An Interview with Marshall Ganz, Architect of the 2008 Obama Organizing Effort

July 14, 2014

Marshall Ganz is one of the nation’s leading organizers. In the early 60’s, he dropped out of Harvard to join the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. He later spent 16 years working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers before returning to Harvard to finish his BA and earn a Ph.D. in sociology. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he architected Barack Obama’s organizing operation. He teaches at Harvard Kennedy School.

Last year, you and Peter Dreier wrote an essay for the Washington Post in which you attempted to diagnose why health care reform had stalled. You wrote that “The White House and its allies forgot that success requires more than proposing legislation, negotiating with Congress and polite lobbying. It demands movement-building of the kind that propelled Obama’s long-shot candidacy to an almost landslide victory. And it must be rooted in the moral energy that can transform people’s anger, frustrations and hopes into focused public action, creating a sense of urgency equal to the crises facing the country.”

For readers who didn’t catch the Post piece, can you elaborate a little on what you’re recommending here?

…The history of reform in this country, of social reform, and political reform, has been a history of the “two hands clapping.” It’s been a history of responsive political leadership and assertive social movement.

If you go back as far as you’d like to go back, there’s this dynamic where the political leader gets elected and then he has to do their thing, and runs into all sorts of pressures and opposition. So unless there’s somebody out here whose main mission is to achieve reform, then all the energy shifts in one direction, to those that oppose it.

So unless you can create the power to – it’s not so much holding the political leadership accountable as it is creating the demand, the urgency, the need for reform – then it goes away…Anytime you’re trying to change the status quo, the status quo has the overwhelming preponderance of resources on its side, plus inertia, plus habit, plus apathy, so it’s tough. You don’t just change things because you want to.

The legislative process has been much more responsive to the creation of crises that legislation is needed to resolve than it has been to, “Gee, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we made things work better?” So, the job of those trying to create change is actually to create crises that require legislative solution. Now, a crisis that is felt by the powerless isn’t a crisis, because the powers that be don’t experience it to be a crisis, and so the challenge the powerless or those whose needs are not being addressed face is how to create the urgency.

So when Saul Alinsky, the community organizer, said, “Organizers need to be willing to be schizoids, because you have to polarize to mobilize, and you have to de-polarize to settle.” In other words, you have to create the urgency and the need for action, which inherently involves a process of polarization. But then, to actually settle anything, you have to shift and be able to negotiate….

Now, what the Obama Administration seemed to try to do was to mobilize by depolarizing….[I]n other words, it seemed like an effort to compromise your way to deep reform. I’ve never seen that that has ever worked in the history of this country, and I doubt anywhere, because it’s a contradiction.

So, on the one hand, the administration was not being clear, aggressive…as it had been in the campaign…and more culpably, the leadership of the reform movements, the people who were fighting for health care, for labor law reform, for environmental reform, for immigration reform, all bought in to this strategy. They all bought into “let Obama do it. He knows what he’s doing.”

Well, that’s kind of convenient. Some people confused access with outcomes, or access with power. So you may now have the power so long you get to go to the White House; well, that’s kind of cool. And the White House is saying, “Don’t rock the boat. We’ll take care of it.” So, you’re saying, “Gee, I don’t know. It’s the White House, so I better not rock the boat.”

Now, I don’t know if you saw today’s Washington Post, there’s stuff that the unions are clearly pissed off, because for a year, they’ve been struggling along on this idea that they’re going to get labor law reform, and so they haven’t been doing a damn thing to get it.

But the same thing happened in health care, the same thing….It’s like a mirroring kind of thing [that] resulted in no mobilization.

In the essay, you talk about the Obama for America organizing effort, how it was quite effective at getting people out and asking them to do things that would move the entire movement along. When the Obama team got to the White House, do you think they wondered whether it was appropriate to deploy that organization now that their guy was the President, and not just an aspiring leader?

I think there’s a couple of things going on. I mean, there is a question about leadership style, and conflict aversion versus “getting into a fight when you need to.” As we’ve seen, the President has pursued a pathway that has been conciliatory in almost everything.

That’s not appropriate for everything, because the world is full of bad guys and people whose interests conflict. You have to be willing to take on these fights, so that there’s something to mediate later on. That’s an issue. In the campaign, it was less of an issue because it was defined as an adversarial – you know, there was “us” and “them.” But then moving into the governance, all of a sudden, it shifted. So here, you have this whole organization. This movement’s been built on trying to bring about some real change in the country. If your strategy doesn’t continue to be proactive, then what do you do with this movement?

So deciding to put [Organizing for America] into the DNC was a critical choice, because it meant, one, that it couldn’t be a mechanism to put pressure on Democrats. And of course, as we’ve seen, one of the major sources of problem has been the Democrats. So right there, it sort of tied the hands of the operation.

