Updated: May 24, 2021
Saul Alinsky’s theory of change required building broad “grass-top” coalitions of neighborhood leaders in “have-not” areas who would agree on a set of local grievances and then mobilize their groups and networks to pressure political and corporate leaders.
Alinsky embraced the role of outside agitator as a change agent, a needed catalyst for action by people whose lives were often inflexibly entombed in local realities. The organizations he built were carefully non-ideological, focusing on specific complaints and winnable solutions. Strategically, he held that it was essential to start on small problems and win visible improvements, empowering those who previously believed themselves powerless, before working upwards to bigger issues. He said, “If people don't think they have the power to solve their problems, they won't even think about how to solve them.”
Alinsky’s stated goal was to create a more equitable, inclusive, and democratic society. Progressive critics point out that the narrow focus on local problems and the insistence on avoiding political partisanship makes it difficult to address more fundamental problems that plague our society and may divide a broad-based coalition – such as racism, sexism, property rights, and more. While participants in Alinsky-style organizations often become more militant, they don’t always become more ideologically progressive. In addition, the reliance on outside organizers means that while articulate speakers almost always emerge from among coalition participants, they don’t always gain the organizational or organizing skills – much less the financial resources – needed to keep the campaign going without outsiders’ help.
Nearly all current organized advocacy involving low-income and working families incorporates many Alinsky ideas. They try to avoid the limitations of Alinsky’s early groups by basing their work in neighborhoods of color and being more explicit about the breath of their motivating values. While they usually express grievances using the traditional American framework of democracy, equality, and opportunity, they shape their demands to disproportionately benefit those most in need. For example, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) had a national presence, growing over 40 years to nearly a half-million members. Its effectiveness in mobilizing low-income working families from different racial and cultural backgrounds to register and vote earned it the hatred of ascendant right-wing groups who, in 2009, were able to use a (subsequently shown to be false) charge of voter fraud to crush its national organization. Many state and local organizational descendants are still active, however.
Service-based organizing has to balance the difficult tension between using all its resources to reduce immediate suffering versus doing the long-term work to change the systemic sources of those problems; between hiring early-career professionals who bring skills with them versus developing client (or member) skills to lead and/or staff the organization themselves. At its best, this type of advocacy requires working with people to help them develop a personal vision of what is possible and an energizing hope that success is achievable, getting them trained in the needed skills while providing the services and support appropriate to their particular situation, and committing to long-term engagement during the many years (and reversals) that the person usually needs to climb out of the hole they’ve started from.
Sometimes, it works. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta started by providing services to migrant farm laborers and their families in California, where low wages and oppressive working conditions left them in desperate need. They then built on the connections and legitimacy they had earned to organize the United Farm Workers union, moving from dealing with symptoms to confronting the causes of their members’ problems.
Interest Group Activism
The mainstream view of power in America is that it is divided among a swirling mix of countless interest groups representing nearly every niche of the economy and society. The political system and government serve as a relatively neutral ground for finding a middle ground that allows everyone to live together without violence. In fact, this is close to how most politicians experience their jobs: continually surrounded by a buzzing swarm of pushy people and groups with competing perspectives and demands, to whom attention must be paid according to their ability to influence the politician’s chances of re-election – usually meaning their capacity to make campaign contributions, to influence voter perceptions, or the status of their role within the business community, and other bastions of the status quo. (Politicians also have to include the demands of the most powerful leaders of their branch of government in their decision-making calculus.)
Playing a role in that process is also what most advocacy groups see themselves as doing. From this perspective, successful advocacy requires organization capable of bringing together a sufficiently large or resourceful group, articulating clear demands, finding allies whose own interests overlap with yours to a sufficient short-term or long-term degree, and then mobilizing enough power to successfully negotiate compromises “you can live with” with government or corporate officials.
Progressive advocates see a deeper dynamic behind the seemingly multi-directional cacophony of interest groups. As early as the 1950s, political scientist E.E. Schattschneider famously commented that the interest group choir sings with “an upper-class accent.” Echoing C. Wright Mills’ idea of a “power elite,” progressives consider the upper classes to be an overlapping network of elite groups at regional and national levels, each of which has gained and seeks to keep disproportionately high amounts of wealth, power, and status through similar but separate processes.
The elite networks are open to the careful incorporation of new people who rise to prominence by exploiting new technologies and business models, or even through politics and certain kinds of celebrity. However, they have a multi-generational, extended family cohesion – their children tend to be sent to the same set of private schools and summer camps, the adults tend to join the same set of social clubs and attend the same set of conferences or small-group meetings. Our political system is actually a plutocracy, incorporating and reinforcing institutionalized racist and sexist discrimination. Nearly every industry is dominated by two or three major firms, wealth is redistributed upward, and an infant’s lifetime prospects are mostly determined by her or his family status.
While the governing elites are united in the desire to maintain the general system they all benefit from, their separate sources of power can create opposing factions, which forces them to seek allies among other social sectors and interests – thereby opening space for a broader range of public concerns and programs to enter the political arena. This creates opportunity for both interest group advocacy and, occasionally, moving to the more systemic arena of progressive advocacy. (4/21)