| || |
Essays on Civic Renewal
Relationship and Power
An Interview with Ernesto Cortes, Jr.
A former MacArthur Foundation fellow, Ernesto Cortes, Jr. is now the southwest regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the late Saul Alinsky.
Noelle McAfee is associate editor of the Kettering Review.
Reprinted with permission from the Kettering Review, Summer 1993. Copyright & copy 1993. The Kettering Review is a publication of the Kettering Foundation.
"A leader knows that people are their own best advocates."
Ernesto Cortes, Jr.: We are trying to recreate a public square, a public space, an assembly where ordinary people can participate effectively on issues that affect them, such as education, employment, health care, and so forth. By so doing, we can recreate and reclaim for the twenty-first century, a substantive concept of politics. Now, we would like for that not to be just for people who are afluent, well connected, and have access. We would like to develop a vehicle whereby ordinary people can so participate. Our purpose is to create "mini-universities," whereby people learn about politicspolitics in the generic sensewhich has to do with discussion and debate and decision making about issues that affect families, that affect properties, that affect education.
Noelle McAfee: Do you think that people have to overcome their self-interest, become altruistic, for politics to work?
EC: No, in fact part of what we are trying to figure out is a different way of understanding what a self is, because we see a self, or the notion of selfhood, as defined in relationships. I am who I am because of my relationship with my wife and my children, my relationship with my family. We are situated concretely in time and space. We are not ahistorical or acultural beings. I was born Mexican and I was born in San Antonio; that has do with what my self is. Understanding my interest has to do with understanding also my history, my situation, my relationships with those people who are important to me. A proper under standing of self-interestbeing rooted in the Latin word interesse, to be among and betweeninvolves that which the self is among and between, with which the self is involved, that in which the self is invested, which the self is connected to and related to. A proper understanding of self-interest leads to being your brother's and your sister's keeper, because then you begin to recognize that those things that are really importantfor me, the kind of environment my children grow up in, the kind of school they go to, whether or not I can have meaningful work, interesting relationships, good friends, a conversation which is convivialdo not occur in isolation; they require relationships that are meaningful and interesting.
NM: I am glad you gave that explanation. Now let's start at the beginningwith the state of politics.
EC: Well there is something seriously wrong. We don't do politics anymore. We do elections; we do electioneering. Every four years, we do what I call a quadrennial electronic plebiscite. It has very little to do with real politics, even though on occasionand this last one was better than mostyou see some discussion of issues. For the most part, the centerpieces of the campaigns are about marketing strategy. Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who is an expert on presidendal elections, has said that if you want to know about elections that are going to be proficient and effective, don't study political science. Political science will teach you about Montesquieu and the Founding Fathers, but what you really need to learn about are marketing strategies: direct mail, 30-second spots, negative campaigning, how to do different commercials, how to understand market segments, scriptsall these kinds of things, which really have to do with manipulating people's preferences. Elections have become subjective expressions of preference, preference as opposed to judgment. So the focus is on election daywhat happens that one particular day, what you're feeling and what your disposition is at that moment.
Now that would be all right if voting was the culmination of a process of judgment whereby people went about the business of debating and discussing and came to some sort of consensus about what they thought, so that the election was a ratification of that consensus. If that was what the politics of our elections were, the ratification of a national consensus-building process, then it would be great. But I don't think that's the case, because of the roles money and image-making play. You really don't have any serious ongoing discourse taking place between potential candidates and organizations of real live people. That's what is fundamentally wrong.
NM: During the last presidential campaign, politicians and the media seemed to be concemed about finding out what the people think, so they would go to town halls, or they would call on "regular people" to come on after the debate and ask them what they thought.
