Organic ACORNs: The Tea Party Has Done What ACORN Never Could
The demise of ACORN has occasioned no small amount of grief from certain quarters of the American Left. Laura Flanders of the Nation lamented the death of the organization, as did Steve Cobble of the Huffington Post, and True/Slant’s own Laurie Essig. Those three scribes are right to mourn ACORN’s untimely death. The organization’s mission, which was to empower the disenfranchised – that is, to foster genuine democracy in America – was a worthy one.
ACORN’s record of actual success, however, was scant. In the forty years that it was in operation, there was not much of an uptick in political participation. The purchasing power of the working poor remained stagnant or even shrunk, and painful cuts were made to the social services that many of ACORN’s constituents relied on. It may be tempting to simply say, “Heckuva job, ACORN,” and scoff at the organization’s incompetence. But, in truth, ACORN’s failure was not (entirely) of its own making. Rather, the group’s losing track record indicates a fundamental truth: it is extremely difficult to build a genuine democratic movement from the top down. Actually, it’s a contradiction in terms. The genuinely democratic movements must, by their very nature, grow from the bottom up. (From the “grassroots,” as the hackneyed phrase goes.)
The much-maligned Tea Party represents that democratic ideal. It’s diffuse, unstructured, disorganized, and oftentimes confused. It’s messy. Sometimes it’s ugly. But it’s real. The Tea Party has done what ACORN never could: it has unified and engaged a significant group of Americans who have felt disaffected and underserved by their political class. That is democratic, in the truest sense of the word.
Yet, bizarrely, those supposed champions of grassroots democracy who mourned the death of ACORN have no patience – let alone tea and sympathy – for the Tea Party. In the same post where Laurie Essig eulogized ACORN for its efforts at “inculcating democracy,” she also caricatured the Tea Party as a group of “white supremacists.” Allison Kilkenny, another True/Slant blogger, called the Tea Partiers racists and “white ignoramuses.” This is the same Allison Kilkenny who, just a few months ago, was defending ACORN. Jerry Lanson, yet another True/Slant colleague of mine, called the Tea Partiers “racists.”
These are strange epithets to hurl at the Tea Party – especially when the most common complaint leveled at the group is that it has no coherent set of principles. How can all of tea partiers be motivated by the same thing, when they can’t even agree among themselves what they stand for? But the attacks reveal something important. That is: many who praise ACORN for inculcating “democracy” have a strange definition of the term. For them, democracy means “organizing and registering people who agree with me and will vote the way I would.” When tea partiers get together and form a genuine democratic movement, they get no sympathy from the supposedly democratic minded. It’s a classic case of “democracy for me – and not for thee.” I can understand why Burkean reactionaries like Andrew Sullivan would despise the very nature of the Tea Party. But those who claim to want to foster democracy certainly shouldn’t.
When it comes to promoting democracy, the supporters of ACORN have fallen very far from the tree.