Trashing Democracy

During the Republican convention Rudolph Giuliani and Sarah Palin heaped scorn on "community organizers" with snappy sound bites. Giuliani laughed off the idea that Barack Obama's community organizing background could count for anything. Palin followed, calling herself "just your average hockey mom" who became mayor and then governor, also mocking Obama's experiences. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

The problem for Republicans is that community organizing is at the heart of the democratic tradition. They knew this not long ago.

In 1980, Republicans ran as the champions of community organizing against big government and liberal professionals. The Republican platform lauded neighborhoods as "arenas for civic action and creative self help." Ronald Reagan called for "a renaissance of the American community" as "the heart and soul of rebuilding America."

Reagan was drawing on old traditions. The nation was also built by engaged, unheralded citizens who had become well practiced at running their own affairs and building communities, even while under colonial rule. When the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the new democracy in the 1830s, he was struck by the importance of the arts of association. "In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge," he wrote in his famous Democracy in America.

Community organizers are those who teach the arts of combining -- how to work together across differences of religion, ethnicity and partisan background to build schools and roads, parks and libraries, cultural institutions and small businesses. For more than 200 years, as Americans created a commonwealth of goods, they have become a commonwealth of citizens.

Community organizing revived in the 1970s, in what the Christian Science Monitor called "the invisible movement of the decade." Organizing involved not only work on bread and butter issues like housing, jobs and school reform but also a "values war" against forces such as hyper-individualism, consumerism, and instant gratification in the toxic mass culture that were undermining the American civic tradition.

It is this tradition of citizenship and civic life that Republicans trashed all week in St. Paul, substituting a sentimentalized language of "service" for the gritty, hard, public work of building communities and gaining empowerment. But Republican attacks could have unanticipated consequences.

Last fall, the nonpartisan National Conference on Citizenship released its annual American Civic Health Index, a composite of various measures of civic life from voting to volunteering. For years, these have shown steady decline. But the Index found countertrends. An invisible "civic core," thirty six million strong, work across partisan and other differences to solve problems and build communities. These are today's community organizers. Young adults in the "Millennial Generation," born after 1975, are especially eager to join them. Reflecting on these findings, Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier called the civic core the potential "sleeper" group of the 2008 election.

They may soon wake up to their potential.