EC: I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person. I try to keep up with stuff and try to read. But my reaction to a particular decision may or may not be competent. In fact, I find that, left to myself I am not real smart. I become more interesting and smarter to the extent that I engage in discussion and debate and get feedback, get reactions, because then I realize that there are things that I have not thought about or considered. People are going to make decisions by themselves, but they don't need to do it in isolation. They can do it in relationship with other people, where there is discourse, conversation, argument, and debate with real listening. And I think it is important also that they have access to information. Now, if we deliberately withhold things from them or worse, bombard them with so much that they can't make any sense out of it, then you render people incompetent. It is not that they are incompetent; but we can all be rendered incompetent by not having access to interpretation, or access to context or a frame of reference in which we make judgments. We can also be rendered less competent by not having access to other people's reactions to whatever happens. It seems to me we place so much focus on "what an individual thinks, left to himself or herself" that we have forgotten that there is a deliberative process that requires a public forum and a public debatepublic discoursein order for people to make an informed judgment. We need to create institutions that will enable people to undergo that kind of process before they make judgments.
NM: Institutions for the public?
EC: Institutions not only for the public, but that are organic, are not artificially created, have come out of families, have come out of churches, congregations, institutions that reflect community. I don't want to suggest a sectarian religion, but the word religion does mean literally to bind together, to reconnect. We don't do that very well; we don't make those kinds of connections, unless there is something that transcends our own situation. When we do that secularly, we don't do a very good job. We get into trouble when we try to do it as secular beings, as they found out in Europe: the Nazis tried to do it; and that's what the communists tried to doto create community outside of a religious context. They tried to develop symbols and civil systems that transcended an individual's experience. But the result was horrible.
NM: In conventional politics, we tend to look for a few good leaders whom the rest of us can follow. What effect does this idea about leadership have on public life?
EC:We need to recognize that leaders come in all shapes and forms. In our organization, we always talk about primary, secondary, and tertiary leaders, understanding that the definition of a leader is someone who has a following and can deliver that following. We presuppose that you can't be a leader unless you have a following. There has to be a relationship. That is not always clear, because we sometimes point to people as leaders when they have no evident following, no constituency behind them. They're our leaders because TV recognizes them, or the newspapers recognize them, or politicians recognize them. What they are saying is, "These are people whom I admire and respect, or I use to advise me, but they have no real following in their particular community." Thus Governor Ann Richards might say, "Well, Ernie Cortes is a great leader and I like him and so I am going to designate him as a leader." But the difficulty with taking me out of the context in which I am now is that I might have absolutely no one following me. So all of a sudden, she may decide, ~He wasn't so good after all." Then my leadership is gone. It's only been derived from her thinking. There has to be an organic constituency connection to make leadership possible.
Think about the qualities that we ought to look for in a leader. Number one, leaders have to be relational. Number two, they have to be reciprocal and disposed to being reciprocal. And number three, they have to be interested in conversations, which means listening, arguing, interpreting, and informing their constituents. More importantly, they have to understand politics, and they have to be interested and be involved in developing politics. Beyond that, they ought to have some other qualities: passion, a sense of humor, and what we call anger, which is rooted in a real understanding of relationships and an understanding of injustice. The Gospel says, Jesus saw the widow and he was moved; and the word used suggests he was moved in such a way that his bowels were disrupted; he felt physical discomfort. And it was not just a stomachache: it was sorrow. He felt the woman's situation not just because she had lost a son, but because she was now vulnerable, because in that tradition if the woman was not in relationship to a male relative, anybody could do anything they wanted to with her. She had no protector; she could be killed; she could be robbed; she could be raped. You could do anything you wanted to her and there would be no one to take any revenge or protect her. She was aloneisolated. That was what moved him: her vulnerability, her wretchednessbecause being poor, with no one to be your advocate, to protect you, you were isolated, at the margin.
That notion of identifying with people who are at the margin, who are vulnerable, who have no one else to speak for them, who everyone else dismisses, is a quality the Hebrews thought important, a quality that leaders ought to have.
NM: Why do you think people yearn for others to lead them? Or do they? Is it that people don't have the energy for politics or do they truly want other people to make decisions for them?
EC: That's a very complicated question. I would ask you to read a chapter in The Brothers Karamazov called "The Grand Inquisitor," which has a view of leadership that I don't particularly subscribe to, but it is interesting psychology. Christ came back to earth. . . . He was immediately recognized by both the crowd and by the grand inquisitor who has him thrown into jail in the dead of night. The grand inquisitor comes to see him. He asks him, "Why did you come back? We tried it your way. We tried the way of freedom, we tried to give people choices, we tried to provide hope and opportunity for people to challenge them, but it didn't work. They didn't want that; they wanted to be dependent; they wanted to be taken care of; they wanted to be fed. After years of trying it your way, we had to go over to the other guy and we made a deal and we offered people magic, mystery, and authority . . . and we've had to keep this terrible dark secret among the few of us."
