Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Safe as Doctors: Organizing the wrong community

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2010 at 10:51 am

Because the health bill debate has lingered so long in media hospice, we have to consider it periodically. The best argument I have seen on the issue in the past few weeks comes from the right. Michael Gerson has an unsympathetic analysis of the political context in which this bill has led to the current malaise. I think he may be a bit jubilant (in a quiet way), and the bill still has a good chance to pass, and once passed to begin to have a happy career. But today, things are pretty bleak and Gerson is remarkably even handed in diagnosing the illness.

Intriguingly enough, this may be where a conflict resolution perspective is potentially debilitating. To see where I am coming from, let me return to the scene on September 3 2008 where Sarah Palin gave us the following infamous lines:

I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.

This moment is so infamous because Palin was dismissive of one of the most popular styles of progressive reform: what we more commonly call capacity building, when we give the skill a name. Community organizers were rightly outraged by this attack on their best asset, and Palin, like Glenn Beck, was savvy in her identification of the reform approach that she most disdains.  For this strain of conservatism, the enemy really is Teddy Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who stole the style and substance of William Jennings Bryan’s failed syncretic populism. Bryan was the thunderous young orator who riveted the public in contempt of speculators and exploiters. You should get a chance to read Michael Kazin’s book on him if you are wondering if Bryan was really one the great (in the sense of momentous) figures of American history. Roosevelt was the key player who took progressivism into the mainstream. Roosevelt brought the masculine inner personality into alignment with the anima and civilizing tendencies of the progressive reformers who would make the society less brutal and unfair in the early twentieth century.

Beck and Palin would return to an older Jacksonian populism, which gave us, among other things, the Cherokee “Trail of Tears.”  It may be that the vibrant American spirit is best revealed in these early experiments in manifest destiny, but that depressing thought represents a world in which I would prefer to be considerably less vibrant.

What one did not have in such ground clearing epochs was what we now call capacity building and community organizing:  a very civilized idea. The point is to take communities as they are and to work with them to discover what problems confront them and which solutions are both practical and desirable to implement as a kind of resolution for those problems. The third party helps the community to help itself, which is a more appropriate and durable approach to solving intractable problems than the consulting model. Obama’s most inspiring moments come precisely from his mastery of this idiom. He is really like Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me: nobody does it better.

What Gerson recognizes is the problem that comes with trying  to implement this problem solving strategy in a highly polarized political environment, where there are no efficient supra-ordinant political pressures that can help to impose a reasonable settlement. In this case, Obama built capacity in the Congress. Obama has organized the Congress as if it were a community. The problem is that, not only is Congress not a community, but the polarized political environment in which we now live tends to reward those who are most willing to offer easy criticisms of participatory process. I am inclined to believe that the Obamacare plan is the best solution that suits the interests of the existing congress–if we take those interests as fixed. But most members of Congress have no fixed interests, because they represent the coalitions that hire them. When spoilers have an opportunity to go public with wild accusations, those interests change as a result. Worst of all, because there is no supra-ordinate organization or circumstance to demand that some solution be developed (as would happen with a weaker state), the problem can be deferred to a point when the state is simply no longer able to ignore the problem.

So, Gerson is worth reading, but the Left need not despair. The external force of events will soon be upon us. The U.S. will only be able to hold on through the health care bubble for so long. As Paul Krugman warned us in 2005 about housing, we are looking ever more like an economy that sells health services to one another, and sooner or later the rest of the world will be content to let us become a lot sicker.


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