A candidate supporter diary for MyDD
The conventional wisdom has emerged in this Democratic primary season that the grass-roots organisational capability of Senator Obama's campaign has delivered him a significant advantage in some of the caucus and primary contests in which he has been engaged with Senator Clinton. While their liberal or 'progressive' values, and indeed policies, are not separated by much, give or take some ideological fine points, there is a dramatic, almost polar opposite, approach to how these objectives are to be attained which inform not only their respective political philosophies but the strategies of their respective campaigns.
It becomes a contest of power: those who have money and those who have people. We have nothing but people.
It is interesting to note that both of their careers were intersected by a common influence, community organising as 'pioneered in Chicago's old stockyards neighbourhood by the soberly realistic, unabashedly radical Saul Alinsky.' In Hillary's case the influence was direct and personal, she met with Alinsky several times and he was the subject of her honours thesis at Wellesley College. Alinsky was committed to 'working within the system' but did so by encouraging the mobilisation of disadvantaged communities to seize their inherent power as guaranteed by the law. Hillary's reaction to his brand of radicalism was tentative and while she shared his ideals she did not have much faith in his methods:
"His offer of a place in the new institute was tempting," she wrote in the end notes to the thesis, "but after spending a year trying to make sense out of his inconsistency, I need three years of legal rigor." She enrolled at Yale that fall, a year ahead of a charming Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas.
"I agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas," she explained in "Living History," her 2003 biography, "particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves. But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn't."
Bill Dedman - Reading Hillary Rodham's hidden thesis MSNBC 9 May 2007
This is exactly the distinction between the 'bottom-up' populist approach of Alinksy and the 'top-down' establishment methodology which separates her from Senator Obama on campaign strategy, and on her emphasis on specific policy versus broader reform of the 'processes' implicit in the de facto institutions of government which is fundamental to Obama's long-term intentions for progress and change. A perspective she clearly articulated again even more recently:
'In the end, the decision to attend law school for me was an expression of this belief: the system can be changed from within. The law can be an incredible vehicle for social change--and lawyers are at the wheel.'
Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta - Her Way pp 38-39 8 Jun 07
Lawyers and, by implication, legislators, which is how she apparently conceives of her executive role in the presidency, as a super-facilitator of legislative change within the existing institutions of politics as we understand them. Senator Obama's experience, on the other hand, was informed by the legacy of community organising which Alinsky had pioneered, and his work in the neighbourhoods where existing 'top-down' government and economic programs had failed to complete the process of renewal:
Proponents of electoral politics and economic development strategies can point to substantial accomplishments in the past 10 years. An increase in the number of black public officials offers at least the hope that government will be more responsive to inner-city constituents. Economic development programs can provide structural improvements and jobs to blighted communities.
In my view, however, neither approach offers lasting hope of real change for the inner city unless undergirded by a systematic approach to community organization.
Barack Obama - After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois pp 35-40 University of Chicago 1990
This essential difference has been evident in Obama's strategy for his campaign from the outset. Hillary had the support of the Democratic establishment long before her announcement, the support of party insiders, the unions and private sector alliances carefully built and nurtured from the time she began her Senate run in 2000. Her notion of organising relied on these existing structures from 'within the system' to give her an unchallenged advantage in her bid for the nomination. Not only had she acquired this support but it was so ubiquitous as to effectively deny these resources to any potential opponent.
Obama, while he had institutional support from Democrats in Illinois and a modest circle of supporters within the party, had only his message of political inclusion and an idea which traced it's lineage directly back to the 'people powered' politics of Alinsky and Chicago, with a 21st century twist.