That perspective is prevalent for a lot of people and most of our institutions. It is the way our institutions come at people: they teach people to be helpless; they teach people to be dependent. The universities, corporations, even the churches sometimes, teach people dependency; they teach people to be passive. The best workers are those who mind their own business, work in their own particular slots, don't ask too many questions, and don't make any trouble. When you have an organization or institution that teaches that kind of dependency, that kind of learned helplessness, then it's not unreasonable for people to take to a pattern of behavior like that. They're always looking for somebody to tell them what to do. Now, I think there is another way of teaching people. People have the capacity to be initiatory and have the capacity to be self-governing. The people have to have institutions, mentors, and teachers who will teach them confidence in their own competence, so that they learn by doing. I don't think people yearn to be told what to do; I think that's what they have been taught.
NM: What do you think politics would look like if citizens thought of themselves as leaders?
EC: I'm not trying to say that we are all the same: not all of us are leaders. I am not arguing for the kind of system where everybody's opinion is the same as everybody else's. That's what television does for us. We already have that, so to speak, and that kind of system can lead to the worst abuses. Hitler created a mass man; the communists created a mass man. There is no intermediate institution or no intermediate leadership. It's allyou knowwe all owe allegiance to the great father or the great leader. I am arguing for a different system. I am arguing for a system where there is structure, where there are intermediate institutions, where there are all kinds of leaders and everybody who wants an opportunity for leadership gets an opportunity to play a role at some level. I'm asking for a restructuring of political attitudes in the same way that corporationsthe best onesare getting to be restructured and beginning to empower people at the bottom to make decisions. I understand that means you must also enable people to have confidence and competence and resources. If you tell people at a plant that they are in charge and responsible for what happens and then you don't give them the resources and the authority to make decisions or influence decisions, you're being cruel. And if you tell people "I'm empowering you" and then you don't recognize that they must be able to fail, that they must make decisions, yet be able to make mistakes, then you're teaching cognitive dissonance. You're like a parent that tells his kids, "I want you to learn; I want you to grow and want you to understand, but never lets them make a mistake and always smothers them.
NM: We think of leaders as people with certain kinds of power, charismatic power, fnancial power, the power of legality, of coercion. What kind of power can citizens have?
EC: We have to understand power. Power is the ability to act. It requires two or more people with a plan. So anytime you get two or more people together with a plan, they could have power. Now, the question is, how to teach them to get enough power to do the things they think are important. Ten people by themselves may not be able to do much, until they coalesce with a hundred other peoplein other words, until they begin to build coalitions with other people and learn the rules of politics. This means that they are going to have to be reciprocal. When you don't feel you're being ripped off, and I don't feel I'm being ripped off, and there is some way of maintaining or checking our perceptions of what's going on, then we can begin to learn how we can eventually get what is important to us. Not just by grabbing it, but by having the subtlety, the nuance, and the sophistication to be able to bargain first with each other, then with other people. I help you on yours and you help me on mine; I can't do mine by myselfI need the both of usand that means that I have to be disposed to be in an ongoing relationship. You teach people, ordinary people, that kind of process, that kind of understanding, then they can be effective. We don't teach: "You don't have to do anything; all you must do is say what you want and choose meand I'll do the rest. Let me do the rest for you." Then they will come back and tell you they didn't get what they wanted. That is a debilitating, frustrating experience. All it does is teach you periodically to choose someone else who is going to get you something you want: find another Santa Claus, find another maternal uncle who is going to deliver for you.
This proves not helpful in developing people's ability to act on their own behalf. It creates dependencyvit corrodes human dignity. We have what we call the Iron Rule: never do for anybody what he should be able to do for himself. Anything that makes people dependent is negative, because we all have the inclination to be selfish. That's part of our nature. But we also haveNiebuhr taught us thisthe capacity to be just; we have the capacity to reach out; we have the capacity to be relational and to be connected and to be reciprocal. So the question is: Can we create institutions, can we create leadership that builds on our strength, our capacity to be just and to be relational and all the while recognize our limitations? There is nothing worse than civil innocence, a romantic misunderstanding of what people can do, without proper training, without institutions that cultivate their development.
