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March 28, 2007

Movements for Social Change -- From Tocqueville to Alinsky to Howard Dean

Social movements require impetus, nurturing and time to ensure growth, and effect real change. Over at TPMCafe, Harvard professor Marshall Ganz offers a great synopsis of the history of America's major social movements, how they operate today, and what we need to do in the future to bring more people into the "community", and spread "community" out across the country. A lot depends on the new populism. It's crucial that people-powered movements (the grassroots, if you prefer) figure out how to find their voices and use the megaphone in order to compliment or, in some cases, counteract the the elite groups with big money. Fortunately, we have a rich history of success on which to build.

In 1831, French aristocrat Alexis De Tocqueville came to America to study our penal system, but used the opportunity to investigate American democracy. He worried that political equality could so erode social relationships rooted in family, church, and guild that citizenship would turn into a series of arid exchanges between isolated individuals and a powerful state. That individualism uncurbed by claims of community, could not sustain a healthy polity in which the common good would receive its due.

But what he found was a vibrant society, sustained by civic associations. Modeled on parties organized to contest political power, the art of association had reached into all realms of public life. Associations had become the great “free schools” in which citizens learned the “habits of the heart” that made their new democracy work – an understanding of self-interest linked to the interests of others and thus requiring active collaboration in pursuit of common goods. When scale was required, collaboration was also modeled on parties – and government itself – that organized across locality, state, and nation as a self-governing three tiered representative associations.

In other words, he saw that we had learned that choices a few people make about how to use their money could be balanced by choices many people make about how to use their time.

Community organizing has come a long way since the days of abolition and temperance movements. What began as a uniquely American form of organizing -- gathering individuals who were committed to right moral wrongs, usually by way of church groups -- has evolved via a complex route that now finds us connecting with like-minded individuals through this remarkable thing called the World Wide Web. But is this world enough?

The internet finally proved to be a powerful cog in the wheel of Democratic politics during the election of 2006, by helping to connect people looking for a way to share ideas, stategies and message-framing tools, and even more so by creating effective fundraising mechanisms, like Act Blue, for electing progressive candidates. Still, there remains a need for old-fashioned, face-to-face events that reach out into neighborhoods and communities and bring people together for the purpose of both organizing and simple schmoozing -- while sharing a pint, of course.

Ganz takes us on a thought-provoking little journey, starting with Tocqueville, moving through Alinsky (the godfather of social organizing) and ending with Howard Dean, while making many stops along the way. His piece is well worth the read.

Posted by shoephone on March 28, 2007 at 01:42 AM in Inside Baseball, National and International Politics, Strategery, Taking Action | Permalink


Thanks for the tip, shoephone. Heading right over there for a coffee with Mr. Ganz . . .

Posted by: lotus | Mar 28, 2007 6:24:35 AM

Very interesting article, shoephone. I think it will be an uphill battle for the grassroots to overcome the the power of the corporate dominated media and campaign financing racket. In the wreck that is our political system, too many in both parties could not get elected or re-elected without expensive media campaigns, and that means having to dance with the monied interests. We have made some progress in changing that, but not enough to counteract the weight of the DLC/DINOs.

Posted by: op99 | Mar 28, 2007 10:18:33 AM

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