Then, by keeping it tied directly to the President, then it was like if the President was pursuing a strategy of, “Let’s compromise with everybody, and I’m not going to define what I’m for and I’m not going to-” And you’re out here in the field trying to mobilize people around “we don’t know what, from who, under what circumstances,” you can’t mobilize that way. You can’t organize that way.

So they wound up being in a very weird position, where they really had no program, that there was nothing they were clearly fighting for….So there was no strategy. So they were reduced to getting people to make phone calls to legislators who already supported their position, and act as if that was mobilizing something.

You know, it almost makes it appear like what they wanted to do was keep the machine on for the next election.

Since your essay was published, have you noticed any change in…

Well, right after it…there was a lot of stir. I got a lot of feedback of different kinds. All my friends in OFA thought I was a jerk, and so we had to work that out, which, eventually, we sort of did.

I know within the immigration reform movement, there was a reassessment of like, “Wait a second, we can’t just keep waiting around. We’ve got to do something,” so some of us have been involved in that campaign since August to try to create a much more of a movement mobilization base demanding immigration reform. That then actually has turned into what’s going to be a mobilization in DC for March 22nd.

….I think our piece sort of struck a chord, but not enough of the chord, and I think helped strike a deeper chord of realization that unless people who want to see deep reform mobilize and fight for it, it’s not going to happen, and that what Obama offers is an opportunity to do that. But Obama is not the messiah, and is not going to do it. It’s like Alinsky once said, “The liberals need radicals.”…Unless you have that pressure out there, it’s not going to happen.

Is it too late to turn health care around?

I don’t know. It’s hard to see where the momentum is going to come from. You know, we got civil rights legislation because there was reality out in the world that demanded it. It wasn’t because of lobbying tactics. Now, Lyndon Johnson played an important role, but we got environmental legislation in the early 70s even from the Nixon administration, because the whole country was going nuts around Earth Day and a whole lot of stuff was happening.

It’s like everybody seemed to forget all that in the last year and think that somehow now, deep reform is going to happen through congressional horse-trading. But that’s how you maintain the status quo; it’s not how you change it.

It’s what I learned in the Farm Workers….Now, see, we were fighting to build a union in California, and so eventually, we needed legislation…For a long period of time, the opposition was advocating legislation, because they saw that as the way to control us.

The conditions under which legislation became useful, and actually turned into a very positive thing, were that we had had a strike involving 70,000 people in California, 3,000 arrests, 44 beatings, 2 murders – I mean, of our people. A boycott going on all over the country of, you know, grapes and lettuce produced in California; county governments being bankrupted because of having to pay for jury trials for every single person arrested in the strike and which we demanded, and having to pay overtime for sheriffs; supermarket industry that was really – that because the growers couldn’t settle their problem in California turned into boycotts, were picketing supermarkets all over the country – they sure didn’t want it.

So legislation came in a context in which the supermarkets wanted it. The growers needed it. The county governments needed it. That gave us the power to negotiate legislation that was beneficial for us. Now, if all that hadn’t been going on and we’re just being sort of politely trying to negotiate what would be in the best interest of farm workers, nothing would have happened.

So there’s a kind of ahistoricism about the whole thing that really just surprises me.

It’s amazing how despite the momentum that the Dems brought with them to Washington this time, watching the ‘sausage-making’ in Congress seems to have really put a lot of Americans off the entire process. And perhaps as a result, nothing’s getting through.

…Well, the people who created the basic institutions in American government were very concerned, they were very fearful that government would become a source of power, and so they didn’t want that. And of course then, there weren’t huge corporations; there weren’t all these private concentrations of power that [were] so enormous.

So, the whole instrument is very enfeebled, so it becomes much more effective as a way of checking change than enabling it. And we’ve just seen now, for a year, how that works, and it’s all just checks…nobody can get anything done.

It’s extraordinary to have an opportunity when you can actually make reform. Now, Reagan made that happen, and he didn’t even have a congressional majority. I mean, Reagan figured out how to use his moment of power to restructure the financing of government in such a way that we’d never have debates on that programs anymore. All we debate about is finance and taxes and revenues. That’s a brilliant, brilliant move by the conservative movement, as they call it “to starve the beast.” They accomplished that, and it redefined how we do our politics.

Now, they were very smart about using the movement, using the moment. We’ve just blown a year on the progressive side. Lining up all the dots in such a way that we can actually get Congress to – I don’t know. It’s not set up to make change. It’s set up to resist change. So to make change takes an extraordinary effort and an extraordinary kind of focus and opportunity. But…I was looking yesterday [at] all the appointments that just haven’t been made because “This congressman, or this senator [had an issue].”…Well, that didn’t stop Bush….Bush used the recesses to make these appointments.

So it isn’t just the institution. It’s also…this government strategy that is curiously non-assertive.