims that suggest such organizations can replace the state or the polity are as misleading as the notion that they could eradicate poverty. Those who embrace a more progressive conception of empowerment need to understand how decisively the dominant political culture -- the connections between money and politics, schisms of race and class, pressures toward interest group fragmentation, and the weakness of party -- have constrained contemporary organizing. If citizen organizing is to achieve its promise of reviving civic life and advancing the claims of the poor, it must do so without sentimentality and with a full understanding of its own history.
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