The sequester struggle has exposed a longstanding and worsening problem for progressive activists: the lack of community organizing resources for budget fights outside Medicare and Social Security. While preserving domestic programs has long been a challenge ----Ronald Reagan’s 1981 budget slashed spending on anti-poverty, arts and community development programs, and others were hit by the Gingrich Congress in 1995--- there were more community organizers and vigorous campaigns against both actions, including national "Solidarity" marches challenging Reagan, were waged. In contrast, the death by a thousand cuts of the imminent 9%-15% sequester reductions has not mobilized large crowds of people to take to the streets. The reason? A lack of community organizers. Funding cuts by foundations, local governments and private donors have left the many vulnerable victims of the sequester without a way to fight back--- making harsh cuts more likely.
The sequester battle confirms that the GOP is really all about eliminating the federal government, not reducing budget deficits (e.g. see the Bush presidency). But it also points out the lack of community organizing resources devoted to budget fights, a longtime progressive weakness that has gotten much worse.
Issues, Not Budgets, Drive Organizing
Most activists are now organizing and mobilizing around gun control, immigration reform, the Keystone XL Pipeline, marriage equality, foreclosures, and voting rights---none primarily involve fights over spending or the budget. And when you think about the issues that drove voters in the 2012 elections, one is hard-pressed to recall a single domestic spending program whose budget became a rallying cry. Obama and Democrats frequently highlighted the need to invest in America but spending for specific federal programs were off the radar.
Such budget allocations also took a backseat when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress in 2009-10. Legal services, the arts, public housing, Community Development Block Grants---these and other programs got nowhere near the money needed to restore their budgets to 1981 and/or 1995 levels.
Nor was there any serious organizing campaign to shift record and grossly excessive United States military spending to human needs. The lack of grassroots activism targeting budgets for defense and homeland security ensured that vital domestic programs remained grossly underfunded even under a 2009-10 budget process controlled by Democrats.
The Answer: Invest in Organizing
The problem is a lack of organizing. The sequester struggle comes as foundations, cities and private donors have reduced investments in community organizing to historically low levels. Based on my knowledge of the organizing terrain, I would say that not since the start of the 1960’s has there been so few grassroots organizers and so little resources devoted to this critical component of fostering progressive change.
I argued in February 2010 that we were seeing an historic decline in community organizing
, and the situation has not improved. It’s likely gotten worse, as major funders like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Vanguard Foundation have either retrenched in funding progressive organizing groups are gone out of business altogether (my organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, got its original start-up grant from Vanguard in 1979 and is among many who received its seed money).
In the 1970’s through the mid-80’s, the United States funded a VISTA program that prioritized community organizing in low-income communities. It was so successful that the Reagan Administration tried to kill it, and though it failed, it became transformed into the more politically safe service program, AmeriCorps.
Major foundations no longer see funding community organizing as a priority. And with ACORN gone and not replaced in most cities by entities with an equal capacity, the lack of organizing capacity to mobilize people against the sequester becomes clear.
When we see the many billionaires investing money in their version of school “reform,” it reminds us of a critical difference between the philanthropy of the 1960’s-1980’s and today. In the past, many wealthy donors sought to empower low-income communities to make their own decisions about their future. Today, such donors have their own agendas for low-income communities which they provide funds to implement.
It takes community organizers to go into House Republican districts and stir up a firestorm of public anger over the pending sequester or other budget cuts. Television ads, speeches from governors or the President, or other top-down approaches won’t get it done.
It would take so little for some philanthropists and foundations to step up to the challenge of replenishing community organizing. Building local pressure on Republican House members is easier than the pundits think, yet the resources for making it happen are not being made available.
It’s too late for organizing to impact March 1’s deadline, but investing now will change the political dynamic for upcoming budget and spending fights.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century