NM: I am trying to imagine what these institutions would be like in any given community.
EC: Well, here's the kind of institution we are trying to build in Dallas right now: sixty congregationsAfrican-American, Hispanic, Unitarian, Spanish, Jewish, United Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Friends Service Committee, Quakerfold onto that some labor unions, fold onto that some future organizations, fold onto that some other social organizations we create, and you begin to create a kind of extraparliamentary institution that enables people to mobilize. The institution is committed to teaching people, developing their leadership and their understanding of public policy.
That's what the big city political machines used to be for. They had their limitationsthey were corruptbut they also enabled people to participate effectively, as labor unions also used to do. This is a way of mobilizing our energies and imagination and our curiosity. That's the center of what we are talking abouthow you activate and mobilize people's energy, their curiosity, their imagination. What people can't imagine, they can't do.
NM: My family was given an Afghan hound when I was a kid, and the owner said, "This dog can jump your eight-foot fence; but it's okay. Your dog doesn't know he can jump this fence."
EC: That's right. People can only do what they can imagine they can do. People need also to have in mind that there is a place that they can go to, a forum where they can talk about things that are important. That there's a mechanism for taking those private, personal pains and translating them into some kind of public action. People learn that they have serious problems, and that these problems have to be broken down into issueswhich means they can affect other people but can't be resolved in a short period of time. Then they learn to be realistic in their assessments of what can be done, and they don't go off like Don Quixote, fighting windmills. Even though we are trying to stimulate their imagination, we also must recognize their strengths and limitations. That's important.
NM: Former President Richard Nixon once said, "A leader must be willing to take unpopular stands when they are necessary and when he does fnd it necessary to take an unpopular stand, he has an obligation to explain it to the people, solicit their support, and win their approval." How would you assess this remark?
EC: On the face of it, I would not necessarily quarrel with that; but the problem is that what I think he really means, and wants, is for leaders like himself to get television wizards to help them convince people to support what they are going to do. Such a statement presumes incompetence on the part of the people, and presumes that they don't have anything to say to him, that their job is merely to give their assent or deny their assent. It reduces people to a passive, tepid role. I think that's dangerous, potentially.
We have spent so many years destroying the institutions that had taught people how to participatelabor unions, political machines, political organizations, other volunteer associations. We have spent so much time destroying thosethat it is clear to me that there are lots of people who want to participate effectively. It is also clear to me that potentially their participation could lead to some cynicism, if it doesn't happen correctly.
By that I mean, we need to figure out ways to connect people to the kind of institutions that can teach them, guide them, and mentor them. We need to recognize that people have to learn new ways of thinking, new ways of acting. They have to leam how to operate collaboratively with other peopleand that is not something they know very well. They've been taught to be individuals; they've been taught to be isolated; they've been taught to be unilat eral; they've been taught to be passive.
NM: You talked in one of your articles about two worlds that we live inthe world as it is and the world as it should be, and that there is a tension.
EC: Let me be dear what I mean"world as it is and world as it should be." If you are going to be successful or effective, the process is going to need to have integrity and you have to be practical. You have to understand that we can't be pseudo-innocent. Rolo May has a wonderful description of the people who in the sixties did not understand power and thought they could solve their problems by just loving everybody, putting flowers in their hands. Put a flower in their hand and say, "I love you"and that could transform a confrontation between "flower children" and the National Guard. Not recognizing that National Guardsmen are part of an institution and responsible to an authority which they consider legitimate, even though that authority may be engaging, as you see it, in things that are unjust! They tried to confront power with love and sentiment. There has to be a recognition and understanding of power. I think Tillich said it well: Power without love leads to cynicism; but love without power leads to sentimentality.
