Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Organize me: Obama v Edwards on how to organize, immigration

I was starting this as an update to the tidbits, but I decided that it was getting too long so created a new post.

A dkos blogger has a decent analysis of why the blogosphere broke for Edwards - namely, it's the size of the fight. I think a lot of bloggers, like myself, still hunger for the raw passion of Dean. Some chose to go with Edwards because he displays the most attack dog partisan ferocity. Me, I like some candidates more, some less. Obama's rebuttal and the dkos diarist who points this strategy out:

We don't need more heat, we need more light.

I think this is the companion piece to what he said in Boston at the 04 convention. It's the practical side of that "join together" speech. As an organizer, there are many tactics you can use at varying stages. When you build your coalition. When you have the power and the votes (and you always count your numbers.) When you make the ask. When you negotiate.

And it is and isn't just a matter of style and rhetoric and biography. It's true that Edwards and Obama agree on 95-99% of policy goals. This is why I am having such a hard time (still) picking between them - I think they bring different ideas, nuances, champion different sets of priorities. I think it's safe to say that Edwards is carrying the torch of some of the Deaniacs' anger and resentment at being shut out of the party, at being the Have Nots. Sometimes we forget that Obama, Harvard and Columbia educated, is also the archetypical Have Not who embodies the American Dream of so many immigrants. He made good, but he isn't leaving the community.

In some ways, what Obama is doing as a candidate, as a black man, echoes the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and part of the civil rights movement. It is the "present yourself well in public" school - the school that says if you march with dignity and integrity, you will get more respect and credibility than if you try to tear down the whole system. So part of this is him, who he is, and how he sees the world. I think he genuinely wants to give people a chance, to hear their story. And a good organizer ALWAYS listens - for a soft spot, for an opening. It's incredibly hard to organize unlikely allies and to change people's minds who are not your traditional base. It's why I admire what Obama is doing in bringing new people into the Democratic fold, that he's staking his base on increasing the base. There's a reason why most campaigns with limited resources devote money, time and energy on known voters - it has definite payoffs on election day that are quantifiable. It's a leap of faith to trust in new voters, in unpredictable voters. Hard to model and notoriously fickle, and I respect his tremendous ability as an organizer.

Edwards is also trying to reach out to the disaffected and to bring them back into the fold, but it's a well known point that his Iowa organization depends on those who know how to caucus, how are experienced pros. His base is THE base, which is why Hillary and Obama have had to find new bases. It's a good and safe bet to talk to this base, because you know they will caucus, and will vote. Where Edwards is demonstrating daring is in his rhetoric, which is pretty much brandishing a flaming sword and declaring class war. And there's a ready audience for this - a lot of middle class Americans share economic insecurity. A lot of people think that Xiao Xiao or Jose or Vinay stole our jobs. Different Democrats play to this at different times, and all of the front runners are guilty of talking about jobs going to China or India. It's a calculated line that brings up fears in the audience of them losing their jobs, and if only we had Daddy Democrat to take care of our economic future, we would be okay.

There's a reason why Obama supports drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants, with reservations, and Edwards doesn't, with reservations. It's because the people who support Edwards would be turned off by this coming from their economic prophet of populism. And I don't think it's because Edwards is truly anti-immigrant, because we too, are the little guys. It's just that on the other side of populism is xenophobia, and there is a fine pale line. I have seen amazing speeches by Edwards where he reaffirms his belief in immigrants. He tries not to cross this line much but it can't be helped that some of the people who are neo-populists are the Lou Dobbs types. And sometimes I fear that if and when push comes to shove, all the campaigns care more about placating the mostly white voters of Iowa than respecting the fact that one of the last waves of American populism coincided with shutting out all the yellow and brown people. It's something I worry about a lot, and our want our eventual candidate to win, I just don't want them to win at any cost.

A lot of people want to tear down the whole system. I can't blame them, especially on health care. We messed up bad on that one, and Edwards has the best plan for fixing our health care system.

Edwards is playing to the deep-seated resentment of people like me who want to change the DC consultant core. Who want to return the grassroots to the local people in the states. It's another aspect of Dean's 50 State strategy, and it's one that I can also agree with. Obama is running the 50 state strategy by having offices up in Georgia, in California, in Arkansas, in Kansas. He's growing the party that way, through civility and a "vote hope" message.

Edwards is angry and I am angry, and lord knows there is a time and place for angry - you want to move crowds by reminding them of what the problem is, and John Edwards's hard-hitting message does exactly that. He states that the problem is the insurance companies and the corporations and the pig-headed Republicans. And it is everything I believe at a quick gut check level. He reminds me of why I am angry and what we are fighting for, but he maintains a smile doing it. He reminds me what it feels like to be middle class and feel like your family never had enough, and he is fighting for the middle and working class, and god knows we need it.

But then I remember, wait, what about my friend Bobby who works for an insurance company - is he evil? Or my friend's dad Anil who works for a pharmaceutical company but believes that drugmakers charge too much? And I remember that there are no quick fixes.

Does it make me uneasy that Obama is willing to use right-wing talking points or sometimes slips into them? Yes, but sometimes I do too. And I have so many friends who say "illegal immigrants" because it's the framework that FOX, et al, have successfully implemented. Lord knows there are too many dailykos users on what is considered the biggest progressive blog who use the phrase. What we have to do is be vigilant and diligent about creating new language and using it.

And I also remember that I am so tired of being angry. I love angry asian man, and I love my peeps in the movement. Angry is what powers us, what drives us everyday to do the hard things. To face the families and the fears and the doubts about can we win this thing?

But what gets us through is hope. Because without hope, you cannot subsist on anger. Or you definitely can't get enough of the country to sit in your hunger strike with you. Just look at the writer's strike and the balance of anger and hope. They are strong because they are angry, but they also are strong because they have hope and faith that they will win. It hasn't flagged much, and that's to their credit.

And I remember one of my first lessons about organizing, which has been proven true to my face, repeatedly - you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. In my angriest days, I have railed and flailed and fought pyrrhic victories. And I have seen other people walk in with a winning word and a smile and a handshake and it's done. We have won our demands. And I would rather get national healthcare than debate about how exactly to get it. The dangers of widening your coalition is that your central core message can get corrupted, tainted, not passed to the degree that you want. But it'll get passed.

What I've learned about my own political progression is that I started with one issue, and then I came to change my views on most issues. It's how most activists are born, and how we develop. So if Obama can really bring some people into the tent, then they can change their minds about other things. But if they don't feel invited to the tent, if we can't get the discourse off the ground because they are too scared to talk or listen, then we can't get as broad a change as we'd like to see in the population. The other thing that is true about negotiation is that anger as a tactic can be incredibly effective. It just doesn't work the majority of the time - you scare away the other person you are talking to. In my one on ones, when I talk to Republicans, I get a lot farther by sharing our common goals and interests and by listening than when I make blanket statements and overthrow the table. Obama is from the walk softly and carry a big stick camp. Edwards is from the power conceeds nothing without demand point. Ultimately, you need both philosophies and both strategies.

Most importantly, you need to know when to use which one.

So I continue to go back and forth between the two, Obama the bringer of healing, and Edwards the fiery barnstormer. Because it's all here, within myself. But it's just two different styles of organizing. I offer these thoughts as a case study of someone who isn't fully decided, for the perusal of those who are, and those who are still making up their minds. I'm open to discussion and debate. My vote is not for sale, but I am genuinely interested in finding out where you stand and what makes your candidate the best.

Consequently, I'm opening up the comments section for now. If I get too much spam, I might go back.

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