New York Times columnist David Brooks, writing about today’s social reformers, argues that “it’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.” Is Brooks correct that we can only create bottom-up change if we address the political process?
President Obama won the presidency on the premise that bottom-up change works, yet now that he is in the White House the change he can really make is top-down. Grassroots supporters looked to him to create this top-down change and in their confusion over what seems like paralysis in the political process, they often blame the White House. Did the President’s grassroots mobilization to gain the most powerful position in the world help our society or set us back?
Saul Alinsky, the great organizer and author of Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971), argued that the true democrat is “suspicious of, and antagonistic to, any idea of plans that work from the top down. To engage in democracy for him is to create change from the bottom up” (Reveille, 17). Alinsky appears to suggest that nothing productive can come from playing the political game. Yet, as upstanding citizens, should we not enter the political discourse and engage in politics? Is there not a place to rely upon government and politicians as partners and allies?
Moving from grassroots to political conversations can have great costs. Too often we get lost in intellectual and political abstractions that achieve little. Princeton Professor Jeffrey Stout, in his Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, makes the case for bottom-up change, explaining that “Listening closely while ordinary citizens describe their struggles, victories, and setbacks is itself a democratic act. One of its benefits is to bring the ideal of good citizenship down to earth.” True social justice activism is more concerned with human individuals and their personal stories and struggles than about philosophical theories and ideologies, as enticing as they are.
Stout references Alinsky’s Rules to show how grassroots activity emerges – “…ideals become an ideological fog when they are abstracted from the activities of ordinary people. Liberty and justice are made actual in the lives of people who struggle for them.” Stout then quotes Alinsky to show how collective action is the essence of democracy – “If we strip away all the chromium trimmings of high-sounding metaphor and idealism which conceal the motor and gears of a democratic society, one basic element is revealed—the people are the motor, the organization of the people are the gears. The power of the people is transmitted through the gears of their own organizations, and democracy moves forward” (Reveille, 46). Democracy is not a philosophy; it is, rather, a way of life.
Grassroots work is really difficult; so many of us just read op-eds about elections and legislators, and debate them as a sport. Is it possible that elections are merely exercises in mass manipulation leading to top-down change, or no change at all? Politicians may declare their allegiance to democratic ideals, but in an age of powerful lobbies, whose interests are they really advocating?
We begin to fulfill our democratic responsibilities nonviolently by voting, learning the issues, speaking out freely for what we believe in, petitioning against injustice, and building coalitions. But this is only the beginning. We hold politicians accountable through our votes, but this step often comes too little, too late. Rather, we need a culture of accountability to ensure the masses hold enough power to challenge politicians when they stray from the values they committed to.
Bottom-up change is possible, but it requires a very significant time commitment in building relationships. Organizing was already draining when it was just about relationships in the local neighborhood, but the term “community organizing” has fallen out of favor since the move to building broader bridges across religion, race, class, and location. It is more complicated and time-intensive than ever. How can we all be a part of such a large complicated process of neighborhood walks, 1-to-1 meetings, house meetings, and actions?
The facile answer is that we should just get the right person into office to do all the things we want. Yet inevitably the politician gets caught in concessions, abstractions, and political self-preservation, and we get pulled along. Our grassroots idealism then fades into an abyss of political bureaucracy and deception. Brooks tells us we are naïve if we think we can create change without changing the political landscape, but it is unclear which approach is more delusional. Where do the greatest democratic victories occur?
In an age of political corruption, economic crisis, terrorism, and environmental crisis, we have to ensure that we hold those with power accountable for creating real change. Real change can happen through political endeavors, but we must work to actualize the true democratic process of grassroots change. As citizens, we must not allow ourselves to become disillusioned, alienated, or fearful. We must build coalitions that seek to create grassroots change and hold institutions of power accountable. Relying on a charismatic community organizer in the White House to create top-down change is a delusional dismissal of our democratic responsibilities to create change on the ground.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.