That's what we are trying to teach when we look at this world, and this world as it should be. We are saying that you must have a vision of the world as it should be and of what you're trying to be. You must have a vision; yours cannot be just opportunism, just responding to the immediacy of the moment; and there are some things that you won't do. But you must also be "situational" in the sense that you recognize times when you might have to resort to some behaviors because there is no other alternative, behaviors that you otherwise would prefer not to demonstrate. We have to live in the world as it is; and we have to understand power; and we have to understand that people don't do things because of their altruism. They do things because it is in their interest.
Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments asked what would discomfort people, what they would feel more: if somebody cut off their finger, or the thought of a million people in China dying of famine. Most of us can go to bed with the thought of a million people dying of famine but it would be hard for us to go to bed when our finger gets cut off. Things that affect us immediately have greater impact. Yet we would save those people in China if we could. There is the capacityMebuhr talks about thiswe have an inclination to be self-centered but we also have the capacity to be just and good. That's part of this tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. We can get people to act in ways which are good for people. But we also have to recognize that people will also do the right thing for the wrong reason. It's not, as Smith pointed out, the benevolence of the baker that we count on for getting food to eat. It's his own interest. So we have to begin to figure out in what ways we can get people to do the "right thing", even if it is for their own interest, recognizing that it's not bad for the baker to want to feed his family; it's not bad for the baker to want to make money.
But this means that there is reciprocity, there is mutual respect for other people's opinions. We can't expect people to operate uniformly, homogeneously, because there is going to be dissent; there is going to be argument; there is going to be tension; there is going to be conflictand that's good, that's important. We have to embrace it.
NM: Would you say that an IAF organizer is a leader?
EC: The role of the organizer is to develop leaders: people who are willing to take positions on these issues in order to become the leaders of networks; to be the spokespersons; to be the decision makers. Now, that's an important point because when people are insecure, they want to make every decision. Where you sit, who goes to the bathroom, you know what I mean. Your best managers know that there are only two or three decisions that really matter in a year and the fewer they make the better. That forces and challenges other people to make public decisions. The more powerful you are in an institution, the fewer decisions you've chosen to make. The Iron Rulenever do for anybody what he or she can do for themselves. That means having real conversations.
I do a session where I talk about the difference between communication, which is subject to object, and conversation, which is subject to subject. We are trying to teach conversation, whereas when most people talk about politics they want to talk about communication, an objective transfer of facts and figures and ideas. We are talking about something, we hope, much deeper than that. We are talking about political relationships, public relationships. They are not private; they are not about intimacy; they are not about being lovers; they are not about being spouses; they are not about brothers and sisters. They are about how you develop relationships so that you win people's respect, so that they might become your friends, your colleaguesbecause you've worked together, you've collaborated. But there is still a boundary; it's not a marriage. I can engage with other people and still respect my own relationship to my private commitments.
NM: You mentioned what you call the Iron Rule: never do for someone what he or she can do for himself or herself. What are some of the things that people can do for themselves, that no one else should do for them?
EC: They can try to figure out what relationships are important to them. They can develop some curiosity about themselves. They can develop some imagination about what the possibilities are. They can develop capacity, and they can develop competence. Somebody can't make you competent; and somebody can't be competent for you. Somebody can't enhance your capacity for learning: someone can't learn the violin for you, they can't learn a language for you; those things you have to learn by yourself. Someone can't learn how to drive for you; someone can't learn how to raise your kids for you; those are things you have to do for yourself.
The worst thing that happens is for leaders to see their roles as servicing. They become gatekeepers, or they become service centers, or they become business agents. One of the problems with big city political machines is that leaders become just people who distribute favors for fifteen other people; think in terms of "you come to me and I give you a job." For these people the leader is nothing more than an informal service provider; and there is an informal welfare system that emerges out of the political party or the labor union.
The role of leadership is to guide, to challenge, to agitate, and to teach people how to be their own best advocates and understand their own situation. We are trying to recognize the role mediating or intermediate institutions have played historically in enabling people to figure things out and understand what's going on. There is no civil society without mediating institutions. But now those intermediate institutions are either attenuated or implodingthey are collapsing: family, church, neighborhood, communities of all kinds. So, what we are trying to do is to take the families and the churches and other institutions and make one huge, big intermediate institution, which then becomes effective in transmitting culture and values and traditions and an understanding of what the community is.
Back to top