Blessed Are The Organized
Princeton religion professor Jeffrey Stout provides a systematic study of grassroots organizing in America, touting its successes and acknowledging its limitations. He presents detailed accounts of the approaches to mass organizing in civil society combined with sophisticated and insightful analyses of what is being tried in the religious communities of American society. He recognizes economic elites’ increasing power to shape political outcomes and points to a decline in the organizational strength of ordinary citizens (particularly as a result of the decline of the labor movement). He also describes the elite’s increased ability to translate economic power into political power in the age of mass media, and the political exclusion of immigrants with permanent residency status and incarcerated people, who are an important element of America’s poor. Yet Stout also acknowledges another source of the current weakness of democratic movements: the failure of our education system to move beyond abstract praise of democracy and teach people to get involved in public life through a union, civic association, or religious institution. He recognizes the value of broad-based organizing that presents a larger vision and is thus in a better position to address the power gap between elites and ordinary people. The “imbalance of power between ordinary citizens and the new ruling class” has reached crisis proportions, Stout tells us. He adds that the crisis will not be resolved happily unless many more institutions and communities commit themselves to getting democratically organized and unless effective “publics of accountability” are constructed. But so many good people are reluctant to get involved in the difficult work of creating and sustaining a national movement. They fall back into the desire to be part of a feel-good group or to see immediate results by narrowing their focus to a single issue. We’ve faced these problems in building the Network of Spiritual Progressives, but we have no intention of giving up. Stout provides useful wisdom for those who will not settle for less than a genuine democratic transformation of our society.